Tag Archives: alternative rock

Laughing through rock hard times: Stephen Colbert and Mark Oliver Everett

31 Aug

The stereotypical great artist is a tortured genius. He or she rages against the pain of life with art as the only means of survival. That screaming into the darkness has created swirls of starry nights, howls of poetry, scores of beautifully painful rock songs … and, sadly, way too much substance abuse and death by suicide. The bleakness overtook them.

Stephen Colbert GQYet there are many other great artists out there who, in the face of unfathomable tragedy, not only make great art but use it to illuminate how tragedy feeds grace and gratitude. As I recently caught up on my reading, I learned more about two such geniuses: Stephen Colbert and Mark Oliver Everett, who performs as Eels.

Colbert – one of the most talented, quick-witted comedians ever to hit television – is gearing up for his September 8 debut as host of The Late Show. Over the summer, he’s done a number of quirky videos to keep his hand in while he and his team develop his new style as the talk show host Stephen Colbert, as opposed to the vainglorious idiot “Stephen Colbert” he portrayed on Comedy Central for nine years. For instance, the world got to know the town of Monroe, Michigan just a little bit better thanks to Colbert taking over as host of the public access TV show, Only In Monroe. (Believe me when I tell you, not all Michiganders eat muskrat … although some most certainly do.)

Colbert also sat for an intensive cover story interview for GQ with writer Joel Lovell. Despite being a typical PR opportunity to promote the new show, it is one of the most moving pieces of journalism I’ve read. With Lovell as a guide, Colbert connects faith, comedy and humanity in a way few artists dare to in this cynical, agnostic age.

Colbert grew up in South Carolina as the youngest of eleven children in a devout Catholic family. When he was ten, his father and the two brothers closest to him in age died in a plane crash. The only child still living at home, he buried himself in books (particularly Tolkien, to the point where he speaks passable Elvish). A haphazard student, he transferred from Hampton-Sydney to Northwestern, found his way into Del Close’s improv sphere, joined Second City – and the rest is comedy history.

But Colbert never became an angry comic, or bitterly ironic, or one who used comedy to whistle past the graveyard and distract himself from despair. Instead, his mother, guided by their Catholic faith, helped him “recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity.”

Things the Grandchildren Should KnowI’ve talked about Everett before and have gotten more familiar with his Eels catalog; his Shootenanny is currently one of my favorites. He published his memoir in 2008 when he was 45 – and if anyone should write a memoir at such a relatively early point in life, it’s him. Otherwise, no one could comprehend how the poor guy survived so much relentless heartbreak.

When Everett was 18, his father died of a heart attack, and young Mark was the one who found the body. A few years later, his troubled sister committed suicide while he was touring for his first big album. Within a year of that loss, his mother died of cancer. Later on, he lost a first cousin who was a flight attendant on one of the planes that crashed on 9/11, and his roadie ODed. (When Everett mentions becoming friends with Elliott Smith, I nearly shouted out loud, “Don’t do it!”)

Like Colbert, Everett had an unbidden, compulsive attraction to making art (creating alternative rock music, in his case) – and though he’s far from religious, Everett shares Colbert’s optimism. As he writes,

I had an epiphany. While I was thinking about all these tragic circumstances, I pictured a blue sky in my head and I suddenly felt greatly inspired. I realized that I had to write about what was going on … And the blue sky told me that there was a way to do this that was something different. That it wasn’t all bad, that there was a bright side, even to this. For me, the bright side was knowing that I was going to learn things from all this, and also just the fact that I could be inspired and could do something positive with all of it …

Reading this book puts Everett’s music into a totally different light. When he sums up being in love with a beautiful girl in the same verse as falling on the floor crying your guts out by saying “Hey man, now you’re really living,” that’s exactly what he means. He’s not being sarcastic. He’s being truthful.

Read Colbert’s GQ interview – it’s gorgeous, and excerpting it doesn’t do it justice. Then read Everett’s memoir, Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Everett’s own story of finding hope existing in tandem with tragedy is surprisingly eloquent, too.

