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A change has gotta come

4 Jul

It’s been hard to post lately. My get up and go … got up and went.

I kind of ran out of gas when confronted by mounting evidence that rock and roll is becoming a dead language. Sure, I can listen to Greta Van Fleet and marvel at how much those kids from Frankenmuth, Michigan sound just like Led Zeppelin, but that isn’t moving the genre forward. My idols were back in the news for the wrong reasons. Prince and Tom Petty had more in common than that glorious version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony: both were felled by fentanyl taken to ease the pain of their screwed-up hips after decades on the road. Plus, my iPod – the power source for my astoundingly superior musical taste – is spinning its last. Its obsolescence is a gloomy metaphor for the state of the art form.

Jonathan Van Ness kitty pic

The real Kleenex moment this episode: Jonathan petting baby kitties! SQUEE!

I’ve tried to assuage my ennui by binge-watching Queer Eye and slowly paging through The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones, by Rich Cohen … both well worth the time, both modern takes on nostalgic favorites.

Fact is, I’ve had to turn my attentions elsewhere. In case you haven’t noticed, America’s public institutions are being threatened, vandalized and outright incinerated right now. It’s so dire, I have been driven to do something I never thought I’d do: become politically active.

While I have long had a strong interest in current events, and I turn out to vote in every election (you’re welcome), I have never put my money where my mouth is until this year. It’s not simply that I am a Democrat in a Republican era. This administration’s brute ignorance, blithe corruption and sinister disregard for the humanity of others leaves me no choice but call, and write, and argue, and donate and march, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!”

My first political rally was the Women’s March in Lansing last January. Clever, biting protest signs are the price of admission to these events, and I didn’tWomen's March 2018 want to disappoint. I wanted it to convey who I am and what I stand for. I wanted to promote positivity rather than spew insults. I wanted it to be so awesome that perfect strangers would take photos of my sign to share with their broad-based social media platforms.

As you can see from the far more awesome signs created by my daughters, for any of that to happen, my pop culture references need to crawl into the 21st century. (There was a moment when I got a tap on the shoulder from a gal with her phone ready to take a photo. As I was prepping for my closeup, she said tersely, “Could you move your sign out of the way? I want to take a picture of the Beyoncé poster.”)

Concerned Citizen 3

I. Mean. Business.

Since then, I’ve attended candidate forums and signed petitions. I’ve written postcards encouraging people to register and vote in the primaries. I was even featured asking a question at a televised town hall focused on reducing gun violence in schools. I’ve coached my younger daughter as she led the walkout at her school after Parkland, and I’ve ensured my older one registered in her new Brooklyn precinct.

Families Belong Together MarchAnd yet, it often feels like it doesn’t add up to much. Each day brings more to be angry about; each news item piles on disgust and despair. I never had to worry about the safety of my nearly 30-year relationship with my female partner before now. I never imagined tearing children away from their asylum-seeking families and incarcerating them would be considered okay by anyone, much less Americans. I am astonished by how fear and greed have overwhelmed common sense and compassion. And I feel helpless.

I hate feeling helpless.

So I continue to call, and write, and argue, and donate and march, believing that by showing up again and again, I and millions of others will break through the bullshit and make the world a better place – for I do not intend to let democracy die on my watch.

See you on the flip side … and at the polls!

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Guaranteed to sell with dead faces on the front: Rolling Stone celebrates 50 years

6 Nov

Rolling Stone magazine is turning 50 this year, and CBS Sunday Morning kicked off its show this week with an interview with Jann Wenner, who began the counterculture mainstay when he was just 21. Over the years it’s gone from newsprint to glossy, oversized magazine to what is now a slim, stapled publication that is more an advertisement for its online material as anything substantive. In the CBS interview, Wenner talked about why he has put the publication up for sale last September, explaining it needs to “live on its own.” That’s code for, “It’s breathing its last, and I don’t want to be here to watch my baby die.”

