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Traffic in My Mind

I don’t do change well.  I spend months, and sometimes years, pining for it and trying to passively will it into being, only to tense up and pretend that casting it from my thoughts can somehow hold it off when it presents itself.  With less than two weeks remaining here in Egypt, I am irresolutely in denial.  Pushing potato chips and diet sodas down my throat while focusing attention on to-do lists and personnel evaluations has proven only partially effective in keeping the fear-of-change demons at bay.  Maybe little surprise then that I find myself temporarily retreating into the comforting warmth of guns and religion nostalgia and reassuring truths:

Growing up in Ogden, Utah, in the early 1970s there wasn’t much of a sense of connection to the broader country, let alone the rest of the globe.  Television provided some window, as did my parents’ occasional liberal-minded commentary on events of the era, but truth be told, my adolescent friends and I would have been hard-pressed to identify any specific way in which the larger world touched us.  We certainly knew how we touched the world however.  For it was little Ogden that had gifted the celebrated Osmond Family in all its facets and wonders to our fellow planetary inhabitants.

This knowledge of my hometown’s contribution to humanity was especially meaningful to me personally as I had information of which many of my peers were ignorant; I knew the precise location of the house in which the Osmonds had grown up.  Even more exciting, it was within biking distance of my own home and was on a road we routinely traveled on the way to grocery store, haircuts, and spaghetti restaurants.  I understood the family had years before moved on to imagined mansions elsewhere in the state, but I still stared at that relatively small, two-story white house with awe every time we passed, fully expecting to catch a glimpse of something mysterious or extraordinary in or around it.

Young Jimmy

Neither pride in Ogden’s most famous exports nor reverence for their early dwelling translated into patience for their pabulum, of course.  I was way too cool for that at the time.  Sure, I stared agog at young Jimmy Osmond when our pre-teen paths crossed in a ski slope lift line, but that was just curiosity because he

Young VotF

was famous.  Otherwise, my youthful partaking of the Osmond offerings was limited to the occasional late-70s viewings of the Donny and Marie variety TV show, especially after it moved to Sunday nights in its final season and became weekly post-pot roast family viewing at Grandpa and Grandma’s house.  After all, Marie may have been a little bit country, but she was also a little bit hot, so no apologies.

Fast forward to the 2010s and I have developed a newfound appreciation for my illustrious hometown compatriots.  With most – albeit not all – of that silly “cool” baggage long cast off, I can grant the Osmonds’ “Yo-Yo” and “One Bad Apple” their rightful place as terrific, painless pop songs; and, Marie’s countrified take on “Paper Roses” delivers pleasant-enough empty-calorie sweetness.  Even so, I felt no need to add any Osmonds to my own music holdings until I discovered a few years back their 1973 concept album called The Plan, the existence of which I had been previously oblivious to.

Recorded at Los Angeles’ Kolob Studios – which could not be a more apropos branding, as can be confirmed by anyone willing to dive into a quick wiki hole — The Plan was the Osmond brothers’ attempt to narrate the Mormon cosmology via popular song.  Taking its name from the Plan of Salvation, a key tenet of the Mormon faith, the album plays as a series of musical vignettes and extrapolations that, while recognizable by Mormon cognoscenti as emanating from doctrinal wellsprings, burden the non-member listener with little weight of the sacred.  In fact, gleaning metaphysical meaning from the album is likely near impossible for anyone not steeped in Mormonism.  But, for those with the contextual backing, The Plan can thrill like a birthday party scavenger hunt.

The Plan is no lost classic and only a false prophet could suggest it would broadly appeal to most who read this.  That said, the album is no bubblegum throwaway either.  For all the blandness of their goody two-shoes image, the Osmond brothers were versatile, talented musicians whose ambitions stretched way beyond their barbershop and teen idol beginnings.  For me, the draw of this album is its unique insider connection to my peculiar clan, but I can also understand why it hit 58 on the Billboard 200 and was certified gold in the UK in 1973.  It was ambitious and heartfelt, and in some places even beautiful.  And I would vociferously bear witness against anyone so sinful as to deny Merill Osmond’s divine way with a vocal.

