Sunday, April 19, 2015

HEADBANGERS ALL

     One of the albums I’ve been waiting for all year (due the third week of May) might surprise readers of this blog. Whitesnake’s The Purple Album will likely be one of my favorite releases of 2015, and a guilty pleasure at the same time. Guys my age are not still supposed to be listening to headbanging music. But when I got the memo years ago, I crumpled it and tossed it in the trashcan. Hard rock music or heavy metal or whatever you want to call it is a rite of passage for teenage boys for as long as it’s been around. I was there when the first wave arrived along about 1968, and the music got me through my teenage years. I graduated to other forms of music, but I miss those sometimes hellish years, and I miss the bond I felt with those bands and that music, and the truth is that more than four decades later, I still revisit it as often as I can, and lately more than ever.
     There is a fine distinction to be made between hard rock and heavy metal music. It’s hard to define. I know it when I hear it, but as much as the music itself, I think the trappings that come with the music help define the difference. I’m not big on labels, though, so I think calling it headbangers music helps to broaden its scope, and takes in virtually any band whose stock-in-trade is volume married to electric guitar riffs, and pounding drums. There is no substitute for this kind of music. When you need to “bang your head”, nothing else will do. The music was stigmatized along with progressive rock and most everything else when punk and the new wave arrived in the mid to late 70’s. But it never went away. It’s far more influential than punk could ever hope to be, but, in truth, they aren’t that far apart. Both are loud, both are tied to rebellion and a sense of being disenfranchised, and though both lend themselves to large, very active and very passionate communities, both are outsider’s music. You can be an outsider and a misfit in society, perhaps, but once you step inside that musical circle, you’re among friends. Never having had a lot of friends, and craving solitude more than most people I knew, I still liked the idea that there was a community out there of people like me who loved this music, and felt as I did about who they were, and the kind of world we were living in.
     But to be honest, as much as I loved the music as a teenager, if you’d asked me if I’d still be listening to it 45 years later, I’d have been skeptical. My musical journey has taken me everywhere I found even the narrowest of paths through the years, but I’ve never been far from the headbanging stuff because, I think, I still feel disenfranchised. I still feel rebellious and angry, and the music makes the perfect soundtrack for that.
     At 11 or 12, I wasn’t buying the records with a sense of building a collection. I spent money on what I liked, and a lot of it was loud. When the smoke (or was it dry ice?) had settled a few years later, I had the foundation of a pretty great collection of headbanging music because I had been, as I said, there when the music was conceived, delivered and slapped on the ass screaming and crying to a world that was craving it and didn’t even know it. By the time I came to see it as a collection ten years later, a lot of the bands I’d grown up listening to had broken up. But it wasn’t long before the music resurfaced in a big way and took center stage once again in the 1980’s. It was then that I began expanding upon that original foundation. It wasn’t cool to like the hair metal bands of the 80’s, at least not in my small circle of acquaintances, but the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement held some sway with critics, and a lot of bands came out of that who would go on to influence the music for the long term, and make a huge impact on the charts as well.
     There was no Internet then, but I was able to keep abreast of what was happening because I was working in record shops, and buying rock magazines. The rock magazines I was regularly reading then covered little headbanging music, so I began picking up Kerrang magazine out of England when I could find it. MTV had Headbanger’s Ball on, and that was a good way of finding out what was coming out, and a convenient place to see new videos, and hear some of the new music.
     When the 80’s ended, and the grunge movement surfaced, metal receded again into the background and was reduced again to cult music with a loyal following. The bands that had dominated the charts and played sold out arenas were now on small indie labels, and playing clubs and smaller venues making a living, but just barely.
     Here we are in 2015, and the music business has collapsed, and the music that dominates the charts today sells a small fraction of what even just a middling metal band sold in the 80’s. But the metal bands are still around, still touring, still recording. I knew Whitesnake was still active, but until I saw the announcement about The Purple Album – a tribute to Deep Purple when Whitesnake founder and lead vocalist David Coverdale was a member – the band wasn’t on my radar.
     In recent weeks the rumors have surfaced about a possible Rainbow reunion with guitarist/founder Ritchie Blackmore returning to the scene after years playing acoustic Renaissance music in the band he has with his wife Candace, Blackmore’s Night. Deep Purple is still together and very active. Alice Cooper is still with us, and so is Aerosmith. Slayer has a new record out. Black Sabbath is planning its farewell tour in the wake of a reunion album, 13, that did quite well. Iron Maiden is still with us although not as active as they once were. Judas Priest were on the verge of a breakup, but a new member has re-energized the band, and their most recent album Redeemer of Souls was considered to be its strongest in years. Even Germany’s Scorpions just issued a new album and is touring. And this month’s Guitar World cover subject is one Eddie Van Halen. Remember him? He used to have a band named after him. Maybe still does.
     If you patrol the Internet, there are countless sites devoted to the music, and lots of information to be gathered if you’re interested. When I decided to do a piece on this genre, I visited a number of them. Many of them have compiled lists of what their editors and followers consider to be the best hard rock/metal albums of all time. Those were interesting to look at, although they’re heavily weighted in favor of the bands that emerged in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Any Top 10 list you’ll see features two or three Iron Maiden records, a couple of Metallica, and maybe even a couple of Slayer titles with the remaining spots given over to the earlier pioneers. I would take issue with some of them, but it’s a generational thing that reflects the collective average age of those site’s followers. As my own history is longer, I thought I’d offer a list of some of my favorite headbanging records through the years from the bands that I consider to be the genre’s best. I was able to expand my collection even more thanks to a couple of books by one of the most respected music journalists in the business, Canada’s Martin Popoff. The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time appeared in 2004, and is not only fun to read, but filled with history while providing an entry point to the music. Popoff’s earlier The Collector’s Guide To Heavy Metal is akin to Leonard Maltin’s bi-annual film encyclopedia in that it’s a comprehensive list of virtually every album in the genre featuring a review and a letter grade as well. Given that Popoff seems to have heard every record in the genre, you couldn’t ask for a more comprehensive source. I own the 1997 first edition, but I believe it’s been updated at least three times since and is readily available. For me, this volume is indispensible.
     As for why I still listen to headbanging music when social security is shadowing me, I think it has a lot to do with both my job, and the world in which I find myself living. I rail against a lot of the modern technology that is dominating our lives. We have never evolved into a world that doesn’t think a war is the best way to solve every problem. (So a record like Black Sabbath’s War Pigs hasn’t dated a single minute since it was issued.) Kids still get bullied at school for being different, and take it out on their classmates by killing them. People are still routinely denied basic human rights all over the world. Religious intolerance is rampant. And every day that I go to work, no matter how well I do my job – and I do it extremely well – my boss looks at me like I’m a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of his shoe. I still don’t fit in, and I know I never will. This music will always be relevant to me, and I expect to be listening to it until death rescues me once and for all from the hatred, and inhumanity, and injustice that still dominates this world. I’ve tried to do my best, and I keep trying. But it doesn’t seem to make any difference. The only thing I can do is to turn up the volume louder and louder until the music is all I can hear.

