“If You Enjoyed The Tuning…”

“Maybe you’ll like the music, too.”

Ravi Shankar has passed at 92:


First, Brubeck, now this. Apparently, with less overdoses than usual this year, the musical grim reaper is working his way back from 100-year-olds. Chico Hamilton better make sure his insurance is paid up.

Shankar is dead… Or is he? Could it be that, like the other monsters of the 20th century, Charlie Yardbird, Duke, Hank, or Jimi, his music was so much bigger than he was, that death is just the point where the potion broke free from the glass?

Admit it, hippies: Shankar’s ragas can be a rough ride for western ears. It can be punishing for many, even great, musicians, just to try to follow it: Jim Keltner, maybe the greatest drummer on earth, said that keeping time to Ravi’s music was like trying to eat soup with a razor blade. But thankfully, Shankar made some mammoth recordings later in his life for the Private Music label. Many of these, while no less exotic, at least worked in melodies and time that were sympathetic to rock and jazz fanboys. That made it a lot easier for blue–eyed jerks like me and you to see what kind of high-level composer and player Shankar really was.

Here’s my fave, made with Philip Glass, “Prashanti”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mjQqNZ6te0 which I believe means “peaceful”. Could be wrong about that.

When I found myself in India a few years back, my captors allowed me time to visit one record store. The place was like a Shankar franchise. A giant poster of The Master hung behind the counter, and there seemed to be only three kinds of CDs, all in equal measure: Bollywood Hits Of The Minute, Shankar’s Ragas, and Ragas Played By People Who Wish They Were Shankar Even To The Point Of Changing Their Last  Names (or first names, I couldn’t really tell) To ‘Shankar’. Apparently, some do that even if they are good enough not to have to. For us, it would be as if Dion and Brian Wilson had decided they would be more successful if they changed their first names to ‘Elvis’.

How you play this thing by yourself is beyond Mr. Stick - You might as well ask me to run the Super Collider.

How you play this thing by yourself is beyond Mr. Stick – You might as well ask me to run the Super Collider


At the time, obviously swimming in the local groove, and growing sick of the Indian pop blare on the car radio, I wanted more of Shankar’s sitar music than the Private stuff offered, but I had no idea where to start. The guy behind the counter saw me and my Hawaiian shirt coming from two streets down. He tossed me the appetizer Chants of India, the Ravi album produced by George Harrison. With George’s name prominently on the cover, It has to be Shankar’s best seller. But I bet most US/UK Beatle-obsessive owners, after they realize there is no Indian version of “Something” on the album, never played it much (you know the old joke: You ever notice how your roommate’s copy of The Concert For Bangla Desh was never scratched on side one?). I wasn’t much different, I suppose. It isn’t that traditional Indian music isn’t gorgeous, especially after so many 60s records introduced it to us as a dessert topping – It’s that it’s hard to absorb into memory, and difficult to differentiate, one piece from the next. It takes time, and who the hell has any of that?

And in short doses, we were only really able to let sitar music be a novelty, anyway. It’s a sad, embarrassing crime that Shankar’s music (he being the only brand name sitar player known to the west) will forever be associated with paisley shirts from 40+ years back, late-model Eric Burdon hits, and Austin Powers.

But whenever I get a chance to watch the Monterey Pop movie, which, to say nothing of including Shankar at all, amazingly puts him on last, after Hendrix and everybody else, I always stick it out to the end. Even if the notes are shooting by so fast it sounds like an adding machine on too much voltage, there’s still something compelling and enjoyable about every second of it. Maybe because you could see him tearing it up. I mean, great musicianship is NOT the sole decider of great music, you know that, right? But you got to give it up for the hot shots sometimes, and Damn, Sam, this guy could could wail. You didn’t have to understand the music to know that.

So the Great Ravi has left his body. You may be surprised to hear this, but my knowledge of Hindu spiritualism is somewhat foreshortened. I don’t know if his passing means his talent now gets transmuted into somebody else’s hands or not.

If anybody knows the answer to that, keep it to yourself. Maybe that way, we can be surprised when the next new guy shows up, and tears the roof off the joint.

Maybe, as was written in London and New York alleyways about Bird before him, “Shankar Lives!”

– His Less-Than-Holiness Mister Stick

Last Album: Thelonious Monk – “The Underground Monk”

Note from G: Don’t ask me where El Sticko has been for 8 months, or why this particular serving of sad news awakened him when others didn’t. I can’t speak for him, he can’t answer for himself, and if he could, he wouldn’t answer to you, bub.

Crossing Rocky Ground: Looking Deeper Into Bruce’s “Wrecking Ball”

Almost two months have passed since the release of Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball, which means that the ‘event’ of the album is well behind us. All the major reviews have been written, the brief media discussion of the record’s merits and faults has been superseded by some other topic, and Wrecking Ball’s chart history has been established. Like most albums by rock artists of Springsteen’s age and stature, Wrecking Ball shot to number one, and quickly tumbled away, resting this week (the Billboard chart for May 5) at 31, surely bolstered by his current tour more than any airplay.

And we’ve had the chance to see Bruce, and a now-monstrous version of the E Street Band, present the new songs, first in a short series of TV appearances, then across the opening leg of a lengthy tour.

As fast as things move today, when you stop to actually listen carefully to Wrecking Ball, or to cobble an opinion of it (both of which I am doing now), you can find yourself looking back at it – it already feels very familiar. Two months of a new Bruce record, particularly an exceptional one, are usually filled with many replays, conversations about it, and at least one live show. And I got mine under the belt already: A great three-hour Cleveland concert that leaned hard on the new songs, but also showed off the freshly augmented band, on catalog showstoppers like “E Street Shuffle”, “Trapped”, and “Light Of Day”.

And with all that digested, I can now see Wrecking Ball standing next to the other standard-bearers of Springsteen’s canon, like The River, Nebraska, and the greatest of them all, Darkness On The Edge Of Town. And that was a point I did not expect to reach when the first of Wrecking Ball’s songs were offered up in the weeks preceding the album’s release, introduced sadly by Internet and not by radio (hearing new songs by a great artist as a surprise, introduced by a rabid DJ beats getting a link in your e-mailbox anytime).

Springsteen fans have a perspective of him that comes most often from their first Bruce kick, whether it was those who saw him barnstorm east coast clubs in the days before Born To Run, or those converted by Darkness, or the masses who came under his watch in 1984, when the other “Born” album ruled both radio and MTV, or even the second generation of Springsteen fans who were ushered to E Street reunion shows in ’99 and ’00 by parents and older brothers. Each of those groups, and others, have something specific they want – A particular sound or a lyrical feel that will bring them back to that place where they were first injected with Bruce Juice. I don’t think this is nostalgia. I think everyone innately searches for new sources of the adrenalin they once felt, no matter the source. Wanting to feel engaged and energized by a source once terribly strong is not a sign of someone living in the past. Rather, I think it’s part of our clockwork. For many, Springsteen music is a part of their regular cycle of happiness, even for those who are not devoted five-shows-every-tour Bruceheads.

So when an album comes along with a warning label, we have a tendency to push back from the table at first. Wrecking Ball, before it hit the stores – whatever that means now – was said to be ‘experimental’, ‘radical’, and ‘diverse’. I don’t think that scared Bruce fans as much as it bummed them out a little. Since Springsteen came back to a full schedule of activity about 12 years back, he’s offered up a slew of releases and tours. It’s been sort of a new golden era for Bruce buyers. But among the new records in that run, you will not find what so many Bruce followers really want: A return to the true E Street Band sound. That big-but-lean, loud-but-clean attack forged on Born To Run, perfected on Darkness, and exploited on The River. The Holy Trinity of Bruce records, for my generation of fans these were the albums and tours that sucked the air right out of our lungs. It’s true what they say: They go in threes. Just like celebrity deaths, the greatest rock artists of the album era usually cement their legacies with a run of at least three killers in a row. Bringing It All Back Home led to Highway 61 Revisited and then to Blonde On Blonde, and you could easily name a dozen more trilogies of similar impact. When the strongest rock writers and performers make a run like that, they establish an audience that believes in them forever. Even if they never quite hit the nail again, that audience believes the heavyweights can do it again, and at least knows that the artist has the goods to give them the adrenalin rush again when they drop the dime on another ticket.

Springsteen’s output from ’75 to ’80 put him in that class. Following that has come a wild ride of all kinds of records: Acoustic and painfully bare bones efforts, slick synthesizer give-ins, LA session-man workouts, Celtic folk revivals, 21st century ‘thick rock’ pep rallies, and Brian Wilson tributes. None of them ever brought back the E Street sound and force of ’78. Many thought Bruce and the band were coming back to that point with The Rising and Magic, and some even said those albums were the definition of E Street power. They were wrong. Fine records with some towering songs, sure, but Brendan O’Brien’s brick-wall production made them both feel dense and somewhat fatiguing. Thrills were often shallowed by a pushy waveform common in most albums of the last ten years. Distinctions between instruments were blurred, and, as in 1984, and again in the early 90s, we found ourselves with Springsteen records that sounded like other people.

Long-time fans, me included, kept hoping that a true E Street Band album would still emerge, one with all the live-in-the-studio sinew of the classic two-guitar, two-keyboard, sax and drums rocket ride that could still be found in E Street shows. After the meticulous Phil Spectorisms of Working On A Dream, it seemed that Bruce might bring things full circle at last.

Instead, Wrecking Ball was touted ahead of release as an amalgam of all he has done with a band in the last decade, mixing The Sessions Band with E Street musicians and some players who have come to be identified with Bruce over the last few years, particularly guitar-wringer Tom Morello.

For me, that didn’t bode well. People talk these days of a rock and roll rebirth, and there is one, with knockout garage bands all over the place. But it’s a hardening of a niche, not a resurgence at the most public level. Rock artists are cuurently defined by most people as lunkhead acts like Nickelback (when will these clowns go away?) or fashion models like Train. You and I know better, of course. So when a real master, someone you know can make a rock AND ROLL record, doesn’t choose to grab that option by the throat when it seems we need it most, it’s discouraging.

