The Last DJ: SiriusXM

12 May

As they say about anything addictive, the first taste is free.

When we bought a new car a few months ago, it came with a three-month trial subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio. Since it wouldn’t be my primary ride, I didn’t think this would matter much to me, but once I realized 1) we were going on a cross-country vacation and this could save me from 20+ hours of radio hell, 2) I could also access the stations via the web and a phone app and 3) there is a station dedicated to playing repeats of Tom Petty’s Buried Treasure 24/7, I knew it would spell my doom.

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Paying for satellite radio seems practically un-American

I am not a fan of the concept of satellite radio. I believe that, like schools and security, radio ought to be a free service existing for the public good, providing listeners a quality listening experience with as much variety and as few commercials as possible. Following this logic, I should cut my Comcast cord, slap the round antenna back onto my television and be grateful for the times I can get PBS without too much snow on the screen … and turn off the TV during pledge drives.

Many problems exist with this model now, particularly for rock enthusiasts. There are only so many channels on the dial, and that sorry few have to balance popular taste (which is often an oxymoron), the sheer quantity of rock songs produced since “Rocket 88″ started the fad, and the overwhelming competition from more flexible streaming options that serve every possible taste.

Streaming sites have their advantages, particularly the fact that anything that’s ever been recorded is right there, a few keystrokes away. If you detest commercials or crappy loading speeds, you can pay for their services, meaning that instead of being completely ripped off, signed artists might make minimum wage once their songs get played approximately 1.1 million times. (Check out the amazingly depressing infographic to see how the streaming sites stack up in terms of how well they pay their artists … if at all.)

But what if you have lousy taste and want to expand your horizons? What if you don’t have a patient older brother (or cool mom) to take you through the milk crates or playlists? Who’s going to tell you what’s worth your time? The answer is DJs: music geeks with robust personalities, vast musical memories and voices with a bit of grit. That’s what’s missing from the streaming sites, and that’s what got me hooked on SiriusXM good and quick.

Little Steven's Underground GarageThe E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt is a pillar of SiriusXM as the leader of his namesake Underground Garage channel. In addition to his own show, he’s got a passel of DJs “spinning” a great mix of gritty rock classics, recent pop punk and little-known gems including a weekly Coolest Song in the World. My favorite is Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators NYC – check him out here and on tour:

I’m sure the other 964 channels have their charms, and one has Tom Petty 24/7, which I may have mentioned already (ahem). I’ll have to find out before my six-month fix subscription runs out …

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Need a beach read? Love and Other B-Sides is the perfect paperback for summer: breezy, romantic, and holds up in the heat!

More Notes from Nashville: The Grand Ole Opry

30 Apr

One to-do that was a must-do during my inaugural trip to Nashville: the Grand Ole Opry. I’m not being hipster snarky ironic about this: for real and for true, I looked forward to it.

Grand Ole OpryThe Grand Ole Opry has broadcast a radio show on WSM 650 AM for the last 90 years. Now situated in a performance space next to a humongous shopping mall – which was fully rebuilt following the 2010 flood devastation – the Opry features country musicians of all types over four 30-minute sets. Programming is as devoted to tradition as Top 40, featuring old-guard Members as well as more recent Guest Artists doing two or three songs each, interspersed with comedians and commercial spots for Cracker Barrel. The back-up musicians are no slouches, either.

As much as I genuinely love lap pedal steel guitar (and I teared up when the square dancers hit the stage), this is far from being a museum piece. It’s a continuing celebration of all that Nashville represents.

I came to see Rhiannon Giddens. She is a phenomenal fiddler and banjo player with a thrilling, classically trained voice that can wrap around Piedmont folk songs and Bob Dylan lyrics with equal ease. A founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, she’s embarking on a solo career supported by T Bone Burnett, who fell for her fearlessness when she performed “Waterboy” as part of a star-studded concert prior to the release of Inside Llewyn Davis. Here she is, singing that song for David Letterman:

Midway through the evening, she strode onto the Opry stage, tall and barefoot in a twilight blue dress. She only did two numbers – the Patsy Cline song, “She’s Got You,” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel tune, “Up Above My Head” – but that was all it took to turn my family into fans. It was a pity she didn’t play an instrument, too; maybe next time.