__________

Below is a list of artists and records I reach for when I feel like headbanging. It’s not a complete list, but rather just those I go to most often. Every generation has its favorites, of course, but I’d like to think mine is as good as any. If I reach for a compilation more often than an original album, then the compilation got mentioned.

AC/DC – Back In Black, Highway To Hell
Aerosmith – Get Your Wings, Toys In The Attic, Rocks, Live Bootleg, Young Lust: The
  Aerosmith Anthology
Alice Cooper – Love It To Death, Killer, Billion Dollar Babies, School’s Out
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master of Reality, Volume IV, Sabbath
  Bloody Sabbath, Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules, Born Again
Blue Oyster Cult – Tyranny and Mutation, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees, Agents of
  Fortune
Boston - Boston
Deep Purple – In Rock, Machine Head, Made In Japan, Burn, Stormbringer, Now
  What?!
Def Leppard – Vault: Greatest Hits
Dio – Holy Diver, Last In Line, Sacred Heart
The Firm – The Firm, Mean Business
Gary Moore – Out In The Fields: The Very Best of Gary Moore
Girlschool – The Collection
Iron Maiden – 17 Numbers By The Beast
The Joe Perry Project – The Music STILL Does The Talking: The Very Best of
Judas Priest – Sin After Sin, Hell Bent For Leather, British Steel, Screaming For
  Vengeance, Metal Works ’73 – ‘93
Kiss – Alive, Double Platinum
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin, III, (ZOSO - IV), Houses of the Holy, Physical Graffiti, In
  Through The Out Door, How The West Was Won
Michael Schenker - Anthology (featuring UFO, and McAuley-Schenker Group)
Motorhead – Ace of Spades
Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of A Madman, Bark At The Moon, Tribute,
  The Ultimate Sin, Live & Loud, Down To Earth, Black Rain, Scream
Pantera – Far Beyond: The Great Southern Cowboys’ Vulgar Hits, Official Live: 101
  Proof
Rainbow – Rainbow, On Stage, Down To Earth, Very Best of Rainbow
Sammy Hagar – Un-boxed
Scorpions – Deadly Sting (Anthology)
Slayer – Reign In Blood, South of Heaven, Seasons In The Abyss, Christ Illusion
Ted Nugent – Free For All, Cat Scratch Fever
Van Halen – Van Halen, Van Halen II, 1984, The Best of Van Halen Vol. 1
Whitesnake – 2oth Century Masters


And there were a number of metal bands from the 80’s – hair metal – that made a few records I liked that lend themselves best to greatest hits collections. Among those I would include Cinderella, Faster Pussycat, Great White, Kix, Krokus, Megadeth, Motley Crue, Queensryche, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Slaughter, Warrant, White Lion, and Winger. I can’t single out a particular favorite original LP, but a collection of their best stuff would do me just fine.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