And even worse, Wrecking Ball seemed to be arriving as a half-assed effort. Of the 13 tracks announced for the record (if you shelled out for the ‘deluxe’ version – another pain-in-the-ass compromise to the creeps that run record labels), two, including the title track, had already been issued in other forms, and another was a staple of Springsteen encores. At first glance, it appeared that the most prolific writer this side of Elvis Costello couldn’t deliver more than 10 new songs and had resorted to padding.

When the songs started appearing, one-by-one in a marketing strategy designed to make you ‘tune’ to a new webpage everyday, first hearings left me cold. “We Take Care Of Our Own” didn’t strike me at first as anything extraordinary. It presents Bruce as the character he sometimes seems at live shows, a preacher who seems able to create a new cliché about our group condition every other Sunday. Immediately there was talk of the song being misunderstood, misappropriated, and jingoized the way “Born In The USA” was so many years back. But that really didn’t happen… Bruce is not as much a part of the everyday as he was then, and our 14-minute news cycle found something more controversial to yap about before the sun went down. “Take Care” also seemed to be a rather predictable extrapolation of the big, post-2000 Springsteen stage sound, with a somewhat-too-grand hook that needed no guitars. And, like “Radio Nowhere”, the lead-off from Magic, it wore thin quickly, particularly to those who caught Springsteen every time he passed through town – The riff was a little too obvious, akin to the kind of “na-na-na” codas Bruce attaches to many songs.

The following tracks, “Easy Money”, “Shackled And Drawn”, “Death To My Hometown” and the rest, mostly seemed to be musically obvious, relying on fiddles and accordions and other sounds Bruce became comfortable with during the Seeger days as a kind of conduit to the Americana audience. The sound is big alright, maybe too big, with what seems like a dozen singers getting undernearth Bruce on every chorus. And “Wrecking Ball”, originally casually released as a live single a few years back when Giants Stadium was about to be destroyed, was not only a re-tread, but made carbon paper use of a counterpoint vocal riff that Bruce had dropped on us all the way back in ’88, when he released a live acoustic version of “Born To Run”: A ‘whoa-ho-hoooo-oh-ho’ lick that he used to bring the audience into a performance of the one song that everybody wanted to hear played just like the 45 they bought as a kid.

It seemed that, not only would Wrecking Ball not be an E Street hot rod, but that Bruce had little to say that we didn’t already know. Clearly, there was rage in the lyrics that talked about what Wall Street jackals did to millions of homeowners and job-holders, but the messages seemed behind the times. Yeah, we got deeply rogered, Bruce, four years ago… So, where have you been since? The Occupy movement was last year, and already feels stale, and the pain of the crash of ’07 and ’08 has hardened into scars. It seemed like we were moving on, or trying to, acknowledging our weakness under the corporate scythe, and taking comfort in a slowly recovering economy and a few less battlefields. And then Bruce turns up to tell us how screwed up things are. It just didn’t fit. When Nebraska landed in ’82, it was right at the bleeding edge of what the Reagan Revolution was doing to the US: creating a schism that has yet to heal, or even to start healing. There was a sense of warning in that record, a feeling that the characters were coming to life all around us, that desperate acts were about to be commonplace… That the holster was on your hip. Nebraska seemed to say “The monsters in all of us are coming out from under the bed.” Those who would use our country as a means for their ends exclusively were summoning those monsters. Wrecking Ball, as it arrived, seemed to offer a warning-too-late, and a sense of spite that many of us were already sick of. You can’t hold bile in your mouth too long, but sometimes there’s no point in spitting it out, either. Especially if there is no one around to spit at.

But then I heard the ninth track from Wrecking Ball, a concoction of Lomax field recordings, light hip-hop, beatbox-and-piano, and Biblical imagery called “Rocky Ground.” And then, for me anyway, the ideas and execution of Wrecking Ball began to congeal. That song signaled to me that maybe I was being rash, and that this album might find a home in my home after all.

Like the rest of Wrecking Ball, “Rocky Ground” tries to mix up a big recipe: Gospel choruses making room for dry New Orleans horn parts (tarnished brass actually does have its own sound, it turns out), a touch of Curtis Mayfield guitar, on top of a synthesizer drone, accents from samples of tent revival shouts, and the scratch of a 78-speed record, and more and more revealed with each play. And yet, thanks to producer Ron Aniello, the recording never seems crowded, even with Bruce trading vocals throughout with Michelle Moore.

“Rocky Ground” uses the New Testament metaphor of shepherds and flocks and brings one part of today’s struggles into focus – That we can’t expect a new, brighter day if we only watch out for ourselves. That was the attitude taken by those who got us into this mess in the first place. And shepherds don’t just watch over their charges, nudging them back to he best grazing lands; They also keep watch for whatever predators might threaten their flock. Post-2008 citizens, too, can only pave a safe path by including their neighbors in their concerns, while being fierce to any notion that adversely impacts their rights and future, like the privatization of schools.

Most importantly, “Rocky Ground” talks about traveling over hard, jagged terrain, not getting stuck there. We’ve all done that lately, even if we were lucky enough to keep our homes and hold a steady bank account. We’ve watched retirement funds stagnate, and seen criminals walk away from crimes, and no one doesn’t know somebody who’s been financially crippled by bankers who are no better than Somalian pirates. But through all that, we have indeed, for the most part, kept walking. And we’ve done so without recognition of that progress. “Hold tight to your anger, don’t fall to your fears”, Bruce sings in the title song, in a much more compelling manner than in the song’s original version, as he reminds a generation who only heard rumors of the Great Depression that “Hard times come… and hard times go.” That last point is not one you’ll hear from the army of political and economic pundits that blather on all day every day. Instead, most commentators seem only capable of wallowing in the moment, and resist telling us that we’re stronger for what we endure, and that daybreak always follows night. Through the politicization of our troubles, our prominent media voices seek most often to trumpet the despair rather than encourage us to press on.

And Wrecking Ball, once it is allowed to reveal itself, with each song heard in context, does not do that. As I listened to the album a few times, I found that Bruce’s timing was better than I first thought. As we’ve gotten used to the ‘new economy’, we’ve started to forget how we got these scars in the first place. “Hold tight to your anger”, therefore, turns out to be an important lesson, and “Wrecking Ball”, the song, once a side item in the Bruce catalog, now leaps forward into 3D, anchoring an album with songs that fit best as chapters in a tale with a arc that ends in the voices of ghosts. First, there’s the fingering of culprits and the acknowledgement of the damage in songs like “Easy Money” and “This Depression”, along with the recognition that while our dreams may be sacrificed (a long-time Springsteen theme), we have skills enough to get by (“Jack Of All Trades”). Then comes the resistance that starts with the line “Bring on your wrecking ball” and continues through a brighter, louder version of the 12-year old “Land Of Hope And Dreams”, an evocation not just of Bruce’s promised land, or even Chuck Berry’s, but of the one created through settling of a new continent and the salvage of souls pushed too hard by life in Europe three hundred years ago.

Presented in concert, the Wrecking Ball songs mingle well with staples like “My City Of Ruins” and “Badlands”, and you can feel the band stretching them back and forth. None less than “Jack Of All Trades”, which now sits next to “Racing In The Streets” as an epic of a couple standing up to their circumstances, not just accepting them, which is what the robber-barons want of us all, anyway.

And when you come home to hear the album again, it’s concept takes full root, and Wrecking Ball emerges as an album that outstrips its initial misconceptions and ranks as better than any Springsteen has made in thirty years.

The E Street Band sound of 1978 is now gone for good, as much by the deaths of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons as by the Irish/gospel/soul/Guthrie stew that Bruce now serves up in place of roaring engines and summer nights. And, happily, that stew has come to mature quickly and form a taste that we may one day long for as much as we once ached for the E Street Band of old.

Wrecking Ball looks ahead with its chin up but not with its cheek turned. And we should, too.

– Mister Stick

Last Album: Dr. John, Locked Down (preceded by 4 plays of Wrecking Ball)

Saturday Afternoon Wore A Wide Tie

The news channels tonight are filled with a looped recollection of Dick Clark, which covers his rise to fame as the ever-pleasant host of American Bandstand, on through dozens of other television ventures as host or producer, and culminating in scenes from the boring-but-traditional-as-pumpkin-pie-on-Thanksgiving New Year’s Rockin’ Eve shows, which Clark launched in ’72 and continued to contribute to in this century, long after a stroke made that seemingly impossible.

Dick Clark was a steady presence on television for about five decades, most often in attachment to some kind of presentation of popular music, with unswerving popularity and professional demeanor. But did this guy move the ball forward in any way? Did he really contribute to rock and roll? Was he truly a pioneer, a broadcaster and program creator who opened up a vista? Or was Dick Clark just an opportunist, someone with the same relationship to music that car dealers have to the autos they sell – Doesn’t matter what new models they dump on us this year, just find a way to convince the next guy through the door that this ride was made just for him.

Clark was never a rock and roller by design or lifestyle, the way many noted DJs were, from Tom Donahue to Jim Ladd. Dick was never, ever hip. He looked like a suit, because he was one. But a terrifically affable suit, for sure. Bland, perhaps, but at least bland is not by definition annoying. In fact, compared to the leaping chimps we’re expected to deal with now, blandness is almost an asset. You know it’s true: Flip through three or four channels this instant, and you will find a TV host that is as desirable as refined sugar on a bleeding cavity. Clark could easily be ignored, but for someone so ubiquitous, he could not be hated – There’s a lost art for you.

