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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 …

 

 

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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 …

 

All I Want For X-Mas: 9 Terrible, Weird, Strange Rock ‘n Roll Gifts

1 Dec

You still have a few shopping hours left on Cyber Monday to stock up on these distressingly awesome holiday gifts, as reviewed by my friend at Defending Axl Rose.

Defending Axl Rose

As we approach the “silly” season, my thoughts turn to shameless consumerism. I’m not a “reason for the season” kinda guy, but the older I get the more gift giving turns my stomach. A once proud element of fringe culture, rock ‘n roll has long be co-opted by “Big Gift.”

Earlier this week I fell down the rabbit-hole of tacky/puzzling/bizarre rock gifts. Here are my favorites.  And please, if I’m on your shopping list this holiday season…take notes.

1. Rolling Stone Brand Wine: I don’t know about you, but The Grateful Dead I always make me think of red wine. Rolling Stone, the purveyors of cool since before I was born, must have thought the same thing because they now have a line of classic rock-themed red wines that includes the famous jam band. There’s also a SYNCHRONICITY wine featuring the artwork from the Police album. And a DARK SIDE OF THE…

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Michigan Author Monday: Lisa Peers

24 Nov

My newfound friend – the author Laura Lee – featured me in her “Michigan Author Monday” blog!

Thanks so much, Laura, and be sure to follow her work as well: she’s got a rock-and-roll novel of her own coming out soon!

Story and Self

10670124_386076988209320_5687981732714972528_nTell me a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Virginia, went to Harvard and lived in Massachusetts until 1990, when my partner, our son and I moved to San Francisco. Two more kids later, we relocated to Oakland County in 2006 to be closer to her family, good schools, bumpy cake, and so forth.

During my time in San Francisco I earned my MFA in acting from the American Conservatory Theater and did dozens of musicals and cabaret performances in the San Francisco Bay area. I’ve always maintained a serious day job alongside my artistic career. Right now I am an executive communications manager for a metro Detroit health care system in addition to my work as a writer.

What inspired you to become a writer?

My mother published stories and articles that were carried in everything from Methodist national publications to True Romance. Her stories…

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New to the Rock and Roll Bookshelf: Memoirs by Graham Nash and Lisa Robinson

29 Sep

For someone who purports to being a novelist, I read very little fiction. I should probably do something about that.

Instead, I read biographies, autobiographies and memoirs about people in show business, many of whom are in the music industry (natch). For instance:

Lisa Robinson's backstage passes, or, another reason to wish you were her/ VanityFair.com

Lisa Robinson’s collection of all-access backstage passes, or, another reason I wish I was her/ VanityFair.com

There Goes Gravity: a life in Rock and Roll by Lisa Robinson 

Let’s get one thing straight: Lisa Robinson knows more rock stars than you ever will in your entire life. It’s up to you to get over your seething jealousy and enjoy the fruit of her labors as a journalist by reading this entertaining, intimate memoir about making a living by writing about the biggest names in rock and roll history.

Robinson is still one of the few women in her line of work. She got her start as the editor of several rock magazines then became a columnist for the New York Post and now is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. She was also on the nominating committee for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for 18 years.

Robinson championed Led Zeppelin at a time when they were being savaged by Rolling Stone and others, and that – and her deep knowledge of jazz and blues – earned her a seat on their private jet the Starship during their tours in the mid-1970s. Holding her own with those “lads” led to her covering the 1975 Rolling Stones tour along with Annie Leibovitz (riding the Starship again, as it turned out). Since then she’s covered everyone from John Lennon and Bono to Eminem and Lady Gaga.

She credits her knack for gaining her subjects’ trust to being a journalist rather than a critic, and she was able to offer a uniquely up-close perspective on the artists and their lifestyle by not getting swept up in the debauchery:

Often, I was the only woman in the room and certainly the only one who wasn’t sleeping with any of [the musicians]. I wanted to keep everything professional, to get the stories. For me, the lure was always the music. But if you’re not having sex with someone on a tour, or participating in the drugs, you really are on a different tour than everyone else.

Yes, she drops a lot of names but she’s earned that right. The photos from throughout her career – pointing a cassette recorder at an 11-year old Michael Jackson; sitting on David Johansen’s lap to chat to Freddie Mercury; reading a newspaper with Joe Strummer – are proof.

I liked this book so much I bought it after I returned it to the library. Check it out yourselves!

Graham Nash's Wild TalesWild Tales by Graham Nash

Graham Nash rightfully earned his place in rock history as a founder of  2 1/2 seminal bands: The Hollies and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and occasionally & Young). He was one of the organizers of the No Nukes concerts in 1979 that brought rock music together with environmental  fundraising. He has also enjoyed success as a solo musician, a photographer, book publisher and visual artist. Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars he blew on cocaine, he has survived and saved enough to enter his 70s living in Hawaii … with the time and means to fly into New York to participate in Occupy Wall Street.

Wild Tales chronicles Nash’s rise from the council projects of Salford to becoming a British Invasion sensation with the Hollies. Then the action moves over to nearly five decades of his ins and outs with various combinations of Stephen Stills (whom Nash depicts as a relentless egotist), David Crosby (best friend and cringe-inducing drug addict) and Neil Young (infuriating musical genius). Along the way, many women were loved (including Joni Mitchell and Rita Coolidge) and many drugs were done and, as Nash tells it, he was usually the one  stuck waiting for his friends to show up or sober up to perform. When contemplating reuniting with the Hollies in the early 1980s, he took the gig because

God almighty, was it easier to sing with the Hollies than with CSN! It was certainly more fun, less plagued with personal bullshit. No freebase, no egos, no Neil Young.