ALIVE'R THAN YOU'LL EVER BE: 20 AND COUNTING

     Twenty years is a long time. In dog years it equals 140. If your dog survives to 20 years old, he’s probably got a walker, and a hearing aid, and an assisted living doghouse near the fire hydrant. In the record business, though, twenty years is like a century. Most acts don’t last that long. If they do, they’ve probably been irrelevant for the past 15 of those 20 years. The majority of hit records these days are forgotten within minutes after they’ve fallen off the chart, and radio play stops. Labels tend to survive longer, but usually in name only. CEO’s, and A&R people come and go. Artists are signed today, and dropped tomorrow. It’s a business where the future is now, the present past, and the past never was.
     So when a record label manages to survive intact for two decades with essentially the same person or persons in place adhering to the label’s original design and vision, it’s cause for celebration. Alive Natural Sound is that label, and 2015 marks the label’s 20th Anniversary. The artist roster has changed, but Alive is still Alive, and better than ever.
     I think the first record I bought on the label was Gear Blues by Thee Michelle Gun Elephant – a record that seemed to be enjoying some good press – enough to get my interest anyway. It’s actually the 40th release in the label’s discography, so I was a bit late to the party. But as time passed and the Bomp label became more of an imprint and a mail order operation than a working label, I began to notice more releases in the Bomp catalog on the Alive label, and I began buying the odd title now and again out of curiosity, and a desire to hear some new music that didn’t sound anything like what I was hearing on the radio. But for the longest time I couldn’t get a handle on the label. I liked the records I was getting, but while they shared some similarities and some of the same characteristics, they were very different to listen to. So what I would call an identity did not emerge for some time – at least not in my mind. But I kept going, certain that identity would emerge at some point. When I heard Alive 044, I knew I was in for the long haul. The Big Come Up by The Black Keys wasn’t the first good record on Alive, but it was the first classic to my ears. It gave me a hook to hang my hat on, and when I heard the name or thought about the label, it was that record that came to mind. That record served notice that this was a label that mattered. This was a label on the fast track to bigger and better things.
     If you look at the next couple of dozen releases on the label, you won’t see many names that you would recognize today. Most of the acts are out of the business or they’ve morphed into something else. But I can vouch for a lot of those records because I own most of them. There was a sound and an approach to what the label was doing that kept me coming back even though a clear label identity had still not yet emerged.
     Alive 070 was the eponymous debut of a band from my neck of the woods called Buffalo Killers. And within short order Alive had also released records by bands like Radio Moscow, Black Diamond Heavies, Brimstone Howl, Bloody Hollies and Left Lane Cruiser that clearly defined the label’s commitment to the electric guitar. And this was at a time when you didn’t hear a lot of electric guitars. People had traded them for acoustics, or for keyboards or synthesizers. The few who still played electric guitars had messed with the tunings or bought guitars with too many strings on them and turned the raw, honest emotion I loved in my rock records into a lot of unlistenable squalling and whining and screaming. Only Alive seemed dedicated to the purity and essence of the electric guitar. They signed bands whose sound prominently featured the electric guitar and these guys could play. So here we are another decade down the road, and the Alive catalog has soul records, and pop records, and blues records, and even a few records that lean toward Americana. But the foundation is still the electric guitar.
     You can hear some of what you might have missed on the just released Rock & Roll Is A Beautiful Thing-The Alive Natural Sound 20th Anniversary, a two record set featuring 21 of the label’s best artists who helped define the label’s sound. Every genre I listed is represented, and the label’s most important acts are here. The past and present come together, and if this is what Alive’s future will sound like, count me in. Even if you’ve been buying records on the label for as long as I have, you don’t have these songs because these are either all new, and previously unreleased, or new to vinyl. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and the trademark “Alive Natural Sound” runs through every track. If you don’t know Alive at all, begin here.


      If a 20th anniversary celebration wasn’t enough, the label has had a very active year thus far. There’s a Record Store Day release by Shoes (a band that once cut a record for Bomp) called Primal Vinyl. It’s jammed with all sorts of classics and rarities, many never on vinyl before. Shoes have been around now for nearly 40 years, and they’re still making great power pop records.
     Alive has the first solo effort from Buffalo Killers front man Andy Gabbard. Fluff has the Killers sound, but leans a bit more in the pop direction than the Killers – but only slightly. The whole thing was cut in a single day, so it has that freshness records retain when they’re not overcooked. The CD adds four live bonus tracks from a December show, and there’s even a New Order cover among them.
     Left Lane Cruiser’s Dirty Spliff Blues is more of the high speed, amphetamine-fueled electric blues the band is known for, and of the six LP’s the band has cut for Alive, this is up there with my personal favorite, Painkillers, a 2012 effort with James Leg.
     Prima Donna, a band from L.A. with three previous records under its belt on other labels, has released Nine Lives and Forty-Fives on Alive. This is a terrific straight-ahead rock record that wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place as part of the 80’s alt-rock scene on the West Coast. We used to take records like this for granted because they were the order of the day. But nobody makes records like this anymore, and this one is an oasis in the desert that is contemporary rock. There’s even a most excellent cover of the great Dwight Twilley Band masterpiece I’m On Fire, and a cover of Blondie’s Rip Her To Shreds to complement the album’s smokin’ originals. I haven’t heard the previous records, but I can recommend this one. Prima Donna is a band with one foot in 2015, and the other in 1978 - my kind of band.
     Finally, don’t miss a new release from a band called Datura4, titled Demon Blues. The band hails from Fremantle in Western Australia. Their collective resume includes bands like The Stems, DM3 and New Christs. There are guitars and hooks aplenty, and a bunch of great songs including one called Another Planet that sounds like a Top 10 single in another age, and Journey Home, where the electric guitar is your propulsion system, and the driving beat your GPS. Yeah, Datura4’s Demon Blues is one of the best things I’ve heard this year.
     And I have to mention, before I sign off here, that there is a brand new album on the Bomp label by a great band called The Loons, led by the legendary Mike Stax who publishes Ugly Things magazine, a former member of The Crawdaddys and Tell-Tale Hearts who recorded for Greg Shaw’s Voxx label. Inside Out Your Mind owes a stylish debt to all the great records and bands of the 60’s British Invasion while the band retains its own identity as an updated classic pop-psych outfit with an R&B base. This album along with Datura4, especially, haven’t been off my turntable or out of my CD player since I got them.
     To find out more about these albums and so many more visit: http://www.alive-records.com/, and to buy them go to: http://www.bompstore.com/. The label does everything in both vinyl and CD formats, and a lot of vinyl is of the colored, limited, collectible variety (like the photo at the top of the page). And if you want a list of all the label’s releases, I have them here at The Recordchanger Blogspot exclusively: http://therecordchanger.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-alive-natural-sound-discography.html. It was updated earlier this week.
     So it turns out, rock ain’t dead. It just moved to Los Angeles.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE (Short Fiction)

