Thursday, December 31, 2015

In Memoriam: Demis Roussos

Demis Roussos (died 25 January, 2015, aged 68)

The things you learn bloggin for SMM!

The category “Famous Greek Rock Bands” is slim pickings. I’m sure if you live there or had similar interest, you might name a few, but none gained international fame like Aphrodite’s Child.

Having grown up in (more or less) Europe, I certainly heard my fair share of Aphrodite’s Child. I suspect (and confirm via Wikipedia) that the band didn’t make much of a dent on the ears of US audiences, but they were pretty big stuff in Europe. Their hit "Rain and Tears" was at the top of the charts in the late 60s. But - to me - the band was simply Aphrodite’s Child.

I flatter myself in thinking that with my currently-more-inquisitive mind, the name should have had me thinking a little deeper: Aphrodite... Greek... Hmm. Then again, in among bands with equally who-knows-where-this-name-came-from references, it would have taken more than casual interest to delve deeper and note that not only was Demis Roussos a member, but that the band also included Vangelis (who likely needs no further intro?).

All of which I only learned just for this piece. Extra points if you recognize the classical source of the "composition".


3 score years and ten seems the yardstick of allotted life, and has seemed to be, as long as I recall, irrespective of the fact that, at least in the first world, longevity seems to still be getting higher and higher.  Add this to another truism, rock stars die young, and, by rights, the man I am writing about should have died years, decades ago. That he didn't remains a conundrum, but it was only today that I learnt of the fact that, at his allotted span, Ian "Lemmy" Kilmister has finally kicked his hell out of this mortal coil. Somehow there's something altogether admirable about that, proving his right to be an exception to most peoples rules, right to his very end. Surely only Keith Richards has defied the reaper so long and so contemptuously. Now, I should add here my disclaimer, as, in my real world I practise as a family Dr, spending my days countering against the lifestyle choices assumed by the Motorhead monolith. Very few can copy his alleged intake of alcohol and amphetamine without consequence, and I despair over those who might try, failing and faltering prematurely into soggy oblivion. But occasionally, just occasionally, I come across those who continue to spit in the eye of received wisdoms, and lurch vaingloriously into every deluge, bobbing back up, time and time again, protected by the mysteries of their mutant genes. Of course, maybe 70 is no age for an Englishman to leave his castle, and he might have lived until his 100 had he been more abstemious. But the non-smoking teetotalers, eschewing all drugs and other excursions off the road straight and true, can die of cancers at half his age, and it was one of that scabrous breed that bit him, not liver failure, not emphysema, not HIV. And for that we should be grateful. And maybe sympathetic to his new stomping ground?

I am not going to rewrite any of the obituaries I have read, instead leading a link to this obituary , the best I have read and remarkable in many ways, most of which would be unthinkable even a decade ago. I should explain that the Telegraph, or 'Tory'graph, as it is known to many, has always seemed the pinstriped paper of the establishment, exuding comfortable income stream conservatism to its readership, way grander than the Times could ever pretend. That it could even acknowledge that there was even anyone called a Lemmy, let alone celebrate his life seems bizarre, but a celebration it undoubtedly is, perhaps displaying how far entrenched into this islands establishment is the business of rock and roll. OK, he hadn't been knighted like Sir Mick, Sir Paul and Sir Elton, but, once you reach a certain stage of notoriety and excess, suddenly there becomes an acceptance. Hence the attraction of Lemmy and his ilk to advertising companies, playing upon a national treasure iconography. Whether crisps or lager (chips and beer, that is, colonial friends), he was a reliable hook, and I'm sure the money always came in handy. And this film was an unlikely hit on the arthouse circuit, displaying the even greater incongruity of this gritty archetypal leatherclad warrior, authenticity hued from a heavier metal, ending up in the false and tacky glamour of L.A.

I never saw Motorhead play live and I don't own any album. I can't say I was a fan, even, beyond the obvious and inevitable Ace of Spades, above in it's original version. But I did see his old band, Hawkwind. 18 years old and my first festival, Reading. I've mentioned this before, but it's worthy of the memory, if I had any, blinded by cheap and potent alcoholic cider. Buoyed by their chart hit, penned and sung by the soon to be sacked Lemmy, they headed the friday night bill. The sore ears, sore head and upset tummy of saturday morning are all I recall, and maybe that's enough. Rest noisy, big man!

Remember him this way.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

In Memoriam: Stephen R. Johnson

Anyone who reads my stuff would probably have bet on an In Memoriam post about the late Daevid Allen, of Soft Machine and Gong, who died on March 13, 2015. But I’ve already written about him here, and decided to look in a different direction--Stephen R. Johnson, one of the most important people in music history that you have never heard of, who died back on January 26, 2015.

If you are a person who came of age watching MTV when it still played music videos, and someone asked you what the most memorable video was, there’s a pretty good chance that you would say, “Sledgehammer,” by Peter Gabriel. And, considering that the video won a still unsurpassed 9 MTV Video Awards, and was the most played video on the channel, it is fair to say that it changed people’s perceptions of what a music video could be. The song is great and moved Peter Gabriel’s solo career from a prog-rock niche into mass popularity, but the video was what made it stick in our minds. It was directed by Stephen R. Johnson.

The animation was done, in part, by Aardman Animations, which went on to create Wallace and Gromit, and the production of the clip required that Gabriel remain under a glass sheet for 16 hours. I’m really not a huge fan of music videos, but this one was special, and still holds up. Johnson also directed similarly wild videos for Gabriel’s “Big Time” and “Steam,” which won a Grammy. He also directed the video for Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere,” and Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” (which, at Mark Knopfler's direction, included sports footage and no shots of his large-nosed profile), received an Emmy nomination for directing the first season of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and did work for Amnesty International.

Johnson was born July 12, 1952, in Paola, Kansas and attended college at Kansas University and the University of Southern California, where he created an award-winning movie using the stop-motion technique that he would use in many of his music videos. His first music video was an awful one for an awful 80’s band called Combonation, redeemed only by an appearance by a pre-stardom Robin Wright, and the fact that a guy in the video is wearing a Mets hat. From that humble beginning, his career went on a rapid upswing to the heights of “Sledgehammer.”

Unfortunately, Johnson passed away, too young, on January 26, 2015, of what was described as “cardiac complications.”

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Non-Christmas Holiday Songs: Atheists Don’t Have No Songs

Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers: Atheists Don’t Have No Songs

I can’t pinpoint when I became an atheist. Actually, to be more accurate, I can’t pinpoint a time in my life that I specifically believed in the existence of a god, or when I specifically identified as an atheist. I was raised in the Reform Jewish tradition, went to Hebrew School, was bar mitzvahed, and went to temple, grudgingly, on the High Holidays. But I don’t recall ever really thinking about whether or not I believed that there was some sort of all powerful being out there. And at a certain point, I decided that I didn’t. My wife, luckily, is pretty much of the same mind. So, although she was raised in a Protestant tradition, I guess in some ways I did marry in the same non-faith. We taught our kids about our family traditions, which included family gatherings for both Jewish and Christian holidays, mostly without any overt religious content, the same way as we taught them about other family traditions—the sports teams we root for, going to college reunions, seeing live music, etc. And we told them honestly that we didn’t believe in god, but that they were certainly allowed to do so if they wanted. They don’t.