As for the songs, there are some gems to be found here.  “Traffic in My Mind” will surprise listeners who thought the Osmond’s “Crazy Horses” was a one-off excursion into hard rock.  Starting off with a greasy lead guitar riff that carries through the whole song, “Traffic” exudes toughness, with the raunchy vocal and six-string bends riding over the top of a meaty bass and drum-driven rhythm, before ending in a swirl of light psychedelia.  The carnivalesque “Movie Man” is another highlight with its weird synth and kazoo lines, made even better for me by its reference to a horrifying inducement to obedience impressed upon all Mormon youngsters in Sunday School.

I am fully comfortable making the claim that knee-slapping, harmonica, and mouth harp have never been combined with less of a southern backwoods hoedown feel than they are in “Mirror, Mirror.”  And “Let Me In” and “Darlin’” are the kind of big love ballads that bring the girls to the Osmonds’ yard, with the former leveraging bombastic horns and the latter opting instead for overwrought strings.

Traffic in My Mind:

Movie Man:

Mirror, Mirror:

Other listeners may have a hard time sussing out my most beloved and dearly-held Mormonisms – specifically, the ideas of eternal family and progression – but that doesn’t mean there’s not some wisdom closer to the surface to be had on the album.  For example, what say we end with the following lyrics from The Plan’s other hard rocker “The Last Days.”

Nations take up their battle stations

Patrons of zodiac revelations

Lustations breaking family relations

Litigation allowing shoot-up sensations

People living lives of confusion

Billions caught up in revolution

Cities lost in their own pollution

Question, what is the Constitution?

That’s what they said, someday it would be

Now just look around if that’s what we see

It’s gotta be the last days

Not a Political Blog

As large swathes of our global population seem set on following populist trail guides along paths toward nationalist stupor, I find myself vacillating between fits of arrogant condescension, bouts of resigned despair, and sessions of gleeful mockery.  None of it satisfies.  In the end, I neither participate in nor hinder the gloomy march.  That passivity breeds discomfort in my soul because I know that inaction enables.  An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an external force.

I ought to do something.  We ought to do something.  And the first thing is to go talk to people outside of our own bubbles who experience the world differently in order to seek some deeper understanding into what the hell is happening. But, this is not a political blog and I’m not sure I’m much of a political thinker.  So my only action in these pages will be to reprint the below post from March 2013.  I’ll leave it to any readers who might accidentally wander by to figure out why I thought of it now.

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Saying Goodbye to Comandante Chavez

While working in Caracas from 2006-2009, I would regularly tune in whenever Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would address the nation, which he did constantly and usually for hours on end.  I seldom paid close attention for more than 30 minutes or so as the actual content of his comments often either bored me to death with minutia or simply pissed me off.  But even after drifting into other activities, I would leave the television on and let the voice of President Chavez serve as my background music; and I do mean music.  I loved his voice and grew to find his cadence and tone soothing.  His voice relaxed me.

Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci

One Saturday in early June of 2007, I was semi-listening to Chavez address a huge crowd of followers that had been called into the streets in demonstration of support for something that I no longer recall.  My half-hearted awareness became rapt attention when I realized he was extensively quoting Antonio Gramsci, the early 20th century Italian writer, philosopher, and Marxist thinker.  Chavez spent a full 40 minutes explaining Gramsci’s theory of revolutionary change in great detail to his flag-waving devotees.  I kept wondering who other than breathless undergraduates even read Gramsci anymore, let alone attempted to impart to tens of thousands of gyrating sycophants the particulars of Gramsci’s missives on the growth of popular power via the establishment of a working class cultural hegemony.

