“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

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

The Present Day Composer Has Died.

Mister Stick again.

I returned to The Bunker on Saturday morning to find sticky evidence of group entertainment from the night before. I questioned Caretaker Glenn on this. Some threats were needed before he blurted out the whole story, as usual… The two-faced swine. But apparently, Frank Zappa’s Baby Snakes and a concert film of Frank’s magnificent son Dweezil’s Zappa Plays Zappa band were screened in my absence.

I am familiar with both of these examples of ‘alternative entertainment’, and in fact, can recommend them, along with just about everything else produced by the Zappa brand. Often great, not always, but never, NEVER boring. Which is most of the battle.

Anyone who followed FZ’s career, and perhaps read The Real Frank Zappa Book, knows that Frank, despite the risque choices exhibited in Baby Snakes for example, was a model parent. Frank’s recollection in the book, of the way that a tiny Diva Zappa made and sold Jell-O to the rest of the family, could melt even Sean Hannity’s calloused and shriveled heart (if the monstrous pig-man has one). The juxtaposition of those two concepts – Burlesque Magician and Father Of The Year – is way too much for the average Red Stater, of course. But celebrate and care for his family Frank most certainly did, so it’s no wonder his #1 Son has the same love of music, ace chops, and an even better band, all happily put to service in the resurrection of his father’s work. No… his father’s compositions.

And that facet of Frank’s talents, and the vacuum their absence has created, has put me at the keyboard today.

The family that records together...

Zappa was not a rock star. Sure, he regularly dressed like one. He had long hair for most of his career, true, and he delighted in some of the offerings laid at the altar of rock’n’roll depravity (yeah-hoo). But there was little else to recommend him as a rock star. He never scored a big hit, unless you count 1982’s “Valley Girl” single, which peaked at #32. That song never became a staple of Zappa concerts, and was, I would bet, purchased most often by title, as a novelty, and not because of an interest in the artist.

Besides pimping their chart hits, ‘Rock Stars’ must do three things, it seems to me: Appear on the cover of a middlebrow, catch-all rag like People, gather en masse with other rockers to support some charity, and battle an addiction. Zappa’s count: Nope, nope, and nope. He was loosely connected to some of the other whiz-kids of his time, like Lennon, Dylan, Alice Cooper, and Clapton, but he was not in the gang. Like Prince.

Instead of ‘rock star’, FZ was willing and eager to be branded as a composer, and despite Lester Bangs and others decrying his claim to that title as pompous, Frank did seem to make good on it in a literal way with a slew of ‘serious’ orchestral records that demonstrated that his always entertaining jazz/rock/comedy/guitar-freak-job records had a foundation of real music-sheet wizardry underneath (as if the middle part of “Inca Roads” didn’t make that clear).

Frank’s bodyguard, John Smothers, appears in Baby Snakes, and makes it clear that he wouldn’t have remained in Frank’s employ for long if it weren’t for Zappa’s ability to “make symphony music with a five-piece band” (to learn more of Bald-Headed John’s perspective, check out this interview).

I’m not sure I heard symphonies in songs like “Willie The Pimp” and “Po-Jama People”, but it was pretty clear that song construction, and the wild dynamics of the tunes, was the fundamental juice in Zappa’s work – even more than the blinding musicianship he demanded from his bands. In fact, that point – that songwriting is WAY more important than song playing – is a foundation of this listener’s philosophy to this day. Could be that Frank was one of the pushers behind that conviction. And that must be because he was such a wondrous capitalist. He made it great, but he made it to sell, he sold it, and then he made some more. He knew the size of his market, and he worked on a volume margin.

But what this bring us to is this: There are no clever composers in the loud and bright public venue anymore. When Zappa died in ’93, more than one obit used the word ‘unique’. Sadly, I don’t recall any that used the more appropriate word: Brave. But the gist of memorials at the time was that we won’t see the like of this cat again soon. True dat. ‘Cause we haven’t seen anyone like him since, and I don’t expect to. Notice I didn’t say ‘as good as him’. I said ‘like him’. As in anybody even ATTEMPTING to bring new music of the same hard-core musical foundation to a popular setting. Instead, we’re expected to settle for Rock Of Ages (imagine a jukebox musical of Zappa tunes – Hey, you know, that could work).

