What’s here

 

Once he was the King of Spain
That time I pissed off people over Kurt Cobain
Magical Hooverphonic Tour

All I want is a perfect jukebox
‘I Want You Back (Alive)’
Artist or ass? Maybe both.
Here’s a bunch of year-end lists
The 8tracks.com playlists
The complete 2015 ‘365 Favorite Albums’ list
Cocteau Twins, and a piece of burnt toast on a wire
Pop sound tinged with heartbreak – The Format (No. 83)
Barbara Bailey Hutchison
‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’

Live-blogging ‘Beatles 1/+,’ disc two
Live-blogging ‘Beatles 1/+,’ disc one
Ten cover versions I prefer to the original 
‘Roger Waters The Wall’ The Movie The Review
Have you heard of these?
Linda Ronstadt
Havin’ a heat wave
Sing along! ‘I don’t want to shop for groceries.’
‘Sgt. Pepper’ is here!
Ranking Elvis Costello’s albums
‘Imaginary Lover,’ the Fleetwood Mac hit no one knows

The breakdown of ‘I’m Alive’ from ‘Xanadu’
I love Freddie
What a concept: The best concept albums on The Big List
What did that Tweet mean?
I Used To Be A King
Live radio, courtesy ME
‘Free Your Mind’
‘That was subtle’
How long is it? That’s a bit of a personal question, isn’t it?
My alternate tale of ‘Daniel’

Happy birthday, Shawn Mullins
Ranking The Beatles
Van the Man
My 24 favorite Steely Dan songs
Best of the 1980s 
Losing a song. Watch it now, Kay.
Breaking up with an album
It’s hardly static
Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Simple Dreams’
The end of that story. Kind of. 

One thing I love makes fun of another thing I love
My first Dylan instruction and Anita Ekberg 
In simpatico. Unless.
What I bring to the party. (Everybody duck) 
Gene Cotton
‘Paint the Sky Green’
10cc: No, life is not a minestrone
‘Already One’ 
So, speaking of ‘Halo of Flies’ …
Why we’re here

Will Durst’s historic joke

UncleWill-Durst-cropI need to see Will Durst again.

The “modern-day Mort Sahl or Will Rogers” came into my life in the early 1980s. (That, by the way, is a wonderful yet horrible description of his style. We will get into that later.)
I can date my Durst experience to the early 1980s because he told a great joke about Reagan’s skin flapping in the breeze. (The joke was solid enough for Greg Proops to repeat it on his podcast 30 years later. It played with people who remembered the origin of Proops’ reference. Which is to say it played solid to me.) It was in one of those 1980s appearances that the reason for me wanting to see Durst again arises.

The setup is a deep-south Texan is on the campus of Harvard, and asks a passerby, “‘Scuse me, can y’all tell me where the library is at?” The native responds, “Here at Hah-vahd, we don’t end our sentences with prepositions.” The Texan considers, then says, “All right — can y’all tell me where the library is at, ASSHOLE?”

A co-worker was criticized on social media for what the critic perceived as a grammatical error. Technically, and in a specific period of historical time, that critic was precisely correct. But the language has evolved and is evolving to allow the use in the fashion my co-worker used. It looks like shorthand to older viewers, but younger people understand (generally) that while the language is not perfect, the point gets across, and only that matters.

(That’s the logic I tried to use in math and bookkeeping classes when I was in high school. I didn’t realize the classes weren’t about getting the right answer. The instruction in the classes was about learning the language of how the problems are solved.)

I told my co-worker the Will Durst story above, and got a laugh.

The first time I saw Durst compared to Mort Sahl and Will Rogers, I thought, “Well no, that’s not right.” I didn’t (and don’t) even think it’s fair to mention Sahl and Rogers in the same sentence. The similarity between the two, it seems to me, is that they make jokes about politics and politicians. But Sahl couldn’t approach the popularity Rogers enjoyed in his time. And Rogers’ populism precluded him from being as blunt at Sahl, even if his era would have accepted it, which it probably wouldn’t have. They were both almost certainly best enjoyed in their own times, and if we weren’t there we wouldn’t be able to understand it.

I think I made an impression on Durst when we first talked, a telephone interview. My first question was, “Why are you playing this place?” It wasn’t a condemnation of the venue, which I enjoy and to this day go a couple of times a year. It was a statement of where I saw him on the pecking order of club comedians.

I’d like to tell him about repeating his decades-old joke to my co-worker. Will Durst wrote a joke that was still alive 35 years later. That’s some George S. Kauffman shit right there.
Or, yes, Will Rogers.

(You may have noticed that this wasn’t about music. I’m expanding the reach of this a little bit. I don’t know if it will work or how long it will last. But I’m planning to write both music and comedy here for a while as I step back into it. I hope you feel like coming along for the ride even if you’re not wholly interested in both.)

 

‘Roy Rogers’

When I first started listening to the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album (No. 57), I was still at the point where every song was a true song about something.

Sure, maybe I didn’t know what was true about “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but at least I knew that there was a real place called Strawberry Fields, and I could justify the thought that maybe the rest of the song was a puzzle that I had yet to unlock.

I knew that “Puff the Magic Dragon” was about drugs, for crying out loud.

(For the record, I don’t know whether I agree with the assertion. But I am amused by the existence of the assertion.)

And not every song HAD TO be a true song. I understood the role of fantasy in music, whether in a musical or a fantasy song. An example of how this logic fit in my world at the time: “Eleanor Rigby” was real, or it could be, or it was real enough. “Rocket Man” is clearly science fiction.

I know I thought the song “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” was Elton John’s kiss-off to the music industry, and I made the mistake of saying that to a few people (who didn’t call me on it, nor did they make any kind of noise when it was shown how wholly wrong I was).

