Tag Archives: classic rock

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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A Challenge to the Whole Human Race: Queen + Adam Lambert at the Palace of Auburn Hills

14 Jul

Without any scientific proof to back me up, I will state that Queen’s music is the most famous in the world. I’ll wager you could go up to people in any country, stomp your feet twice and clap, do it again, and they’d respond by singing in perfect English, “We will, we will ROCK YOU!”

photo by James Kurepa

photo by my son and concert buddy James Kurepa

It was no surprise, then, that their Palace gig was sold out on July 12. There hasn’t been a Queen tour of this magnitude in years, and the casting of Adam Lambert as the featured vocalist – who had the chutzpah to audition for American Idol with “Bohemian Rhapsody” – was inspired and inevitable: who else in the world has the chops and the fearless feyness to be as outrageous as their catalog demands? (I still can’t fathom how Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers was their singer in concerts past; nothing about his style says “Queen” in the least.)

I was thrilled for the chance to hear Brian May. Listening to News of the World over and over again on my month-long bus trip around the country as a twelve-year-old Girl Scout, May became my first guitar hero. That album taught me that each great guitarist has his own musical signature. No one else plays like he does; for May, lack of imitation is the sincerest form of flattery because no one can match him.

Adam Lambert at the top of the show in the first of at least five costumes

Adam Lambert at the top of the show in the first of at least five costumes

This was the first time my son and I have gone to a concert together in more than ten years. It’s taken us this long to find an act we could both enjoy. He likes pop metal; I like the songs of my youth; we both like a well-done massive spectacle. And we were not disappointed, what with lasers, smoke machines, flamboyant costumes, a “guitar cam,” a disco ball and more – all framed by an enormous Q that spilled out onto the stage as a walkway into the audience.

Lambert is a trained pop vocalist who doesn’t have the growl and grit of a rocker, but Lordy, the man can sing – even when supine on a couch:

Still, the specter of Freddie Mercury was everywhere. May sang a duet with film clips of Mercury, and drummer Roger Taylor sang “These Are the Days of our Lives” with footage of the band in their prime thirty or more years ago. Lambert gave Mercury a shout out early on and alternated verses with him on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was as if they all had to ask permission from Mercury’s ghost to perform in his stead. Some critics have groused that this demonstrates that the band’s best, most innovative days are behind them. Perhaps that’s true.

But let’s face it: you can’t hear a Queen song without thinking of Freddie Mercury: who he was and why he died.

There’s an insightful Rolling Stone piece this month, “Queen’s Tragic Rhapsody” by Mikal Gilmore, that portrays Mercury “perceived homosexuality” as the reason for – and the near undoing of – the group’s success. In this age of Modern Family and out-and-proud pro ball players (and Adam Lambert, for goodness sake) the article is required reading. We should never forget how truly remarkable it is that a hard rock band fronted by a bisexual singer/songwriter became a staple of nearly everyone’s musical DNA … and how Mercury’s death from AIDS was a watershed moment in rock music coming to terms with both the disease and homophobia.

Mercury didn’t know he was going to be diagnosed as HIV-positive not long after he performed this version of “Who Wants to Live Forever?” in 1986 so the song is eerily prescient in retrospect:

No wonder that when they closed the show with “We Are the Champions,” I was crying. That song, which has been co-opted for every possible commercial purpose, represents something very specific to me about gay pride in the face of ignorance, prejudice and death. Gilmore acknowledges this, saying, “Some listeners have also heard ‘Champions’ as Mercury’s sly, subversive avowal of gay forbearance,” although he believes that’s no longer true since it’s become “the universal bully chants of victors at sporting events.”

But therein lies Freddie Mercury’s victory. He proved “an old queen” could be the biggest badass in the masculine world of rock and roll. The openly gay man who sings his songs more than twenty years after he died knows he owes him a great debt.

So do we all.

See you on the flip side, when Concertpalooza moves on to Meadow Brook Music Festival for Panic! At The Disco on July 27!

P.S. Love and Other B-Sides is now in paperback! If you’re old school about your reading material, now you can hold an actual copy of my first novel in your hands … or a virtual one on a Kindle, Nook, iPad or smart phone.

In the Summertime

4 Sep

Every year there seems to be a new Song of the Summer, a pop tune played  incessantly between May and August that reportedly captures the sparkle and sun of the season. This year’s is probably Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.” Everyone from Justin Bieber to the Harvard University Baseball Team (and President Obama) have co-opted it at some point. That song is everywhere … except anywhere near me. I’ve dodged the bullet and haven’t heard the song once.

Instead, I’ve been steeped in the true songs of summer: the classic rock radio standards that just won’t die.

These are the songs I tune into when I’m cleaning house and need a beat. They are what our family listens to when we’re on a long car trip up north and our “alternative radio” options are country pop or Christian sermons. They are the background to yard work and block parties and barbecues. They are indestructible and inescapable and uncontroversial, like:

  • “Brandy” by Looking Glass
  • “Still the One” by Orleans
  • “The Pina Colada Song” by Rupert Holmes
  • Anything by a band with a three-word name (Grand Funk Railroad, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Three Dog Night)
  • Anything by a band named after a land mass (Boston, Chicago, Kansas, Asia)

Rupert Holmes: the master of subtlety

These songs survive, despite changes in taste and generation (and the fact that many of them weren’t particularly good to begin with).  I have memorized every damn lyric of these songs even though I’d rather be cool and sing along with The Kills instead.

It’s sad that the careers of some of the better artists have been boiled down to the one song that was able to break the Top 40. Thanks to Tom Petty’s “Buried Treasure” show for XM, which I access online as part of my Highway Companions fan club membership (yeah, I’m thatkind of slobbering TP fan), I know that The Romantics are much, much more than their deathless single, “What I Like About You.”  Yet if they ever play an outdoor venue or corporate gig, the audience will be in the beer tent until that song comes on – and anything they play after that tune will be ignored in the rush to get to the parking lot.

It’s a shame. Their song, “Out of My Mind (Into My Head)”  is a remarkable surprise. But you’ll probably never hear it on the radio unless you pay Tom Petty to bring it to you via satellite.

This all gets me wondering: if I were in a band that had marketable talent, would it be better to have had a song that will play forever in shopping malls and commercial radio as background music or to have less catchy, more critically durable material that requires a listener’s full attention and earns their respect?

It’s noble to say I’d want to be the latter, snob that I am. But I have to admit, it would be great to know that everyone, everywhere, just can’t get my song out of their heads.

Take it away, boys.

See you on the flip side …

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