     Charlie Dennis had another bad day at work today. Instead of going home to his empty house, he decided to stop by Manny’s Tavern for a drink to take some of the edge off. Charlie’s boss was driving him crazy. The guy seemed hell-bent on making Charlie and everyone else on the receiving dock miserable with his idiotic ideas, his paranoia, his power trips, and his insecurities. Charlie had never seen anybody like this guy. He was a textbook case for extended therapy with a licensed professional. There wasn’t much chance he’d be committed to a mental hospital, though, and that meant he’d continue driving Charlie and his work pals insane. Charlie wasn’t sure how much more of it he could take. He’d taken this job hoping to hang on to it until he could retire. He’d supervised receiving operations at a major home furniture retailer until that company decided they could get somebody younger to do his job for less money. So they forced Charlie out with trumped up accusations that his attitude was bad, and his work less productive. But it was all lies. Charlie didn’t arrive with a bad attitude. It was instilled in him by a company that was mis-managed at the highest levels and looking for middle managers to shoulder the blame. When Charlie saw the handwriting on the wall, he quit before they had a chance to fire him, and took a subordinate position with a big box retailer doing the same kind of work without the authority. He figured that might make him less of a target, and he might be able to stay employed long enough to maximize his social security benefits. If he hadn’t needed the healthcare coverage, he might’ve taken early retirement, but after his wife died of cancer a couple of years ago, he knew he couldn’t afford to let the coverage go. After all, even with it his wife’s hospital bills had almost gutted what he’d saved for their retirement. Now he was looking at retirement as his chance to see his son and daughter and the three grandchildren they’d given him more often than just on the holidays.
     But this new job was just a different version of the same thing – a badly managed company with a team of young managers who couldn’t trouble-shoot or solve problems, or think for themselves. When Charlie or his co-workers tried to help by offering workable solutions, they were told the failings were theirs, and they needed to work harder. Charlie, even at his age, did twice the work of the guys around him half his age. But it didn’t matter, and there was nobody willing to listen or help. He was on his own. All he wanted to be was invisible. He wanted to do his work, and when it was quitting time, go home – even if the house was empty. But there was a target on all their backs because their bosses were incompetent and clueless. And his boss was the worst.
     “Charlie! How the hell are you? You haven’t been in for ages. What are you drinking?” asked Derek (Charlie nicknamed him ‘Deke’), who’d been tending bar at Manny’s for as long as Charlie could remember.
     “If I said ‘the usual’ Deke, would you remember?”
     “Bourbon, straight. Right?”
     “Right. You remembered!”
     “Well it’s not complicated. How’ve you been? Still moving furniture off trucks?”
     “Nah, I left there about a year ago. Took a job over at Darnell’s when they first came in. But it’s driving me crazy.” Charlie took a seat at the bar. The place wasn’t too busy yet considering the Mavs were playing later. The place was usually busy when the Mavs were in town since the arena was just a couple of miles up the road. There was a young couple at one of the tables, and a couple more guys that looked like rummies at the other end of the bar, and one guy to Charlie’s left nursing a drink, and dipping into the peanuts.
     “Boss got you down?” asked Derek.
     “You have no idea.”
     “Wanna talk about it? I got nothin’ better to do.”
     “Nah, I don’t wanna bore you with my problems.”
     “Come on, Charlie. Might make you feel better.”
     “Well, alright. But remember you asked. And stop me if I start breaking things.”
     “Jeez, that bad, huh?”
     “Yeah. All I wanted to do was find something quiet that would keep me until I could retire. But at my age, everybody I work with is a kid – even the managers. And they’re just useless. No idea how to do their jobs. And when things fall apart they start looking for people to blame. You know?”
       “I hear that from a lot of guys these days. The middle class workingman just keeps getting squeezed.”
      “Ain’t that the truth? They don’t wanna pay anybody to do the work, and then they wanna know why the work isn’t done. It’s all bottom-line economics. But you can’t operate these big places without people, and you gotta pay them. Hell, I barely make enough to shop there as it is. If they could they’d fire all of us, and call the warden at the penitentiary and ask him to send over a work detail they didn’t have to pay. They might as well. They already run the place like a prison. The inmates would be right at home.”
     “Well, why don’t you look for something else?”
     “ I’d never get a look from anybody. I’ve applied at a few places the past couple of months, but I can’t even get an interview. It’s that age thing. They think a guy my age couldn’t possible bring anything to the table. I’m trapped, and that’s all there is to it. At least I can still drink. They haven’t taken that away from me yet. How ‘bout another one?”
     He no sooner requested a second drink from the bartender when the man sitting to his left – the peanut muncher – turned to him and said, “That one’s on me Derek.”
     Surprised, Charlie turned to him and said, “Aw, hey, that’s not necessary. You don’t even know me.”
     “That’s all right,” the stranger replied. "Sounds like you could use another one. I’m happy to do it.”
     “But you –“
     “Mark’s the name, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
     “Well alright, if you insist. But I’ll get the next one.”
     “Look, Charlie is it?”
     “Yeah, Charlie Dennis.”
     “Well Charlie, I couldn’t help overhearing you, and I think maybe I might be able to help if you’re interested.”
     “Help how? You mean with a job?”
     “Well, not exactly. I have a business, but it’s not the line of work you’re in. But you got my attention when you said you were trapped. I might be able to give you a way out. Of course there’s a risk involved, but the choice would be all yours to make, and if you’re not interested, no harm done.”
     “Look, Mark – Mark, right?”
     Mark nodded.
     “Look, Mark. I can’t afford to get involved in anything illegal if that’s what you have in mind.”
     “Oh no. Not at all. Nothing of the kind. I’m just a very successful guy that hates to see the working man taking it on the chin all the time, and I’m in a position to help people sometimes, and when I see an opportunity, I make an offer.”
     “So you’re a ‘Good Samaritan’?
     “Well I guess you could say that. But I don’t have any ulterior motives if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m just trying to give something back.”
     “Well I suppose there’s no harm in hearing you out.”
     “Why don’t we let Derek tend to his customers since the place is starting to get busy, and let’s you and I take our drinks over to that corner table so we can talk privately?”