The “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album helped form a lot of my sensibilities about epic efforts. By that time, I was already aware of things like “Fragile” (No. 25), “Led Zeppelin IV” (No. 11), “Machine Head” (No. 16) and even “Dark Side of the Moon” (No. 13). But those struck me as works someone else had determined were epic. Yes, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were my elders, not my peers. (Which is curious, because they were only a few years older than Elton John, whom I considered “mine.”)

Alice Cooper was another group I considered “mine.” (Again, for whatever inexplicable reason. If I figure it out, I promise I’ll write an explanation later.) “Billion Dollar Babies” (No. 33) also shaped my frame for epic albums.

A friend whose taste in music I always respected but often didn’t understand raved about the song “Roy Rogers” from the final side of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” To me, the song always stopped the album. I came to use it as breathing space setting the stage for the finale. But I never cared for the song.

(In fact, I just now went to play the song, and it’s not on my 5,400-song “long faves” list. There were 54 other Elton John songs.)

I attributed part of it to my friend’s fascination with and fandom and appreciation of Rogers. He was part of that kid-cowboy culture that had faded in the few years of difference between our childhoods. Sure, I had a brief cowboy period, but by the time I was making up my own mind about my career fantasies, I was either a ballplayer or a musician. My cowboy period was barely shorter than my astronaut period, which was brought to an abrupt halt as soon as I realized how smart and well-conditioned those guys had to be, and I was never going to be either.

“Roy Rogers” infuriated me. Ponderously paced, in 6/8 time, with a weepingly annoying steel guitar, and its outright sincerity with such a bullshit sentiment – furious. “No way,” I’d mutter angrily at the Elton John poster on my wall, “do you actually believe you want to go back to that time that never existed in the first place, and live there instead of here. No way. You’re not that stupid.”

And maybe it’s the waves of nostalgia I’m finally feeling (or the waves being shoved down my senses in a multi-media and multi-platform attack), or maybe it’s acquiring enough experience to see another possibility for the song.

Maybe it was Elton John’s vision of what someone else’s reverie would be like. Perhaps lyricist Bernie Taupin was painting a story about his parents, or himself if he’d decided to let his thoughts go fully in that yearningly nostalgic direction.

But it didn’t HAVE TO be true. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, or that there isn’t truth in it. It just doesn’t have to be true of writer and singer. Not every piece someone writes is achingly self-confessional.

My friend was also right about the quality of Elvis Costello’s “Town Cryer.” But that’s another story.

Once he was the King of Spain

Moxy Fruvous was a tight little band, and many of their recordings are top-notch, and should always be among my favorites.

There’s been a lot of conflict over the last 18 months, though. And it points to a more widespread problem.

I was introduced to Fruvous (the fans’ shorthand – it honestly feels awkward to refer to them by their full name) with the release of “You Will Go To the Moon,” provided for me via cassette by my friend Tom Weber, who by that time had been mailing me the gift of music via tape for a decade. He is responsible for being first to hand me Adam Schmitt’s “World So Bright” (No. 2 on The Big List). For as much as I appreciated Tom sharing, neither of us could have guessed what would happen in the next three years.

Tom was a club-goer with me in Minnesota. We weren’t out nightly, weekly, or even monthly. We both had jobs and responsibilities, and we lived about 75 miles from the club most directly aimed at our tastes. I don’t think Tom ever saw a show at Minneapolis’ Sam’s, or Uncle Sam’s. I’m not even positive which name the place had the first time I saw a show there, Squeeze, in 1981. “Sam’s” and “Uncle Sam’s” seemed interchangable. But I was a mere downstater, an ourlier.

The place was called First Avenue when we saw Husker Du and Peter Case there right after “Warehouse” came out. We brought Greg Gilman with us to that show, and between a long day of work, Peter Case just playing acoustically, and Husker Du deciding to play “Warehouse” start to finish, and that was it, Greg fell asleep.

And Tom and I were there twice for Robyn Hitchcock. (If Tom had liked Shriekback, we’d have more First Avenue memories.) I saw some other great shows at First Avenue. In fact, about every one was fantastic, as long as I could ignore C.S. Angels, whose extended conclusion of one song found me yelling at the stage, “Who do these guys think they are, Uriah Heep?” Oh, and ignore the band Breaking Circus, although they had one song with the beautifully memorable line, “I feel like a piece of burnt toast on a wire.”

(I turned to my brother-in-law and said, “Did he just say he felt like a piece of burnt toast on a wire?”)

(I know, I know – I’ve told that story before. Sue me.)

I was immediately taken with “You Will Go To the Moon.” What was not to like? It starts with “Michigan Militia,” which appropriates the lick from “Last Train to Clarksville,” plays it on a banjo, and frames lyrics about a group of proud yet self-aware survivalists. Sing partially through a megaphone. And it’s funny, so long as you can chuckle at lines like “in a couple of days, we’ll be free or we’ll be dead” and “now they got us on TV, makin’ us look stupid.” (It turned more delicious live, when singer Mike Ford would occasionally deliver lines in William Shatner’s voice.)

Then there was the Beatles-alike “Get in the Car,” the left-wing hilarity of “Your New Boyfriend” (whose next words were “a bit of a right-wing shit”), the pot anthem “Boo Time,” and the irresistible “Kick in the Ass,” which just lists people who deserve to be, well, kicked in the ass.

The album was No. 3 on my year-end list in 1997.  And then I saw them in person.

They played Decatur Celebration, a street festival that at the time offered nostalgia bands that aspired to the state fair level of bands, and also some weird things that might or might not be worth your time. I had no idea of Fruvous’ live reputation. For all I realized at the time, I had been listening to their debut album. I sat through as much as I could of an insulting phoned-in performance by Chuck Negron, formerly of Three Dog Night, and pondered whether I even wanted to go see Moxy Fruvous, so annoyed was I by Negron’s performance.