And forget that “Oldest Living Teenager” nonsense. Clark was purely adult, with the cred of a suit and a wide flat tie, and unflinchingly ‘middle’. That beige personality helped him deflect practically any criticism, and made it easy for him to charm the same payola prosecutors who gave Alan Freed the final push over the edge. Rarely was Clark ever off guard or apparently uncomfortable, because he simply would not enter into public situations where he was at risk. Keep smiling, and if you can’t say something kind of nice, then say something nicer. The only time I can ever remember seeing him pissed off was when Michael Moore ambushed him in Bowling For Columbine for being the hundredth link in a chain of very unfortunate events that killed a 6-year old back in Moore’s home state of Michigan. And in that case, I don’t blame Clark for snapping, and I don’t think he knew there was a camera rolling anyway.

Clark was incredibly willing to pimp ANYBODY, which may have been deceptive. It appeared that he was excited about every act he introduced just as a matter of formula. Read the prompter, move on. But I suspect his enthusiasm was slightly more genuine, if only because he didn’t want to be left out of whatever action was next. ‘Be the guy that holds the door for everybody’ might have been his mantra. And he had a solid platform, because he just looked like a guy you could trust. Or your parents could, anyway.

DJs and TV music personalities love to break acts, and benefit immensely from being in on the ground floor. If Dick Clark broke new acts, it was only by happenstance. He couldn’t lead an act to success, really, or even persuade an audience to try something new. He introduced, not endorsed. But he could always legitimately claim to contribute to hit bands, just because he kept the volume so high – and by ‘volume’, I mean amount, not loudness. Clark continuously spewed so much pop, rock, dance, and country music at our TV screens that he couldn’t help but hit the trifecta now and then. The staggering number and variety of acts he presented over the years on American Bandstand and what seemed like a hundred other programs meant that he couldn’t help but please us eventually. And it also meant that he couldn’t help but be an asset, over and over again, to bands and singers looking for their big break. For him, it wasn’t about making choices of who to promote. It was about creating enough bandwidth to promote everybody. So, if he made a lasting contribution to rock music, it was this: Let everybody in, give anybody a chance. Act like A Taste Of Honey is the next Supremes… Just in case… you know… they actually are. Of course, they most certainly were not, but nobody blamed Dick Clark, just as certainly.

But two points of his career seem to be overlooked tonight. First is the very, very long list of television concepts with his name on top that either were quite short-lived or simply still born. The losers, not the hits. Besides the immense successes as host, from Bandstand to Pyramid to that bloopers laugh-track fest with Ed McMahon, and those as producer, like the pointless but enduring American Music Awards, Clark had a crazy string of flame-out money-losers like World of Talent (on-air for about 10 forgettable weeks) and a kind of live music-and-motorcycle-stunt show on NBC in ’78. And his production resume surely isn’t bolstered by such schlock as Shaq Vs. and that horrible movie he made in the mid-70s about the birth of The Beatles. Didn’t matter to Dick. If the thing blows up on launch, just build another one… Something is bound to stick. My guess is that he put so many concepts on the network execs’ desks, they couldn’t find pitch sheets from anybody else. Besides providing the lesson of “hang in there, kid”, it’s another example of how Clark succeeded just on the volume. Mass media means mass consumption, and Dick knew that feeding the beast was the road to riches. Along the way, as a side effect, many were given their 2 minutes of fame (15 being a standard long ago diminished), and they owe Clark something for it. Just what he wanted: A career bank account filled by millions and millions of 5 cent deposits. Like pop bottles.

Second, it’s worth remembering that Dick Clark’s closest and most successful emulator passed just two months back. Don Cornelius, creator and host of Soul Train, did not introduce black music to white people. He did something even better. He introduced black people to white people, and was far cooler than both Clark and American Bandstand, or at least he seemed that way to those of us who were not privy to black culture, except through sitcoms and Soul Train. But without the concept of a nationally-televised mostly-white dance show to contrast with, Soul Train would not have had the same value, either to my rural community or to those of the inner cities. Cornelius took a more focused approach than Clark, creating niche music programming in contrast to the ‘anything goes’ format of Bandstand and AM Top 40. He went for the pockets of his own community and jumped from the teenage crowd to young adults. And it was clear that Cornelius was truly tight with a lot of the acts that stopped by the studio. Guys like Marvin Gaye and The O’Jays wanted to hang with Don. Dick was nice…. But there’s a party at Don’s place. If the two shows were restaurants, Don was a chef, and Dick a maître d’.

The losses of Clark and Cornelius remind us that presentation of music is only as good as the presenters, whether their approach is that of a friendly doorman or as an insider.

Today, much of the music is presented anonymously. We learn of new acts and releases through Facebook and blogs and sidebar ads, not through an excited TV huckster telling us to “get ready to dance”, as if anybody ever danced in front of the TV anyway. And there’s the contribution that’s lost in the passings of Dick Clark and Don Cornelius. Somebody to stand up and sell it, in a K-Tel, Oh My God You Won’t Believe It style, that we might buy at first, scrutinize later, and forget about down the road. These guys gave us the appetizers, and a reference point to move on from.

The moiré plaid Saturday afternoon countdown aspect of music promotion is gone, and the Colgate smiles with it. People are still selling you music, but Dick and Don looked you in the eye when they did it. Sure, the kids can still find Ryan Seacrest and others, but it’s different. They’re trying to be the audience or get the audience to be them or something. They’re not adults telling you it’s alright to like this stuff.

Don and DIck, especially Dick, made it look safe, which is the first trick to fooling your parents long enough to let you jump from Abba to AC/DC. So, tip one back for the coy subversives of syndicated television, the volume dealers and cool specialists. They won’t pass this way again.

– Mister Stick

Last Album: Toure Kunda – Paris Ziguinchor

Watermelon In Easter Hay

This is Easter morning, and I think Easter is more about repeatable habits than it is about ritual. ‘Ritual’ has a ring of importance to it, some sort of seriousness and pride. Habits are just a treadmill, a series of scheduled activities that we live with more than embrace. And maybe they’re something we give only as little energy to as they demand.

Example: I was in a local coffee and doughnut joint about an hour ago, and as I walked out, clutching an underfilled paper cup of blackened water and a small bag of muffins, the first wave of post-church-service pastry-suckers was strolling in (apparently somebody has a speedy drive-thru Easter service around here, ‘cause it wasn’t a minute after 9:20 AM – I also noticed the Baptists unlocking their church just 10 minutes before – not sure which is stranger). There were 3 or 4 kiddies coming through the doughnut door that, as a group, fit the cover of the church bulletin like a well-made key in a brand new lock, each more shamelessly decorated then the last: Little girls in tiny dresses that could double as midget parachutes, and a 7-year old boy in the nattiest pinstripe suit that a white middle class family could abide. Right behind them, here comes Dad, looking like he just got done rebuilding a carburetor, except he doesn’t look smart enough to rebuild anything. The Easter habit depicted here is to go to church for one of maybe three times this year – that’s showing the Big Guy some respect, right? – and to dress up your offspring in the nicest threads they may ever wear, sorry to say. But there’s no point in getting niced up yourself, as if you had anything respectable on the shelf, anyway. Because the point of all this is to get a nice camera-phone snap of the kids looking clean and sweet and send that off to grandma in Steubenville. Matter of fact, since that’s all that this is about anyhoo, screw going to the service, let’s just drop off the kids at Sunday School and snatch ‘em up an hour later and get that picture in front of the church. Maybe get the steeple in the back or something. It’s cheap and silly, and kind of embarrassing, but the preacher is too nice to say what he or she really wants to: “What do you think this is, a freebie day care room, you dumb hick?” And on the way home, we can crush any guilt the way Americans always do: With a jelly-filled piece of dough, fried in animal fat.

Run this routine a couple of years straight, and it’s quickly a cheap, low-demand easily forgotten repeatable activity and thus a habit, not a ritual. Rituals seem to demand some sort of statement or something. They force you to give a little; They seem to resist compromise. Habits can be rounded off, and you’re still satisfied with the activity on the back end. Thus, let’s keep Easter on the calendar, but, y’know… It’s for kids, really. I want the points for stuffing little Brandon Josh Skyler Tyler into a Wal-Mart-bequeathed ‘little man’s first suit’, though.

Maybe it’s just me (isn’t it always?), but if the Big Fella works the way I like to think he does, hypocrisy and corner-cutting are a couple of things he’s hoping we’ll reduce, not encourage. Churches work best, I think, as small tight communities where everybody shows up for every game, not as convenient options for habitual relief from guilt.

And as such, Mr. Stick checked out of church life quite a while back, and permanently, I suppose. I could cop to all the usual progressive attitudes, like how organized religion actually pulls us away from the truly spiritual, and so on and the like. Truth is, I respect the devout, but I just can’t be bothered with it, since I never focus on what’s going on nearby when I am sitting still for more than 4 minutes anyway. And far, far better to excuse yourself entirely from the social unit than to try to take a merit badge away from it while injecting as little energy into the motion of the group as possible. The worst thing we ever cooked up in this country was prizes for good attendance.

But Easter still holds a little something for El Sticko that no other day on the calendar does. And whether habit or ritual, it gleams at me nicely enough that I look forward to it for at least the week before, and I am gleefully indulging in it even as I bang these keys.

Every Easter morning, I listen to Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band (Straight/Reprise, 1969).

Easter is a day for your best duds, of course, including top hats and psycho wrap-around shades. Here we see The Captain and crew, circa ’69.

I got on this kick maybe 10 years back, when I re-read The Real Frank Zappa Book. Zappa, of course, was credited as producer for Trout Mask (or would you prefer just ‘Replica’?), and went through the ordeal of obliging the Captain’s idiosyncratic demands of the recording process. Example: Van Vliet refused to sing his parts from a vocal booth wearing headphones that would let him hear the mix of the band playing on the other side of the glass. That’s how sane people who want to go to dinner at a reasonable time do it, but not our man Don. The Cap’n was cool with the vocal box, alright, just not the ‘phones. So he sang along to the band based on only what he could hear leaking through the supposedly soundproof booth. And Frank, God bless him, went along with it.