Chris Janson

As far as my younger daughter was concerned, though, the highlight of the evening was Chris Janson, a scrawny singer/songwriter in a motorcycle jacket whose teeth and hair made up half his body weight. Janson exemplifies what rock music typically lacks: a charming sense of humor. To wit, here’s a non-Opry version of the song that won my daughter’s heart:

Take it from me: you go to the Opry, you’ll enjoy yourself, even if you’re more a fan of Johnny Cash than Johnny Paycheck … and speaking of the Man in Black, Nashville’s Johnny Cash Museum is worth a visit, even if you just want a cup of Bongo Java coffee. More on that later.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Just a few days remain to sign up for the 2015 Detroit Working Writers Conference, taking place May 16 in Troy, which includes a workshop about “Finding Your Writing Niche” led by yours truly. Hope to see you in a darkened conference room soon!

Notes from Nashville

20 Apr Hee Haw Honeys

At last, I have made the pilgrimage to Nashville, and I’m still basking in the barbecue-basted afterglow.

Nashville string bandThis city is teeming with talent, since this is where musicians and songwriters from all over the world come to make their fortunes. In the meantime, they have to make a living, keep their chops up and be ready for the next gig that could be the big break. So no matter where you go, music squirts out of every doorway and windowsill and pours out of bars and burger joints, and it’s almost always crazy great.

Want bonafide old-timey music with a side of sleeve tattoos? You got it outside of the Boot Country store on Broadway (see above). Want to hear Stevie Ray Vaughan’s take on “Little Wing” even though he’s moved on to the Great Beyond? Order some sweet potato fries at Paradise Park Trailer Resort and give a listen to the house band at 3:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. Need to unwind after a long day of driving? Go to your hotel lobby and hear a gal do a credible acoustic version of “Angel from Montgomery” as you take in the exhibition of works by painter/musician Ray Stephenson that includes a portrait of John Prine.

Rock came up from country music of all stripes – gospel, Texas swing, hill music, blues – and that bloodline is being celebrated now at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in their current exhibit, “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats.” The logo and other poster art was commissioned from Jon Langford, a musician with the punk band the Mekons:

Nashville Cats artwork

Even without this terrific exhibit – showcasing the time in the 1960s and early 1970s when Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash came to Nashville to record, followed by Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt and many others – I would have gotten a kick out of the place. I grew up in the early 1970s watching The Porter Wagoner Show and Hee Haw. Plus, my brother lived the Urban Cowboy life in the early 1980s when he worked in Houston, and I spent a lot of time with that film’s soundtrack. The fiddles and banjos, the wigs and rhinestones, the Qiana and the cowboy boots: it’s part of my childhood. (Sadly, the volume on the Hee Haw video clips at the Hall of Fame was so low, my daughter could not fully appreciate the comic stylings of the Hee Haw Honeys.)Hee Haw Honeys

Still, I sped up once I got to the displayes featuring stars of the 1990s and beyond. I have no time for Garth Brooks or Brad Paisley or the other Top 40 country guys. Also, no matter how many articles I read about how Taylor Swift is a critical favorite as well as great person on and off stage, I just can’t bring myself to give her music a listen. Just considering it makes my neck stiffen.

Clearly I am one of those insufferable snobs Chuck Klosterman called out in “Toby over Moby,” a 2003 essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:

[T]hey’ve managed to figure out the most rudimentary rule of pop sociology; they know that hipsters gauge the coolness of others by their espoused taste in sound and they know that hipsters hate modern country music. And they hate it because it speaks to normal people in a tangible, rational manner.

Klosterman goes on to call alternative country “the most popular musical genre of the last twenty-five years that’s managed to remain completely unpopular.” (I have at least half of the albums featured in the Hall of Fame’s alt-country display … ahem.)

