Monday, December 27, 2010

I Am a Music Magnet

I have more records than Guinness. More CDs than Citibank. And more cassettes than even a third world flea market could ever hope to unload.

I’m a radio station waiting to happen. My girlfriend has threatened—on more than one occasion—to make my embarrassment of musical riches public on Hoarders: Buried Alive.

This is only because Intervention is off the air.

How did this happen? How did a generally neat and organized person like myself end up with a sprawling, immovable mass of record albums, compact discs and cassettes? After weeks of careful and considered scientific investigation, I have come to this conclusion: It’s grandma’s fault.

Grandma was the silver-haired enabler who placed the gateway drug of a transistor radio into my innocent, eight-year-old hands one Christmas. Two summers earlier, it was through her well-intentioned, grandmotherly largesse that I received the first of my long-playing phonograph albums, the soundtrack to A Hard Day’s Night.

A deliberate pattern of exposure and indulgence had been set. It should be obvious that with adult influences like these, I didn’t stand a chance. I was at risk. It wasn’t long before I was displaying the behavior of a musiholic.

I knew the weekly Top Ten like my classmates knew their multiplication tables. I was in the world’s most hard-to-iron shirt (my mother’s words) the second it was out of the dryer because it resembled one George Harrison wore on the cover of Beatles VI.

I memorized song lyrics with a facile ease I could never locate when it came to committing Bible passages to memory for Sunday school. I organized primitive karaoke and air guitar sessions with fellow obsessives in the neighborhood, lip-syncing to Beatles’ albums as we played our "guitars".

This soon evolved to actual singing and the strumming of wooden planks, on which we had drawn tuning pegs, strings, pickups and volume knobs with magic marker.

In the parlance of the day, I was a scream. Little wonder my parents so rarely sought entertainment outside the home. And come to think of it, where’s my check from Rock Band?

Then there was the radio. The plastic Pandora’s Box that was to complete my undoing. It measured roughly seven inches by four, and if memory serves, was made by Crown.

It was in the slightly-garish style of early-Japanese electronics, with a cream-colored body, red accents and lots of fake gold trim. The click that sounded when I thumbed the volume dial was practically a prison door springing open.

WCFL and WLS were conduits for the electrical charge of Beatles’ harmonies, the fuzz-toned defiance of Rolling Stones’ riffs and the ache of Levi Stubbs’ vocals. I couldn't get enough. Unbeknownst to her, grandma had provided me with 24/7 access to my favorite drug.

Despite the rampant overstimulation of my tiny physiology, I can and did grow tired. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, In the Midnight Hour and Ticket to Ride were my usual lullabies. If not quite borne on the wings of angels, I drifted off to sleep to a honking horn section and James Jamerson’s bass kicking-off the latest Motown smash.

I also went through batteries like John Mayer does girlfriends.

There’s a line from a song which says “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.” And for better or worse, that is a perfect description of my formative years.

While I struggled with the complexities of math, science and grammar, I effortlessly came to understand the myriad of influences that shaped the music I love. If the definition of passion is what we devote ourselves to without thought of remuneration, then this was, and is, mine.

Best of all, I now understand I am not a hoarder. I'm an archivist.

Hear that, honey?

Friday, December 24, 2010

OMG!

I recently opened the stats function in Blogspot, and was astonished to find that a thousand of you from 14 different countries have visited this blog.

I can't imagine what I have to say that merits such attention, but I am honored by it. I hope somewhere down the line you have found a kindrid voice.

Or been semi-amused.

Or at least found a blog that successfully hides the Internet porn you're looking at from a spouse or boss.

If you'll excuse me now, I must climb the cliche tree, go too far out on a limb and hope desperately for understanding, unselfishness and leadership worthy of the name.

Merry Christmas to all of you. And a very happy new year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Wait

I was at K-Mart yesterday. Namely, it was to purchase a boot tray. Despite the $4.49 price tag, it is priceless when it comes to storing big, wet winter boots.

Once I had secured said tray, I headed towards the registers. That’s when I encountered the most jaw-dropping Christmas gift of the year: the camouflage Snuggie.

I ask you—is there a better example of conflicted? I mean, where do you even begin? Declaring your masculinity from underneath a Snuggie? Are you serious?

Marketing-types should know there are places where camouflage just doesn’t work: Smart cars. Taylor Swift albums. Eat Pray Love. And Snuggies.

Convincing the world you’re an alpha-male from beneath a Snuggie is Michael Buble pretending he's Fifty Cent.

Ours is a culture of intimidation. Confrontation. Which is why we embrace reality TV and enormous SUVs and threat-spewing conservatives. And if you want to wear camo, fine.

But do it right. Drive a big, black pick-up. Shave your head. And don't forget the sunglasses and Oakland Raiders T.

But a camouflage Snuggie? There isn't a calculator in the world that can make that add up.

On the other hand, you could always hope no one sees you. Which, come to think of it, was the original purpose of camouflage.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Confronting Confrontation

To paraphrase Albert Einstein, Barack Obama is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Given a mandate by an electorate fed-up with eight years of Republican policies, Obama seemed poised to lead America into a fresh, new era. Factoring in a Democratic-controlled Congress, the promise of January 20, 2009 seemed infinite.