Left to himself to tweak and mix all this noise into a landmark (or maybe landmine) of an album, Zap, according to the book, “finished at approximately 6:00 A.M. on Easter Sunday, 1969. I called them up and said, ‘Come on over; your album is done.’ They (Beefheart and the Magics) dressed up like they were going to Easter church and came over. They listened to the record and said they loved it.”

So, willing to ritualize Easter, but uninterested in watching a poor clergy person unspool the same tale of resurrection I have heard since I was 3, trying to make it somehow newly fascinating and convincing under the circumstance that nobody else has ever managed to snap out of a 3-day dirt nap in the 2K+ years since, I have substituted sitting by myself and frying the air around me with Trout Mask Replica.

I’m a sucker for anniversary-type events, and maybe I was looking for one more to cloud the calendar. More likely, though, I established the Trout Mask Breakfast as a way to make sure I listened to Beefheart’s most famous recording at least once a year. Come to think of it, I do not have such a code established for any other record, at least not pinned to a specific day and time of that day. Doing this after lunch would not work – it wouldn’t duly celebrate FZ’s achievement at actually assembling this mess at that time, nor would it be atypical enough to give me my own unique weird activity. I suspect fans of Replica usually slap it on late in the evening after girding themselves with strong drink for at least an hour previous. There’s also something about the album that makes it a wasteful summer Saturday afternoon kind of thing, for some reason.

Lester Bangs wrote once about a friend who told him he took acid every two months, just to “blow all the bad shit out of my brain.” And I think that’s some of the reason a lot of people like me make a regular date with Trout Mask Replica. It will, even in a casual frame, blow some of the dust and rust and must and grime off your mind. Notice that I didn’t say it would blow your mind – just blow at it. We’re in The Captain’s “Frownland” now indeed, drowning in soon-forgotten information more than ever, and we all know it. Our own opinions have been elevated to a status well beyond any legitimate standard of worth, and every single corpuscle of other people’s lives is magnified and sold to us like Happy Meals. All of it is such a whirlwind of squeaky monotone noise that, at this point, things that are really twisted, like the deepest end of Beefheart’s pool, seem to shine, and feel almost relaxing and pleasant.

I’ve heard people call Trout Mask beautiful. It isn’t. It’s fun, it’s fragmentary, it’s dynamic, it’s strangely sexual, and it’s filled with animals and squish. But it’s ugly, baby, the way all collages really are. The other Easter music I think about now, FZ’s “Watermelon In Easter Hay”, by the way, is as beautiful as its title is curious, but Trout Mask Replica lives up to its name not by recalling something strange (the Zappa title refers to that mish-mash of little green plastic strips in Easter baskets) but identifying something that no one asked for, fish masks not being one of the more popular costume pieces. And it’s magic comes from the fact that it doesn’t try to be pure or pretty or crystalline. You hear effort and stuggle and copycat work in almost the whole thing. It’s effect comes from comparing it to the gorgeous sunny Sunday morning that today goes along with it. It also has that great quality that the very best double albums all have: Sprawl. Yep, even if you’re a Beefheart fanatic, just try to name all 28 of the album’s titles in order – Hell, just try to REMEMBER that there ARE 28 in the first place. The fact that it’s too big to memorize puts in ranks with The White Album, Sign O’ The Times and Exile On Main Street. And, like those, it’s best enjoyed as a big whole piece, not cherry-picked. Maybe even more so – While “Back In The USSR” fits The Beatles in a perfect way, kicking off a weird powerful record that is nothing like any other Beatles LP, it sounds terrific on the radio, too. But Beefheart’s over-throttled grit-blues Dada blowups like “Hair Pie” and “Orange Claw Hammer” shine best in the context of their other Trout Mask companions. Again, it’s a record you compare to the humidity and shininess around it, not to other music, at least not to music by other people.

Trout Mask Replica was the first Beefheart for me, and I wasn’t shocked by it at all, since so much was available to read about this album before I ever popped for a copy. I knew to expect avant-blues beat poetry played by people who either couldn’t play worth a damn, or were playing in such a hard-nerve guttural vein that they must be virtuosos. If it was hard to swallow, it was because YOU weren’t hip, daddy, not them. Only years later did I first read a summary of the Captain’s oeuvre that had the stones to claim that Trout Mask Replica was just a wank-job cluster, Scotch-taped together by Zappa using the same you-are-there editing sensibility he had perfected on Uncle Meat. The writer went on to praise Beefheart and the various Magic Bands to the high heavens, but labeled Replica as a proof-that-you-are-hip excuse of an album and near-throwaway, and claimed the more ‘straight’ CB records as the real gems (‘straight’ in this case being a very relative term). This was a shock to me: Were comparative middle-class noodles like the reviewer, and myself to be honest, really to be congratulated for seeking out hook and melody in place of artboy humpawhumpa? And could it be that the Captain actually excelled at a somewhat more trad song form? You’re telling me that “Neon Meate Dream Of An Octafish” is not the last word in Beefheartery? Turns out it wasn’t. Doc At The Radar Station, Mirror Man, and the fantastic, streamlined Clear Spot all turned out to be total kicks and the kind of record you can spin anytime you want, and get just as much groove on as freak.

And THAT’s what made Don Van Vliet a cranky genius beyond repair: He was slick enough to create art that stood as a comparative to the last thing he did, and both examples were worth your time. I’ve heard hardcore artsos, talking about the more temperate Beefheart records, call The Captain a sell-out, at least during the mid-70s. Horseshit. His records would have had to have SOLD something for him be called a sell-out. And even with the uber-producer of the time, Ted Templeman (The Doobie Brothers AND Van Halen) on the board for a while, CB still made most of his sales from the cutout bins. Truth is, Beefheart’s post-’69 records were all built on the accomplishment of completing Trout Mask in the first place.

Beefheart was way-out I suppose, but far more rooted than some might want to admit. He was a devoted Lakers fan (“They make the best percussion”, he said), and fine contemporary artist whose canvases would likely seem tame compared to the work of many of the NYC poker-faced Bohos who passed off urine-stained muslin as naked expressions of their soul for the asking price of twenty large. The Captain didn’t ask for too much, seems to me. He put on pants like the rest of us, and seemed interested in housecats and a nice desert sundown, which I find to be common preoccupations of the most conservative people I know. His art gave you a blast of something you needed regularly, but certainly not every day, and he seemed to know it.

Which brings us back to the value of Easter morning, and, by now, my second spin of the iconoclastic Trout Mask. If Easter is what it’s supposed to be, a reminder of great sacrifice for others and the glorious release of forgiveness for all the things we can’t seem to stop doing, if it is renewal and brightness and resurrection, then it pairs perfectly with the kind of birth-music on Trout Mask, where we hear musicians hammer instruments and poetry right down to ground. And like the best parts of Christianity, the confession-and-forgiveness parts, Mask takes you down with it, and that’s good. Without that, how do you get to climb back up again?

–  The Right Reverend Stick

Last Album: Take a guess, there, Dr. Hawking

Going Underground

What is the point of being a mysterious underground figure if you can’t go deep underground sometimes?

If these guys could do it, why can't I?

The Stick found himself overseas and in the dark recesses of a government-sponsored program last fall (not OUR government, of course), and recovery from same has been a lengthy process through a grotesque winter.

Frankly, it was well worth it. I’m no better off physically, sure, but I met some interesting people, and many dull ones, making me feel better about myself and some of the schlubs that I hang with. I also got a chance to watch Hot Tub Time Machine.

Keeping the blog cooking was also hampered by the issue of ‘what is there to write about, anyway?’ Continuing to read all I could by the late Lester Bangs did not provide encouragement, believe me. The cream (or Creem, if you like) of Bangs’ work was among the most inspiring things on my shelf some twenty-five years ago, after I first read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, the brilliantly curated collection of Lester’s finest. But now that I’ve finally found time to crawl through the middle ground of his work, where he indulges his obsessions with Miles, the Stones, and, frankly, himself, I don’t have such a cozy feeling about the guy. Reading Bangs’ also-rans left me with a kind of psychic limp, and the impressions that first, Lester was a bit of a time-wasting jerk, not to be idolized for the waste of words that littered his life, and second, that he was right: The hell with all of this dead or hopelessly dying art anyway. It’s so far gone that even burying it won’t clear the air of its stench (and as I wrote that sentence someone named Pitbull, apparently some kind of musical performer but surely not a musician, appeared on my TV, trying to sell me a beer by saying nothing ).

But then I remembered the name of this blog. I am supposed to be piloting a lifeboat across an oil-slathered gulf and plucking people out of the ooze, or something like that, right?

And about the same time, the consumer in me returned, slowly but surely, which is really what we’re here to yap about: the whirlpool of too-popular music and far-less-than-popular music and how those things relate to all the money and space we’re obliged to manage.

Plus, a couple of things appeared on the horizon worth comment. First was the arrival of Wrecking Ball, the latest Bruce Springsteen album, and one which is particularly discomforting, at least on first blush. And then came the tsunami (that used to be a fun word) of reviews of the record. Bruce has now sidled up next to Dylan as the artist about which most writers, pro and otherwise, feel an obligation to expound upon in a record review. Think about it: How many important rock critics (Marcus, Paul Nelson, etc.) hung their names on a verbose review of a Bob Dylan record, and reaped serious rewards of cred and cool? More than I can count. And ever since Blood On The Tracks, every blow-dried cookie puss with a keyboard has been trying to use the new Dylan record as a career launching pad (see the miserable Joe Levy’s Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s less-than-worthy Modern Times album if you don’t believe me). Same deal goes for Springsteen. There is a sense that key writers need that notch in their belt to satisfy themselves that they made the right career choice. Well, not launching or legitimizing a career, to be fair. Guys with a byline atop a featured Springsteen piece are already past the lightweight class. They don’t give Bruce reviews to the last guy to move up from the mail room. More like accelerating a career, as if turning a phrase about Springsteen vaults you into a critical equivalent of the Admirals’ club at the airport.