But Fruvous caught my attention right away. By halfway through their set, I wandered near the stage, and before long found myself at the front. These four talented guys were smart lyrically, musically, and theatrically. I was fascinated. I stayed after the show to buy a CD and make sure I talked to every member of the band. It was such an experience that I remember the t-shirt I was wearing. One of the band members asked me about it (a St. Paul Saints logo shirt), and we spent a couple of minutes discussion independent professional baseball in the United States.

I was intrigued enough to do some more research, and I found a thriving online community. “Fruheads” were people who’d travel show to show, and rush to report show info to the rest of the community. Fortunately for me, the band had enough of a following that they could draw reasonable crowds in any number of nearby cities.

I wound up attending Fruvous shows in Decatur, Champaign, St. Louis, Chicago, Bloomington (Ind.), West Lafayette, Milwaukee, Madison and their hometown of Toronto. I was in Canada to attend “FruCon,” an organized gathering of fans. I was stunned to see the band show up and offer us a short set.

By the end of 1998, I’d attended more Moxy Fruvous club shows than the total number of club shows I’d attended the previous 10 years combined. I saw them 28 times in a three-year stretch. They only played one song at every show: “Michigan Militia.” They did great originals. They did fun covers. (At the second show I saw, they had a stage sound malfunction, and almost without hesitation went into The Beatles’ “Please Please Me.” They explained that the immediate move when something goes wrong on stage is to go into a Beatles song. That fixes everything. I don’t know whether I saw the first time they put the theory into practice, but I know I saw them do it again.) And they did brilliant medleys. Fans will remember the “Dancing Queen” medley (although I’m certain there was a more clever name for it) of “Dancing Queen,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Angel of Harlem.” (Puts a whole new spin on ABBA, doesn’t it?) “Billie Jian” (“Jian” is Fruvous’ drummer, and the main reason we’re here at this point, but we’re getting to that part) mashed “Billie Jean,” “Lovefool” and “A Message to You, Rudy.” They based bizarre medleys around “Signed Sealed and Delivered” and “Love Potion No. 9.”

And they had a relationship with their fans. I’ve seen more of it since, but I’d never seen anything like that previously. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, but when I joined the group of fans the band acknowledged by name, I at once thought “This is kinda cool” and “Maybe I need to cut back on the travel.”

They were terribly likeable, terribly talented, terribly clever and terribly friendly.

People would ask me where to start with listening to Fruvous. I’d generally tell them to start with “Bargainville,” especially if the person had seen the band perform. “Bargainville” always figured largely in their shows, and with good reason. I’ve always thought “King of Spain” is a natural entry point for the band’s style and antics. “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors” is short, catchy and clever. “The Lazy Boy” is, I believe, the only pop song with a furniture joke. It’s at No. 299 on The Big List, and it probably should be higher.

They broke up (although they called it a “hiatus” for years) in fall 2000. The last show I saw was June of that year. I reluctantly admitted to a few people that I thought the band would break up by the end of the year.

One of the fascinating things about the fan community was the different types of people attracted. There were star-crossed young women who made moon eyes at the guys. (And who knows what else? But I can honestly say I spent a long time hanging out after a lot of shows, and anytime any of the guys escaped early, the reason could be reasonably attributed to fatigue or illness. They were never in a hurry to get away from a club that I saw.)

There were smart, independent, opinionated women who were getting something I couldn’t quite figure from the band. Smart, liberal, non-sexist men? Possibly. But were there so few of those kinds of men in the U.S. that someone in the Midwest had to rely on men from Canada traveling through to provide it? They were appreciative enough of the music that I could always converse with them.

As opposed to the first kind of women. The group I ended up in was the guys who were terribly geeky about their music, and were thrilled to find Fruvous shared the geekism. We’d compare notes about the way and reason things were played, and we’d share the information with one another. The first time I heard someone in the group refer to the moon-eyed women as “fishgirls,” I laughed at both the audacity and the accuracy. As a group, their lips seemed poised in pre-pucker. “Fishgirls” (which sounds far more cruel now than it did then, even though I don’t think many intended it as pejorative) weren’t disagreeable. They were just there for a different reason than the rest of us.

I’d occasionally check in on the band members via the Internet. The community stayed alive for a few years, but fizzled as their interest in keeping alive the memory of a dead band became tiresome. The band became, for me and any number of others, one of those pleasant memories from the 90s.

That all changed a little more than a decade later. A Facebook friend first sent me a link to a story about the first accusations against Fruvous drummer-turned-radio host Jian Ghomeshi.  It’s important to note the linked story was written a little more than a week after the story broke. Ghomeshi was being accused of unnamed inappropriate sexual acts. Ghomeshi didn’t wait for any speculation to begin. He issued a statement that made “he said/she said” a reasonable position to take.

In my miniature version of a discussion that inflamed media followers in Canada, I found myself defending Ghomeshi and the band. I wasn’t dismissing the accusations. But I wanted more than one person’s words. I wanted them backed up by other observations, other suggestions of which person was closer to telling the truth. Some convicted or exonerated the man immediately. I waited, and admittedly leaned toward the side of the celebrity who might have been guilty, but might also have been a target for malicious rumors.

Then more and more reports came out. More women making similar accusations, describing troubling similar non-consensual encounters.

My interest in college athletics decreased as I became more exposed to the underbelly of recruiting, the race to acquire slave labor with skills. My interest in the National Football League dropped as it became clear the league had covered up studies indicating the potential debilitating results of head injuries. It dropped further as players abused animals, women and their children.

You reach a line at some point. I reached mine, and was pushed well past it.