     Charlie nodded, left a couple of bills on the bar, picked up his drink and followed this “Good Samaritan” to the corner table. The two men sat down, and Mark dipped into the bowl of peanuts he’d taken from the bar.
     The two men looked into one another’s eyes for a moment, and then Charlie broke the silence. “I’m all ears.”
     “Good. Now let me make the pitch before you say anything and when I’m finished, I’ll be glad to answer any questions you might have.”
     Mark continued, “You ever see that game show Wheel of Fortune?”
     Charlie nodded, and then raised an eyebrow.
     “So you’re familiar with The Big Wheel, and taking chances then.”
     “Sure,” said Charlie.
     “Okay then. Would you believe me if I told you I have a wheel like that one in my office, and that with that wheel I can provide you a choice – a way out of your predicament?”
      Charlie looked at Mark like he had lost his mind. His only reply was an incredulous, “What?”
     “I’m serious. I have a wheel. You can spin that wheel, and choose your way out. There are two possibilities on the wheel, and I can make either happen for you. I’m in a financial position to do this. But it’s not charity. I don’t figure you for the type to take charity. A proud workingman isn’t looking for a handout. What he needs is a choice. That’s the spot you’re in, Charlie. And I can provide that choice.”
     “Okay. Let’s say, for a minute, that I don’t think you’re some kind of crackpot. What choices can you give me, and how does this work?”
     “You come with me to my office. You’ll spin the wheel. There are color slots on the wheel – half the slots are green and half are red. You spin my wheel, and if green comes up, you can retire immediately with full benefits. You’ll never have to go to work again.”
     “And if I spin red, then what?” asked Charlie.
     “Here’s where the risk comes in – and it’s a big risk. I won’t lie to you. If you get red on the wheel, it’s death.”
     “You’re going to kill me because I got the color red on your wheel? What the f-“
     “Wait a minute, Charlie. I’m not going to kill you. What I can do for you, however, is put you in touch with a physician who – well, let’s just say he has a special practice – and he can, for lack of a better way to put it – end your misery.”
     “Isn’t that illegal?”
     “In all but four states, yeah. And this is one of the illegal states. But we can arrange to transfer you to the legal state of your choice, and take care of things for you, and your troubles will be over.”
     “Yeah, along with my life!”
     “Charlie, calm down. The choice is yours. I just detected a sense of resignation about your working situation, and a desperation on your part to put an end to it. And I have a way to do that, so I’m making the offer. You seem like a standup guy. You deserve better treatment at the hands of your employer. But the reality of the age we live in is that it’s probably never going to get any better – at least not for guys of your generation. You’ve become almost invisible. You feel helpless – like you don’t have any say in your own future, and no control over how the rest of your life will play out. And you deserve better than that after working hard your whole life.”
     “So you’re telling me you can either set up my retirement a few years early or you can put me out of my misery by arranging –“ Charlie couldn’t finish that sentence.
     “You married, Charlie?”
     “I was. My wife passed away a couple of years ago. Cancer.”
     “I’m sorry. Any children?”
     “Two, a boy and girl. Both grown, married, and living out of state. I’ve got three grandkids, too.”
     “Well maybe that second option is too great a risk for you to consider, and if that’s the case, you can reject the offer, and just go on with life as it is. Maybe you’ll find another way out.”
      Charlie sat quietly for the next several minutes as Mark finished the bowl of peanuts. Finally, it was Mark who said, “Tell you what, Charlie. You don’t have to decide right now. You’ve had a long, bad day. Why don’t you let me give you a present?” And he reached into his pocket and withdrew what looked like a ticket, and a couple of slips of paper. He handed them to Charlie.
      “What are these?” asked Charlie.
      “The ticket will get you into tonight’s Mavs game. It might take your mind off your troubles for an evening. Wish I could offer you a better game, but the Knicks are in town tonight. There’s also a parking pass, and a voucher good at the concession stands for free food and drink. Go to the game, get your mind off your troubles, and then come see me.”
     “Come see you?”
     “I’ll be in my office. Ask one of the security people to bring you to my office. Tell them you’re the appointment Mark told them about, and they’ll bring you right up.”
     “So you work at the arena?”
     “Yeah, you might say that. You don’t follow basketball do you?”
     “Nah, not too much these days. Did when I was a kid. I grew up watching the Royals.”
     “You’re from Ohio then?”
     “Originally, yeah. I didn’t move to Texas till I married my wife. She had family here.”
     “So you saw Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas in their heyday?”
     “Oh yeah. Those guys were amazing. How’d you know about them? You don’t look old enough to-“
     “Oh, I’m a student of the game. I’ve done my homework.”
     “Sounds like it.”
     “Yeah, well anyway, go enjoy the game. Come see me after, and if you don’t, I’ll take that as a sign that you’ve thought it over and you’re not interested in my offer. And if that’s the case, then I wish you nothing but the best of luck. Is there anything else you want to ask me about all this? Any questions at all?”
     “When people ask you about the wheel in your office, what do you say?”
     “Oh I tell them it’s the wheel that won me my fortune.”
     “That’s not true is it?”
     “No, of course not. I got my fortune through a lot of hard work, and some luck, too. But you’d be surprised how many people believe it was the wheel. These days everybody thinks they can find a substitute for old-fashioned ingenuity and hard work. But there’s no substitute. You want to be successful, hard work, and maybe some good luck and timing are necessary. There are no shortcuts – no matter what the media tells you.”
      “So the wheel is – as far as anyone knows – just a conversation piece?”
      “For the most part. Although every once in awhile it comes in handy when I’ve got a stalemate with an employee over a contract. We solve it with a spin. Saves bringing in an arbitrator.”
       Charlie was quiet again, and Mark asked, “Anything else?”
      “You’re not Satan by any chance are you? I mean let’s say I spin the wheel and get green. You’re not gonna set me up for retirement, and then I get run over by a car on my way to get a newspaper the next morning?”
     “Charlie, do you even believe in Satan?”
     “Nah. Not really. But this seems like something he might be involved in.”
     Mark chuckled. “Charlie, I assure you it’s on the up and up. The only guy who thinks I might be Satan is the commissioner, and he’s almost always wrong.”
     “Okay. Well, thanks for the ticket. Maybe you’ll see me later, I just don’t know.”
     “Okay Charlie. Whatever you decide, I want to thank you for doing your part to make a world where a guy like me had a chance to grow up and be successful. I don’t take your contribution lightly even if your boss does. I hope you remember that the next time you have trouble sleeping.”