At least, that’s how I hear it.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame RS installation

The news itself is now the story: Rolling Stone’s 50 Years anniversary retrospective at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

I’ve been a subscriber since sophomore year of college. (I still remember the string of scolding dunning notices I got from the publisher in 1982 saying, “Bruce Springsteen pays his bills; so should you.” I replied in my final, successful letter, “Here’s another copy of my canceled check from three months ago. Signed, Bruce S.”) I did my thesis on Hunter S. Thompson (and named one of my kids in his honor). I became enough of a fan of Annie Leibovitz, David Fricke, Mikal Gilmore and many other journalists to buy their books and tune into their podcasts. For decades, the magazine has been tactile proof of the permanence and importance of what I hold dear: rock music, self-satisfied leftie politics, innovative celebrity photography and Dave Grohl gushing about his mom.

RS’s sale is yet another sobering sign that all of that may be coming to an end. Chuck Klosterman just published X, a terrific collection of essays on his two abiding loves: sports and earsplitting, ridiculous heavy metal. (Gotta hand it to a guy who invests 10,000 words into justifying his devotion to KISS yet retains his self-respect.) In the final piece,”Something Else,” he observed something both obvious and shocking enough to stop my breath: “Dying used to be an occupational risk to living like a rock star, but it’s now the primary thing rock stars do.” By extension, that’s now the publication’s reason for being:

 I have a friend who works at Rolling Stone magazine, and we sometimes play a party game where we speculate on whose death would (or would not) warrant the magazine’s cover…. It’s almost become a business decision: The only issues of Rolling Stone guaranteed to sell exceptionally well are the ones with dead faces on the front.

TP Rolling Stone coverSadly, Tom Petty was on the cover of the most recent issue for that very reason.

Perhaps it’s best that the publication passes the baton. Their reputation for investigative reporting took a near-lethal hit and lawsuits continue from the magazine’s debunked story about campus rapes at UVA, and they are not alone in railing against Trump and his cockamamie cronies. While they may feature Kendrick Lamar on the cover (between obituaries), it’s less because young rap enthusiasts read RS and more because older RS readers want to say they know something about rap. And it’s all about the video clips on the website now, accompanied by photos scaled to be viewed on iPhones. Times have changed.

Sob!

***

Thankfully, before I posted this and crawled off to drown my sorrows in a reasonably priced pinot noir, my younger daughter intervened. She assured me that rock music will continue to thrive as long as people like me continue to care. So, everyone out there, c’mon: clap your hands and say with me,

I do believe in rock and roll!
I do believe in rock and roll!
I do believe in rock and roll!
(fade out)

See you on the flip side …

Heartbroken: Tom Petty, RIP

4 Oct

Tom Petty in a vanWith all the literal disasters that have happened in the last month – three hurricanes, an earthquake, the horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas – it seems almost silly to be bereft over the loss of a rock musician.

And yet … Tom Petty seeped into all corners of my life. Sure, everyone has to go sometime, but his death came so abruptly without warning, it’s like the air has been sucked out of me. Jeez, I just saw his 40th anniversary concert in July. Even as he’d intimated this could be his and the Heartbreakers’ last large-scale tour, he also admitted he didn’t like to stay still and probably would renege on that vow. He had promised to release another album of songs from Wildflowers – his best era, in my opinion – and maybe do concerts in which he’d play the entire thing. He had so much more ahead of him. He was having such a good time.

TPATH photo - 1979

Petty became my reference point for all other music: you can connect him to practically any other major act in two steps. He recorded with two Beatles; he backed Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash; he shared the stage with everyone from Bo Diddley to Eric Clapton to Prince. His SiriusXM Buried Treasure show championed artists I now love: Lucinda Williams, Big Joe Turner, Ann Peebles, Louis Jordan, the Shangri-Las. He had incredible taste, which was a remarkable contrast to the bloated acts that clogged the 1970s when he came up in the business. And he kept up his songwriting chops throughout his career. Someone I read years ago pointed out that every one of his albums rated at least 7 out of 10; that was as true of Hypnotic Eye as his eponymous debut.