But a funny thing happened. The electorate that thought it was getting a president committed to righting the wrongs of the Bush administration instead got a president routinely unable to corral congressional Democrats and get them on the same page to enact desperately-needed legislation.

A president who, despite being repeatedly subjected to the most-obnoxious elements of the conservative noise machine, attempted only to appease it.

We thought we were voting for the voice of change in November of 2008. It turns out we were voting for at-any-and-all-costs bipartisanship. In doing so, Obama has consistently snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

As a slight, bookish boy not given to athletics, I was overly familiar with bullies.

This came to a head one day as I was returning to school after lunch. I encountered Billy Smith on the sledding hill near my home, and for whatever reason, Billy was in a foul mood. He believed that giving me a beating would right all the wrong in his world.

I attempted to ignore him, gamely continuing on. But Billy would not be denied. And when he landed a punch to my face, I became enraged. I kicked and punched with a fury unknown to me. And as the fight moved to the steep rear slope of the hill, I saw my opportunity and pushed him down it.

It gave me great satisfaction to see him tumbling. To see him get scratched and bruised by the cement-like clumps of earth. And when he reached bottom, I heard a strange and unexpected sound—Billy the Bully was crying. I gathered my books and continued to school.

I felt empowered in a way I never had before.

Billy never touched me again, and even made an awkward attempt at friendship. But the enduring lesson I took from that day was that there is a small group of people who respect and understand just one thing: force.

It is sad. And it is unfortunate. But it is true.

It is also something Barack Obama will never understand.

In his news conference responding to criticism over a deal he cut with Republicans, Obama defended the compromise by saying that he couldn’t have working-class Americans held hostage by Republican threats.

What he doesn’t get is that by repeatedly kowtowing to the bully, he extends and entrenches the bullying. And consequently, the desperate state of the country he is entrusted to lead.

Mr. President, it's time to push Billy Smith down the hill.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ditto (A Post about Cover Versions)

Someone hears a song. They love it so much they have to record it. They hear an opportunity in the melody, the arrangement or the lyrics and voila! The song is reinvented. Recast. Reimagined.

The funny part comes when it bests the original.

One example is the Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On, a tidy, two-minute Motown single turned into a blazing, late-sixties epic of romantic torment by the Vanilla Fudge in a way the songwriters probably never could have imagined.

The opposite (and more popular) approach also works; taking a “big” song and stripping it down to its essence: lyrics and melody.

The most-famous cover version might be Whole Lotta Love. Did you know the Led Zeppelin chestnut is a retitled cop of Muddy Waters’ You Need Love?

While the theremin break is all Zeppelin’s, the song that virtually defines heavy metal comes courtesy of Mr. McKinley Morganfield, born in rural Mississippi years before World War I began.

In the weeks I spent compiling these, three things became clear: 1.) There are a couple of inspired Beatles’ covers. 2.) Rod Stewart is my favorite interpreter of other people’s songs. And 3.) No one has successfully covered the Rolling Stones.

It’s hard to hear a Beatles’ cover on its own, since the originals are all but indelible. It’s like watching a remake of your favorite film. You’re constantly comparing the casting, the script and the look to the original.

But Joe Cocker and Spooky Tooth pulled it off.

To a generation of Boomers, Rod Stewart stands as the example of talent tossed away. After a quartet of albums that brilliantly melded folk, soul and buoyant rock, he dissolved into a cartoonish stereotype.

But let’s give the man his due. From the late-sixties through the mid-seventies, there wasn’t a finer interpreter of the Isley Brothers, Sam Cooke or the Temptations on the planet.

Finally, I love the Rolling Stones. Few bands sound as singular. And while there are tons of Stones’ covers, none is very memorable. (Cobra Verde’s Play with Fire is probably best.)

Is this proof of their uniqueness, or the ultimate example of fan bias?

That said, here are my ten favorite covers, plus five I felt guilty about leaving off.

1. Piece of My Heart Janis Joplin
Erma Franklin (yes, that Franklin) cut the formidable original. But hearing Joplin lance the boil of her heartbreak on this 1968 edition makes the hair on my arms stand up. Nearly every female singer who has followed is in its debt.

2. Gloria The Shadows of Knight
It takes a fair bit of inspiration to make Van Morrison (who wrote and recorded the original) sound mannered and remote. But for two minutes and thirty-four seconds, this Arlington Heights, IL. garage band did exactly that.

3. House of the Rising Sun The Animals
Like Stagger Lee, this song has a long and storied past. And despite the countless alliterations, there is only one that matters. This simmers like foreplay before finally boiling over in a churchy swell of organ and Eric Burdon’s anguish. Awesome.

4. Respect Aretha Franklin
This song found its center when Franklin recorded it from a woman’s perspective. And it works on both a personal and a societal level. Despite the prodigious talents of the songwriter (Otis Redding), Aretha’s take crackles with a finger-wagging sass the original barely hinted at.