Humility is not his strong suit. Neither is literary finesse. That’s what makes this a rather tiring read.  At best Nash’s book, like his lyrics, demonstrate his straightforward charm, but often he gets preachy and pedestrian. Also, his overuse of nicknames (“Clarkie,” “Croz”) and his hippie grandpa phraseology – for instance, he refers to “smokin’ it” (it being marijuana) constantly – does him no favors. Still, he does have an insider’s view of the California music scene and all its unwashed glory, and his celestial harmonies should be celebrated and enjoyed two generations later. Rather than read about why he thinks they’re great, put your copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash on the turntable instead and experience Graham Nash’s best talents for yourself.

What’s on your nightstand these days? Let me know … even if it’s fiction.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. Do you use the Facebook? Stay up to date on the doings associated with my novel by liking the Love and Other B-Sides page there – and I hope to see you at my first author event on October 26 at Leon and Lulu in Clawson!

Check … Check … Name-Check …

19 May

Eric Church Springsteen KaraokeWe in metro Detroit are able to tune into CBC Radio 2 out of Windsor. It’s worth a listen despite my general lack of enthusiasm for Canadian rock music, mainly because you never know what you might hear next: jazz, world music, even a classic rock program hosted by Mr. “Takin’ Care of Business” himself, Randy Bachman.

Running errands last weekend, I heard the DJ recommend a Canadian singer/songwriter who is trying to snag the attention of her favorite rock star through a tribute song. The name of the song was enough to get me to check it out:

Now that I’ve listened to it all I can say is, I should not be so quick to take the advice of a Canadian DJ.

It’s nice and all but WWTPD? doesn’t live up to its title’s potential. It combines the Canuck tendency of being mildly amusing way too long with the infuriating pop country practice of name-checking a much better performer in an attempt to build credibility (or beg for a collaborator). And if this tune really does succeed in getting Mr. Petty’s professional attention, Ms. -Lee may be disappointed. As reported in Rolling Stone last year (with additional context from a nifty blog I just discovered, Saving Country Music), he’s got a major beef with bland pop country.

Don’t get me wrong. There are any number of terrific songs that mention other singers or groups – here are just a few:

  • Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music”
  • “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and “Losing My Edge” by LCD Soundsystem
  • Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”
  • “Runnin’ Down a Dream” by Tom Petty (who mentions singing along with Del Shannon, perhaps because Tom Petty produced some of his later work … and/or because Tom felt guilty about stealing bassist Howie Epstein away from Del to join the Heartbreakers)
  • and one of my favorites, “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon (although he’d probably reassess his opinion of Michael J. Fox at this point):

Likewise, there are any number of terrible ones:

  • “Moves Like Jagger” by what’s his name from The Voice
  • ABC’s “When Smokey Sings”
  • “R-O-C-K in the U-S-A” by John Mellencamp
  • “Don Henley Must Die,” also by Mojo Nixon (whose career pretty much died with this song)
  • and one of my least favorites, Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (name-checking musicians is the least of the song’s problems)

Ms. -Lee’s tune falls somewhere in the middle of the list, yet for me it’s as much a cautionary tale as a mediocre song. These days, name-checking has gone far beyond shoring up your street cred. It’s bad enough that we trick ourselves into believing we know stars personally because every scrap of their life stories is available online. With the blinding success of Justin Bieber, a Canadian (!) discovered by Usher via YouTube,  we’re being led to believe that celebrities are just a tweet or video clip away from becoming our champions or even our friends. We expect them to reply to our Facebook posts or retweet our compliments or otherwise acknowledge our existence, with a certainty that borders on madness. Let’s face it, they appreciate “the fans” but can’t possibly be expected to appreciate each fan individually … especially when someone’s angling for a favor in the process.

Moral of the story: if you name-check a rock legend, you’d better 1) have a damn good reason and 2) have a damn good song. Of course, if you’re dropping the name of a Nineties’ television phenomenon, knock yourself out:

(True confession: I was such a fan of The X-Files back in the day that I plunked down a chunk of change on eBay for a grainy, seventh-generation copy of this on VHS. Don’t judge me …)

See you on the flip side …

P.S. On a writerly note, The Story Cartel is once again offering its online writing workshop/marketing seminar. I highly recommend it to those who are considering writing creatively and haven’t taken that first step: this could be that first step. Because of the Story Cartel Course I got a lot of practical advice on self-publishing and promotion, social media, and simply writing better … and I have a published novel and picked up a writing award to prove it! Register today and let them know I sent you.

ROCK ‘N READ: LOVE AND OTHER B-SIDES

29 Mar

So grateful to Jason for his shining review of “Love and Other B-Sides.” Be sure to read his great blog as well for trenchant, heartfelt rock commentary.

Defending Axl Rose

Romance and rock collide in novelist Lisa Peers’ Love and Other B-Sides.  Call me lame, but I’ve always been a sucker for a good love story.  Flavored with musical references and plot elements ripped from the headlines, Love and Other B-Sides reminded me of films like LOVE ACTUALLY…only good and written by Nick Hornby. Peers spins a yarn that touches on redemption, aging, find one’s true calling in life, and starting over.

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 4.46.31 PM

The book centers on the relationship between aging rocker Stee Walsh and Connie Rafferty, a new fan who comes to the singer’s attention via a tech-savvy super-fan Walsh meets while signing a deal with a digital music conglomerate. Using a highly intrusive computer program designed to “study” the music habits of the buying public, Walsh becomes interested in a woman half a world away who spent the better part of a year purchasing his entire catalogue one song a day.

What’s…

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