He also had a sense of humor. Witness his appearance on The Larry Sanders Show trying to clock Greg Kinnear and Clint Black:

 

And a flair for animation V/O:

 

There are any number of respectful obituaries that list Petty’s hits and talk about his talent for championing the underdog in his songs and his fights with his labels. Thing is, he was rarely included in critics’ lists of the “best” American rock musicians: that is an honor bestowed on Elvis, Dylan, Springsteen, and possibly Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry or other pioneers. That is probably because he was less an innovator than a craftsman. He and that insanely talented band of his, the Heartbreakers, could play just about anything, original songs or covers, from muscular chord-based rock to devastating ballads:

After that night in Vegas/ And the hell that we went through
We went down swingin’

Throughout the last 24 hours, I’ve received a lot of genuine condolences from friends and coworkers. My daughters have been checking on me often, offering support and shoulders to sigh on. My elder daughter pointed out what a privilege it is to connect deeply to an artist’s work during his lifetime, especially since he inspired me to create my own. (This blog and Love and Other B-Sides would not be here without me falling head first into his catalog.) I’ve also gotten some solace from listening to SiriusXM’s “wake” on his channel, with famous fans (Cameron Crowe, John Fogerty) and regular folks calling in to share what Tom Petty meant to them.

Means to them.

Means to us.

Means to me.

This is going to take a long time to get over, folks. Thank God we have each other.

See you on the flip side …

Reeling in the years: RIP Walter Becker

4 Sep

hugh-jackman-oklahoma

Perhaps I wouldn’t have cried if Hugh Jackman was singing it …

I know that some songs move people to tears. I’m one of the few I know who cry because of a chord change.

When I was little, I had a music box that played the chorus of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma. Seven notes in, when the tune hits that minor note on mor-, I’d get upset. Of course, music box tunes are inherently melancholy because they are always playing against time. From the first chime, the music is constantly slowing down until the works stop spinning and the tune cuts off mid-note, cuing deathlike silence. But this song hit me viscerally. Even though the melodic line quickly resolved with nin’ in the major, and the lyrics are nothing but optimistic, it made me feel sad.

This has continued throughout my life. The power of certain notes and musical phrases shakes me up: the three-deep harmony of the chorus of “The World Where You Live” by Crowded House; Arthur Rubin’s thrilling final “beautiful” notes of “Beautiful Girls” in Follies in Concert; the stirring chords underneath the solo line “and it move us all” in any rendition of “Circle of Life,” including my younger daughter’s middle school production. When I was pregnant with my older daughter, any time the then-popular tune “I Know” by Dionne Farris came on the radio, I’d get morning sickness. (I had previously liked that song enough to buy it on cassingle.)

photo by Marco Raaphorst

The worst of this overwrought sensitivity was inspired by Steely Dan. I grew up in the 1970s, when they were inescapable, and I literally couldn’t stand them. The sinuous, smoke-laden “Josie” made my stomach tighten. Even a brighter song like “Peg” gave me the shivers. Given how sheltered I was at the time, I have to imagine that this wasn’t just some low-grade synethesia, though: it was an allergic reaction to frank, complex “adult” rock after a steady diet of AM radio pap. It wasn’t until college that I could listen to Steely Dan and not only tolerate but enjoy their music. My aural palate had matured, just as I was willing to order broccoli in a restaurant and drink red wine for the taste. It also helped that I discovered they had a sense of humor; “My Old School,” with its passing reference to William & Mary, made me snicker.

With Walter Becker’s death on Sept. 3, there have been a lot of tributes from fans who credit him and his partner Donald Fagen for introducing them to the edgy pleasure of jazz. It’s hard to tease out Becker’s specific contributions to their music, since so much was done in collaboration with Fagen and their A-list of studio musicians. I saw Steely Dan twice: in the early 1990s as they toured on the Two Against Nature album, and last year in a double-header with Elvis Costello. Even in his youth, Becker was never attractive (not that Fagen was, either – he reminds me of one of my college professors whose sartorial choice in the 1980s was a pair of brown leather trousers that I could imagine Fagen wearing in some sort of academic cosplay situation). In 2016, when he’d take the mic to talk between songs, Becker rambled on in a confluence of anti-Republican politics and affirmations that he smoked weed. But his musical depth, craft and dexterity were strong throughout his career.