Dealing with the fallout of the Ghomeshi issues was troubling. (And he was eventually found not guilty in Canadian court.) My troubles grew as I saw stories featuring interviews with fans from the Fruvous days. I was numb when I saw an extensive set of quotes from one of the fans with whom I spent a lot of time, waiting in line outside shows, hanging out in corners of clubs, waiting for one of Fruvous’ awful opening acts to conclude their set (honestly, Susan Werner was the only opener whose talents attracted my attention), trying to figure out how to acquire tapes of shows we didn’t have.

In the story, my acquaintance essentially said he wasn’t surprised. He’d seen questionable behavior from Ghomeshi all the way back to the Fruvous touring days.

Seriously? With the fishgirls? And I’d actually spent a moment defending the guy?

I was having trouble listening to Moxy Fruvous’ music, even in those rare instances where it was coming my way. It’s easy to tell the quartet’s voices apart. Ghomeshi sings on almost every song. As he should. He had the most pleasant voice, and manipulated well within the band’s requirements. Hearing his voice, though, was making me feel about the same way I felt watching the third act of the film “Man of Steel:” Mental anguish and nausea.

Yet if you’re going to apply moral judgment, you need to show some consistency if you’re any kind of person at all, right? Personal heroes Frank Zappa and John Lennon didn’t exactly set examples for the world to follow in their personal (and some of their professional) relationships.

And all I can say about that is I’m working to separate the art from the artist/individual, as much as I don’t like to do that.

I don’t like to apologize for liking art. There’s enough of it that doesn’t touch me at all that I want to embrace the stuff that does.

I’m just learning to acknowledge the flaws while I listen to “King of Spain.”

It’s quite a good song, you know.

That time I pissed off people over Kurt Cobain

I’m not sure I’d write the same thing now. And I’m not certain I was correct.
But after Kurt Cobain killed himself, as I consumed the grief-filled reaction, I wrote a piece the Decatur Herald & Review was kind enough to run. (At the time, I was in my sixth year as a sports copy editor. My co-workers knew of my passion for music, but that didn’t mean they had to publish my little 350-word plea.)

Boy, hearing Kurt Cobain’s voice for the first time was really special.

Like most music fans, my first experience with Cobain and Nirvana was late one night on MTV, watching and listening to the outrageous video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

“This is pretty entertaining,” I thought. “But these guys will never see the light of day. They’re too dangerous for America.”

Three years and millions of albums and one moronic decision later, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana are dead, and a new generation has its first rock music martyr.

Please, don’t fall for it. Sometime last week, Cobain was the ultimate coward, putting a shotgun to his head and pulling the trigger. It doesn’t make him a hero. It doesn’t mean he’ll live forever.

The music will always be there. There will always be the irony of the title of the band’s final release, “I Hate Myself and Want to Die.” And there will henceforth be a number of us who choke up just a little bit when we hear Cobain sing, “And I swear I don’t have a gun.”

But please, don’t canonize the guy. There’s nothing romantic about killing yourself. After killing yourself, there’s nothing. Sure, Cobain was the center of attention in our channel-surfing universe for about a day, but after that, we all moved on to other things.

Foolishly, each generation has had its heroes who have become bigger than life for doing themselves in. If Cobain’s contemporaries want to prove they’re truly different and better than those who went before, they’ll reject placing the man on an altar next to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious (insert your favorite here).

Kurt Cobain was a talented and troubled man. He had what many thought should have been enough to make him happy -fame, recognition and money. It obviously wasn’t what he needed.

Perhaps the most fitting eulogy for Cobain would be to acknowledge that as a songwriter and singer, he had few peers. He was just a lousy human being, and the last thing he did proved that.

Pointed? Certainly. A little harsh? Possibly. As I read it now, 22 years later, would I change anything? No. I might not write it the same way now, but dammit, I was mad at Cobain. (I was also mad at all of the little shitheads on Prodigy bulletin boards with whom I was debating Cobain’s final gesture.)

(You read that right. Prodigy. I didn’t have a Compuserve account, but I knew people who did. And I remember having to pay for individual e-mails when I sent or received them from “The Internet.”)

The next day, I received a call from an adult female reader who criticized what I wrote. She told me she was disgusted, and it was the worst thing she’d ever read, because it was so depressing.

I thanked her. She demanded to know why I thanked her.

“A man committed suicide,” I said, “and you’re more depressed because of something I wrote. That makes me a pretty good writer.”

That wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

A week later, the paper ran a teenager’s response to my thoughts:

I am writing to you in regards to Tim Cain’s article last Thursday on the death of Nirvana ’s Kurt Cobain.

I don’t believe that you should criticize someone the way Cain did.

I know that it wasn’t smart of Cobain to kill himself, but I don’t think that Cain should have said “he was a lousy human being.”

Neither Cain or anyone else should say that about someone. Cobain might not have been the smartest or bravest person, but you shouldn’t say he was “the ultimate coward.”

I may only be 14, but at least I have respect for others -dead or alive.

Scott Dillman is a freshman at MacArthur High School in Decatur. He’s been a Nirvana fan for about three years and also enjoys music by the Doors, Ozzy Osbourne, Led Zeppelin and Nazareth.

Maybe Scott was right. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, in either case.

But seriously? He enjoys music by Nazareth? I thought I was the only one who admitted that.

Magical Hooverphonic Tour

Things started, innocently enough, as my friend quoted a line from the book and film “It.”

The line was “We all float down here.”

I know a lot of you just had some kind of reaction to reading that quote, whatever that reaction might have been. The point is I don’t have that reaction. “It” is not in my cultural memory bank. I never read the book, never saw the film, don’t know much more than what people have told me. That’s generally enough for me to sneak through conversations, but once in a while somebody throws out something that really spotlights my ignorance of “It.”