     Charlie stood up, looked Mark in the eye one last time, and turned and headed out the door of Manny’s. He had a lot of thinking to do. But first, all he wanted to do was sit in the American Airlines Arena and watch the hometown team dismantle the New York Knicks.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

BRIAN'S REALLY BACK


The new Brian Wilson album came out this week. I know I'm a bit prejudiced, but I have to say that based on No Pier Pressure, the Beach Boys reunion album That's Why God Made The Radio, and his previous solo album That Lucky Old Sun, Brian is doing work equal to anything he's done at any time in his career. Every musical gift he possesses (and he seems to have them all) is in full bloom as he approaches his 72nd birthday. I don't know of any other rock or pop musician working at quite this level - not Dylan, not Morrison, not McCartney. Maybe what we're hearing is all that music he had inside him all those years when he wasn't healthy, and it's finally coming out. The other thing I've come to realize is that while The Beach Boys are no longer a functioning unit, the music they made has become an entity all its own. Brian designed it, and he can recreate that classic sound anytime he likes with any musicians he cares to use. I'm not diminishing the contributions the rest of the band members made, but they were simply the tools he used to build the house of sound he, and he alone designed. If we're talking about rock or pop, in my lifetime, he has no peer as far as I'm concerned. I'm so glad he survived it all. What a blessing to still have him after all these years and at the top of his game.








Tuesday, March 31, 2015

MUSIC QUARTERLY

     Where has the time gone? The year is a quarter past already, and the winter has been reluctant to loosen its grip on our privates, and yet, 2015 has already yielded some rad, some might even say bitchin’ music. I don’t use either of those words generally, but in this case they certainly apply. I don’t acquire music at the speed to which I’d become accustomed when my wife was my meal ticket. Now I have to earn every penny, and then pinch them until they cry uncle. When I get enough of them in the piggy bank, I pry open the underside (this little piggy has been fixed), extract the cash and go directly to the computer or to the cheapest place around to spend it before my car breaks down, and hijacks my good time.
     January is easy because we’re coming out of Christmas, and then my birthday hits so I usually have some gift cards to spend online because I never give people any idea what to buy me. So, they take the easy route and get me gift cards (which is what I want anyway). I used the gift cards and a little cash to pick up a bunch of cheap soul CD’s (a couple of Marvin Gaye titles, I Want You and Marvin Gaye and His Girls, collections by The Gap Band, Ohio Players, and Betty Wright, and a 5 CD box – the first five releases of her career - for pennies by the magnificent Anita Baker whose voice I would like to convert to honey and pour all over me). I also scored a couple of deluxe edition reissues by The Allman Brothers Band (Eat A Peach and Brothers & Sisters – both of which were spectacular. ‘Peach’ came with a second CD of an unreleased show from The Fillmore East that’s almost as good as the original Fillmore East album. And Brothers & Sisters has some outtakes, jams & rehearsals from the sessions. I won a deluxe edition of Supertramp’s Crime of the Century album from Redbeard’s In The Studio website, and that came with a bonus CD of a live show from the tour the band undertook to promote the album. I bought Crypt Records Back From The Grave Vols. 9 & 10 (see the January blog piece), and I was in a shop that sells used CD’s and found Albert Ayler’s In Greenwich Village. Albert is an acquired taste for most people, but like many of the jazz avant-garde musicians is well worth the time. I own quite a bit of Albert’s stuff, and this is among the best I’ve heard. I think it cost me 4 bucks used.