5. With a Little Help from My Friends Joe Cocker
This Beatles song was buried in the middle of Sgt. Pepper, given to Ringo to imbue with his hangdog charm. Cocker recasts it on his debut, turning a modest ode to friendship into a surging, majestic anthem of survival.

6. Nothing Compares 2 U Sinead O’Connor
For a time, Sinead O’Connor could do no wrong. Here, she takes a Prince giveaway and pours herself into the loneliness and hurt of love freshly lost. And the arrangement frames O'Connor's voice to sublime perfection.

7. (I Know) I’m Losing You Rod Stewart
This jewel comes from the Every Picture Tells a Story album, and is a shining example of how Motown can rock. A critic once wrote that Mickey Waller's drumming deserved the Nobel Prize in Physics. He wasn't lying.

8. What Was It You Wanted Willie Nelson
This Dylan tune from 1989’s Oh Mercy is given a haunting, minor key treatment that emphasizes its searching, unsettled lyric. Fred Tackett’s picking on the outro is just a bonus.

9. You Really Got a Hold on Me The Beatles
Among their many talents, the Beatles were pretty fair cover artists. John Lennon takes this 1962 Miracles’ hit and gives it a soulful reading that obliterates the original. Which is something not many people did to Smokey Robinson.

10. Girl from the North Country Secret Machines
This song always seemed more barren and windswept than Dylan presented it on John Wesley Harding. Secret Machines obviously felt the same, issuing this stark, synth-based rendition on their The Road Leads Where It’s Led EP.

Urge for Going -Tom Rush
He Was Really Saying Somethin’ -Bananarama
(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love & Understanding -Elvis Costello
Baby It’s You -Smith
Superstar -Sonic Youth

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Counter Culture, Pt. 2

You have manned the take-away register seven days out of the last eight. Co-workers greet you with comments of the “What did you do?” variety.

The register is awkward, being positioned on a postage stamp-sized cart with an acute shortage of space for groceries. Never mind the cell phones, purses, babies, water bottles and key rings shoppers have with them.

This is likely the reason for the ‘6 Items or Less’ sign. Thankfully, most of your customers can read. (But more about that later.)

There is even less room for maneuvering flimsy Styrofoam containers overfilled with sauces, dressings and gravies into plastic bags mounted on a rack only slightly more stable than Lindsay Lohan.

When pulled, the bags are supposed to tear along a perforation, much like a sheet of paper from a pad. But then, the Great Recession supposedly ended in June of 2009, too.

Then there is the change cup. By the time a customer is standing at the register paying for their groceries, it is actually positioned behind them.

So during the lunch hour, the line of customers is continually performing a polite but poorly-choreographed samba as they move backwards, and then forwards, to accommodate customers retrieving their change.

You wonder if this could be parlayed into a slot judging contestants on Dancing with the Stars. If not, you still retain one measure of celebrity, because the register is located in the store manager’s favorite area of the supermarket.

This means that when it’s 9:45 AM and there isn’t a long line of customers waiting to purchase BBQ, soup or salad at your register, you become visible in a manner desired only by unknown actors, writers and musicians.

You proffer reasoned arguments that your position is an on-demand one; that standing around is your job. They fall on deaf ears. The fact that it isn’t the lunch hour is never an excuse for it not being the lunch hour.

The area's track lighting is specifically arrayed to reflect off the stainless steel counter and into your eyes. Customers have observed that the resulting squint gives you an uncanny resemblance to Sergio Leone–era Clint Eastwood, especially when you don’t shave.

You are crestfallen when you learn that ponchos, cigars and black cowboy hats are prohibited by the store’s dress code.

In addition to the revolving door, there is also a traditional one store architects thoughtfully placed near the register. Due to their exhaustive studies of prevailing wind conditions, it allows maximum blasts of icy, Arctic air into the workspace.

Locking the door activates a silent alarm in the manager's Blackberry. Or at least seems to. Technically, there is a wall-mounted space heater near the door. But only in the same sense that technically, you are no longer unemployed.

So yes, employees clamor to work here.

Strange things happen. Like the time you are summoned to the main registers to cover for several late-arriving employees. You shut-off your light, flip the sign to ‘Closed’ and head to the front of the store.

When you return some twenty minutes later, there are several people waiting at the register. You didn’t know ‘closed’ also meant ‘wait’. You are staggered.

The knock-out punch arrives courtesy of the woman at the front of the line, who says “You were open when I came in here.”

You choke back several less-considered responses before telling her you're sorry, but you had to help out in another part of the store. She repeats herself before snatching her bag and storming off.

The sixty-ish man behind her is irritated also. “You could’ve told someone how long you’d be gone so people didn’t wait around all day.”

He slaps a ten-dollar bill on the counter. You look for Ashton Kutcher. This is an episode of Punked.

You desire fervently to tell him that your ESP is in the shop for its 60,000-mile check-up, thereby inhibiting your ability to predict the future. But you wear a name tag, and despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, this man may know how to read.

Instead, you tell him you’re sorry. He is unmoved.

You hand him his bags without saying “The door is straight ahead. And unlike my register, it’s open.” This is a small-but-important victory.

As is resisting the powerful and insistent urge to quit.