See you on the flip side …

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Hey Man (Now You’re Really Living): Discovering EELS

15 Oct

Mark Oliver Everett 2014

E: Singer/songwriter/beard model

Having written this blog for four years (thanks for the virtual trophy, WordPress!) I know I could get a lot more readers if I wrote in a more timely manner. I don’t do my statistics any favors by waiting days after a concert, or weeks after a book comes out – or years after an album is released – to share my opinions. Life keeps getting in the way of my incipient success as a writer, I guess.

Even if I was a little more mindful about building my platform, there is so much rock and roll out there it’s a miracle if I get around to listening to something once, much less discover an artist who inspires me to consume his entire catalog.

A miracle just occurred: now, more than two decades after his first recording hit the alternate airwaves, I am officially obsessed with EELS.

Mark Oliver Everett, known as E, is the singer/songwriter/multifaceted musician who created EELS as a catch-all name for the work he does on his own and with various musicians. (I’ve seen it written “eels” and “EELS” on his albums, in case you’re wondering.) E has 13 studio albums to his credit, and his songs have appeared in movie soundtracks ranging from American Beauty to all three Shrek pictures. If you know any of his work, it is probably this tune and nifty video from the 1996 album, Beautiful Freak:

 

He even had a great scene – and song – that ended up on the cutting room floor from This Is 40 (with lots of NSFW language, just to warn you). The guy has seemingly been everywhere and hiding in plain sight at the same time.

As usual, my discovery started in the library stacks, checking out Blinking Lights on a whim after seeing a reference to EELS in some magazine article. Here’s the description of the two-disc album off of the EELS official website:

It’s the most personal eels album since 1998’s ELECTRO-SHOCK BLUES. That album dealt with the nearly simultaneous suicide of Everett’s sister and terminal illness of his mother, from the subjects’ points of view. This album finds him a few years down the line, now battling some of the family demons himself, with the after effects of past tragedies becoming more of a personal issue in his adult life, sometimes fearlessly autobiographical, and other times built around the related stories of others.

Sounds like a total downer, right? Not really; well, not completely. While the material isn’t always a picnic, the music is consistently beautiful and original. E’s sandpaper voice conveys a great deal of warmth and humanity, and the varied arrangements include cameos from Tom Waits, Peter Buck, John Sebastian … and E’s dog. Listen to it with a strong cup of coffee or a stiff drink in hand.

I have barely scratched the surface of this artist. Lyrics are just beginning to get stuck in my memory, rhythms are resonating in my headphones. It’s that delightful stage of exploration where I know I’m onto something truly special and I can’t wait to see what I’ll find next.

To continue your own discovery, here’s a ramshackle version of one of his catchier tunes from Blinking Lights – enjoy!

See you on the flip side …

P.S. My very first Books & Authors event is Sunday, October 26 at Leon & Lulu’s in Clawson, Michigan. This is a great store for finding unique gifts, clothing, furniture and more – in a former roller rink, no less. See you there!

Howlin’ for You: The Black Keys at the Joe Louis Arena

20 Sep

Black Keys screen - Auerbach

Dan Auerbach

Black Keys screen - Carney

Patrick Carney

Concertpalooza came to a close on September 12 in a familiar place: the Joe Louis Arena, experiencing the Black Keys with my loved ones as concert buddies (this time, my partner along with our younger daughter). It was the perfect show to cap off an exhilarating summer of live music!

Props to the headliner for choosing stellar talent as opening acts. In 2011 they had the Arctic Monkeys on board. Our leg of the tour this time featured Cage the Elephant while other lucky people get to see Jake Bugg or St. Vincent; any of those bands could hold their own topping the bill. Cage the Elephant’s music is bouncy and fun, personified by their inexhaustible lead singer Matt Shultz. You may know their single from 2009, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” Check them out!

“Fun” isn’t the word I’d use to describe the Black Keys, though. Their music is fuzzed out, feedback-fueled blues rock … and their personal lives are even more distorted. Most of what I’ve read about them – the horrifying account of guitarist Dan Auerbach’s recent divorce; the 5000-word piece in Salon that drummer Patrick Carney’s wife wrote about their divorce; the Twitterstorm Carney kicked up over Justin Bieber; and the TMZ-fed feud Jack White forced onto Auerbach when he questioned Dan’s worthiness as a blues musician (sample hissy fit: Jack told his ex-wife to pull their kids out of the Nashville elementary school where Dan’s daughter attends) – tells me these guys are drama magnets. Lighthearted they ain’t.