I’ve been heartened over the years by studies that show that atheists are overall as moral than religious believers, that atheist children are more generous and kind than religious kids, and that rejection of organized religion is increasing among young Americans. Despite that, I’m disheartened by the hatred that religious people, at least in the US, have for us nonbelievers in their particular superstition, such as the polls that show that many Americans would not consider voting for an atheist for President. Although in a recent Gallup poll 58% of US adults said that they would consider doing so, that number was less than the percentage that would consider voting for a Muslim, and only greater than the percentage of people who would vote for a Socialist (which makes the Bernie Sanders candidacy seem somewhat quixotic). And other, worse junk on the Internet, that I won’t link to. That shouldn’t be too surprising considering the disdain that religious believers have always had for people who believe in different superstitions. We see it in a big way now with the knee-jerk anti-Muslim rhetoric that passes for political discourse, mostly on the right these days, as well as in the legal attempts to impose religious beliefs of one sect on people who don’t believe the same way. These people would be likely the first to complain if they were required to follow the teachings of some other religion.

We still live in a culture that assumes that a person has a religious affiliation and belief. Which is why even though I live in a community that a recent study calculated was 13% Jewish, most people lately have wished me a Merry Christmas. Now, I happen to celebrate Christmas, and have done so for 30 years as part of my wife’s family’s traditions, which I have adopted and adapted, as my family also celebrates a secular Hanukkah. In fact, apparently, 87% of non-theists in the US celebrate some form of Christmas. So when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas, I thus assume that they are Christian, and wish them a Merry Christmas back. Because I’m wishing them a happy celebration of their holiday, not imposing my personal beliefs on them. But when I am the first to proffer holiday greetings, I almost always say “happy holidays” or “have a great holiday,” since I can’t assume that they celebrate any particular seasonal holiday, or none at all. To me, that’s just politeness and consideration, not any sort of war on Christmas. Because as an atheist, I think that people should be allowed to believe whatever they want, even if I think it is a silly belief, as long as it doesn’t impose on my life.

One of the basic premises of this theme is that there is far less good holiday music for non-Christians than for Christmas. And songs that specifically are atheist provide even slimmer pickings, although some would take issue with that assessment. Steve Martin, who became a phenomenon as an unusual standup comedian, but has also become known for his acting, writing, playwriting and more recently, songwriting and banjo playing, addressed this issue directly, with the very funny featured song, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs,” which he wrote and has performed and recorded with the Steep Canyon Rangers. I’ve given you the video of their performance of the song on Letterman, because watching Martin’s face is worth it.

As Martin sings:

Atheists don’t have no songs. 
Christians have their hymns and pages, 
Hava Nagila’s for the Jews,
Baptists have the rock of ages,
Atheists just sing the blues.

Now that Christmas is over, though, we can all agree that it will soon be time to wish everyone a Happy New Year. Unless, of course, you follow the Jewish calendar. Or the Hindu calendar. Or the Julian calendar. Or the Buddhist calendar. Or....oh forget it. Just be healthy and happy, and treat other people fairly. Because pretty much every religion, culture and ethical group, from the ancient Egyptians to modern humanists, all advocate some version of the “Golden Rule”—that you should treat others as you would like others to treat you. As Hillel supposedly said, “the rest is explanation.”

Monday, December 21, 2015

non-christmas holiday songs: Middle Eastern

First off .. let's agree that what we celebrate as Christmas is a melange, to say the least. It is a mix of traditions that include northern European forest/druidic rites and Middle Eastern Judaic acceptances. Further, as a result of dialog/agreement among church elders thousands of years ago (for example, the Nicene Creed), certain adjustments were made to established dogma: "we agree that [the birth of Jesus] happened this way..."

So, the first Christmas ...babe in the manger, wise men from the East (or did they come from the West? How well do you know your geography and astronomy?)The choice of December 25th was established at a time before the Gregorian calendar that most of the world accepts today. You do know that the year is currently not 2015, but 1437 for Islam? And that the Gregorian calendar that most Westerners accept was only adopted about 400 years ago?

I was lucky to grow up the child of missionaries in the Middle East. My parents daily faced deportation (or worse) for the crime of proselytization. That is the crime of trying to convince someone that your religion is better than theirs. Understand: I inherited none of that mind set. It had quite the opposite effect on me: I consider myself an agnostic with a strong moral sense of right and wrong. But it means I have an fairly informed background related to things of this sort. And it means I was born into a more-than-most "universal" environment.

So ... over here, where I live, Christmas is not particularly part of the daily cultural/religious framework. Except that it is. All the stores are decorated with spray snow, tree-hung lights everywhere ... it is likely a mixed-effect of commercialization and the fact that - damn it - this time of year calls for blinking red and green lights.

But, when it comes to music ... well, the only Christmas music I have heard since last December is what I choose to play for myself. More or less. A few mall stores play Xmas jazz over their local sound systems -most likely careful to stay away from anything overtly Xtian, and TV ads include "winter" scenes that may or may not include a Santa (Coke?).

However, if you closely follow Middle Eastern events, you may be aware that one of the "groups" most prosecuted by the sad political events over here are the Middle Eastern Christians: be they in Syria, Israel or wherever (and again, I claim no affiliation whatsoever - just a sense that "this ain't right".)

Seems to me that - if anyone can - they lay claim to the Nativity, the star that guided the Wise Men, - the entire Christmas scene, since Jesus was " one of them" (and I would not limit this to the Christians).

Enough political rant. Middle Eastern (not your usual) Christmas music in the link above.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Of course, Christmas is a nonsense, timing wise. Whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was real, and it seems likely he was, the timing of his December birth seems equivalently a sham, hurriedly shoed in to take advantage of the existing celebrations. And December 25 seems inescapably close to, roughly, Dec. 21, the shortest day, the winter solstice, long a celebration of the end of plenty, the beginning of famine and a time to kill the remaining cattle and get through the challenge of January through March. This has been drawn into focus recently for me by the History Channel's saga, "The Vikings", an accurate, yeah, right, portrayal of the life and times of Ragnar Lodbrok. Wonderful telly, questionable history. But it set me a'thinking. What music have we for a solstice? OK, so there are nasty Scandi death metal satanic tunes, but they seem not where the ancients were coming from.

Yule was the pagan winter celebration, 10-12 days of feasting, to celebrate the consequent dearth of supplies, full in the knowledge that the sun would return. Hopefully. Should you sacrifice sufficient. Here's a confident approach thereto, Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson always coming across a distinctly pagan man:

Should middle class English guy seems a bit scant, let's go Viking. Hedningarna are the obvious choice. A Swedish group who formed in 1987, working still to this day, angulating a steep path between ancient Scandinavian folk and more modern elements, rock and electronica. Here's an example of their hardcore:

Lest that be a bit impenetrable for our ears, I always feel that somebody stating the obvious can be a bit helpful. As a Celt of Hebrides lineage, brought up in the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of Christianity, something I have some difficulty in embracing, I think Dar has it just right:

So what am I saying? hell, I don't know, but probably it means, if you have something to celebrate, celebrate.