And then there are those guys who get the chance to review Bruce over and over, as if its part of their job description, whether they have a clear perspective about his work or not. Among the reviews in that group was a particularly disgusting display of piety by the academic piglet known as Jim DeRogatis. DeRogatis has never opened his mind to Springsteen’s work, yet, thanks to his status as a long-time Chicago rock writer and radio talk-show host (a job he shares with the more affable Greg Kot), he is regularly given a platform from which to pronounce Bruce’s latest record as pompous dreck. You can see what this blowhard is up to here and note that my own retort is not among the dozen or more attacks on DeRogatis found under his review. Maybe because I referred to his bloated throat as a goiter that is big enough to stuff his own ears.

And then I found this doozy in the International Business Times, truly a clarion of rock writing, wherein the author, Palash Ghosh, ducks the chore of reviewing Wrecking Ball, and simply accuses anyone who pays attention to Bruce of being a paranoid bigot.  It’s not that you need to be an American ‘white guy’ to review Springsteen, but you need to at least acknowledge that his work measures and is most attractive to that audience, and that is not a sin anymore than allowing that The View is targeted at stay-at-home moms. And neither of those examples is exclusionary to another audience, by the way. They’re just centric and somewhat focused, as is most popular art. The good thing about calling somebody a douche bag is that I am pretty sure it translates nicely in several languages. So, hey, Palash: You’re a douche bag. Extra large, if there is such a thing, Not because you don’t get Springsteen… But because you told me I have been suckered in since 1978. I don’t think I’m that big a fool, jackass.

It’s not that Bruce should get a free pass every time he delivers a new record. My first reactions to “We Take Care Of Our Own” and a couple of the other tracks presented as early-release examples of Wrecking Ball were not complementary. Then the whole record showed up, and the picture filled in, revealing an album that is still quite troublesome, but also one that is layers deep and certainly worthwhile.

But harsh criticisms of Springsteen’s new record or his entire oeuvre, if you like, don’t serve anyone if they don’t provide the artist with enough benefit of doubt to recognize his intentions and at least the potential of some value in both the songwriting and performance. Hasn’t he at least earned that much? Haven’t we?

So I look forward to taking a stroll through Springsteen’s new songs in a future post, and soon, too, before (like all things in the 21st century) we’ve forgotten the new record was ever even made.

Stick is sticking his head out, no longer underground – “The brass bands play and feet start to pound”.

Last Album: Elvis Costello and The Attractions – Imperial Bedroom

All Too Much, Part 3: Bob’s Gift Of Absentia.

Mister Stick… On the keyboard… Mister Stick…

Quadrophenia is just one of the albums offered in jumbo-with-sides format for you to suck on this fall.

A few weeks ago here at Pop Survivor, we started yapping about the overwhelming amount of new releases in the typical record industry calendar. Specifically, we threw a little light on the high tide of massive box sets floating in this autumn, mostly those shelf-crushers that celebrate particular albums, as opposed to a full career. The point was that the overloaded schedule shows that record companies can not only afford to push barrels of new stuff, but also hours of also-rans with enclosed ‘collectible’ trinkets. Big-box reissues might be worthwhile (sometimes… maybe), but there are too many of them, selling for too much. All the while the labels still claim to be bleeding heavily, decrying ‘piracy’ (ask victims of Somalian attackers if that is the right word to use) and YouTube uploaders as loudly as those kids squatting on Wall Street right now are screaming about more tangible injustices.

Fans of reissues are wise to add two blogs to their bookmarks: The Second Disc and the aptly named arbiter-of-overkill, Super Deluxe Edition. Both of these sites, TSD in particular, seem to be tapped into the reissue scene on an almost moment-by-moment basis. A quick spin through either will give you all the dope (and nothing but the dope) on box sets arriving any minute now from U2, The Who, The Smiths, and so on, as well as nerd-level dossiers on simpler reissues and deluxes, like the upcoming compilation from Gorillaz, and something or another from Mumford and Sons. Second Disc dedicates far more time to revived soundtracks from long-forgotten Hollywood movies than anybody with any sort of romantic life should care about, but hey, what did you pay to get in, right?

As these sites and others compile lists and reviews of the box set bumper crop due this fall, along with the time-wasting bonerisms of “unboxing” things like the battleship version of Dark Side Of The Moon, one name is remarkably absent from the list of upcoming must-have-or-die releases: Columbia Recording Artist Bob Dylan, as the nightly concert intro puts it.

In the mid-90s, many Dylan fans (Stick included) saw Bob slipping away from the marketplace entirely, particularly when he rather quietly released, back-to-back, two cover records of obscure folk and blues songs. Coincidentally, this was about the same time that people started using that ‘Americana’ term, which some of us still find little reason for. Many found it distressing that Dylan didn’t seem to be writing anymore. Others found it a relief, because if he wasn’t writing anymore, then he couldn’t deliver room-temperature-cheese throwaways like “Ugliest Girl In The World” anymore, neither.

Of course, in ’97, without much warning, Time Out Of Mind would arrive. With that, the sun rose on a whole new era for Dylan. The nearly 15 years since have established the word ‘Dylan’ as a juggernaut brand, with entries into the publishing, film, Christmas, and satellite radio markets, validated by a run of darn-good (Modern Times) to nearly-perfect (Love And Theft) albums of new material that put a satisfied look on the faces of Dylan freaks the world over, while assuring everyone else that Dylan was someone who cannot be counted out as a great record-maker until at least a few months after he dies… Something that seemed impossible to say 20 years ago (the record-making part, not the dying).

Dylan: 'Nothing was delivered' this year... And we owe him our thanks for it.

Keeping this period thick with releases has been a series of reissue projects unparalleled by any artist of the rock era (whatever that means). Dylan’s ‘Bootleg Series’ was launched in 1991 with a great box set of previously unofficially released winners labeled volumes 1 through 3. But without a follow up some 5 or 6 years later, most of us just figured that Bob couldn’t be bothered with scrounging up another batch. 1998 fixed our wagons, though, when Vol. 4: “Royal Albert Hall” appeared, and five volumes later, we’re still salivating for more. Sony managed to squeeze out a few other archival live releases in the last 10 years, too, and plenty of compilations, if that’s your thing. Yeah, they pushed their luck with the sucker-bait three-disc version of Vol. 8 – Tell Tale Signs, alright, but the ridiculous expense of that title aside, the bootleg series has been almost universally applauded, and in some cases (like volume 7, the soundtrack to No Direction Home) genuinely thrilling. Last year, Brand Bob really zeroed in on our wallets releasing both the giant Original Mono Recordings and the less-than-essential ninth ‘bootleg’,  The Whitmark Demos, at the same time.

Looking back, it seems like there’s been at least one Dylan release every year for over a decade. But right now, when the Amazon robots are getting ready for overtime, Bob’s name isn’t on the shopping list. As far as the radar screen shows, no Dylan release is on the horizon right now from any of the aforementioned categories. That’s right: This Christmas will come and go without any new Dylan record for you to request from, or supply to, others afflicted with the costly disease of gift-giving. And, as much as I relish new Dylan releases, let me be the first to say “Thank you, Zimmy!” It’s clear to anybody with warm blood that there’s too much music to digest right now. Reissues are worthwhile if you can find new appreciation for the original record within them, or relieve yourself that you have finally heard a favorite with better sound. And, for the committed music junkie, there’s no sin in that indulgence as long as you can keep your lights on, and still manage to sift your way toward a great new release (I mentioned Wild Flag before, right? So why ain’t you got it, you hillbilly?).

But as Steven Wright said, you can’t have everything… Where would you put it? The markets are packed to the ceiling with stuff you don’t have room for. And if Dylan’s team demonstrated brilliant marketing acumen in the last decade, then they’re showing off their advanced degrees now by keeping Bob on the shelf this year. Oh sure, there’s his contribution to that new Hank Williams archaeology project or whatever it is, and the should-be-too-weird-but-ain’t-anymore inclusion of a leftover Dylan song on the new Hawaii Five-O soundtrack. But that stuff doesn’t even make it to placeholder status, let alone fanboy obsession. Certainly there’s not enough investment in those releases for the Dylan stratagem to worry about them getting crowded out this season.

The word is that, sometime, The Bootleg Series will continue, maybe with a box that collects everything related to Blonde On Blonde. Other hints say that we should look forward to a collection of his Supper Club performances from ’93, or an emphasis on DVDs. Most fans still seem to want the alternates of Blood On The Tracks to be officially released, and we’ve all been expecting the full truckload of The Basement Tapes for as long as I can remember. No doubt one of these fat mothers is coming up before too much more time goes by. But right now, while Bob’s team might have more valid back pages (pardon me for that one, really) to offer than most any other ‘market participant’, they’ve chosen to let the other guys duke it out for the holiday money, which, according to the news, nobody has anyway.

Not having to worry about saving up for a new Dylan release in a time when other stuff, good or bad, is falling like acid rain is the best early Christmas present that Bob could give us.

Over and out (of metaphors). For now.

Mr. S.

Last Album: Captain Beefheart – Clear Spot

Talk About The Passion: The Shared Legacy Of R.E.M.

(From Stick: Glenn has been pestering me to write something about R.E.M. and I don’t wanna. Instead, I’ll have him do it himself, the sentimental mop. I’ll be back soon with more derision and crass remarks. Okay, G, have it off, you jerk-bag.)

I remember my last serious conversation about R.E.M. before the announcement that they were ceasing their career.