But the sincerity of pop country gets dulled by bro country‘s formulaic songwriting and singers Auto-tuned into sameness. There is so much better stuff available. Classic material from Hank Williams and Willie Nelson hasn’t lost its luster, and 21st century musicians – the Punch Brothers, the Old Crow Medicine Show, and Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, to name a few – are reclaiming and reinterpreting the old-time catchiness of roots music without being precious about it. Plus, musicians on the rock-and-roll side of the spectrum like Jack White and Dan Auerbach make Nashville their home, soaking up the traditions and giving a platform to lesser known yet absurdly talented locals.

And on top of all this is the Grand Ole Opry, still exemplifying the best in country and roots music after 90 years on the air. More on that to follow.

See you on the flip side …

Great artists steal, questionable artists lose copyright suits: Robin Thicke and the “Blurred Lines” suit

12 Mar

The jury has spoken: “Blurred Lines” is a rip-off of “Got to Give It Up,” and Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke owe the family of Marvin Gaye $7.3 million.

Robin Thicke - now with a reason to sweat Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ambism/

Robin Thicke, now with even more reasons to sweat
Source: Ambism

And Robin Thicke has spoken: he is a music weasel.

This has been an emotional case since the Gaye family began the suit in August 2013. Marvin Gaye was a true musical genius, and his 1977 song about getting up the courage to get out on the dance floor is a funky tune that makes it nearly impossible to stay still. Gaye died way too young – at the hands of his own father, no less – and his children are rightly concerned about preserving his legacy.

Then you have “Blurred Lines,” which is as much of an ear worm as “Got to Give It Up” yet has none of the innovation and taste of the Gaye classic. Its insidious popularity was stoked by a bazillion views of its video featuring Live Nude Girls. It’s also responsible for your grandmother knowing what twerking is, thanks to Miley Cyrus joining Thicke at the VMAs.

What is fascinating about this case is that the Gayes do not have the rights to the produced song, only the sheet music. The prosecution brought in musicologists to instruct the jury on what to look for on paper that would constitute plagiarism, since the family couldn’t play the version of the song most people are familiar with.

Marvin GayeA casual listener to both songs would hear “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” have a lot in common: cowbell, a bass-driven groove, crowd noise and so on. (To my ear, they are much more alike than “Free Fallin'” and “Stay With Me”, an unintentional incident of plagiarism that was settled between the artists without a lawsuit.) But if you had to examine the chord changes on paper, I’m not sure the similarities would be obvious.

Making the trial even weirder, Robin Thicke ducked responsibility for creating the contentious song in the first place, saying Pharrell Williams wrote pretty much everything because Thicke was too drunk and high to do so. In his deposition excerpted in The Hollywood Reporter, he admitted:

I was high on Vicodin and alcohol when I showed up at the studio. So my recollection is when we made the song, I thought I wanted — I  — I wanted to be more involved than I actually was by the time, nine months later, it became a huge hit and I wanted credit. So I started kind of convincing myself that I was a little more part of it than I was and I — because I didn’t want him — I wanted some credit for this big hit. But the reality is, is that Pharrell had the beat and he wrote almost every single part of the song.”

Once they heard that, I wonder if the jury’s musical morality overran the facts of the case. The good people in the jury box probably looked at Thicke, who threw his songwriting partner under the bus while also admitting he was jealous and lazy, and thought, “I don’t care if there isn’t a single note in common. This sorry excuse of a music weasel doesn’t deserve a dime.”

You know who I’m worried about now, though? “Weird Al” Yankovic. Now his song is a work of true genius:

See you on the flip side …

From underground obscurity to international phenomenon: “It Came From Detroit”

2 Mar

It Came From DetroitThank goodness I moved to Detroit when I did. If I’d arrived in the 1990s, I probably wouldn’t have been able to hold down a steady job or get any sleep because I would have spent every spare dollar and minute in a scuzzy bar somewhere downtown listening to garage bands.

I know this thanks to a very thoughtful gift from my cousins-in-law: a copy of the 2013 documentary, It Came from Detroit, chronicling the garage scene before, during and after the White Stripes made it big and gave the world a glimpse of the home-grown music scene.