Steely Dan helped me appreciate the beauty of unresolved chords and unexpected melody lines. After all, not all mornings are beautiful, and there’s magic in the melancholy.

See you on the flip side …

 

 

Classic rock and writer’s block

20 Jul

This is the Age of the Great Blog Revival. Or at least the Week.

Three of the blogs I follow – Defending Axl RoseEvery Record Tells a Story and Soul Searching at Starbucks – recently posted new content after several days/weeks/months of silence. They inspired me to find out how much I remember about WordPress.

Officially, I put the blog aside a couple of years ago to focus on fiction. I also believed I’d exhausted my organizing principle: how, in the space of a generation, rock music has gone from rebellious teens giving their parents the proverbial finger to a great way for middle-aged suburbanites to bond with their kids. And after five years, my readership numbers were way down. Fewer and fewer people appreciated my humblebragging about being fortunate enough to see Bruce Springsteen, The Killers, Weezer, Nick Cage, Aretha Franklin and Spoon in the space of a year in three different countries (ahem). When I realized that no one – really, no one – cared that I scored spot at the lip of the stage at a Heartless Bastards concert at St. Andrew’s Hall so I could watch Craig Finn flare his nostrils as the opening act, I put the blog on a shelf.

Tom Petty - 2017Then Tom Petty came to town on his 40th anniversary concert tour this week, and the spark was rekindled.

Forty years ago there probably weren’t many musicians who expected to have a career in rock and roll. It was all single by single, show by show. Back then, Tom probably couldn’t have imagined ever being 66 years old, much less singing “American Girl” in the original key at that astronomical age. Yet here he is, still playing with some of the world’s best musical craftsmen he also calls friends, having the time of his life.

That palpable joy is what Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have that most bands don’t. They really dig making music. It doesn’t look like they regret playing “Refugee” for the umpteenth zillionth time, and they bring the same fire they did in the Seventies. Tom’s delight is infectious, his gratitude genuine.

I left the venue wondering, what’s out there that could bring me that much glee?

Writing. Duh.

Therefore, after a couple of years of false starts, a whale of a day job, a lot of negative self-talk and one too many hours spent in YouTube rat holes, I am determined to get back into the habit, produce some pages and care less about what others might think of my crappy first draft.

I even struck a bargain with myself:

 

I splurged on a baseball tour shirt, paying what we in our family call “loaded old people prices” to bring it home. Then, per my older daughter’s diabolically perfect advice, I handed it over to my younger daughter to keep until I’ve produced at least 40 pages of my next story. It’ll be a tangible reward for getting back into the game. Petty would be proud.

So, here’s to all you artists out there, whether your tool of choice is a Rickenbacker or a blog post. Your dedication is my inspiration. Now,  if you’ll excuse me, I have writing to do and stories to tell … and I really want to wear that great shirt before my September birthday. As Tom sings fifty times a summer,

And if she had to die/ trying, she
Had one little promise she was gonna keep

See you on the flip side …

 

RIP, David Bowie

11 Jan

 

BBC tribute to David Bowie

This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me

“Lazarus,” Blackstar

 

One of my favorite blog topics is how rock musicians reckon with aging in a profession that celebrates youth, recklessness and commercial certainty. Many pop stars who made their splash decades ago are perfectly okay with hauling around on the tour bus to sing their top 10 hits and hawk $100 hoodies over and over again. Others continue to produce new material and perfect their signature style, wearing it like a battered leather jacket that still has its original shape but has become more comfortable and recognizable over time.

Then there’s David Bowie. He’s in a universe by himself.

His last weeks were remarkable in their creative breadth and quality: releasing Blackstar, his critically acclaimed 25th studio album; launching his musical Lazarus off-Broadway;  getting delightfully spry portraits taken by a favorite photographer. The news that he had been diagnosed with cancer eighteen months ago throws all of this into a more profound light. He created these works knowing full well that his days were numbered, and still he pushed into new territory instead of standing in one place.