See you next year!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Non-Christmas Holiday Songs: A Long December

Watch/Listen: A Long December 

Just a quick note this month, as the Christmas season revs up, the weather gets chill and my students save their very worst writing for their final exams…thanks guys.

I live overseas, so I get to watch the Christmas wars a safe distance from the fire zone. I don’t quite have my finger on the pulse of home in the way I’d like, but from all the reading I’ve been doing, I would venture that the whole who can say what and to whom and when has gone a bit out of control—I’m looking at you, Yale University… Seems a little silly to be afraid to say “Merry Christmas” to someone because you’re afraid of causing offense. Seems a little silly to be worried about almost anything that comes out of your mouth that’s not outright hostile or explicitly directed to cause harm or hurt—I’m talking about ‘micro-aggressions,' you guys. Seems like this year, 2015, has been the year of hurt feelings, where the retort of “you can’t say that!” is enough to ruin someone for speaking their minds—I’d never defend abusive or offensive intentions. Mean people can go spin, no matter what they look like, as far as I’m concerned. But, from my vantage, which is safely out of range of the people I most fear, the state of the free world appears to be pretty…unfree.

Where I dwell, they celebrate New Years in the same way we Christians celebrate Christmas—lights, trees, gifts, parties and booze. They celebrate Ramazan here (Ramadan to you), and I get the ‘iyi bayram lar’ all time, which is Turkish for have a holly, jolly…holiday. It’s nice—being included in another culture’s religious celebrations. It proves modern holiday and merry making has very little to do with religion for most of us. It’s about family, its about celebrating the things that make us happy—despite which god we choose to open our wallets to…I mean, pray to. Sorry.  This insistence on removing the offense from the season is so counter to what the season is really about, and that is finding the value in fellowship and remembering the outstanding benefit one gets from being overtly and studiously kind to his—or her, or it’s—fellow man, woman or other.

Reveling in the better parts of our nature should be what we most celebrate at this time of year—worrying about offending others as we do so…seems a little silly/stupid, don’t it?

Anywho…let’s get back to the music, the real reason we’re all here.

Music is always part of that merry making at Christmas time, and that, at least, should be reserved from judgment and above the realm of offense. Here’s the thing you need to remember: when you think about it, most of the tunes we hum along to really aren’t about Christmas at all…funny. “Let it Snow”, “Walking in a Winter Wonder Land”, “Jingle Bells”, just to name a few, have nothing at all to do with the reason for the season.  Seems to me, if people were willing to let go of the angst that makes them so comfortable in their misery, the ‘holiday’ season might actually be able to accomplish its most important objective: to make you happy.

And, then there’s this: To eat too much. To forget about the past year and look forward to the next. To reset goals, to forgive yourself for failing in the goals you set exactly one year before. To be nicer to other people. To realize this spinning bit of rock and water and air we call home is a miraculous place and could be even better if we all took just a little bit of responsibility for each other’s happiness. Christmas wishes, I suppose…let’s get to the music.

The tune I’ve chosen this month is a winter-themed song, not a holiday. The Counting Crows, a band I’ve written about before, do downcast as well as they do upbeat, and one of their most popular songs (for all the right reasons), is the winter ballad, “A Long December”—a rather dark look back on a year gone awry.

You know the song—I don’t need to try to find the words to describe the traditional piano figures and crescendo choruses that work so well to draw out a sense of sadness and belief in something better to come. I love this track for its barroom sorrow and its rousing encouragement to ‘na na na” along to. The melody speaks for itself, striding but still shadow and sadness. It’s a unhappy song, about endings, about failings, but it rises to a hopeful continuance, knowing that maybe “this year will be better than the last.” That’s a good enough Christmas gift for me, this year, and all the ones to come. 

This is video I shot of The Counting Crows doing "A Long December" this past August in Pittsburgh, Pa. It was my third show on their glorious "Somewhere Under Wonderland" about things to be thankful for...and speaking of's a shot of the best moment I've ever had at a Counting Crows show, aside from getting to meet them...

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Non-Christmas Holiday Songs: Happy Joyous Hanukkah

The Klezmatics: Happy Joyous Hanukkah [purchase]

For the next two weeks, we will be looking at holiday music that is not Christmas related. This is not evidence of the phony War on Christmas. Instead it is actually a surrender to the Christmas juggernaut. There is so much Christmas music that we decided to sweep it to the side this year, and leave space for other songs of the season, secular or religious.

Hanukkah is a difficult holiday, and not only to spell. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy playing hot and cold and getting presents—usually eight, one for each night representing the key myth of the holiday, slow burning oil—when I was a kid, or lighting the menorah, or (especially) eating latkes. But I quickly came to realize that my family’s (and most Jews’) celebration of Hanukkah was really so that we wouldn’t feel left out when all of the Christian kids were having their big, gift-laden Christmas celebration.

In reality, Hanukkah is a pretty minor holiday in the Jewish religion. It is so minimally important that observant Jews don’t have to do, or refrain from doing, anything particularly special. There’s no service, you can drive, work, do whatever, as long as you light the menorah at sundown. Instead, it just became a big deal because it had two critical attributes—it came around the same time as Christmas, and there was a tradition of gift giving, although typically “gelt” or money, in modest amounts. But, over time, starting in the United States, and then traveling around the globe, it became a bigger and bigger deal, as a seasonal counterweight to Santa and the like. So, gifts became bigger and more important. Saturday Night Live came up with Hanukkah Harry, as the analogue to Saint Nick, and we have the Mensch on the Bench, to equate to the Elf on the Shelf. It is, in many ways, kind of pathetic how Jews feel the need to have their own Christmas, even setting up Hanukkah Bushes. I honestly think it would have been cooler, if we Jews had not put Hanukkah on steroids, just allowed our kids to know before our Christian counterparts that Santa is a myth, and enjoyed being the only ones getting gifts at Purim. Or if people just sucked it up, and admitted that they were celebrating Christmas, which the Supreme Court has recognized has a secular component these days. But, as they say, it is what it is, and I can’t complain about getting stuff for Hanukkah and, especially, eating latkes.

My concerns about Hanukkah simply being Christmas-lite are dwarfed (elved?) by my concerns about what the holiday really means. As a kid, we were told that it was a celebration of the rededication of the Temple, which had been desecrated by pagans. We were taught to have pride in the Jewish nationalist freedom fighters who reclaimed the symbol of our religion from the Greeks, led by a hero nicknamed “Judah The Hammer”? And, technically, that isn’t wrong.