The way the musicians tell it in the film, many of these bands were formed out of boredom by music geeks who clogged the aisles of record stores looking for albums by early 1960s American bands like Bay City’s own ? and the Mysterians. Having no experience playing an instrument wasn’t necessarily a barrier; friends would pick up a guitar or a pair of drum sticks and jump right in. As more bands formed, they took over whatever space was cheap and available (dive bars, bowling alleys, stripper transvestite clubs) to play for whoever would show up. The sound – fuzzed up, fun and really loud – was dubbed “Detroit garage rock.”

The crowds grew, the bands (which often shared or swapped players) got better known around town, and while they weren’t exactly able to quit their day jobs, bands like The Demolition Doll Rods, Electric Six and The Detroit Cobras were able to play rock music their way – as this video from The Gories shows:

 

Then came Jack and Meg White.

Jack had played with a number of Detroit bands like Rocket 455 and the Hentchmen, but once the White Stripes started, they were on a different trajectory. The documentary uses their rise to the top as a line of demarcation between a time when music was just a way for friends to get together by making music, and one in which Detroit bands like the Von Bondies were getting national praise and international exposure … which didn’t last long.

It Came From Detroit took ten years to film and features dozens of interviews and music clips. I’m glad that many of these bands are still playing (I’ve seen a couple recently) and grateful their commitment to having fun onstage hasn’t waned. And as for those that are hiatus or broke up long ago, at least we can experience some of that Motor City magic on screen. As my cousin writes,

Looking back it was by far the most enjoyable job I have ever had. For 9 years 3-4 nights a week my job was to go witness great rock and roll shows, well for the most part at least.

There are lots of stories to go along with all those shows. It did kind of dampen my enthusiasm of seeing national acts in larger venues, knowing that I saw so many great bands that were just as good and many times far better than those big touring bands.

Buy the documentary, spread the word, and share your experiences here. In the meantime, enjoy this clip from Ann Arbor-based The Paybacks:

 

See you on the flip side …

Good artists copy, great artists steal: Tom Petty, Sam Smith and so many others

13 Feb

Especially in the wake of Sam Smith cleaning up at the Grammys, I’m sure you’ve been waiting with bated breath for me to chime in about the revelation that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne will each get 12.5% of his royalties for the mega-hit “Stay With Me” because of the similarities between its melody and that of “I Won’t Back Down.”

Sorry to take so long to comment about this because … well, I’m torn.

No surprise I’d like to come down on Tom’s side, especially as he graciously said in his Facebook page statement there was no lawsuit and he has no hard feelings because “these things can happen.” Smith stated that when the similarities were pointed out, his team agreed to name Petty and Lynne as co-writers even though he hadn’t ever heard Petty’s song because “I am 22 years old.” (Snap!)

But here’s the thing: Petty’s people hunted down Smith’s for royalties, even though he just shrugged it off when other acts blatantly ripped off his work on purpose. To wit:

  • “Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers mimics the licks and the lyrics of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (although this YouTubian blames their common producer, Rick Rubin)
  • The Strokes admitted they lifted a lot of “American Girl” in their 2001 tune, “Last Nite” – which, according to Petty, “made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’”

So why did he go after Sam Smith? There can be any number of cynical reasons, leading off with Lynne and Petty wanting a piece of his revenue stream to see them into their sunset years. Perhaps this is also part of some kind of campaign to remind the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame folks to induct ELO on the ballot next year.

As for me, I’d like to think it’s retribution on behalf of their great friend and fellow Wilbury, George Harrison.My Sweet Lord

He's So Fine“My Sweet Lord” was the first single off of Harrison’s 1970 solo album, All Things Must Pass. In January 1971, music publisher Bright Tunes sued him over similarities between Harrison’s hit and “He’s So Fine,” a Ronald Mack song made popular by The Chiffons in 1963. The suit lingered on for years and was settled in favor of Bright Tunes when the judge determined Harrison had committed “subconscious” plagiarism and owed $1.6 million in damages. But from the start, Harrison contended he was actually inspired by a different song: “Oh, Happy Day,” a hymn that was in public domain.

