Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Shut Down: Last Call

I have to admit that I cannot remember ever being at a bar for last call. Which is not a joke—you know, like “if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there” (variously attributed to Robin Williams, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, Dennis Hopper, Judy Collins, George Harrison, Pete Townshend and Timothy Leary, among others, including a comedian, Charlie Fleischer, who may have been the first to say it). It’s just that my heaviest imbibing days came when I was in college, and we almost never went to bars. Not to mention that I’m generally too, say, thrifty, to pay bar prices for a long night of drinking.

But I understand that “last call” is a big deal, because it requires you to fight inertia and the effects of alcohol, leave the cozy confines and head out into the world. Either you have to go home, or you are with someone, or you are alone, maybe disappointingly so. But you are probably drunk, and you need to decide whether to find somewhere else to keep drinking, or you have to accept the fact that the drinking part of the evening is over.

Not surprisingly, last call is a topic that is not uncommon in the music world, and we will touch on three very different songs, but not Kanye West’s “Last Call,” or Semisonic’s “Closing Time.” And because I don’t have a clever organizing principle, let’s just go in chronological order.  

Dead Kennedys: We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now

I’ve written before about the Dead Kennedys, and how their very name was a slap in the face to political correctness. In their classic “California Über Alles,” they poked fun at the supposed hippie/fascist tendencies of then (and current) California governor Jerry Brown who, in the song, somehow becomes dictator of the United States. But not long after this was released, the country actually elected conservative president Ronald Reagan, whose vision for America scared the DKs even more than Brown’s supposed “suede denim secret police.”

Thus, the band released this revised version, called “We’ve Got a Bigger Problem Now,” which starts with a lounge jazz arrangement and the lyrics:

Last call for alcohol.
Last call for your freedom of speech.
Drink up. Happy hour is now enforced by law.

While most of the most dire predictions in the song didn’t come true, some did, and I think you can draw a direct line from the Reagan presidency to the current Tea Party fanaticism that led to the government shutdown.

But enough about politics.

Hüsker Dü: First of the Last Calls

The loudest concert that I ever went to was Hüsker Dü at Irving Plaza in 1986. By far. And Dwight Yoakam opened, which was probably the oddest combination at any concert that I have ever been to. I’ve always appreciated Hüsker Dü’s ability to write poignant songs, with great melodies, while still keeping their hardcore roots. My wife, on the other hand, has trouble hearing past the feedback and screaming, and doesn’t get it.

“First of the Last Calls” is from an early EP, Metal Circus, and it definitely falls more on the hardcore end of the spectrum. But you can still hear songwriter Bob Mould’s gift for writing great riffs, in this song about a man’s losing fight with the bottle. Mould, who has struggled with various substance abuse issues, has had an impressive career with Hüsker Dü, Sugar and as a solo artist. Not to mention writing the theme song to The Daily Show (although the current version is a cover by They Might Be Giants).

Jay Bennett: Second Last Call
[download for free]

Changing things up a bit, we come to a song by another excellent songwriter with substance issues, but who succumbed to them—Jay Bennett, who passed away from an overdose of prescription painkillers back in 2009. Probably best known for his work with Wilco, and for being fired from Wilco in a scene captured in the incredible film, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Bennett was in a regionally popular band, Titanic Love Affair, before joining Wilco, and had an intermittently brilliant solo career after leaving.

His talent, as a songwriter, producer/arranger and multi-instrumentalist. cannot be denied, and from all reports, he is not the only person to butt heads with Jeff Tweedy. Bennett plays all of the instruments on this song, a kind of peppy story about failed love at a bar, from his posthumously released album, Kicking at the Perfumed Air.

Good night--time to leave--drive safely, and don't forget to tip your waitress.....

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