Therefore, it was surprising and gratifying that they seemed to have a great time performing at the Joe. Auerbach did a lot of smiling between numbers, thanking the audience and raving about Detroit fans. (Who knows what Carney was feeling since he rarely smiles and doesn’t talk during concerts; he’s Teller to Auerbach’s Penn.) Auerbach’s bottom-heavy guitar style, snaky licks and atmospheric songwriting keep the songs tight and catchy; plus, the guy’s got a strong, distinctive voice. Carney is the first to agree with my partner that he “sucks at drums,” and he swerved off tempo more than once during the evening. When he was on, though, he brought the heavy ammunition.

If you want to bone up on less gossipy, more nuts-and-bolts trivia about the band, watch this:

Since I saw them in 2011, the Black Keys have cemented their status as a straight up, non-pop, 21st-century rock-and-roll band. For the two dudes from Akron, there wasn’t another choice. As Carney said in Rolling Stone,

When we were in ninth grade, we were well aware that if we wanted to go to a good school, it wasn’t a possibility – that we didn’t have the money. So it’s like, what do you have from there? You have rock & roll!

Detroit needs rock and roll. The city is fighting for an identity we can be proud of, something beyond blight and bankruptcy. Bands that shout “Detroit Rock City!” earn a roar of appreciation. Auerbach and Carney went a step further, honoring a local hero by playing for their first time ever a cover of Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” Not for the first time that evening, half the audience (the male half anyway) broke out their air guitars, danced without rhythm and high fived each other, proud of themselves and damned glad to be there no matter what the troubles were outside the arena.

The Black Keys understand how a guitar and a drum kit can blast away your problems, and for that we’re all grateful.

See you on the flipside … and mark your calendars: I’ll be one of the featured local writers at the Books & Authors event at Leon & Lulu in Clawson on October 26, promoting Love and Other B-Sides to my closest friends and perfect strangers from 11 AM – 5 PM. Come see!

Concert Buddies: If you don’t have one, GET ONE!

25 Apr

The guys in Deer Tick look like what the Hold Steady guys probably looked like in college ...

One of my favorite bands, The Hold Steady, played at Pontiac’s Crofoot Ballroom Wednesday night. I discovered “the best bar band in America” by a total fluke a couple of years ago: I saw a few of their CDs in the library stacks, remembered I’d read something positive about them in Rolling Stone, and decided to give them a try, then fell hard for their storytelling and muscular musicianship. They have a new album – Teeth Dreams – hence the tour.

The band playing in this area for the first time in five years was a cause for great celebration, but more than a little sadness. Seeing this band in concert has been a cultural Great White Whale for my older daughter and me: long pursued but always just out of reach. Now they were here and she was not, since she is in college in New York (only a subway ride away from Brooklyn, the band’s home base, I might add).

Other than my daughters, I can’t convince anyone else I know to go to concerts with me on a regular basis. (A recent exception: my friend Lois went with me to the Majestic to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – great company for thunderously amazing show.) Granted, the outfits I want to see aren’t usually chart-toppers, so the overlap between my social circle and fans in metro Detroit is a sliver. This time out, I didn’t help matters when I described The Hold Steady to friends as “a lot like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band without half the instruments – if Bruce and the boys only sang about stoned, drunken, remorseful Catholics in Minneapolis.”

(At least they have a band name I can say without having to brace myself for bemused expressions from those who don’t follow alternative music: I can’t talk about the Airborne Toxic Event or Band of Skulls without a lot of eye-rolling.)

But you know what the real problem here is? I’m an adult. So are my friends. We have to plan ahead. We have to commute and work a full schedule and see to the kids and get up early the next morning. After running around all day, the prospect of standing for four hours in a half-inch of beer to be crushed by knuckleheads pushing toward the stage isn’t a really a draw, even if you are a stone-cold fan.

So I went by myself to see The Hold Steady. It was just me and 500 fellow tribesmen.