The additional kick in the head? By the time the suit went to trial in 1981 (having begun in 1976), Bright Tunes was owned by Allen Klein, Harrison’s manager who had advised him when the suit began. Harrison eventually bought Klein out for $587,000 to settle the case, and it took until 1998 to wrap up all the loose ends. It cast a lingering pall over Harrison’s songwriting, although he found a way to laugh about it at the time:

(Extra points if you can identify the comely blonde juror in the black hat.)

So, in my vain hope that Tom Petty was being somehow altruistic when he sloughed off thousands of dollars from a man who had no knowledge of his music, I choose to see the “Won’t Back Down”/”Stay With Me” settlement as karma … because in the music business, what goes around, comes around.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Love is on the airwaves! Get your copy of Love and Other B-Sides for the Valentine in your life!

New to the Rock & Roll Bookshelf – Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of “Purple Rain”

30 Jan

Where were you when you first saw Purple Rain?

If you graduated high school within five years on either side of me, I’m almost certain you saw it in a packed theater. Given it opened in July 1984, you probably had to wait in a long, sweltering line to get in. You might have been amazed to be part of a racially mixed crowd (or, in our case at the Broad Street Cinema in the West End of Richmond, to be pretty much the only white people there).

Lets Go Crazy book coverAnd when the movie started and you heard Prince intone, “Dearly beloved,” your mind and your ears were blown simultaneously.

He played like Jimi Hendrix, squealed like Little Richard and danced like James Brown. His size and style took androgyny to uncharted territory. You readily forgave the movie’s porny women’s roles, the ridiculous dialogue and amateur acting – although Morris Day and the Time were almost worth the price of admission alone – because Prince was so off-the-charts RIGHTEOUS!

Rock writer Alan Light was a Cincinnati high school grad spending his last summer at home before college when Prince’s semi-autobiographical extravaganza came out. In his latest book, Let’s Go Crazy, he  provides as much of the backstory as he can about the making of the movie without being able to interview Prince anew or reprint any photos. As the many online lists of “things you didn’t know about Prince” demonstrate, there’s still a lot here to delight long-time fans, especially the commentary by Wendy (Melvoin) and Lisa (Coleman) of the Revolution.

But Light has a larger mission. He wants to prove why Prince matters, since anyone younger than him (us) may never have the opportunity to see what the man can really do. That’s not just because he’s not touring as much or because his albums have been a really mixed bag since Sign O’ the Times. As Light points out, Prince’s drive to keep moving forward – propelled by his exceptional ego – is destroying much of his legacy.

Prince is prolifically innovative in terms of erasing himself from the historical record. After all, he changed his name to a symbol, introducing the meme “the ___ formerly known as ___” before we knew what memes even were. During his bitter feud with Warner Brothers, he’d perform with “SLAVE” Sharpied on his cheek so the label couldn’t use the photos for promotions. His professional reputation was just as disposable. Lest we forget, in the space of only four years

Purple Rain album

he went from this …

Parade

to this …

Around the World in a Day

then this …

and this ...

and, amazingly, this …

yet still ended up here

yet still ended up here

Prince is also famous for tracking down every scrap of online video and yanking it. I tried to find some early 1980s material to share in this post and came up empty: nothing from Purple Rain, none of the salacious MTV videos that primed us for the movie. (I did find a grainy version of his music video for “Kiss” on a German music site, featuring Melvoin in brocade for old times’ sake.)

Of course it’s Prince’s world and we just live in it, so he is perfectly within his rights to disavow his earlier stuff in order to follow his faith, control his image and promote the newest version of himself. While he’s still technically brilliant and can drop a really good album when he wants to (or two, as he did last fall), I doubt that will ever be enough to turn the younger generation into the hyperventilating, crazy-eyed fans we Xers will always be.

Biggest Prince Fans Ever

And that’s a damn shame.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Valentine’s Day is coming up – the perfect time to woo the rock-and-roller in your life with a copy of Love and Other B-Sides!

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