There is, however, a bigger picture. And my concerns become clear when you realize that the Maccabees, the liberators of the Temple, were actually religious fundamentalists, who rejected the more cosmopolitan Hellenizing influence of the Greeks in favor of strict adherence to Jewish law and practice and who engaged in forced conversions. In some ways, the Hellenizers were more like the assimilated Jews that I’m most comfortable with, and the Maccabees and their crowd were more like the Orthodox, who cling to the old ways (but with a side of ass-kicking). So, as a secular atheist of Jewish ancestry, I find it hard to root too hard for the Maccabees these days. (What happened to the losing side, you may ask. Scholars believe that some returned to traditional observance, but many may have been attracted to a new, upstart religion, Christianity. But we aren’t talking about that right now).

Finally, one of the big problems with Hanukkah is the lack of good music, at least as compared to Christmas. There are a couple of tunes that pretty much every member of the tribe knows, like “Oh Hanukkah” or “I Have A Little Dreydel.” My wife’s Jewish relatives have a cute song about latkes, that no one else I know has ever heard, and there are Adam Sandler’s amusing litanies of who is, and who is not, a Hanukkah celebrant. Other modern musicians have, with some success, written Hanukkah songs, but they are just not as well-known as, say, the 437th most popular Christmas song.

Which brings us to the excellent song featured above. Performed by The Klezmatics, who, for a quarter century, have played klezmer music, the folk music of Eastern European Jews, while also incorporating other music, it arose from a project in which, like Billy Bragg and Wilco, they were given access to Woody Guthrie’s unrecorded lyrics. Turns out, Woody wrote a bunch of Hanukkah songs. His second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia (Arlo and Nora’s mom), was Jewish, and her mother, Aliza, was a well-known Yiddish poet. In 1942, Woody and family moved to Brooklyn, and he became involved in the Coney Island Jewish community, writing numerous Jewish-themed songs, including enough Hanukkah tunes for a whole album. “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” is, for the most part, a happy, joyous song (although like most of Jewish history, the happiness is tempered by tragedy), and in its counting of the lights of the menorah is sort of reminiscent of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” if shorter and less annoying, as well as the quite good spiritual “Children, Go Where I Send Thee” (also known as "Born in Bethlehem").  

Proving that it is hard to discuss Non-Christmas Holiday Songs, without discussing Christmas Songs.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

leftovers (Light): I am the Light

purchase [
I Am The Light of the World] 

There's something about guitar finger picking for those who play the guitar (as opposed to strumming, "flat picking" or solo-ing). The Travis pick is the first thing I asked to be taught when I picked up guitar playing: the "roll" of the notes and fingers kindles something in me. I know it as a style where you alternate/"roll" between the bass and treble. I always assumed it had something to do with a man names Travis - maybe Merle. But I don't see any Intertube link to the two, so I might be wrong. For some reason it equates in my mind to Peter, Paul and Mary (yes - that far back in my memory).

Fast forward a couple of decades ... well, maybe only one decade - to the date when
Quah came out. (So much developed in the framework of rock/pop between 1960 and 1970 that it ought to boggle the music lover's mind!)
Delve back into musical history again, and we have the Jefferson Airplane. JA here because Jorma Kaukonen joined the band pretty early on: he was playing with them back as early as the mid 60s. The record states that it was Jack Casady, the bass player for the band, who brought Jorma to the band and then went on to produce the album whence this song comes.

There are numerous aspects to "I Am the Light ..." that turn me on - not just the finger picking. The entire conceit: I am a light/I light the world ... or however you want to interpret the lyrics ... turns me on (light again?) The finger picking (and it may not be Travis per se) is tight. And the song - overall - is ... er ... classic.

Friday, December 4, 2015

LEFTOVERS: IT'S ELEMENTAL (continued........)

(Heh, heh, heh, esteemed buddy, KK, you can't throw a gauntlet of that size down and expect me to walk away........)

Now, where were we?

Uranium: Uranium Fever by Elton Britt.
Wow, what find! A sassy 50s rap eulogising the joys of this most famous of the radioactive particles, just the sort of song aching to have been revived in the 70s heyday of Commander Cody's gloriously louche Lost Planet Airmen. Hell, I can see 'em playing it right now in my head. Smoke smoke smoke THAT cigarette!! Britt was a fairly successful country singer of his day, famous more for his yodelling than his singing, I learn, oft-covering the King of the Yodel, Jimmie Rodgers.

Lanthanum: Lanthanum by Vain Velocity.
'Haunting tune' speaks a comment on the youtube, and for a moment I bought that too, before it nosedived through the ground into a throat singing implosion of grunge-plated metal. So this is greek heavy metal? I always confuse lanthanum with laudanum, wondering if they did too. Hell, it's the sort of haunting nightmare that might strike if laudanum had been taken.

Dubnium: Haze by Dubnium.
I rather like this. I only searched because of the name, never having heard of the substance, but hoping it may have been similarly noted. Reassuringly heavily dubby, this is the work of a Plymouth, U.K., DJ, Sean, um, Dubnium, possibly not his birth name, mentioned to distinguish from U.S. based Dubnium Soundsystem, whom I didn't investigate. I could easily come down from a Laudanum hit on this.

Iridium: Iridium by Dark Tranquillity.
Shucks, I should have known better, lulled in again by a tasteful intro ahead of stentorian grunting dragging me down out of my demographic. Could be the same fella as the greek above, but they are swedish death metal stalwarts of the Gothenburg scene, it says here. I'd love to sound less grudging of their art but when I say it is nauseous, it's only because I would be if tried to sing like that. But then, what do I know?

Lead: Weights Made of Lead by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band.
Well I never, mere weeks after this and I discover this little nugget somehow earlier having passed me by. Could it be the repetitive nature of the tune or the plodding rhythm, but it certainly seems apt for the subject. 'I've got weights made of lead' sings Harvey but we never learn why. Is it a paean to fishing?

Tin: Tin Soldier by the Small Faces.
At last, cries my reader, at last one I know. A 1967 single that was perhaps their best, blending a pop sensitivity with something instrumentally a bit more inventive. The stop at 1.30, with then repeated keyboard motif predates that later stylisation, common across house music, by decades. Terrible to think that, with the death earlier this year of keyboard player, Ian McLagan, that drummer, Kenney Jones, is last man standing. R.I.P. Mac, along with Ronnie 'Plonk' Lane and Steve Marriott.

Krypton: Kryptonite by 3 Doors Down.
Is kryptonite the same as krypton? Do we know or care? Always and irrespectively associated with Superman, this was a massive hit in 2000 for Escatawpa, Mississippee band, whose singer and, for the first 4 years, drummer, Brad Arnold, seems to be the only permanent. Struggling to say much more as it is so inoffensive.

Mercury: Mercury Poisoning by Graham Parker & the Rumour.
All at once I'm dragged back to the early 70s with this righteous blast. Jeez, I loved this band, GP a much more vitriolic character than the benign old dude revived in Judd Apatow's 'This is 40'. I saw them then and saw them again, last year, touring again on the back of the films exposure, marvelling at the still smoking embers of pre-punk. The song, a thinly disguised jibe at his record label, Mercury, was and is typical of his lyrical spikiness. Wonderful.