It was just a few weeks ago, as I drove across Oregon. I had, that day, purchased the recent CD remaster of Life’s Rich Pageant before driving out of Portland toward an afternoon in the Willamette Valley. I saved the CD for the part of the drive after leaving the freeway. As the first notes of “Begin The Begin” entered the rental car, I recall my right arm reflexively shooting to the volume knob and twisting it clockwise as far as it would go, hitting maximum just as the opening riff gave way to the most sure-footed and exciting rhythm section of the 1980s. Sure enough – pay dirt. I had spiked exactly the right vein. My favorite R.E.M. album, one I hadn’t listened to for maybe a year, and now sonically improved, sent a shock up my spine that I can feel right now. It reminded me of two things: First, of how much Pageant meant to me in the summer of ’86. This was the record that confirmed what a powerhouse R.E.M. really was, not just in live shows (I had already seen a few), but on record, too. And it made clear that these guys weren’t going anywhere. If they were this good on the fourth album, I was now confident I could count on them for years to come. The other thing I reminded myself was not to play my favorite albums too much. If you do, you see, you might sacrifice the electric shock to redundancy, no matter how loud you play it. As it turned out, I got a near-perfect listening experience. As Pageant played, I was getting into what each song offered me that very moment in that place, more than just recalling what these songs had done for me twenty-five years ago.

My wife was with me, and I told her how I loved every moment of this album, that it was the most important record to me in a time when records meant everything. And she, being just old enough to remember how fertile that time was, and clearly smart enough to know a killer record when she hears one, smiled and nodded in perfect understanding.

But I also remember the another recent conversation about R.E.M. It came about a week after the release of this year’s Collapse Into Now. I was talking about the album with another long-time fan. He found the record sort of ordinary and uninspiring. Collapse had arrived with more fanfare and critical raves than some of the other R.E.M. albums of the last 10 years, as if the critics were willing it to be great. It really didn’t deliver that many thrills, though a buyer’s money isn’t wasted on it. You get the feeling that it might age nicely, as many records do, benefiting from the way that changes in the culture and  listeners’ new experiences expose things that were overlooked earlier, or place lyrics in new context. But just out of the box, Collapse Into Now didn’t turn out to be the record that we wanted: Something to save us from an often-dreary, near-recessionary summer.

In the past, my loyalty would have kicked in when my friend dismissed this new R.E.M. album, and I might defend it as I had Around The Sun in similar conversations (“Well, you can’t judge it YET, man!” or “Hey, compare it to other new stuff… It’s still better than most”, that kind of thing). But instead, for the first time ever, I found myself saying that I no longer expected R.E.M. to make a truly great album again. My friend did not disagree with me, and we changed the subject to baseball, searching for disagreement to keep the conversation moving.

If you don’t believe a band that has done so very much for all of us can do that again, then you really can’t be surprised when they punch out. In fact, you have to applaud them for doing so, and many did.

So this past week’s announcement from Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills that they were disbanding did not come as a shock, really. Neither did it create a shockwave any greater than the average central Californian micro-tremor. Sure, there was a heavy load of opinion and recollections to be found on most every music-related forum and blog, but what doesn’t cause that to happen, nowadays? And you can bet every time-waster on the block decided to Tweet the news as if they were the first to be informed (I’m no less guilty, e-mailing a dozen people as soon as I discovered the announcement, which at the time was 10 minutes old). But little genuine weeping and gnashing of teeth was to be found. Nobody used the phrase “Say it ain’t so!” I was a little surprised when the story made the NBC Nightly News, where it got about 30 seconds nearly 20 minutes into the show, in the segment where soft news is usually placed… a long with obituaries. Of course, if Brian Williams, clearly a rock fan, weren’t at the desk, the news probably would have been restricted to music circles, and left out of network reporting.

The juxtaposition of R.E.M.’s press release with the Troy Davis case, a crucial drama playing out in the band’s home state, did put them in a slightly dimmer light for what is ostensibly their last act as a band. Surely the band’s announcement took a moment away from a fight that literally needed every moment it could get. Whatever the truth about Davis, it would be in better step with R.E.M.’s political history if they had waited until Georgia’s collective mind was in less turmoil.

Regardless of the ill timing of the event, the end of this band isn’t surprising when you look over your shoulder. After 31 years and a recent run of good but less-than-unique albums, R.E.M. really did not mean that much anymore. There didn’t seem to be a lot of wind in their sails, and their absence won’t create a void. “Irrelevant”, wrote one forum contributor, and you couldn’t say he was dead wrong. A band that once pulled rock music in their direction as surely as the moon influences the tides had recently seemed insecure, repetitive and static. It was like they kept looking for some new roads to travel and found only roundabouts.

Once said to be like The Beatles because they grew in creativity and popularity at the same time, the last third of R.E.M.’s long career may have shown us what surely would have happened to The Fabs at some point. I always likened early R.E.M. to the early albums of Band, because there was so much mystery in their sound. When that lifted, though, about the time of Monster, their momentum began to slow. New Adventures In Hi-Fi restored some depth and imagination, but bit-by-bit, great albums gave way to simply good ones with a few great songs.

Where once they brought a beautiful obscurity to rock and roll, in this century, after the departure of founding drummer Bill Berry, they became proliferators of melancholy. So clear was the romantic element in their post-2000 music, that it almost (almost) started to seem cheap. They began to use “baby” in their lyrics. I still believe R.E.M. never made a lousy album, but the clarity of recent records now seems to be their creative undoing (Albums like Reveal will surely get more shrift in upcoming days; Breaking up is always a nice way to focus more sympathetic light on recent records).

Putting an end to their activities as a working band now seems a wise acknowledgement that their gas tank was empty. So many other acts have failed to recognize this point, and always suffer for it.

That said, we have to question what “break up” really means anymore, anyway. It’s very hard to name any major rock act that hasn’t found their way back to stages and studios sometime after they said they were packing it in, no matter how acrimonious the split. When you consider that R.E.M. made an amicable decision to put a halt to things, it just raises the odds of some kind of reunion somewhere down the road.

Very few rock bands stay broken up forever. R.E.M. might never return to daily business, and that’s fine. But I wouldn’t bet a dollar with 10-to-1 odds that they don’t find themselves on stage in some incidental setting within a couple of years. I also like to think that, with time on their hands, they’ll become bigger fans of their own band, and curate presents in the form of live albums, and suitable collections of their tons of B-sides and covers. And the collector in me will be very grateful.

I think that a band’s breakup in this day may only mean that they have decided to forego their obligations. Maybe it just means that you’ve told your fans that the ‘closed’ sign is on the door. In other words, for right now, don’t expect anything.

That’s not a cynical act, if you ask me. If you’re in neutral, sooner or later, it’s better to just turn off the car, even if you think you might be going somewhere later.

Only after settling on the situation, and assessing R.E.M. at this point, can we take the moment to look back at their history. Rather than glorifying the usual aspects, it’s worth putting a little light on some things that may overlooked in the accolades that will surely claim R.E.M. as the fathers of indie rock.

R.E.M. quickly thanked their fans in their goodbye, and such statements should be brief. But if they wanted to pull an Oscar time-breaker, the way Michael Stipe used to go on forever with each MTV award, the first place for them to start would be college radio. And not today’s college radio, either. Their thanks would have to go to those college stations that gave them full, unparalleled support from the release of Murmur until they broke through to commercial radio and signed with Warner Brothers. And those of us who were a part of college radio back then would reply “Right back atcha!”, because this band gave us a lot.

I was a college DJ between 1984 and 1987, and I can tell you that no other band was so universally beloved among my fellow jocks and our audience as R.E.M. And it didn’t take long to find that this mania stretched coast-to-coast. It became a mission, somehow, to push this band – OUR band – as far as our tiny transmitters and nasally voices could take them. And R.E.M. certainly helped us help them. Each release offered a full slate of great tunes and you could interpret any of them to suit your own needs. They were fantastic, and yet there was nothing intimidating about them. R.E.M. were a punk band, they were an art band, they were a garage band, they were revivalists, they were fresh air. They sounded like The Byrds one minute, and they were scary as hell the next. There was something for everybody, every minute of each LP. Fun to listen to, and fun to pore over, and we couldn’t play them frequently enough.

Each year of college radio’s investment in R.E.M. paid off in spades. They never ripped us off. Not only did we get a giant playlist from every release, we got nifty B-sides. And you could see the band in the right kind of venue pretty easily. But more importantly, R.E.M.’s momentum triggered a reaction from independent labels that led to a host of terrific new groups getting their chance at… Well, not the big time, really; But a chance at something. R.E.M. presented the example that bands could move the ball forward slowly and with less compromise than they might have expected.

Most importantly, though, their connection to college radio validated the tastes of thousands of DJs and listeners. As R.E.M. sold more and more records, eventually moving to a major label, and still delivering (first the grand Green), each of us that helped to make them stars took satisfaction that our generation had banked on a winner. Many of us thought, “Well, if those guys can conduct themselves fairly, and with less compromises than usual, maybe I can too.”

There was another bonus for us all, too. For each new band that scrambled through the door that R.E.M. opened, a forgotten record also found its way to the surface, thanks to R.E.M.’s hipster endorsement. For as much as Stipe would ramble on during the band’s awards acceptances in the early 90s, Peter Buck, the one we all wanted to be, would happily go on and on at any opportunity about his obsession with all kinds of out-of-print platters. Think about it: How much do The Stooges owe these guys for frequently covering “Funhouse”, followed by Buck interviews that made sure you knew where the tune came from? The Velvet Underground, Mission of Burma, and Suicide all found new audiences (or in the case of Pylon, perhaps an audience for the first time) thanks to free ongoing promotion from a four-man Athens-based PR team. I wonder if Roger Miller ever knew how much cooler R.E.M. made him before he passed away in ’92?

