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?

G.

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.

Stick

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

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

Is Keith Moon Missing His Birthday Party, Or Are We?

Sad to hear of the passing of Jerry Leiber and also of Nick Ashford, particularly in a time when it’s hard to name any great contemporary songwriters. And in the midst of reading a little more about their respective careers, this overlooked fact popped up: Had Keith Moon somehow lived past September of ’78, he would have been 65 today.

Now, that statement is very unlikely itself, because had he not died from misuse of an anti-alcoholism medication (that’s right – this guy managed to overdose on the cure), it seems logical that he would have found some other way to check out before now. That’s harsh, I know, especially since, by all accounts, Moon was working hard at staying alive that summer of ’78. Well, working hard at not getting booted out of The Who, really, but that would have been the same as dying to him.

But face it: Moon without a drink would be like Groucho without glasses, and I have to believe that the minute he realized that being sober meant not having an excuse for the most outrageous behavior in the postal code, he would have gone back in the bottle. Were he here now, I think he would have been in and out of The Who a time or two, and Townshend’s continuous battle with himself, Roger Daltrey, and anybody else who still cares over whether or not The Who should exist would be far more pitiful, because Moon would be in the mix, and Pete, no matter his faults and contradictions, always wanted Keith to be happy. He does indeed show up for work if the team is really counting on him, as he did to save John Entwistle from bankruptcy. Entwistle would be just as dead today, by the way, whether Moonie were here or not.

I’ve heard people – toads, mostly – say that “some folks just are better off dying young.” Doubt it. I don’t know what Keith’s absolute expiration date had to be, but I certainly like to think that the available opportunities for mass-level clowning brought to us by the 1980s (MTV, Late Night With David Letterman, concert venues with giant crystal-clear video screens) would not have been wasted on him. To say nothing of the Internet. Imagine Keith Moon with Twitter. Dear God. We’d need a whole new set of those Homeland Security codes.

I can also imagine him getting his short-attention-span acting talents together and making lightning-strike appearances in Brit flicks like Baron Munchausen or Brazil. Or something a little more contemporary that could take advantage of a complete lunatic willing to play a lunatic. 12 Monkeys, maybe. The Coens might have been able to put him to work somehow.

I would have liked to have seen him make a truly worthwhile solo record to wash away the bad taste of his one attempt, Two Sides Of The Moon. A drums record next time, obviously, with a great cast of singers and a comedy track or two on each side. And I would have liked to have seen him recognized in his lifetime not just for being a great drummer, but for being a great musician. See, Keith had a gift for drumming with Pete’s guitar and between Roger’s vocals that was unbelievable. He listened very, very carefully and played his drums as a role in the show, somehow overdoing it but still not crushing anybody else. It would have been great to have seen him explain the importance of that to other drummers… To see him teach a bit, not just dazzle.

But I have to guess that those things would not have happened. Or if they had, they wouldn’t have been as fun as we might hope. They would have been accompanied by more painful experiences trying to play with The Who as an aging, tired, out of shape, sober man, and may have led to Moon becoming a bitter, nasty, tasteless piece of talk-show filler like his old pal, the completely unpleasant Oliver Reed. Nobody wanted to see that. And nobody wanted to see him become quiet and gentle either. Moon built a public personality that trapped him like a rat at the end of a hallway. If the rat could dance to keep beaten stomped, it would, but it would still be trapped.. And dancing itself to death.

As audiences do, we wanted to see the most ridiculous drummer ever go on astounding us forever, stopping his bashing only long enough to make another hysterical headline. And you see, that just ain’t possible. A revolutionary drummer, sure, but it would take a whole new slice of human to be able to give up his dependencies in favor of aging, and still deliver the goods that those dependancies helped insure – whether we like to admit that they helped or not.

So, was he better off dying at 32? No, I can’t say that. Everybody, especially those that stupefy the average slobs like me, deserves the chance to hammer out a happy middle age.

But that would have been hard for Keith Moon, though, and it could be that we’re better off not having had to watch him struggle… But I guess I would have risked that, if I had the chance.

Watch this instead: Keith Moon at Breaknock School, 1977

Stick says goodnight.

 

Current album: The 21st Century Guide To King Crimson, Volume One

 

Just What You Need: More Internet Music

Stick here, Bunker deep.

Today, I got wind of Spotify’s arrival Stateside. In case you are not acquainted, Spotify is the latest Internet music site to end all Internet music sites. It’s been thriving in Europa for a while, and apparently became Yankee-friendly on July 14. Basic idea seems to be that you can search for and play selections from millions of tunes, all for free, provided you don’t mind a narrow sound quality and some ads in your face. A few bucks a month relieves you of that burden. Seems like it’s been done before, but there’s supposedly something better under the hood this time.

