Tag Archives: SiriusXM

Everything’s coming up neuroses: surviving quarantine with Ethel Merman

19 May

My younger daughter is a high school senior. Cue the sympathy.

I listen to David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun show on SiriusXM about every week. During his three-hour slot, the lead singer of the New York Dolls and erstwhile actor puts together an exceedingly eclectic mix of everything from classical to calypso to jazz, blues and rock and roll. These programming often has a theme based on the time of year or current events and string together titles and lyrics accordingly. For instance, Mother’s Day may feature Queen’s “Tie Your Mama Down.” Last year’s Halloween show featured Sheldon Allman’s hysterically weird “Children’s Day at the Morgue. Early in the pandemic, the theme seemed to be, frankly, death. By unfortunate coincidence, he featured a Bill Withers tune and John Prine’s “When I Get to Heaven” – and both musicians passed away a few days later.

Since then, I believe Johansen aims to be less doomsday and more resilient. As proof, this week’s show kicked off with Ethel Merman blaring, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the original cast album of Gypsy. I was housecleaning at the time and promptly started lip synching into my Swiffer.

If I am asked to do the Facebook challenge to post the top 10 most influential albums of my life, Gypsy will be one of the first ones up. Debuting in 1959, its brassy score by Jule Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is one of the most thrilling in all of Broadway history, much of it due to Merman’s indelible performance as Mama Rose.

In a 2010 interview with Terry Gross, Sondheim said he and his collaborators didn’t believe she could act because of the roles she’d played throughout her career that were essentially an excuse for her to belt one song after another. They wrote “Roses” in the style of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” the showstopper from her 1934 hit, Anything Goes, so she could just park and bark. “And to our surprise and delight, Ethel could act,” Sondheim admitted.

No kidding. Just listen closely.

The first half of this Act 1 closer is a rousing ego booster from Rose to her shy daughter Louise: “You’ll be swell, you’ll be great!” But as the song progresses, Rose senses that Louise – who she is pressuring to take over the family vaudeville act, now that her sister June ran off to escape her mother’s relentless control – is not up to the task. To convince Louise – and herself – this will work, she tells her:

You can do it. All you need is a hand.
We can do it. Mama is gonna see to it.

Merman falters on “Mama” but recovers quickly to exclaim, “Curtain up!” singing as if her cheerleading had never stopped. Yet she nearly loses it again as she slows slightly, casting around for happy images – sunshine and Santa Claus, bright lights and lollipops – to distract from the panic of likely failure. The orchestration starts to clash against itself, the fear thrumming against the fearlessness, until she hits the final notes, clear and sure as a church bell:

Everything’s coming up roses
For me and for you

This is a chillingly perfect song for moms in quarantine these days. We are trying to hold it together to keep our kids happy and hopeful, despite all we have to manage and all the news to the contrary. We’re aiming to be optimistic when not one damned thing is sure about the future. And no matter what, we are going to get our kids through this, through love, faith and determination.

And music – always music.

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 …

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!

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