Bismuth: Bismuth by Michael Johnson
I know nothing of this new age instrumental beyond a link to this, from where which it comes. And all the tracks are inspired by different elements. Quite how the pastoral tone of this example fits with the active ingredient of 'Pepto-Bismol', a proprietary anti-diarrhoeal, I don't know, apart from perhaps the calm it's apparent efficacy might provoke. The whole album is a free download, if you forgive the use of that term apropos to a discussion around diarrhoea.

Tungsten: Insomnia (Dark Dubstep) by Tungsten
More instrumental gobbledegook cooked up in someone's bedroom, but I like it. As I get older I seem strangely drawn to this sort of stuff, certainly enjoying it way more than the hideous elemental metal cliches the elements seem to bring forth. OK, neither clever, nor art but hey, it made me smile. and who Tungsten? Not a clue.

So, another 10, and like radioactivity, it's nearly killed me.
Part 4? Only when they make polony out of polonium.
Can you buy 'em? Probably. Go search, as the usual might not have then all.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Leftovers: It's Elemental/Once In A Lifetime

purchase [Once In A Lifetime]

The Element: Water redux

I really thought Retropath was headed down the right path when he started out to list the entire table of elements. I was seriously looking forward to the full 118.

Then again, considering the amount of time and energy involved in his somewhat quixotic endeavor, I was more inclined to simply complete the table of medieval elements along the lines of what J. David referred to.

Back at the time of the “It's Elemental” theme, I posted Hot Tuna's "Water Song" (Which I have since learned to play!). Without making distinction on the theme of the element of water - since the two songs are in rather different musical categories, I now realize I might well have posted Talking Heads' “Once In a Lifetime”.

For almost a decade, back in the 90s, I collected and re-re-listened to David Byrne and the band. I later relished Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Arcade Fire (although I haven’t seen anyone else group them with Talking Heads, I think so) as re-incarnations of the Talking Heads’ genre.

Still, Talking Heads would still take my category prize as the elemental band of its style. And critical to that catalogue would be “Once In a Lifetime” – not least for its relevance to “Plato and Aristotle’s” Elements: there's water running all the way through in its original MTV version here:

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Leftovers (Lies/Liars): All Men Are Liars

Nick Lowe: All Men Are Liars

It is a post-Thanksgiving tradition at SMM to have a “Leftovers” theme, which allows our writers to look back and post something on prior themes that, for whatever reason, we couldn’t or didn’t do at the time. As the most prolific writer here recently, I pretty much have posted twice on every theme, although there are a few that I only got around to a single piece. One of those was back in March, when the theme was “Lies/Liars,” and I wrote about a great, rocking blast of Southern rock from Jason and The Scorchers. There are so many songs in the rock canon about liars and lying that it is almost hard to narrow down the choices. But I did, and thus we have today’s feature song, by the great Nick Lowe.

Since this theme is all about looking back, I did write about Lowe back in January, so I won’t repeat what I wrote there, and instead focus on this tune. Lowe has said that the idea came to him while watching, believe it or not, Oprah Winfrey. According to Lowe:

"When I was over here once I was watching an edition of The Oprah Winfrey Show. They had some poor sap sitting there who'd run off with a maid or something like that, and the audience was extremely upset with this guy. I remember this large black lady standing up and shouting at the top of her voice, 'All men are liars! All men are liars! All men are liars!' She just was chanting it. And I thought, 'Yeah, you know what? You've got a point there, darling.' And along came that song." 

Now, of course, all men are not liars. Yeah, that’s the ticket.....

The song is a fun, bouncy pop tune, with Lowe's typical clever wordplay. The other thing that the song is remembered for, to the extent it is remembered at all, is for its somewhat gratuitous insult of English singer Rick Astley. Astley had a massive, annoying hit with the song “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which led to the phenomenon of “rickrolling,” defined by the Urban Dictionary as:

To post a misleading link with a subject that promises to be exciting or interesting, e.g. "World of Starcraft in-game footage!" or "Paris Hilton blows Busta Rhymes' dick" but actually turns out to be the video for Rick Astley's debut single, "Never Gonna Give You Up". A variant on the duckroll. Allegedly hilarious. 

Even my beloved New York Mets got rickrolled.

In the song, Lowe sings:

Well, do you remember Rick Astley? 
He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly. 
He said I'm never gonna give you up or let you down. 
Well I'm here to tell ya that Dick's a clown. 

Which is more than “allegedly” hilarious, but which Lowe, as time went on, regretted. He has commented:

At the time, he was everywhere. “Never Gonna Give You Up” was just on all the time. It drove me mad. [Impersonates Astley.] That constricted voice. And so I put that rather barbed line in, which I regret now. I hardly ever do the song. I went through a phase of doing it fairly recently, but it sort of went off the boil and I stopped doing it. But when I used to do the Rick Astley line, people used to fall about, rolling in the aisles, clutching their sides laughing, and I thought, “This is rather a shame to do this. Poor old Rick. He’s not exactly in the public eye much anymore. It seems a little unfair to kick him when he’s down.” 

One of the many fun things about writing these pieces is that I actually research what I write and learn things about songs that I like. Which is how I found the interview that I have quoted from at length. But it is also interesting to read reviews of the music I post. The album that “All Men Are Liars” comes from, Party of One, is a pretty good one, in my estimation. Lowe, of course, was originally best known as a producer, but also created one of the all-time great albums, Jesus of Cool (and its slightly different American version, Pure Pop For Now People), not to mention the fine follow up, Labour of Lust. After that, he released a bunch of albums, all of which had moments, some more than others, until his recent critically acclaimed reinvention as a crooner.

But, if you read the Allmusic review of Party of One, you might be dissuaded from listening to it—it refers to the album as “stilted,” and “an unwelcome surprise” filled with “forced humor and bland support,” and “stiff, colorless performances.” (I suspect that the reference to “stiff” in that review was not meant as a reference to Lowe’s days producing for the legendary Stiff label).

Instead, I commend you to read Robert Christgau’s review, who hears things quite differently, and more in accord with my opinion:

Nick the Knife is a writer again, every song honed and there for a reason. With the likes of Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner spiking his wry cool, he yearns for yen, makes Boeing a modest proposal, spins off pungent epithets ("Refrigerator White"), nonsense syllables ("Shting-Shtang"), sexual metaphors ("Honeygun"). In a shameless bid for the rockcrit vote, he also finds the perfect rhyme for "ghastly" (starts with "Rick," lest you already forgot). And just like with Labour of Lust in 1979, he makes it sound so easy you expect a reprise a year for the rest of his life. A-

Friday, November 27, 2015

Carole King Covers: (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman

Purchase [Carole King's version]
Purchase [Aretha Franklin's version]

If I were filling out a form that asked me for the first words that come to mind related to "You Make Me Feel ..", it would likely be "soul".

One of the first concerts I ever attended was back in the late 60s. At that time, I had a pretty big (for those times) collection of 33s that included Sgt Peppers, Smokey Robinson, Simon & Garfield, Are You Experienced, and Aretha. Must have been the summer of 69 when I caught "Little" Stevie Wonder in the same venue with the Supremes - would have been@ Seattle. That pretty much convinced me of the power of "soul",

In '68 or '69, Carole King had not hit the big time yet. She and her then husband, Gerry Goffin were writing hits, but she herself hadn't made much of a name. Aretha (and she don't need a last name) turned their song "You Make Me Feel" into a hit. Two years later, Carole King included it on her own album.