I can hardly offer a review of the thing – Myself and the rest of the Pop Survivor swabbos have only just signed up and crossed the threshold, but the initial results were promising: As Litmus, I searched for, and found, Australia’s Greatest Band of All, The Motor City Sound From Down Under, some would say the Pappy Boyingtons of Aussie Punk, that’s right… Radio Birdman. A decent selection of The Birdman was located in milliseconds, offering first evidence that this might be a useful toy, at least until we’re distracted for the three seconds it takes to forget about something on the Internet (and don’t say “Like your blog”, Jocko).

See, I find all this ease-of-content related to Internet music sites to be a little disconcerting. And by ‘a little’, I mean ‘it’s starting to depress me beyond the point where reasonably-priced drugs can help’.

Exploring music, thus nurturing our addictions, used to involve a hunt that was in itself a satisfying thing. You’d catch the last half of some great new release on the radio and the mystery of it would take hold before anything else. Then the bugs would start to crawl up your spine – Who was that? What was the name of that tune? What stratagem shall I use to sooth this itch? These days, though, you breathe six notes of what you recall into an iPhone and the song you heard in the car is in your digital stash 5 seconds later. Is that really rewarding? Isn’t the anticipation and slow discovery part of the rush? And how long do you treasure the downloaded song? Until dinner? Maybe.

The Stick is no Luddite, and has the iTunes bill to prove it. But the insta-touch approach to music searching seems to yank stones from a damn, and much faster than is healthy for the valley below. You came to the Net to find a song you just heard or one you remember from way back, and before you know it, you are so flooded with options of songs to either play or download that you can’t recall why you opened the laptop in the first place. Playing the first 10 seconds of one tune from the thoroughly busy interfaces of iTunes, Pandora, or whatever-the-hell-it-is entices us to play something else. And RIGHT NOW. As if that little button was gonna disappear forever.

Music, like baseball, has the ability to teach us patience, and to show the value of the elusive. But how can it when everything is at our fingertips, and we’re hopping from tune to tune like a frog on Bennies? The ultra-quick fix can reduce music to White Castle. The more there is in front of you, the cheaper it is, the easier it is to root through, the more disposable it becomes. Somebody, supposedly, poured their guts into that tune, and we can move it in and out of our lives with three mouse-clicks. Don’t seem entirely right, does it?

But summer-sweat-soaked sofa philosophy aside, sites (okay, apps) like Spotify might be beneficial to blogolas like Pop Survivor. Maybe it’s just the thing for hipping you all to something worth your attention – and vice versa.

You hip to this thing? If so, advise The Stick. How can those of us in this small crusade wrench this tool into our own fists for the better good? That is, without reducing my bully pulpit to the pitfalls of social media.

Anti-social media, that’s what we need. Thin the herd a little.

– Mr. Stick, like I told you already, boy.

Current album – Miles, Live Evil

*Ever notice how we don’t mind referring to ourselves as Yankees in matters of international diplomacy, yet most of us – right-thinking people anyway – hate the pin-striped Yankees more than we hate syphilis?

You Say You ‘Love Jazz’? Then Get Away From Me.

Another fine road trip is behind us, and Monsieur Stick once again settles in to the bunker. Glenn asked me to say thanks to Follower Brad for the hospitality in Seattle. But Brad done nothin’ for The Stick, as usual.

Despite all the irresistible good vibes of the Pac NW, Pop Survivor returns to the airwaves with a gripe, a beef, and an itch dying to be shredded with a dental instrument.

Have you ever been in a conversation with somebody at a party, or maybe on a first date, and heard him or her say “I love jazz”? Sure you have. Next time you hear that, spin on your heel and hit the highway pronto. And Mister Stick offers this advice sitting in a room with hundreds of great jazz albums just inches away.

Why? Because that statement, “I love jazz”, can mean bad news in two ways. Either the person making this declaration has a definition of America’s greatest art form that is hollow and simplistic and incomprehensibly incomplete, or, perhaps worse, they have their ‘jazz cap’ on. The ‘cap’ is really a helmet, and the owner uses it to head-butt any even-minded person who may have ever championed any form of more popular music. In either case, “I love jazz” is what they say to show off, and is often part of the FaceBook profile of shallow dullards, and creepy, spiteful snobs.

How they say it tells you a lot about which category they fit: If they say it with a wry smile, drag out the word ‘jazz’ or dreamily underscore ‘love’, and if they are catalog-dressed and have a nice haircut (or hair at all) they probably like what has come to be known as ‘smooth jazz’ (sorry, I meant to say ‘Smoooooth jazz… Music for Sperm Whales that sip Chardonnay’). These folks think that this pallid plate of common fruit is the width and breadth of it all; That Dave Koz and Lee Ritenour and other Sunday Brunch Soundtrack-makers are really improving the purity of the planet’s oxygen.