     February arrived with a chip on its shoulder, and I needed a change of pace. So I went to the Archiv website which specializes in classical music. A couple of years ago I was listening to an episode of Desert Island Discs from the BBC, and writer James Ellroy picked as one of his eight desert island discs, violinist Itzhak Perlman’s treatment of Jean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor – a piece that sounds how winter feels. I loved the short clip I heard on the program, and made a note to pick it up at some point. Archiv had it on sale at a great price, and I jumped. Not long after, some records I pre-ordered were released and arrived in my mailbox. I don’t buy many records these days because vinyl prices are ridiculous. Buying a bag of high grade cocaine directly from a Mexican cartel is cheaper, but every once in awhile an artist or label isn’t greedy and charges what the record is worth so working stiffs like me don’t have to donate blood to afford them. Bob Dylan’s Shadows In The Night set of standards is wonderful and affordable, and Bob gives you the CD free when you buy the record. Bob is like that uncle you always hope comes to the family reunion because he’ll bring a cool gift and regale you with stories while the rest of the family annoys one another. Sundazed records unearthed some authentic live garage rock from 1966 – a very good year (I was 9, and I remember every day of it). Shadows of Knight were one of Chicago’s favorite sons during that period, and on Live 1966 they are captured in all their ragged glory at The Cellar Club. The Standells, another garage rock band from the city of angels opened a show at Hill Auditorium for none other than The Beach Boys in, of all places, Ann Arbor Michigan in October of that hallowed year. And fortunately for me, some Good Samaritan brought a tape recorder along and documented the show for posterity. I couldn’t go at the time because I didn’t live in Ann Arbor, I didn’t have a car or a license since I was 9, and, unless my memory is faulty, I also had homework that night. So thank god for tape recorders. Why it took 49 years for the tapes to become a record called Live On Tour-1966! is beyond my comprehension, but it arrived before I died, so it’s all good. The Standells were a great live act, and this show probably had The Beach Boys trembling in their deck shoes backstage. 

     So I turn the calendar page to March, and the frickin’ winter is still at the house like an inconsiderate houseguest with bowel trouble. I can’t stand it anymore. Something has to give. Either winter has to end, or there has to be music so good that it warms me until my skin actually begins to tan. A miracle was needed. I looked up in the sky, the clouds parted, and something came sailing down from above and clonked me right on the head. Rhino records compiled a 2 CD set of some of the finest recordings ever by one of the greatest guitarists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Steve Howe of Yes. Packaged in a sleeve featuring classic Roger Dean cover art, Anthology is the Steve Howe album everyone should own. There are thirty-three tracks spanning about 45 years, and when it finishes playing, you simply hit repeat and listen to it all over again. Howe is respected and revered by Yes fans, and prog lovers the world over, but he’s criminally underrated by everyone else. This set leaves them all in the dust. I was still mainlining the Howe record when word arrived from the underground that there was a new Ornette Coleman album that had been released with no fanfare and zero publicity around the first of the year. New Vocabulary was recorded in 2009 with a band including Jordan McLean on trumpet and
electronics, Amir Ziv on drums, and Adam Holzman on piano on two tracks. The result is like nothing Ornette has ever done before. At 80, here’s the last genius of jazz making new, innovative and groundbreaking music. On System Dialing records available by mail order, New Vocabulary is a stunner. It’s like listening to God speak.
     That should’ve been enough to tide me over for the rest of the year, and if it had been all there was, I’d have been happy and proclaimed 2015 a great year for music. But there was more to come. A new Van Morrison record? Seriously? That’s what it said in my Facebook feed direct from the Van Morrison page. Duets: Reworking The Catalogue has Van re-recording some of his finest material with a very talented cast of collaborators, and in nearly every case, the new recording eclipses the original. Dare I say it? This is the most commercial Van Morrison record in years, and yet it does not sacrifice a single thing to the creative muse. It’s just the greatest artist in Irish history doing his thing as well as he ever has. He made two choices that made the difference. He picked the collaborators – people he likes and respects. And the songs he chose are not obvious choices, but lend themselves to collaboration. Left to a record label, he’d have been re-recording Moondance with the likes of Katy Perry, Blake Shelton, and Sam Smith.
     A trip to the used bookstore resulted in my adding the late Johnny Winter’s final record Step Back to my collection. I tried a couple of times to get the vinyl after it was released, and it was out of stock from a couple of websites. But I got it at a great price, and while it’s not quite as good as its predecessor, Roots, it’s a fine record in its own right, and a nice cap to an extraordinary life and career. I also found a reissue of the original Johnny Burnette & The Rock ‘N Roll Trio LP from 1956. This is barn burning rockabilly, and if I was to make a list of the ten most essential rock ‘n roll albums from the 1950’s, this is on the list.
     I get catalogues in the mail from a vendor called Daedalus Books. They specialize in discounted books, DVD’s, and CD’s, and a recent catalogue yielded a magnificent jazz duo recording from pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland called The Art of Conversation. I completely missed this when it was released last October. How good is it? Well, if I hadn’t missed it, and it would’ve reached my ears before the end of 2014, it would’ve been my #1 album of last year. Better late than never. It’s a masterpiece. No kidding. It’s one of those albums you could give to someone that professes not to like jazz, and they would spend the rest of their lives in your debt. Also from that catalog I picked up for under 10 bucks, Hyde Park Live by The Rolling Stones, 2 CD’s and a DVD of the 2013 concert the band played at Hyde Park in London on the 45th anniversary of the last time they played there. It’s The Rolling Stones, so naturally I have nothing bad to say about it. But this is actually a superb performance from the band. It’s so good that I would call it the best late-period live Stones album (late period covering the past 15 years). Seriously, if you think they’ve had it and should hang it up, check this out. It’ll kick your young ass around the block a few times.
     The Daedalus catalog had one more gem I couldn’t resist. In January, Deutsche Grammophon collected five collaborations spanning 45 years between pianist Martha Argerich, and conductor Claudio Abbado in a single box set that was discounted to 15 dollars, and I was powerless to resist. Martha Argerich has been a favorite of mine since a co-worker at Borders Books recommended her to me 20 years ago. These concertos by Prokofiev, Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Mozart capture Argerich at her best, and show why she and Abbado have worked together so often and so successfully over the past five decades. I don’t dip my toes into classical waters that often, but when I do, I want the best.