Here, the Queen of Soul sings to President Clinton:

And again. Guess you can ID the divas yourself?

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Carole King Covers: Where You Lead

purchase the original [Where You Lead]

It's a default: Tapestry is Carole King's best. There's not a song on the album that isn't good - and the best of SMM agree.

Several of the songs on Tapestry were co-written with Toni Stern. But ...who is Toni Stern? Google says that Toni gets credits for both "Where You Lead" and "It's Too Late" from Tapestry. However, there is incredibly little info about Toni Stern on the Internet, and - as an amateur musician myself - it concerns me that someone could pen some of the best songs of all time and still remain under the radar! (There must be some online source that recognizes your work even if you don't flog it yourself!) The IMDB movie database credits a Toni Stern with work on Gilmore Girls and Karate Kid but those appear to be re-issues of the same Carole K
ing work 30 years earlier. Stern seems to focus on her writing - her web site is about her poetry. The IMDB/movie links are inconclusive in terms of providing much more depth.

Aside from the "Who is Toni Stern" issue, there is the question of who does the best cover of which Carole King song. Time was, when Star Maker posted most anything online ... because we could. Because the Internet allowed it. Because SMM's policies were based on "we provide this temporary (mp3) link in the hopes that you will love it and purchase the legal version". Gone are those days. Adapting to these conditions, I initially reverted to SoundCloud for a freely distributable cover of "Where You Lead" -of which there are several. Sadly, even the free download links aren't easy to embed here.

Like most of the bloggers @ SMM, I ended up @ YouTube. The listed YouTube covers don't include one by the Michael Baker Band - never head of them before - but they've got a decent cover of "Where You Lead."  Sadly, I can't locate any info clearly related to the band - there are a couple of Michael Bakers online but none appears to be this one.The lead vocals are very decent. The band is fairly tight. I would have wished the back vocals were a little louder. Hope you enjoy. And if you know more about the band, leave a comment.

Carole King Covers: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

Me First & The Gimme Gimmes: Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

You could argue that one of the ways to tell if a song is really well-written is to see whether it holds up when performed in different styles. Some songs would seem to only be effective in a particular style—for example, the Sex Pistols’ great “God Save The Queen” only works as an angry blast of punk, and not, for example, as a folk tune. Although you might be surprised at how good King Crimson’s prog-rock archetype “21st Century Schizoid Man” sounds in Delta blues style.

“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” seems to sound great no matter how it is played. Written by King and Gerry Goffin when she was still in her teens, the song was first released by The Shirelles in 1960, in classic girl group style, with tight harmony vocals and lush orchestration. Although apparently banned by some radio stations because of the sexual nature of the lyrics (!), it nevertheless reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

I’m not going to give you a long tour through the many, many covers of this great song, except to point out that it works in Swedish. And when King recorded the song for the great Tapestry album, she did it in a slower, piano-driven, contemplative style with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor contributing background vocals.  It was both an artistic and commercial success, getting played regularly on FM radio.

It is sort of a gimmick to take classic rock songs of this, and other, eras, speed them up, and turn them into punk songs. Few artists are as committed to this niche that honors the songs, but with sufficient ironic detachment to retain their punk cred, than Me First and The Gimme Gimmes. A “supergroup” of sorts, with members that include Fat Mike of NOFX, Chris Shiflett of Foo Fighters, and Spike Slawson of Swingin’ Utters and Re-Volts, they have released a bunch of albums, EPs and singles, including their 2001 album, Blow In The Wind, which focuses on pop hits of the 1960s. Their version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is, appropriately, loud, fast and surprisingly catchy, like The Shirelles’ version, but still retains some of the melancholy of King’s.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Carole King Covers: Going Back

Purchase: The Byrds, The Notorious Byrd Brothers
Listen:  Going Back

It is one of those almost cliché—yet still astounding—facts that Carole King is one of the most prolific songwriters in modern history. There are countless songs you know that she wrote and gave to other artists who then took the tunes to the top of the charts. She was prolific as she was talented and her influence has touched on almost every chart in popular music. She is even the subject of a Broadway play—Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The tag line says it all: “The inspiring true story of how Carole King became the soundtrack of a generation.”

It would take another, separate post, to list the artists who’ve recorded King’s music, but one of my favorites is the The Byrds. The Byrd’s unique take on rock—chiming, majestic—was as dependent on the psychedelic sitarspin as it was on folk and pop. Jangly guitars, phasing sound from one ear to another, and a straight up reliance on the country and western rhythm made the Byrds one of the most unique bands of their era. I feel like they are mostly remembered for “Turn, Turn, Turn” which suffers from the invocation of the sappy, flower power ethic of the ‘60s. But, as the Byrd’s ranged more towards country and western and left behind the banalities of the hippie movement, they became a rich, influential outfit that would pave the way for some of today’s most seminal bands (at least in my record collection: Son Volt and Wilco, to name just two.) An early sense of breaking molds and exploring sonic possibilities will forever set the Byrds at a tier above many of their contemporaries, even if they are often overlooked as innovators and were sometimes incredibly uneven.

The Carole King penned “Going Back” was the lead single from The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and while the album didn’t chart very high, it is cited often as their best album for its experimental feel. It is a solid album all the way through, working towards a sonic vision, and unlike other albums, it cleaves to an idea and presents it to the listener in a gorgeous, shimmery blend of melody and chiming guitar and vox.  The cohesiveness is interesting in another way: in researching the album, one finds that it was tumultuous time for the band, and three members, including David Crosby, left  for good during the recordings.

The album has made its way onto various Greatest Albums lists (171 In Rolling Stones Greatest 500; 32 on NME’s Top 100) lists and writer, Johnny Rogan, in his book The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited, said: “The Byrds' greatest accomplishment on the album was in creating a seamless mood piece from a variety of different sources, bound together by innovative studio experimentation.”

The song itself has an almost antiquated chorus, reminiscent of so much of the sound of the day, but the Byrd’s add those odd, dithering guitars and the song goes from easy listening to something much more adventurous and exploratory.

“Going Back” has a long history, and while the version I’ve chosen is the Byrd’s take, the song has been recorded by artists as disparate as Phil Collins, The Pretenders, Freddy Mercury and Bon Jovi. David Crosby hated it because it felt it was unserious “fluff”. Indeed, it is pure pop whimsy, and covers a timeless theme of coming of age and the loss of innocence that adulthood brings. But, under Roger McGuinn’s harmony and the guitars, it’s a pure pop masterpiece and demonstration of Carole King’s talent at literally spinning gold. I think one way to put a definition on the influence and reach of Carole King is that she’d already written a decades worth of hits before she released her own album, Tapestry, which is one of the greatest selling pop records of all time.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Carole King Covers: You've Got A Friend

It's possibly a fact that Ms King's best known song is in itself best known as a cover, namely the comforting and syrupy balm of James Taylor singing "You've Got a Friend", perhaps also "his" best known song. I don't know whether this can or could be proven as, with someone having a career stretching from being a Brill Building manufactured popsmith in the early 60s, to hippie chick troubador a decade later, to damn right, yes, she's still going with a bit of both and everything in between, it's difficult to work out. I guess it's in part generational, with the hepcats of '66 nodding sagely as the by then far and wigged-out Byrds phase their way through "Goin' Back", or the soulsters grooving to Aretha and "...Natural woman", so my generation picked up on "Tapestry", through her old friend and guitar slinger lifting a song from it as his break through single. But this isn't about sweet baby James, being more a tribute to some of the less well travelled versions. (Or is that so far travelled?)