Craig Finn at the Crofoot 042314Tribesmen is an accurate term. The typical Hold Steady fan seems to be between 28-45, male, Caucasian, dark-haired and wearing button-up granddad shirts:  the exact description of Craig Finn, the lead singer. Finn looks like your sophomore English teacher, lurches across the stage with an endearing lack of coordination, and speak/sings these weirdly literate stories about burned-out losers searching for love and hope.

Here’s a sample lyric from “You Can Make Him Like You”:

You don’t have to deal with the dealers
let your boyfriend deal with the dealers
it only gets inconvenient
when you wanna get high alone

Before they started their set, Finn explained why they were down to four pieces: their newly hired guitarist Steve Selvidge had to leave the tour to be with his wife and new baby, who came a few weeks early (musicians are adults with adult issues, too). Then they launched into a two-hour, gloriously rich performance.

As the evening wound down after midnight, Finn thanked the audience. “You had a million other things you could do tonight but you chose to come to a rock-and-roll show,” he said. “You came here to be with people who all like the same thing. These days, that’s really important.” Then as the final song wrapped, he introduced the members of the band then pointed out to the audience, “And you, you, you, YOU – we are ALL The Hold Steady!” We all cheered in tribal solidarity and the show was over.

It was freakin’ amazing! You have to take my word for it … since you weren’t there.

So next time, who’s with me?

Enjoy a song by the band from its early days when they were officially a four-piece band:

See you on the flip side …

Before you go, another shout-out to those who have bought my first novel, Love and Other B-Sides! If you haven’t yet, it’s not too late to be cool like they are – download it today!

FOB and TATE and me and my daughters

22 May

My older daughter has now completed high school. It’s all over except for picking up the diploma, grazing the buffet at a dozen grad parties, and forcing us to take the “Congratulations Class of 2013!” sign off our lawn before she ships off to college in the fall.

FOB hiatus

I’m sure this chick was at the Fillmore … and anywhere else FOB is playing in the continental US …

She is celebrating by making good on a promise to her little sister and taking her to her first rock-and-roll concert, without parental accompaniment. As I write this they are downtown at the Fillmore seeing their favorite band of all time: the recently reunited Fall Out Boy. (I continue to struggle to understand the band’s appeal. The music just doesn’t catch my middle-aged ear. The lyrics are often overly arch or sneeringly obscure, and their typical song titles are just way too long: to wit, “Our Lawyers Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued.”)

I’m okay with the girls being on their own. I trust them and since I’ve taken the older one to half a dozen concerts at that venue, it’s familiar territory. I also drilled them on concert safety:

  • Stick together
  • Choose a place to meet in case you get separated
  • Don’t stand in direct proximity to a speaker
  • Standing close to the stage is less important than steering clear of the unstoppable sea of crazed fans that can crush you against the barricades
  • Don’t park in the skeevy lot I usually go to even though it’s half the price of the more well-lit ones
  • Before shelling out $35, check the label on the t-shirt to see if it will shrink

There’s a sense of coming full circle this evening. I took the older one to see Fall Out Boy at the Palace five years ago, which was her first rock concert, too. What’s more,  just a week ago the two of us were at the Majestic to see our favorite band, The Airborne Toxic Event.

TATE - 2013

The Airborne Toxic Event, brooding beautifully

TATE will always have a special place in my heart because my daughter and I discovered them together. We’ve seen them three times; we have their three albums plus their contributions to tribute discs for Bob Dylan and The Muppets. I’ve seen them enough to know the band members’ names and stage personalities. This time around they had more tattoos and a different set of covers for their encore (including a medley of “Ring of Fire,” “American Girl” and “Born in the USA” … can’t get more genuinely American than that).

It was only fitting that at last, I was able to nab a stage souvenir for my daughter. I grabbed the guitar pick that had bounced off a drunken fan and hit the floor. It’s a fitting memento of our concert-going history, one she can easily pack and take with her to her dorm in a few short weeks.

Now, the real work begins: turning my younger daughter into my next concert buddy.

See you on the flip side …

P.S. The girls came home safely, the younger one has her first tour t-shirt and they witnessed a drunken catfight — all and all, an awesome evening!

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