     The rest of the year can only be a big honkin’ letdown musically, right? Well, maybe not. There’s a new Brian Wilson album coming, a new Todd Rundgren, too. Whitesnake have recorded a tribute to my all-time favorite headbangers Deep Purple, and Graham Parker and The Rumour have another new one coming. So there’s plenty to look forward to. And who knows? Maybe winter is finally over as well. As Eric Burdon once sang, “You want to find the truth in life, don’t pass music by. And you know I would not lie. No I would not lie. No I would not lie. Down in Monterey.” That’s my street, so close enough.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

BRIAN ENO AND CREATIVE THOUGHT

     A good day for me at work involves little or no contact at all with either of my bosses, zero interference with my work process, and a minimum of idiotic behavior from everyone around me. I haven’t had a good day at work since 1991.
     The past few weeks have been particularly trying because nearly everyone I work with – especially my bosses – seems hell bent on making the job harder, and finding new ways to do things in the worst possible way. There is no one in a position of authority capable of making sound decisions, troubleshooting problems, thinking outside the box, or following through on any task. There is no premium placed on creative thinking. In fact, creative thinking, like dedication and commitment to excellence, is actually discouraged because it slows the entire process down which results in using more payroll to get the job done on time. So rather than finish the job and do so accurately and efficiently, the goal is to finish the job as fast as possible, and don’t trouble yourself about errors (although you will be blamed for them later when and if they’re discovered). I’ve been dwelling in such an environment now for far too long, and for several reasons, I’m stuck where I am with the only hope of escape retirement (still several years off) or an early death. At this point, death seems like the better option.
     I have almost no tolerance whatsoever anymore for stupidity. The more I witness it, the angrier it makes me. I went to work this morning anticipating another bad day at work, and a possible skirmish with either or both of my bosses (based on some things that happened yesterday which I won’t bother to detail here). Since I can’t afford to lose my temper and mouth off and possibly get fired, and since gunning them down in cold blood would result in some jail time – at least – I decided I’d better figure out some way to keep my temper in check. Time to fire up the iPod.
     I needed something calming, but intelligent. The music that immediately came to mind was that of Brian Eno. I own quite a bit of Eno’s work, but I wanted to create an aural experience that would wrap me in a sort of safety net at work regardless of what I might encounter when I got there. So I went to YouTube, and typed in Brian Eno interview. Any number of choices popped up, and I downloaded three separate interviews each of 25 minutes in length and spanning the past 15 years or so. Brian Eno enjoys talking about his work, and is very forthcoming about sharing the thought processes that inform his work. I put together a file alternating an ambient work with an interview. The music would calm me, and allow me to focus on something other than my work (not a problem since I can do what I do on autopilot), and the interviews would engage my intellect – which usually starves when I’m at work. 
     Listening to Brian Eno’s music is its own reward. Hearing him talk, in detail, about how he came to create that music is an education – an education in creative thinking, keen observation, logic, reason, articulate communication, and the joys of invention. Eno tells a couple of different stories to illustrate how he came to invent the ambient music genre. He delves into why he created the 77 Million Paintings project (he is also an accomplished visual artist). He talks about the pleasures of the collaborative process, and seeing his own working methods as that of a curator (someone that puts together seemingly dissimilar things causing the audience to think about them in new and different ways). One of the most fascinating concepts he discussed, however, related to what he referred to as “generative art”. Asked to define it, he replied, “the responsibility of the artist becomes inventing a system that produces his work rather than just producing the work.” He went on to explain his 77 Million Paintings project as creating several works, and then writing a computer program which will recreate and reproduce those initial works in as many as 77 million different ways without replication. This was all new to me even though the project was initiated a decade ago.
     That’s the kind of creative thinking that energizes me. I truly enjoy hearing creative people talk about how they do what they do. It’s my misfortune to be in an environment each day that kills the spirit, and rots the mind because if there’s a single concept I hold as sacred in my advancing years, it’s a dedication to creative thought. It’s the only way we can continue to grow and evolve as human beings. One must continue to observe and to ask questions. One must look for new ideas, ways to break old habits, invent methods for discarding destructive or non-constructive behaviors, and to actively exercise the mind so that some growth and evolution happens on a daily basis in spite of one’s environment. I use music and the spoken (and written) word as tools to help me do that. Brian Eno is a perfect example of a thinking man’s artist because he is interested in viewing all of life conceptually. Ideas can come from anywhere, and any single idea mated with another and another can become the agent of one’s own evolution. That’s what art is for. That’s why art matters.

_____

     Any thinking artist can provide a great deal of stimulation if you take the time to explore the work, and learn how the work was created. If you want to start with Brian Eno, I can recommend the following as starting points. How far you want to go is up to you.

SELECTED RECORDINGS
Another Green World
Discreet Music
Before and After Science
Ambient 1: Music For Airports
Apollo: Atmospheres and Landscapes
Thursday Afternoon
January 07003: Bell Studies For The Clock of the Long Now
Evening Star (with Robert Fripp)
My Life In The Bush of Ghosts (with David Byrne)
The Pearl (with Harold Budd)
Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (with Harold Budd)
Wrong Way Up (with John Cale)
Drawn From Life (with J. Peter Schwalm)

FILM
Imaginary Landscapes (documentary)

DVD
77 Million Paintings

INTERVIEWS
In Conversation/Artscape
HARDtalk with Peter Dobbie
One On One (from the BBC)
Desert Island Discs (BBC4 – available free from iTunes)

The interviews above are available along with countless others on YouTube except where noted. Imaginary Landscapes is also available on YouTube as is most of Brian Eno’s music catalog. For more information on 77 Million Paintings, go to Wikipedia, and do a Google image search for “77 Million Paintings”.


     I’ve not experienced all of Brian Eno’s music or art by any means, but I feel I can recommend them because there is an artist’s sensibility that informs and energizes all of his work. He is, by any measure, one of the great artists of his time, and well worth thorough investigation.