I remain uncertain whether this is the worst thing I have ever heard or whether it is worse even than that, inescapably making me see the Muppets in my minds eye, so expertly do Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire channel Fozzie and Kermit. From the hideous patronising patronage of "contemporary" to the plodding singalongagramps of the performance, any nostalgic buzz for, say, "The Little Drummer Boy" evaporates.

Let's try something a bit more up-tempo, yeah, a James Brown influence:

Nooooooooo, take it off, take it away. Hideous even more than the old groaning above, is this supper club travesty really that Fred Wesley, those J.B.s? No wonder the album was "The Lost Album". I would.

Let's try again, some UK 80s indie, that'll be something, eh?

The Housemartins were the short-lived first band of Paul Heaton, later of "The Beautiful South" as here, and Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook. And this version of the song is awful.

I'm beginning to lose faith and falter here. I mean, how difficult can it be? Hell, premium cover version listings site, Second Hand Songs, lists 125 versions. OK, so the list includes everyone from Billy Ray Cyrus to Barry Manilow, and God knows who in between.

One more, some late 90's acid jazz:

Brand New Heavies were/are a UK originally instrumental band forming in the mid 80s, diversifying into a somewhat bland vocal hybrid between jazz, funk and nods toward hip-hop and dance music, with a string of sultry southern US vocal divas passing through their ranks, Carleen Anderson and N'Dea Davenport being perhaps the 2 best known, but with Siedah Garrett on the above, a minor hit in the UK. Tellingly, it was not even on the US copy of its parent album. I have to say it's the best of the lot I have found today, if purely by virtue of comparison.

So what's my point? Is it a good song? Well, I had always thought so, but maybe there is rather more of the Brill Building professional hit maker weave in "Tapestry" and "You've Got A Friend" than first hearing makes believe, hence the ease with which it sheds any credibility into a nylon leisure suit of schmaltz. And thus, maybe it is just the consummate interpretation skill of Taylor that embues it with any subtlety at all, although, to be fair, the original is pretty damn good too. Carole King was trained to write songs that would sell. 125 versions is a lot of versions and, by virtue of the names mentioned, hideous though to my ears, a lot of royalties. Success by any marker.

Finally, by way of a lift to my sorry conclusion, was it a fluke? Has the song got the capability of rising above it's apparent formula? Well, who better to give us that answer than the writer and the singer already mention, both here together, a mere 5 years ago.

Praise be! No fluke. Song good, interpretations vary............

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Carole King Covers: Don’t Bring Me Down

David Johansen: We Gotta Get Out Of This Place/Don't Bring Me Down/It's My Life

Last week, I watched all 10 episodes of Aziz Ansari’s great new Netflix series Master of None. In addition to being very funny, the show deals head on with issues of racism, sexism and ageism, among other “isms.” So, when I thought about suggesting a cover song theme for the next two weeks, I became sensitive to the fact that over the years we have done nine other themes focusing on cover songs, and in each case, but one, the spotlight artists were male. Joni Mitchell was the only featured woman. (And as I write this, I realize that all nine artists are white, something that also needs to be addressed). And that’s how we ended up with a theme highlighting Carole King Covers. (That’s a lot of “K” sounds, so it must be funny.)

Next year is the 45th anniversary of the release of Tapestry, which was King’s second solo release. It established her as a commercial success as a performer, and is still one of the largest selling albums of all time. Pretty much every song on the album is great, and I loved it when I was a kid, but it is, honestly, not an album that I pull out to listen to anymore. I hope that some of the other writers here write about covers of songs from Tapestry, and I might down the road, but not today.

By 1971, when Tapestry was released, King had already had a 20 year long music career, beginning with her appearance on the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour as an 8 year old, recording demos in high school with her friend Paul Simon, and, while attending Queens College, writing songs for others, mostly with Gerry Goffin, from an office in the famous Brill Building in Times Square. The number of hit songs she turned out is stunning, as is the breadth of styles—artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, The Monkees, The Shirelles, Herman’s Hermits, The Drifters and even The Beatles recorded covers of her songs. The Broadway show Beautiful does a nice job bringing this to life, as well as discussing King’s later career. It is, of course, a cleaned up, streamlined version of the story, but it is very entertaining.

The Animals, led by singer Eric Burdon, were created in the early 1960s, and featured a gritty, blues based sound. In 1964, they released their signature song, a cover of the traditional blues song, “House of the Rising Sun.” Their producer, Mickie Most, reportedly called into the offices of Screen Gems music, then run by Don Kirshner, looking for songs. A furious competition ensued among the various writers and teams, which ultimately resulted in three hits—“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who were friends and rivals of Goffin and King), “It’s My Life,” written by the team of Roger Atkins and Carl D’Errico, and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” a Goffin/King composition, which was the last hit for the band, before it was renamed “Eric Burdon and The Animals," before breaking up. (Burdon re-formed the band, with new members and a psychedelic style after moving to California in 1966, although the old incarnation also had reunions.)

I had the opportunity to interview David Johansen, I believe in 1981, when he appeared in Trenton at City Gardens. I might even have introduced him. Johansen is one of those musicians who has successfully reinvented himself over the years, from his days fronting the legendary New York Dolls, which was followed by a solo career under his own name, to his partying alter-ego Buster Poindexter and his more recent country-blues work with The Harry Smiths. I was, and continue to be a big fan of the music he released in the early ‘80s, particularly his first three albums, David Johansen, In Style, and Here Comes the Night, all of which received heavy airplay on my radio shows.

Shortly after I graduated from college, and regrettably left the radio world behind, Johansen released a great live record, Live it Up, which capitalized on his justified reputation as a great concert performer. The collection kicks off with an intense medley of the three songs that Mickie Most bought for the Animals from Screen Gems, including a great version of “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Not only is Johansen in total command of the material, his band is tight. It included guitarists Huw Gower, who power pop lovers might know best as the guitarist on The Records’ incredible “Starry Eyes,” and Dave Nelson, who was in Nektar, New Riders of the Purple Sage and The Turtles, as well as keyboard player Charlie Giordano, who now plays with the E Street Band and drummer Tony Machine, who had been in later versions of the New York Dolls.