When my friend said the line, I flashed on the Hooverphonic song “We All Float.” I’ve always found it to be a fascinating turn of a phrase, and thought it might have been original to the band. It’s also one of my favorite songs by the band lyrically.

Give it a listen.

Halfway through, my friend suggested it sounded like a Beatles song. She imagined John Lennon taking the vocal lead (“She (Geike Arnaert) even sounds like Lennon here,” my friend said. She envisioned the guitar as a sitar line played by George. (As she was mentioning it, I was imagining it as a Harrison slide lead.

The drumming is already Ringo Starr-style: simple, straightforward, and funky enough to not generic. The bass is already somewhat busy, and I can easily imagine Paul McCartney making it more melodically busy.

For about five seconds at the :57 mark, you hear a backwards guitar, or some time of artificial sound that sounds like a backward guitar.

And the part of the song that dominates for me (it’s certainly repeated enough for the words to lock in) is:

“Mountains make the sun arise
Your rainbow colored eyes can change the tide”

Very 1960s. Even the way the orchestra eventually works in, the way The Beatles put strings on the codas of “All You Need is Love” and “Hey Jude.” It all combines for me as a song that could replace “Flying” on the “Magical Mystery Tour” album. (Or even the title track. What do I care? It’s a better title than song.)

And the lyrics are ones that mean things to people only if they understand a certain frame of mind:

“Multicoloured lanes of trees mesmerising stories about us”
“Deserted squares and lonesome trees, the wind revealing stories about us”

And the final verse:

“The river telling stories about us, writing words in water full of lust
Yellow purple green or blue, drip by drip revealing things on you”

I have to think if John Lennon heard that line in 1967, he’d have found a way to work it into “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

All I want is a perfect jukebox

All my life, I’ve dreamed of having my music at my disposal. When I want to hear something, I want to hear it NOW. Not after thumbing through vinyl or cassettes or CDs and doing what had to be done to get that music in my ears.

It’s why mix tapes meant so much to me. It’s why each step of the evolution of how music is delivered to listeners has been a stop toward the better for me. I thought CDs were the ultimate, until I started to learn about Winamp and playlists and MP3s and the ability to break up an album into the pieces I really wanted.

vintage-jukebox-25481107

Acquiring a jukebox, one of my bucket list items, to be able to play my vinyl 45s, became a desire I could dismiss. (And just as well, given the experiences described to me by people who attempt to maintain a jukebox and keep it operational.) With MP3 players, I wasn’t limited to 200 two-sided records.

That’s part of what makes The Big List so special, and I really treasure that I have close to 150 albums in my life that I consider “perfect,” or very close to perfect. There are thousands of songs I love, but for that relative handful of albums to have meant so much to me for so long is spectacular.

What’s even more spectacular, though, is the system I have for playback now. I’m not fully there yet. I suspect I may never be. But I currently have close to 6,000 songs in a huge master playlist, and it’s a joy. I can listen to full albums at one time, but I can also set random play and even though I don’t know what’s coming next, I know I’m going to enjoy it.

(When I had my online radio station, it was from this list of songs that I’d relay music for the station. I said each song was the perfect antidote to the previous one. I find that invariably to be true.)

But the system still has flaws that need to be corrected. Today, there were two instances where I wanted to hear a specific song, and it wasn’t on the playlist, and I (a little angry with myself) scrambled to get those songs in a place where I could easily access them for listening purposes.

It’s a more ideal situation that I’ve ever had.

So I couldn’t have been much more bemused with myself today after filling my car with gas. There was piped in music playing, something I generally ignore, because the songs are not to my taste.

But Heart’s “Dog and Butterfly” came on just as I finished. There wasn’t a crowd at the station – mine was the only car parked at any of the 16 pumps. So I went back and sat in the car, rolled down the widow, smiled and listened for five minutes.

Like my late, lamented Internet radio station, like your best Pandora or Spotify playlists, sometimes the best thing about music is allowing someone else to make the choices for you.

Sometimes.

‘I Want You Back (Alive)’

My introduction to that strange Midwest celebration of air guitar as art came at a time when I wasn’t sure what kind of musical path I wanted to follow.

I wish I could say the air guitar competition I observed at Uncle Sam’s in Minneapolis on July 23, 1981, helped me settle that decision at all. What it did, however, was show me how much diversity I wanted out of my music, and that variety was on display throughout the evening.

I was at the club to see Squeeze. The world was changing. John Lennon was murdered in December 1980, and I wasn’t sure I could enjoy music at all anymore. Six weeks after Lennon’s murder – and it seemed far longer than that, like maybe forever – I saw Elvis Costello in concert for the first time. Squeeze was the opening act. The extent of my knowledge about Squeeze at the time was they had a name I made fun of regularly.

A couple of friends owned a record store in Rochester, Minn., and were far more aware of the music scene exploding around them than I was. (The first time I was aware of The Replacements was seeing the autographed copy of “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” that they displayed at the front of the store.) My thrill was them bringing in hundreds of import albums, and hundred of used albums with a variety I’d never imagined.

(In fact, I worked briefly at the store. When the part-time hours proved too difficult for me to manage along with my full-time work, I announced my decision to leave the record store. Because I had liberally taken advantage of the employee discount buying records, I had to work without pay for three weeks just so we’d be even.)

Lennon was murdered on a Monday, and I lived in a fog for the rest of the week. On the Saturday of that week, I wandered into the record store. My friends were at the front counter on the phone, and I waved and started my walk through the store.

Immediately, they were on either side of me, walking with my as I found my way to the new releases area. “You OK, buddy?” one asked. “You all right, Tim?” the other asked. “We were just trying to call you.”

They were worried about how I was handling the news, certainly because the first reason they were aware of me was as the long-haired guy who bought all the Beatles imports.

Their obvious concern for my well-being was touching. And they followed through with more a week later.