The Modern Day Composer’, a term coined by Frank’s hero, Edgar Varese, was redefined by Frank as somebody who could find a way to marry the lowdown and silly with challenging musical sculptures that swiped from every kind of pop music. This could only have been melded by somebody with serious music-school chops and barrels of nerve. They had to have the guts to serve up complex and compelling music with satire, and with Reeperbahn wit, and they would also have to finance it themselves, more or less.

See that happening today? No chance.

I can imagine a kid roaring out of Berklee or North Dallas with the brain battery big enough to produce something almost as multilateral as the Zappa canon. I cannot imagine him finding the initial launching pad in the marketplace needed to fuel his efforts, let alone sticking it out long enough to secure enough similarly-shaped loyal weirdo fanatics from said marketplace to crate sustaining compensation.

And so, the ‘Modern Day Composer’ remains quite dead. Before you list a myriad of modernist writers who appear only at tiny festivals, let me remind you: Zappa made records for big labels and sold quite a few. He found a platform, by fooling us into thinking he was another greasy rock guitar player with a dirty mind, and letting every myth grow like crabgrass. We came, giggling, for the Burlesque. But before we knew it, we were digging the orchestral knockout known as “Pedro’s Dowry.”

Bravery. I don’t see that in music anymore, either. And I don’t think it’s coincidence.

Mister ‘Thing-Fish’ Stick

Last album: Zappa and the Mothers – One Size Fits All

“You Don’t Go To Heaven By Yourself”

Mr. Stick again.

With a smooth launch behind us, it’s time for a break. I will be away from Pop Survivor HQ for a short while this week and some of next on a secret mission, but I may post from another of my mysterious destinations. Glenn will be busy carrying the bags and arguing with room service on my behalf, so don’t expect any of his “clever” remarks.

Before we board the Stickcopter, though, a little proof that Pop Survivor has a heart.

Until Friday, I would have said that I knew next-to-zero about Norway. “They ski a lot”, I might have quipped, “and their flag looks nice… Or is that Finland?” Now I know much more, but I really wish I didn’t.

I don’t believe that the dreadful events in Oslo have had quite the reflection in American pop culture commentary that we might have seen if this terrible thing had happened stateside. If, Jah forbid, last week had brought another Oklahoma City to today’s list-infested mediascape, you would have seen “10 Songs To Help Us Remember The Fallen” at least a dozen times by now. Even in 2001, it took about three days after the ‘Reboot of the Western World’ for us to get hit by an article touting Dylan’s “High Water” as relevant to 9/11, though probably as much because the album containing that masterpiece, Love And Theft, was released on the toughest retail day of all time, September 11, Twenty-Oh-One.

I don’t think we need a heap of cynical Disaster Top 40 lists to help us to deal with memories of the gloomily increasing body count of last weekend, or to grieve for children we never knew. Anybody who feels these tragedies deeply is likely to attach some piece of totally-unrelated art to the memory, and won’t need the help of a sidebar writer to do it. And such articles are an awfully trivial response, anyway. Especially when this event should be crippling enough for the terror it brought, but sadly is twice as depressing because it’s part of a long familiar pattern of… what? Madness? Every word I can find to end that sentence seems pretty small.

But at the same time, it’s not such a bad idea to notice new meaning in a song that reflects something about a place where most of us have not been, and where so many were lost.

Just one week ago, I became familiar with Robyn Hitchcock’s Goodnight Oslo, released in 2009. And, like a lot of great records when you first hear them, the quality and appeal of the songs set themselves in your mind quickly, but the lyrics only become clear and complete later. A first pass at Oslo the record did not leave me with an enduring picture of Oslo, the city.

Today, as I saw Goodnight Oslo coming up on Glenn’s iTunes playlist, I couldn’t help but wonder if any part of the title song might seem poignant in light of the bombing and killings.

Sure enough:

And so delicious floes
So easy from the clouds
In Sunday morning Oslo time
You fade into the crowd
Don’t go to heaven by yourself
You need a mission and a friend
I’m promising you soul to soul to soul
It never ends

Hitchcock says that the Goodnight Oslo album celebrates “the ghosts of the smoke age.” And well it might, but his song now personifies something contemporary: The exit of innocents from a place he painted so nicely for the rest of us.

Glenn is hosting an MP3 of “Goodnight Oslo” here.


Last album: Nick Lowe – Jesus of Cool