Math & Science: Battles/Atlas


Why can't land speeders fly higher than five meters above the ground? Why does R2D2, despite being a droid, have feelings and a confidence suggesting the force is in him? How can anyone possibly say that Superman is stronger than Green Lantern when GL can simply make a cage of green kryptonite? Why does Prince Adam get tan after becoming He-Man and why can't anyone recognise him? And in Greek mythology, how can Atlas hold the world on his shoulders and still preside in that world? If he sneezes, does his body shake twice?  Does he also carry the atmosphere and space? I did poorly in science and math, but at least I asked the important questions.

These are questions that still entertain me as an adult, but I keep them to myself unless I'm lucky to find another child man who's been dwelling on them. When musicians mention gods, demi-gods and Titans from myth, I usually take notice. Often it's either sadly generic or so intensely honorific that it's unsettling. (Dead Can Dance's "Song of the Sirens" and "Persephone" do well, and of course Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon").  Battle's "Atlas" is more on the ambiguous side without referring to Atlas himself or the heavens, but it's a hell of a tune, stomping forward into thunderous hypnosis. A flinging guitar riff teases, and then a freaky childish taunt leads you to believe the song will unravel. However, like Atlas, spare a brief time when he passed the world onto Hercules via a trick, the beat is maintained except for one grisly breakdown.

Atlas must have been on the verge of going nuts with all that responsibility, or at least severely pissed off at times. But he was compassionate enough to never let go. Battles presents different versions of "Atlas" and its repetitive madness that could go on for another twenty minutes without tiring you. There are lots of live versions available. This take at the Fuji Rock Festival is one of the best.

text by Jake

Friday, November 13, 2015

Math & Science: Five to One

I’m a teacher in my real life—or is it the other way around?  And one thing I hate, that makes me squirm with embarrassment is when teachers try to teach by co-opting popular songs and parodying the lyrics, or the video, to bring home their curricular goals in a way the kids “will really understand.”

It’s just embarrassing, in the same way your parents were embarrassing when they yelled at you in front of your friends or tried to get down on your level by dropping a bit of slang. You know, to show you they were on your level. Ugg…it’s like every mom is Marge Simpson, too clueless to have a clue, or Homer; too dumb to know how dumb he is acting.

Teachers love parodies, love trying to really reach the kids in ways they will understand. Hey, why don’t we take Shakespeare and rap the lines. Shakespeare would approve—after all, he was just using language in new ways, too…Oh, I know it well: desperate to reach these twitter net numbed little vacant oxygen abusers, we resort to making horse’s asses of ourselves. But, for a phenomenal paycheck…ahhhbullshitchoo!

Point is, school and…almost anything else good in my life never mixed. Strange, in a cosmic way, that I became a teacher. But, I still get the chills when a teacher ditches their dignity to teach a lesson to kids in language they can understand…just reminds me too much of that disaffected little Walkman and MTV numbed oxygen abuser I was not so long ago.

OK, I’m whining…Here’s a case in point, though I have to admit: If any of my teachers looked like this, I might have given the whole school thing another chance…

Annnnndddd.....then, there’s this….


Stop…just stop. You might grow up, but you never grow up too much to not be embarrassed.

Yeah, OK…I’ll stop…

So, this month’s theme is math. Math. The subject I struggled with the most all the way up until I graduated…from college. Math was my preeminent anxiety from grade school on—I had tutors, I failed courses, I did summer school. Once, on the SAT, I did so poorly on my math that my Math score was 100…this was when the top SAT score was only 1400. I got an 800 total…That’s…pretty bad.

In high school, I liked music, and writing, precisely because they were as opposite of mathematics as could get: freedom minus rigidity, enjoyment divided by anxiety equaled a shitty GPA and lowered expectations. The last day I ever had to take a math class was one of the happiest days of my life. I remember walking out of Rawl Hall at East Carolina University, thinking: I will never take another f#$%ing math class again. It was a great feeling, like I’d suffered something for longer than I thought I could and walked out with all parts—limbs and sanity—in tact. I had worked really hard, to be honest and at the end, I knew I wasn’t going to let my relationship with mathematics end with my slinking away to nurse my wounds and regret the fight I hadn’t put up. I worked hard that semester, harder than I’d ever worked and ended the semester with a B-…the highest grade I’d ever scored in any math class. F#$k math. I’d won.

What does this have to do with music? Nothing, other than hating the sciences and the numbers was probably the catalyst for my love of music, and if it was nothing else, it was a precious escape.

One of the first bands I became truly obsessed with in my alternate, music-oriented education, was The Doors. It makes sense in many ways: The Doors are kind of a “gateway” band into serious music for a lot of teenage boys; Morrison was an incorrigible class clown, in school and out (I know this—part of the right of passage of being a Doors fan was to read No One Here Gets Out Alive, Danny Sugarman’s bio); the music was dark enough to be an antidote to a lot of the classic rock that got spun as voice of the generation stuff; and on a personal level, Morrison, much like me at the time, wanted to be and considered himself above all, a poet. I wasn’t a student when I was 16 and 17—I would have accepted any label other than that. Poet was good—the idea was cool and writing poetry got me more than a few girls. Playing guitar helped, too. I suppose that is an equation that still works.

The Doors were a great band to get into—there was plenty of mythology to dig, a real fabled aura around the shamanistic Morrison, and musical sound that was often a dark opposite to the flower power, ‘come on people, smile on your brother’ stuff that was a primer for the 60s rock explosion. Hendrix did it better, of course, but he was solo artist, in a sense. The Doors were a group and thus presented a more unified system of disorder. And while Morrison in particular can be almost cringe-inducing when I go back and listen (L’America?) some tracks, like their first hit, Break on Through, and others— The Whiskey Song, Love Me Two Times, When the Music’s Over— cook with some kind of other spirit, blues-influenced, incendiary, dark and magisterial—when the Doors were on, they were stunningly good—rock n roll dredged through the dirt. I loved that sound when I was young; it represented a true rebellion, an antidote, if you will, to all the forces in life working to keep me stifled in a classroom.

So, in honor to my wayward days, my wasted youth, all the tests I failed, all the desks I carved “The Doors” into, all the dreams I had about blowing it up and blowing it out, I choose The Doors, “Five to One.” This explosive chant and stomp reads like a child’s rhyme, but it burns with a controlled fury that takes aim at the listener or anyone who might not dig what Morrison was pushing. I love John Densmore’s pounding, military drums; Robby Krieger is at his bluesy best when he rips off the solo, and Ray Manzarek’s fuzzed out keyboard line fills in as a static-infused bass, crackling with serious mojo, far advanced and way modern for its time. As for Morrison—he says it all here. Talking about hippies crawling across the floor, flowers in hand, he sets himself in firm opposition to the flower power ethic of peace and love, then goes on to engage in what, to me at the time, was as a pure a middle finger in the face of my teachers, the cops, my folks, as many authority figures as I could find to be pissed off at:

The old get old
And the young get stronger
May take a week
And it may take longer
They got the guns
But we got the numbers
Gonna win, yeah
We're takin' over

A little light on the true rebellious capital, I realize, but at the time, that was all I needed: a little stomp, a lot of anger and either a stepping stone to something better, or just a nice, fist sized stone through any ready window.

Rock on, Jim…I might make a little fun of you, but deep down, you’re my first and always rock n roll hero.