Blackstar’s producer Tony Visconti confirms that the album – and the music video for its song “Lazarus – was created as a “parting gift” to fans soon after his diagnosis to be released as he approached his death:

 

As Bowie intended, the imagery and lyrics are chilling, eerie and perfect.

Although this is as graceful an exit as any artist (or human being) could have, I’m still greedily wishing we could have seen him decades from now as a nonagenarian, still disrupting our notions of age, style, beauty and art. That’s a baton others will have to pick up.

When I heard about David Bowie’s death early this morning, I immediately posted a video of him performing “‘Heroes'” at Neil Young’s 1996 Bridge School Benefit – an alternate version of my favorite song of all time:

 

Yet the rest of the day, I couldn’t get “Life on Mars” out of my head. It’s not an upbeat story – few of his songs are – but as the song title makes you realize, there are other worlds to aim for and better realities to create:

See you on the flip side …

 

A Poem is a Naked Person: Leon Russell’s New 1974 Documentary

11 Nov

http://www.janusfilms.com/poem/downloads

“I’ll put on a show for you if you put on a show for me” (www.janusfilms.com/poem)

If you can hum “A Song for You,” “Tightrope” or “Superstar,” you already know more about Leon Russell than you’d learn from watching A Poem is a Naked Person. This free-form documentary has been kept out of distribution since it was completed in 1974 due to creative differences between Russell and director Les Blank, who chose to focus less on the musician and more on the crazy quilt of people surrounding him – including the director himself. Following Blank’s death in 2013, Russell relented, and now the film is making the rounds of art houses, including the Detroit Film Theater at the DIA.

Russell was in demand as a session pianist and arranger before he became better known as a songwriter and Joe Cocker’s long-haired bandleader for the Mad Dogs & Englishmen concerts in 1970. In the 1960s, he played behind everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Herb Alpert to the Rolling Stones. Working for Phil Spector, he arranged Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” He toured with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends; one such Friend, George Harrison, called him into service to manage the superstar line up playing the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. Around that time Russell released his first solo album, featuring “A Song for You” – which is as lovely a love song as ever was written.

poem_poster_smallBy the time Blank showed up in Oklahoma in 1972 with his cameras, Russell had founded the Shelter recording label and was building a studio in rural Tulsa to give a variety of musicians a place to play and develop. But instead of putting Russell center stage in his own documentary – a movie he spent $660,000 to produce – Blank looped in whatever image, sound or message he found interesting (undoubtedly made all the more interesting thanks to the huge quantities of drugs they must have ingested, if the ruby-red eyeballs and twitchy freak outs of Russell’s bandmates are any indication).

For a fan like me who’s eager to see Russell performing in his prime as a headliner rather than a band leader, the film is a frustrating experience. It captures a few moments of musical genius, like clips of Russell’s concert performances and studio sessions for his Hank Wilson’s Back country album, including George Jones singing a heartbreaking solo version of “Take Me.” But Blunt’s penchant for the bizarre overwhelms the impact of the music and the story of the star. In addition to a lot of b-roll of the (often toothless) denizens of Tulsa, the director wastes valuable screen time in order to pontificate about art and capitalism, demonstrated by a boa constrictor killing and swallowing a chick (you read that correctly). You can understand why Russell was less than happy.

Yet it’s not a total loss. Watching Russell play – gray-eyed and steel-haired, his elegant fingers rolling from gospel to honky-tonk to rock and roll – is transporting.  It’s worth the 90 minutes of drug-soaked oddness just to see that.

See you on the flip side …

Bonus Tom Petty trivia! In 1974, Petty and his Mudcrutch bandmates traveled from Florida to Los Angeles with a demo in hand. London Records offered them a record deal the first day they arrived, thanks to a mix of talent and beginner’s luck. Thrilled by the prospect, they went back home to sell everything they owned to relocate. While in rehearsal, they got a call from Leon Russell’s producing partner Denny Cordell, who convinced them to stop in Tulsa on their way to LA to meet him at the studio at Shelter Records. They spent the night, did a session in the studio and decided to sign with Shelter instead … which resulted in the first two albums Petty recorded with the Heartbreakers. 

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