They were as aware of my worship of Elvis Costello as they were of my Beatles passion. Costello was going to play a Minneapolis theater in a few weeks time. We, they pronounced, were all going to go.

I wasn’t sure what the make of the idea. More than a year previous, I’d decided live shows were to programmed for me. I sat through an arena show where the opening act played exactly 45 minutes, and after exactly 30 minutes, the headliner played for exactly 90. The performances were fine. But the method seemed too constricting, and I thought if that’s what it had all turned into, I wasn’t so interested anymore.

I agreed, though. I knew enough about Costello by that time to know that his concerts could be kind of dangerous. I’d read about 30-minute sets with every song played double time, I was aware of a man who seemed to have a contempt for a portion of his audience, and his music felt wildly dangerous. I didn’t know what I was going to see, but I was fairly certain it wasn’t going to be 45 minutes of an opening act, 30 minutes of switchover time, and 90 minutes of headliner.

And Squeeze was the opening act. My record store friends were convinced I’d love the band. They were right, of course, but they had to shove vinyl into my hands and demand I listen to convince me.

squeezeFortunately, this was at a time when record companies were doing crazy things to get the attention of customers. My friends pointed me toward the oddly-named “6 Squeeze Songs Crammed Into One Ten-Inch Record.” It was in the odd 10-inch format, had an odd die-cut cover, and (probably most important) was available at a discount price. It was enough of a taste to get me interested in the ban. But it wasn’t until seeing their phenomenal stage show that I became a convert.

Obviously, that show helped convince me music and I could still have a relationship. And that’s what brought me to Uncle Sam’s six months later to see Squeeze again.

But before Squeeze came on was one of the lead-ups, an air guitar contest. I thought this was an odd one-off until a few years later, when I became friends with someone who led a group that had success competing in these for a while at the same period of time.

It was brilliant. My friend and his mates cut their “instruments” out of cardboard, but there were dozens of other ways to equip your band. At the Squeeze show, two guys my age “strummed” tennis rackets and mimed to The Clash’s “White Riot,” shoving each other away from their unwired microphone as they alternated lines. Another guy used a broomstick and dervished his way through The Clash’s “Big Black Cadillac,” punctuating his performance by running at a dead sprint from the back of the stage and leaping down to the club’s dance floor, landing perfectly and never missing a beat.

More than Clash songs were mimed. Four comically clean-cut and identically dressed individuals sashayed onto the stage holding hairbrushes for microphones and miming Manhattan Transfer’s “Operator.” (Pretty well, too, actually.) To show what an accepting group was attending the show, they received applause. And more important, the act that won the competition performed an even more unlikely tune: AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.”

I’d been trained to think that Squeeze was punk/New Wave. (They seemed the same to me at the time, and included The Knack, Costello, Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Blondie, Squeeze, and many more about which I was clearly confused. Essentially I’d arrived at the conclusion that if they were new and I liked them, they were New Wave.) And punks and New Wavers hated that stupid metal shit. And Led Zeppelin and The Eagles and Pink Floyd.

The problem was, while I wasn’t really nuts about AC/DC at the time, I really liked Led Zeppelin and The Eagles and Pink Floyd and some of the other stupid metal shit. I was not only surprised to see some guys get up on stage and make us listen to AC/DC, I was taken aback to see they appeared to be enjoying themselves, and so did the audience.

Again, we had tennis rackets, and no real attempt to resemble the actual band in any way. The “drummer” sat with a plastic bucket between his legs and pretended to whomp on it. To complete the ridiculous nature of what we were seeing, he wore a mop on his head. Literally. A mop.

It was a delightful hour or so. I was taken by the fun people were having onstage and in the audience. And while most acts didn’t try to look like the acts whose song they were miming, I appreciated the effort of the Manhattan Transfer people.

And one other one, the band I thought should have won. The only thing I heard when they were introduced was “Graham Parker and The Rumour.” I was suddenly interested, following a couple of mediocre efforts. I looked up and saw … Graham Parker and The Rumour. They looked exactly like every photo I’d seen of the band.

grahamparkerandtherumou

And the music started, something I didn’t recognize. I slowly realized it was “I Want You Back,” which I only knew as a Jackson Five song. I didn’t know Graham Parker had ever recorded it. And I didn’t know he’d recorded it so well. And the guys doing the miming were perfect.

They didn’t win. But I did. I was eventually able to find Parker’s recordings of the song (live and studio), not an easy task in those pre-Internet days, where I struggled to figure out performers’ discographies and origins. (Who the hell were Ducks Deluxe, anyway? Took me a while to even find a bootleg live recording.)

I love the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” But the version I hear in my head is always Graham Parker’s.

(I don’t do it much anymore, but there was a time when my go-to karaoke song was “I Want You Back.” But I was never paying tribute to Michael Jackson. It was always Graham Parker.)

Artist or ass? Maybe both.

2016-07-02 09.27.29-11984 was as much in need of a shakeup of the popular music status quo as 1977 was. But by 1984, everything was just too big. So I had to go looking for it in the corners. I was fortunate enough to have some guidance along the way.

Look, it’s not as though the songs at the top of the charts were BAD SONGS. Kenny Loggins, Phil Collins, the omnipresent Lionel Richie, they all had their gifts as songwriters. In fact, I always tend to think of 1984 as the year everything blew up for the 80s’ pop’s Big Three: Madonna, Prince and Springsteen. But if you look at the list of top singles from 1984,  it’s Richie who outpaces everyone with multiple entries.

I found it all growing remarkably safe. It wasn’t as bad as some of the mainstream pop that came before. I never felt like writing, as I did about Annette Funicello’s version of “Let’s Twist Again,” that “if this song had a video, it would be Miracle Whip being spread across Wonder bread.” But I was in my mid-20s, and I wanted at least a little danger. I didn’t want to be standing in line at the record store with my mother’s peers as they bought Rod Stewart albums. Not to mention Cyndi Lauper, while insisting “She Bop” was just a cute and comic little song.