Peter Buck’s reputation as a beyond-hope record freak (he is reputed to have at least 30,000 discs, still buying at least 10 per week, usually in his frequent visits to Seattle’s Easy Street Records) was confirmed from the first time I ever laid eyes on him in the flesh. Because when I did, he was in an Ann Arbor record store before an R.E.M. show – shopping for records, not sitting at a table signing them. That habit, shared to a lesser degree by Stipe, Mills, and Berry is one of the things that helped keep them fresh during their magnificent run with I.R.S. records. You could tell that you were hearing music from young wide-eyed open-minded music fans, and that convinced you to remain one. Their appetites for music meant that influences were perhaps more diverse than you might think. A fellow college DJ at my station once interviewed Buck live on the air. Leading up to the conversation, the Art Ensemble of Chicago was playing. Buck could hear this avant jazz on the telephone return line and commented that he had just seen them about a week before. As any free jazz fan will tell you, AEC shows demand more than ticket money; They demand a wide-open mind.

Everyone in R.E.M. had interesting things to say, which was refreshing. But Buck seemed to be the most affable spokesman. Which made it all the more maddening to hear him always dismiss his band’s previous album when he was promoting the new one. When pushing Document in 1987, he referred to my beloved Pageant as “our Bryan Adams album”. Of course when Pageant was first released, he’d said it was the record they always wanted to make. But he could also easily puncture the pretensions of the whole ‘alternative’ (we were so fond of that word then) scene with a great regular-guy anecdote. On a national radio show, also in ‘87, the year of Joshua Tree-mania, a caller giddily asked Buck if he knew U2 personally and what he thought of them. “Yeah, we’ve been on bills with them,” he recalled, “They’re nice guys… But I’ll tell you, their isn’t a single one of them that I couldn’t wrestle to the ground.” Looking back, that ‘yeah, we like football, too’ comment is even funnier when you remember that Bono stood up for Buck at his 2001 London trial on charges of being disruptive on an airliner (Buck was acquitted).

This was their greatest gift: R.E.M. music gave you so much to talk about. When I think back over the nearly three decades since I first heard them in 1983, I recall more about conversations about R.E.M., who those talks were with and what they meant, than I do about R.E.M. albums and performances themselves. Whatever their current direction at any given time, that direction was worth talking about. If they were rumored to be in the studio, that was grounds for conversation, and if a new record did appear, you couldn’t wait to hear the opinions of others – nearly as much as hearing the records themselves. R.E.M. albums forced questions out of you: Why were they writing about The Civil War? Where in the world is Philomath? Is Accelerate their most pop album? How did they get the idea for that song with Patti Smith on it? The best of their records easily withstood the litmus test that many people apply to movies: If you aren’t talking about it for at least 30 minutes after you’ve seen it, then it wasn’t worth your time. Sad to say my conversation about Collapse Into Now probably didn’t last that long, but most records these days get far less comment.

I can recall my first days of college and a discussion of the latest record, Reckoning, where a total stranger walked into the conversation after overhearing the topic. I remember someone looking at me in amazement when I said I had a copy of the Chronic Town EP (didn’t seem like such a big deal to me, but then I realized it was in and out of print inside a year). I can recall a great quote from a huge fan responding to someone who said they couldn’t understand the words of the songs: “That’s the fun thing about R.E.M. You can make up your own lyrics”.

But I’m most grateful for this: There’s hardly a single person truly close to me with which I have not discussed R.E.M. Even friends who claim no interest in ‘our band’ are willing to say so with respect. But as one who certainly was hooked, line and sinker, by the jangle and the mumble and the riffs and the rumble and the mystery and beauty, from “Catapult” to “Nightswimming” and from “Daysleeper” to “Discoverer”, I’m grateful that this music did so much to relieve what Stipe called, in “9-9”, ‘conversation fear’.

So, my thanks to R.E.M. for doing what the greatest artists can do. They gave us all something in common, and it brought out the best in myself and in those around me.

What else could you ask for?


Last album: Roy Orbison, The Soul of Rock and Roll, box set

It’s All Too Much… Again.

Last week, I wrote about how, despite the myriad options for listening to music online, it’s a greater burden than ever for the hardcore music dork to stay on top of new sounds because there are just more records than ever before. Album releases per year have multiplied by a factor of about 10 in the last forty years, and the last decade’s daily complaints by the record industry haven’t slowed this avalanche one bit.

For the financially dedicated and wholly demented among us, this has led to a struggle as we try desperately to decide on what CDs, LPs, and downloads are worth whatever money we have managed to rook from our employers and save from our bartender’s tips. First, you have to draw aim on the new releases, then come up with more scratch than you ever imagined.

And now, on top of that, messages from the Wayback Machine have become the new clarion call for much of the music fan market. Staggeringly packaged reissues now clearly occupy more of the release calendar than ever before. At a certain point, it appears, rather than try to deal with countless new bands and a tidal wave of mediocre fresh releases, searching for a winning ticket on the floor of a racetrack betting room becomes folly, and music fans perk up at the idea of buying old favorites again (and if you are too young and hip to be part of this, just wait, pal… Gabba Gabba Hey). You can argue that collectors are after cleaner sound, or rare “bonus” tracks, or maybe they just feel obliged to add to the totem pole they’ve built in honor of their favorite records. If you just spent twenty years telling people how Nevermind changed your life, how can you not welcome a monument to that album into your house? It would be hypocritical not to, right? Or is hypocritical for the ultimate alternative act to SELL you a boxed reissue? Hmmm…

But I think many may jump on the reissue wagon only because it’s easier to buy old music than is to buy new stuff. For many of us, even those not quite as inflicted as those who inhabit The Bunker, want to make a regular addition to the CD shelf, regardless of anything screaming at us specifically. Sort of like, “haven’t rented a movie in a while…” Well, back when people rented movies, that is. Believe me, the labels haven’t overlooked this gnawing ritual. And if recycling old needles is the way to a quick fix, then hey, let’s do it, man.

This habit was set back in ’87 or so, when millions of us decided we had to have a CD to replace the LPs that we dug just fine until those perfect little discs became the status quo, and we feared we would look like jerks with a turntable in the apartment. (And apartments it was – Another attraction of CDs was that they’re easier to crate up when it’s time to move… Again.) The concept of getting a new version of something we already owned was therefore endorsed, and a precedent set. Which opened the door real wide for ‘anniversary editions’ and re-mastered re-releases. And that brings us to the brunt of this screed, which is how our love for a carefully assembled reissue now is now being abused by the labels.

The Stick loves to see a fantastic record from the past treated with respect and foisted upon the present day. There’s a good-hearted intention somewhere in the equation: Masterpieces like Exile On Main Street, hyped beyond belief last year, damn well ought to kept in circulation and more so, brought to mind, every decade or so. And if you can make a favored milestone sound a lot better, then fans of the record should have a chance to enjoy it more thoroughly, especially if they still bother putting together a decent stereo. Original issues of CDs often sounded lousy, but you didn’t know it until you got the thing home. Traffic’s best album, John Barleycorn Must Die, was a sonic bus crash when it hit first got digitized back in ’88 or so. Carelessly mastered from a late-generation tape as part of the headlong rush to put everything on CD, Barleycorn wound up distorted, harsh, flat… I can’t recall which hurt more, the way it sounded, or the ache in my already-thin wallet. But a second issue on CD fixed all of that, and if you couldn’t find another 15 bucks in the 20 years between the two, then you had more important things to worry about anyway.

Reissues are nothing new, of course. You can’t track the history of recorded music without seeing how titles drop from catalogs and then re-appear, sometimes just because the label didn’t have room in their pressing budget to keep the original release on the shelf for another quarter. They, and the dealers, simply had to make room for new releases, and something had to give.

For the last few years, the majors, and those labels built originally on low-key reissues (Rhino, Hip-O), have been wetting the appetites for special editions of beloved records with Deluxe CD Editions of things like My Generation and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Hi-resolution CD/DVD double-packs, like the one for Rush’s Moving Pictures help you get a little more bang out of your DVD player and offer a little more rationale for getting the latest version. But these were still reasonable in size and cost, if you shopped around a bit.

But then, maybe two Christmases back, we started to see the emergence of albums-as-box-sets: HUGE things, often spoken of with the term ‘massive’ included, that seem to be taking the place of the end-of-year standard, the career-spanning boxed collection.

And they keep getting more and more lavish with eyebrow-liftingly creative ways of adding to the song count. 2009’s boxed version of the Stones’ Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out featured more music than the original LP by including the opening acts from the ’69 Stones tour, B.B. King and Ike and Tina. Live At Leeds, already the subject of a deluxe double-CD job several years back, got the big box treatment about a year ago, and padded the bags by inserting The Who’s complete show from the following night in Hull (even if that meant copping Entwistle’s bass parts from the Leeds concert to patch up the incomplete tapes of that next night). In both cases, these heavyweight box sets had worthwhile books in them, but also got filled with vinyl AND CD copies of the music, a trend that really skews these things to the audiophile and obsessive collector tribes.

From there, though, we’ve sadly moved to piles of memorabilia being included. The recent Super Deluxe Edition (a common term that actually has meaning, since a cheaper, slimmer ‘Deluxe Edition’ is also often issued) of David Bowie’s Station To Station included a stash of promo photos and tour miscellania. It’s starting to feel like 1977 all over again, when a kid could just about cover his bedroom walls with boring posters pulled from LPs like ELO’s Out Of The Blue. Are we, as adults, really expected to enjoy these trinkets? Does somebody really expect us to put up a cheap poster in a room that we mortgaged? And as much as it’s a great idea to have a big version of Layla that ties up the loose ends of Derek And The Dominos’ all-too-short career, who had the bright idea to include a Stratocaster pick guard decal in the thing? Did that decision actually translate to more sales, as I am sure it translated to a higher price?

Imagine what they have in store for a celebratory edition of Never Mind The Bullocks – expect a small tin of safety pins and a tiny bottle of alcohol so you can pierce your cheek in a sanitary manner.

But you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

This fall, besides a healthy number of ‘staight’ reissues, the number of Hindenburg-sized deluxos is beyond any reasonable measure. I won’t drag you through the complete press kits, but The Who, The Doors, Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, U2, and the previously worshipped Nirvana all plan extravagant shelf-breaking boxes, each celebrating a rather predictable selection from their respective catalogs. Pink Floyd is going well beyond that step by remastering and reissuing their entire catalog in a car battery-sized chunk (something they did just four years back), and then issuing monstro-boxes for their three best sellers. Each of those will be complete with the tchotchkes that tip the scales toward ridiculous. The Dark Side of The Moon box has coasters for your acid-spiked drink, and a scarf in case the music is too chilly for you.