However, if the person is cheaply bespectacled and wearing ill-fitting corduroy, and if they sneer or look past you when they say they love jazz, and sort of spit the word ‘jazz’ at you, then they probably are an anti-populist malinger who socializes mostly with a keyboard, and had a strong emotional connection to Quantum Leap.

What’s really fascinating is that these two tribes, who speak the same phrase, have next-to-nothing in common musically. Both groups use what they define as jazz to define themselves, yet neither has an open mind. One explores only vertically, while the other doesn’t explore at all.

‘Smoothies’, whose favorite radio station is likely known as ‘The Wave’, feel sophisticated for their choice of elevator music over anything with any kind of soul. ‘Jazzbos’, of course, are bigger fans, and dig deeper into the music, but they build a moat around themselves. The more time they spend memorizing Art Tatum’s discography, the more they alienate people who don’t know who Art Tatum was – and they seem to enjoy it.

Both groups feel superior to others, but in different ways. The first group like themselves way too much, and hope you will feel the same. Smoothies are far too easily satisfied. They take pride in having settled down with the most comfortable, easily digested kind of music around. It goes well with their wardrobe, which came first. Smooth jazz is like flavorless post-surgery Jell-O: No one would choose to eat it, yet it won’t make you barf, and it’s forgotten seconds after ingestion. Music is not fuel to smooth jazz fans; it’s not even aspirin. It’s a Mojito in a really nice glass. It’s just a rationalization for being 100% white bread.

Jazzbos, of course, take the opposite side of the bi-polar divide – They hate themselves, and they’re not real wild about you, either. They don’t wish to be liked, just admired for their intellectual stoicism. Life is a cold bitch to them, and they blame their woes on rock and roll and country and western and anything else that makes others happy. Then they despise others for being happy in the first place. We owe them something, and they want us to understand that.

Granted, the tastes of serious jazz freaks are way, way more rewarding than those who groove to the vapid lightweight drizzle of Kenny G. Lite Jazz from Miller is, obviously, the worst music on the planet, if for no other reason than it is made by the laziest of blow-dried, freeze-dried, just plain DRIED musicians. To be fair, this kind of jazz, if you accept it as such, is sometimes the only way instrumental writers and musicians can actually eat. No doubt that Larry Carlton drives a nicer car than Roy Hargrove. But just because many succumb to this cultural injustice is not reason enough for the crime family to exist. The only possible rationale for God allowing smooth jazz to thrive is that Chuck Mangione can be a gateway drug. For some of us, the most accessible, easily palatable jazz, the kind that seeped onto AM radio in the 1970s, had something that set a hook in our mouths. Of course, it was a tiny hook and we weren’t satisfied for long. So, rather than settling for just ‘feeling so good’, or pulling out the hook, we went looking for the hard stuff, on the theory that our parents might hate Pharoah Sanders as much as they hated Deep Purple or The Ramones (turns out, they hated it even more).

And once you are into heroin, you never crave pot again.

Those junkies who use hard jazz as a badge of honor surely have great tunes at home, and they certainly won’t deny that jazz is the center of the musical universe of the last 100 years. But they will resist the idea that there is any kind of universe beyond the center. To jazz jerks, the farther you get from Louis Armstrong, the stupider and more painful the world becomes. And, let’s face it, the land of serious jazz has its con men, too. There are musicians who can’t offer anything more than atonal squonks, but will call it ‘free jazz’, knowing that many serious jazz-heads will pay homage rather than admit confusion.

Do yourself a favor. Deny both the Jazzbos and the Smoothies access to your personal space. Jazz, while smelling funny, as Zappa put it, is such a rich world that it needn’t be hyped or pigeonholed at all. And if you don’t allow it to connect to every other worthy moment of music, your plate isn’t full. Jazz was made to mingle, to set alight every other kind of peoples’ music we have. You can get from Sidney Bechet to Rob Zombie in less than 10 moves, because Chuck Berry dug Charlie Christian. Therefore, we ALL love jazz, because it gave birth to everything after it.

If jazz is the coolest music, as those at both ends of its tether claim, then how about just being cool about it? Surely, it must be better to let your musical taste define you, than to use a brand of music to forcibly define yourself to others.

So, never say you love jazz. Instead, just listen to it, play it, buy it, read about it, and more than anything, be sure to mix it with everything else. You’ll be more interesting without even trying, and one hell of a lot easier to put up with.

 

Last album: Mozart, Sym. 32, 35 and 38, Berlin Philharmonic, Karl Bohm