It was as though they’d never really LOOKED AT the video, which is as subtle as a sledgehammer, and brilliant. And a clever parody of/tribute to Madonna’s “Dress You Up” video with the staircase at the end.

Had there been more Cyndi Laupers and fewer Lionel Richies, I might never have gone off searching. But had there been more Cyndi Laupers and fewer Lionel Richies, music wouldn’t have had its 1980s explosion, either.

Trouser Press magazine had been my guide to the wonderful but hidden. Unfortunately, it dwindled and vanished by 1984. I still had my vintage copies, the ones I’d been buying (or had sent with my subscription) for five years. So I mined those pages for more obscure things I’d missed or ignored earlier, and I was also armed with the periodic copies of Buckettful of Brains magazine, which exposed me to wonders like the Long Ryders, Green Pajamas, and (most significantly for the purpose of this story) Robyn Hitchcock.

I picked up Hitchcock’s “Gotta Let This Hen Out!” around the same time I was discovering Shriekback, Beat Rodeo and the 4AD label (particularly Cocteau Twins, whose gorgeous “Treasure” is No. 66 on The Big List). I was taken first by the stranger elements like the a capella “Uncorrected Personality Traits” (which posited that Marilyn Monroe was a man) and “Brenda’s Iron Sledge,” in which number of people pile on a sled going down a hill, until it hits a tree (“and disintegrates”).

I was immediately taken, and more so as I caught up with Hitchcock’s history. On the album released just before the live recording “Gotta Let This Hen Out!” Hitchcock sang about “The Man With the Lightbulb Head” and “My Wife and My Dead Wife.” This was my kind of surrealism.

(It’s worth noting, I suppose, that “My Wife and My Dead Wife” followed “Brenda’s Iron Sledge” on “Gotta Let This Hen Out!” The calm nature of the studio recording is jarring, and the same could be said for “Uncorrected Personality Traits” when I got around to finding the original version of that.)

(It’s also worth noting, again I suppose, that the first compact disc I bought was Hitchcock’s lovely “I Often Dream of Trains,” No. 58 on The Big List.)

I was fortunate enough have discovered Hitchock at a time when he was scrambling in clubs all around the United States to make some kind of dent in our market. I was also fortunate enough to have discovered some of the sites of Minneapolis’ exciting music scene. It was a 75- to 90-minute drive to get where we needed to go, but we were young and willing to sacrifice rest and sleepwalk through the following day’s work in order to enjoy a little late night live music.

In early 1986, I learned of a Hitchcock show at First Avenue (yes, THAT First Avenue) in Minneapolis and made plans with my friend Tom Weber to attend. We also learned that Hitchcock planned an in-store appearance, which sounded marvelous. An autograph AND a bonus performance? Count me delighted.

I had built my Hitchcock selection significantly. I was acquiring live tapes of his performances (as I was wont to do at the time, via a pretty underground and sadly illegal community), and picking up variations and re-releases of the Soft Boys, the band he led before becoming a solo artist. I wanted desperately to show Hitchcock I was not a Timmy-Come-Lately. I also wanted his signature on something not everyone else owned.

I grabbed “Groovy Decay,” which all these years later is still in my top five of favorite Hitchcock albums.

As we jammed into line to have our mementos defaced on March 26, 1986, I looked with contempt upon the items my fellow fans brought. Just ahead of me in line, a guy pulled out a bank deposit slip. He shrugged, told Hitchcock that was all he had, and the artist proceeded to fill out the bank form and sign it.

Seconds later, the guy just ahead of me produced a light bulb from his pocket. (A reference, of course, to Hitchcock’s song “The Man With the Lightbulb Head.”) To my surprise and delight, Hitchcock took the light bulb nonchalantly, as though this was how he was confronted on a regular basis. (And what did I know? Maybe he did.) Hitchcock drew a little face on the bulb, and handed it back.

I approached the way Ralphie approaches Santa in “A Christmas Story.” I knew actually seeing one of his own recordings would thrill him. Tom had a similar advantage because he had a record with him as well. But I was ahead in line.

Hitchcock grabbed my album and flipped it over a couple of times, looking at the front and back covers. Without saying anything, he took his gray marker and scratched out his eyes from the cover photo, scrawled the word “CRAP!” and emphatically underlined it.

Photo Jul 02, 9 27 06 AM

I was stunned. It was definitely not the reception I expected or desired. I felt mocked, marginalized. Tom and I stood in the record store, which suddenly felt crowded and hostile. I turned to Tom and said I didn’t really want to hang around for the in-store show. We dropped our records off at the car, and went to a newsstand to kill time before the show.

I was ready for my first Robyn Hitchcock in-person experience. Even though as we walked away from the record store, I said to Tom, “You remember what Tommy Smothers said when John Lennon was drunk and interrupted their show? That thing about being disappointed when someone you really admire turns out to be a jackass?”

I wasn’t in the best of moods.

And somehow, Hitchcock changed my mind back within an hour of taking the stage. I wasn’t sure whether his stage stories were prepared and memorized or extemporaneous. I still can’t. The three times I’ve seen him and the dozens of shows I’ve listened to offer me no real solution. But experiencing them in the moment was thrilling.

I was taken by the complex story that wound into the absolutely terrifying plague story-song, “Lady Waters and the Hooded One.”

(It’s worth noting at this point, I suppose, that Tom didn’t share my enthusiasm for “Lady Waters and the Hooded One.” He once noted something along the lines of “I could like Hitchcock a lot more if there were more songs like ‘Acid Bird’ and fewer like ‘All the Monks and the Queen of France.’ Has he ever written a song with that title?”)