The Beach Boys’ entry into the race is multi-disc release of The Smile Sessions, the full 5-course of Brian Wilson’s purported lost masterpiece, the planned LP home of “Good Vibrations”. But what once would have seemed like a miracle coming true for Boys’ fans, now smacks of exploitation. Smile has been closeted away for well over 40 years, true, but just a few years back, its auteur, Brian Wilson, saw fit to re-record and release the whole thing under his own brand, and got nice rewards for it. So how is this not a $140 anticlimax? And, by the way, if you have never heard the Wilson version… Skip it. Smile, advertised as some kind of skitter through American folklore (or something), was, if you ask me, left in the basement for a darn good reason. It just isn’t that great, folks. Songs about vegetables and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow? When the man-in-charge can create something as emotionally pristine as “God Only Knows”, why in the world did he want to make novelty songs?

Peter Gabriel has a boat anchor for you, too, but it isn’t the one he promised. Earlier this year, PG discussed a 25th anniversary version of So, the record that took him out of the fringe and into John Cusack movies. But he swerved on that, as he often does, and is about to sell you New Blood, which might better be called Old Songs, because that’s what it is – orchestral versions of Gabriel’s catalog, extrapolated into 4 discs and an artsy display case.

But at least that’s something sort of kind of new, and he’s only asking about 50 bucks for the thing. The Who’s upcoming retread of Quadrophenia offers a new master and a long menu of Townshend’s original demos, along with another of Pete’s hard-bound ruminations on his own history. 4 CDs, a DVD that contains a hi-resolution surround mix of only part of the album (say what?!), a 7” single, the history book and, of course, some “collectables” (isn’t the album itself collectable?), and it will only set you back about $150.

Yeah, you’re right, that’s too expensive. I mean, sure, let’s take this on face value and say that you, the big Quad fan, will get more out of listening to all this than you might from dusting off your old copy. But can you really attach a decent value statement to that price tag? Even if you have the dough, get ready to accept a little guilt, too.

But what one band will do, U2 will always do bigger. The soon-to-be-released “uber deluxe” version of Achtung Baby, a product that should have its own zip code and includes some 6 CDs, 4 DVDs, LPs, singles, a coffee table book, and a replica of Bono’s shades, for cripes’ sake, can be pre-ordered at Amazon right now, friends, for the rock-bottom price of 480 Yankees. Pikers with less love or money for U2 can choose from less ridiculous versions, but you might still need about $150. Still, just the availability of a top-rank version at almost 5 large makes the head swim, especially when The Smiths are offering the whole magilla – their entire catalog on CD and LP, and including every single on 7-inchers – for about $360. Limited Edition, no less (if that means anything to you.

Jane, stop this crazy thing.

Between the struggle to give new music its due (and by the way, get the Wild Flag album right now) and the home refinancing needed to collect the bruising objects d’arte that fall under the category of “timeless classics remembered”, the fun of collecting music is getting sucked down like Samuel Jackson attacking that soda in Pulp Fiction.

Again, I welcome all of this stuff, just not in such a typhoon attack. New releases by Wilco and Ryan Adams are around the corner, and I feel as close to Quadrophenia as the next Who fan, believe me. I might like it even more than Glenn, who seems to lean hard toward pre-’69 Who more and more. But keeping it all in focus and on budget is zapping the enjoyment.

There’s a way out, though, and you can thank your turntable. If you can still play records, you can still get them cheap. Do this: Put $20 in your jeans; That’s one Andy, no credit cards, and hit a used record shop on Saturday afternoon. You will have a nice time for an hour or so, maybe make a friend and almost certainly walk out with a few great records, enough to make Saturday night worth living through.

But then, off to bed. You need your sleep for the second job you just took to pay the freight on 600 bucks worth of Floyd reissues.

Next time: What name is missing from this reissue frenzy and why?

– Mr. Stick

Last Album: Various Artists – This Are Two Tone


It’s All Too Much.

As you must have deciphered by now, The Bunker is chocked to the ceiling with records. I make it a point to badger Glenn into adding new vinyl, CDs, 45s and downloaded tracks to our wampum on an almost daily basis, even if I know it will be six months before said music gets audibilized for the benefit of the neighbors. He obliges, spineless stooge that he is. All items considered, I think we’re holding about 4,000 titles in the arsenal at present. Not the biggest pile in the area code, but it does the trick.

And that’s a wunnerful thing, alright, because it gives me and the assorted cast of local hangers-on the ability to pluck almost anything at whim. For example, today, while playing a Koko Taylor record, I was reading a review of the upcoming new Miles Davis Live In Europe 1967 release. The article made mention of 1995’s stellar Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel. How nice it would be to hear Miles’ Plugged Nickel set again, I thought, and five minutes later, it was spinning in the Oppo. Still is, actually.

Of course, there are probably a dozen ways to hear that box set online, legally or illegally, even though it is out of print (actually, it’s not completely – popmarket.com seems to be the only place on earth that still sells it). Having a great big record collection is clearly not the only way to locate and hear music anymore. But it’s far more rewarding to remember that you once had the good sense to have purchased exactly what you would like to hear right now, and managed to actually hang on to it in anticipation of this very moment.

Acquiring and, frankly, curating a worthwhile record collection is a life’s work and one that pays terrific dividends, both in terms of enjoyment and in cash, if you are inclined that way. And the logarithmic scale of lust for more music is a disease you just learn to manage, right? Anyway, they’ll all be gone soon, we’re told. After all, the record industry is in decline, right? They just don’t make so many records anymore, am I right?

The Stick can read, and you should, too... "Books, Jerry..."

Dead wrong. Currently on The Bunker’s bedside reading table is a terrific book by Travis Elborough called The Vinyl Countdown (Soft Skull Press, 2008). Elsborough does a fantastic job of detailing the history of the LP, from its birth in 1948 through the CD and MP3 revolutions, and on to the coveted place it seems to hold today as a cultural defense against the fast-food disposability of downloaded music.

Early in the book, which, to a lummox like me, only suffers from the perspective of being written in England by an Englishman whose references are sometimes provincial, Elsborough points out that in 1973, about 5,000 albums were released. Fast forward to 2005, and the peak of the record industry’s tantrum about illegal downloading putting them all on the street. At the time we all read articles about the coming apocalypse: The end of not just record stores, but record labels. But in ’05, some 44,000 albums found their way to daylight. Yeah, that’s three zeroes. Seems to me that if the music biz was bleeing cash through every orifice, it might be wise to be very careful about how many contracts you hand out and how many albums you manufacture, even if “manufacturing” just means giving a master file to iTunes. Hey, you still have to record it, promote it and do the accounting for it, right? All releases cost money, and all that money is supposed to be an investment.

But no. The record industry, mentioned in conjunction with the word ‘wise’ for the first time in history in the paragraph above, and which I still think we need, seems to think like some parents I have met: To get one of their children a full-ride scholarship and great job (in other words, to make them a hit), you don’t need to manage their education carefully as they grow. You just need to have more and more children. Because the odds say that if you just give enough birth, one of those kids will hit the jackpot, right?

Trouble is, those odds are still long even if you have a spouse willing to help you shore up the numbers, because the folks next door are at it too, and who’s got to time to read to kids at night, when you need to get back to making more of them. Yeah, unless the kid gets more than a little focus from his or her breeders, it’s quite possible (even likely) that he or she is going to turn out as a half-wit. Correspondingly, its certainly possible to drop 50,000 albums on the public and have 95% of them be forgotten a week a later, or, if they are noticed, identified as complete turkeys.

And that is clearly what we are looking at right now. 2011 has delivered few really outstanding albums so far… and this year’s race is almost over. TV On The Radio, Joseph Arthur, The Strokes, My Morning Jacket, The Rebirth Brass Band and Adele came, and did not disappoint. But off hand, I can’t think of too much else. As usual, many things touted by the hipmeisters at Pitchfork and Spin are just weak retreads of REM, Pavement, or even the Velvets. The wildly overrated Arcade Fire is already being Xeroxed at an alarming rate (Note: I didn’t say AF were bad, but they get better press than the Pope on Christmas Eve). And you can’t count the number of bands that look like The Decemberists or Ray Lamontagne.

I have to be fair: I haven’t heard everything. Nobody really does, but I am still ready to admit that I don’t listen to half of the releases that I would like to, or maybe that I feel I SHOULD hear. But, don’t you see? NOBODY can. The record industry, ailing from a supposedly incurable disease, can still somehow find the time and scratch to release an average of about 130 albums for every day of the year. And while I understand that we’re talking about hundreds of genres here and countless reissues, we’re still, even with the instatouch access of the Internet, letting enormous amounts of possibly worthwhile rock and jazz slip right by without any chance to check it out. Or worse: The stuff we do sample is really as dull as you think, and it is not the exception after all… There isn’t a coal seam of real winners just below the crust.

My point here is that it SEEMS like most records these days suck. But I know that I am not hearing ‘most records’, and the effort to keep up with new sounds is tiring and confusing. I believe that bewilderment, a symptom the fact that music is a flood of mostly unknown artists washing by us in a fast stream, is one of the things that reduces people’s interest in buying new tunes. We don’t get the time to lock onto something and grow that interest into a satisfying purchase before we’re being asked to buy something else and again and again, until it’s easier just to watch Adult Swim and forget about it all.

The first mantra of the truly sick is “I don’t have enough records yet.” But how do you feed the beast if the music scene is a swirl and not a feast? By using a time machine, apparently.

To be continued, natch.


Last album: Miles Davis – Complete Live At The Plugged Nickel 1965