And then he played another song, another one that would end up on his next studio album. He stood alone in the middle of stage, single spotlight, the entire band offstage, and begin picking an introduction on his guitar.

(The studio version adds a bass guitar and a percussion rhythm. It doesn’t need it.)

I wrote about the moment 23 years later when writing about my favorite concert experiences:

We were hearing a song we’d never heard before.

We were in the midst of hundreds of people, many of whom had polished off one too many adult beverages and most of whom seemed uninterested in hearing any new material from the artist on stage.

Yet my friend Tom Weber and I found ourselves for all intents and purposes alone with Robyn Hitchcock as he played the unreleased and previously unheard (by us) song “ Raymond Chandler Evening .”

As the song concluded, Tom and I exhaled and leaned back in our chairs. It was at that point we realized we’d both been leaning forward, elbows on our knees, straining to get closer to the stage, to attempt to INHABIT what Hitchcock was singing.

We had been literally holding our breath. Time has stopped for us.

The concert was literally my favorite concert until 2010, when I saw the Roger Waters’ “The Wall” production in person.

He played another song that always had Tom shaking his head, “Sounds Great When You’re Dead.” In an interview, Hitchcock discussed how great it would be to have a Walkman coffin that played heavy metal over and over. Again, the surrealism was delicious. And the song contains one of my favorite Hitchcock lines: “We’re at our most together when we’re at our most apart.”

No one else in my world was writing stuff like that. Even Elvis Costello, I imagined, would listen to that line and think, “Whoa…”

Hitchcock went into another world with his next song, another one new to us. He described what we quickly realized were images from gay magazines of the 1950s. In a bath together, “they cover each other with soap.” In the forest, “they cover each other with leaves.”

Frank Zappa said one of the reasons he wrote about the things he wrote about was because he thought they deserved to be preserved as much as other things he heard being preserved. I’d like to think Zappa heard “Ted Woody and Junior” and thought, “Glad somebody did that one.”

(It’s worth noting at this point, I suppose, that Tom’s wife did not share the delight Tom and I shared when I’d call their house and ask to speak with “Woody.”)

It was a conflicting experience. A miserable face-to-face encounter, but a brilliant concert, far and away the best I’d seen. (And, as noted earlier, remained exactly that until a quarter-century later.)

Not everyone shared my analysis of the record store incident. Immediately thereafter, The Lovely Mrs. Cain was laughing about it, and said, “It sounds exactly like something you’d do.” I didn’t grasp what she was saying. I could find people as appalled as I was, but I also came across too many who said, “That’s kinda cool.”

I continued to be a fan, and continued to read Hitchcock’s interviews. It eventually became clear he was unhappy with something about “Groovy Decay.” It seemed to be, I gradually pieced together, dissatisfaction with the songs, the sound, the production, and even his relationship with his art. It was after this that Hitchcock took all his unpublished paintings, drawings, lyrics and demos, shoved them in a trunk, took them to a beach and burned them.

At the time, it seemed to me a tragedy, and senseless destruction. It started in my head a debate that’s rarely stopped since. What does an artist owe to the community they create? Anything? What does that artist owe to society? To posterity? To themself?

My mind has flipped any number of times pondering those questions. At this point, I’m happy for Hitchcock, and sad for myself. There may have been something he burned that would have evoked something enjoyable to my experience. But if the decision freed Hitchcock’s artist, fantastic for him. If “I Often Dream of Trains” was borne from the ashes on that beach, it was a worthy death for that work.

I’ve also slowly come around on Hitchcock’s decision to deface my album cover. Maybe he signed it that way because he couldn’t take it to a beach and burn it. While the memory of the experience still stings, maybe he didn’t mean in as viciously as I took it. And at the very least, he gave me an experience and a memento shared with no one else.

It’s an original Robyn Hitchcock piece of art.

The 8tracks.com playlists

Since Live365 went away at the start of the year, I’ve been trying to find an inexpensive and easy way to keep sharing music on the Web. 8tracks.com, which houses playlists I upload, is the closest to ideal I’ve found so far.

After a scrambling kind of start, I’ve settled toward 35- to 65-song playlists. There are a couple longer and a couple shorter, but that’s a range that seems to keep my interest and give some kind of heft to the perspective of the theme.

Oh, the image with this post? It’s Stevie Wonder in 1974 or so. I couldn’t find anything I found cooler. It’s my avatar at 8tracks.com. I’d be amused if anyone thought it was me.

Here’s the playlists so far. I’m open to criticisms and suggestions.

Soul and R&B ear candy (Some of the most fantastic rhythm & blues of the 20th century. My most popular mix on the site.)
Best of my best (50 tracks from my 40 favorite albums ever.)

The mid-1970s that you don’t remember
The mid-1970s that you don’t remember Vol. II 
The mid-1970s that you don’t remember Vol. III
1970s deeper rock cuts 

Best Beatles covers (including Nos. 1 and 1a right at the start)
Meat The Beatles-esque
1980S
Power pop (An assortment of my favorite songs from my favorite genre.)
EPIC: 5:00-plus (Songs that run over five minutes. And “Epic.”)
Alternate universe numbers 1s (They weren’t, but should have been)

Short, sweet and brilliant (Songs that run under 120 seconds)
Oh God (Songs with “God” in the title)
The Cooper mix: A rock and roll starter set (designed for young teens and those about to be)
The rain mix (Celebrate or be depressed by the weather)
Two-for-Tuesday I (Two or more versions of the same song.)
Christmas (A secular collection)

Comedy 

New Wave
When you’re smiling (They have the word in their title)
Glittery Alpacas Gather (A glorious mess of 360 tracks I cram-loaded when I first started playing with the site. The name is what Instagram generated as a possible user name for myself.)