As Chavez went on and on, the mass of red-shirted supporters in front of him jumped from cheer to cheer, seemingly oblivious to the lesson in political development theory they were receiving.  They waved banners with pictures of Chavez, Simon Bolivar, Salvador Allende, and others and held their breath for each time the Comandante referred to himself in the third person so they could burst into a mass orgasm of applause and roars.  I was engrossed.

Back in my college days when I was buying my own personal copies of Das Kapital and Mao’s Little Red Book and arriving early to hear visiting Sandinista ministers rail against imperialism, I had played at study of Gramsci.  I learned enough to be impressed with my own efforts and even cited Gramsci in a paper I wrote which attempted to objectively and unemotionally describe the ideology of Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas separate from their bloodthirsty actions:

“Antonio Gramsci has also written about the need for a proletarian attitude.  He stresses the importance of a revolutionary proletariat developing its own ‘superstructure’ prior to taking power.  He argues that understanding of proletarian ideology does not appear from ‘haphazard and sporadic germination’ but through experience.  Shining Path agrees with these arguments and sees the long period of democratic revolution as a time when the peasants and petty bourgeoisie will come to recognize Maoism as the ‘correct’ ideology.”

And now here was Chavez matter-of-factly offering up Gramsci’s complicated ideas to his generally lower economic strata and relatively less educated followers, literally Venezuela’s proletariat and peasant classes.  Most remarkable was his seeming sincere belief that his masses deserved to be treated as being fully capable of comprehending the ideas he was illuminating.

Now that he’s gone, I’ll remember Hugo Chavez’s willingness to lie and cheat and divert blame to accomplish his goals.  I’ll remember his anti-democratic actions and his systematic centralization of political power in his hands alone.  I’ll remember his readiness to cynically manipulate people and information whenever it suited his political and ideological ends.

I’ll also remember him as a tireless advocate for the right of the poor, ignored, and uneducated to be heard and to exercise influence over those who govern them.  Even more, I’ll remember his success in convincing those same marginalized folk to enthusiastically buy into his vision and to learn to act on it.  As Venezuelans rightly begin to cast off the excesses and drastic inefficiencies of Chavismo in the course of these coming post-Chavez years, I hope they nonetheless retain the newly politicized underclass that Chavez engendered, an underclass capable of effectively asserting its weight and demanding the attention of political leaders.

I’m sorry to see you go this way, Comandante.  You should have lost power through an eventual electoral defeat resulting from your own increasing missteps and political overreach, not due to this merciless disease.  Your mistakes and conceit should have done you in, leaving you to bluster away into revolutionary oblivion while those who followed you in power selectively picked up and ran with your few, but substantial, achievements in political empowerment.  Mostly, I’ll miss the calming effect of your voice in the background.

Farewell, Comandante

 

Like a Sheep to the Flame (Influencers, Part 1)

To a great extent, when it comes to my music listening habits, I am a product of the influence of various persons who leveraged my respect, love or admiration towards them to foist upon me their own likes and dislikes.  Sometimes this was a purposeful effort to preach their truth and bring me to their light.  Other times, the role of these influencers was passive; I shared some connection or looked up to them and therefore was drawn to their predilections.  Going all the way back to childhood, there is also the pure nostalgia effect of relating good feelings or happy times to specific music.  For example, Mom gave me hours spinning and memorizing Chuck Berry, while Dad gave me fishing for trout to the songs of Johnny Cash (as described here).

Sure, I like to think I also discovered a lot of the music I listen to on my own.  But even then, my influencers certainly have played a large role in determining how I set my sails as I cast off on my journeys of exploration.  I’ve written quite a bit on this site about individual bands and albums and the people who steered me toward them. The truth is, however, I haven’t even scratched the surface of what is my long-standing, and ongoing, followership.

In what is clearly a moment of delusion given my less-than-prolific posting schedule, I’ve resolved to start an occasional series specifically acknowledging the various Jim Joneses that have served me my musical kool-aid.  I’ve also decided to honor my blogging-as-social-interaction fantasy by beginning with a look at a few of the most blatantly manipulative of all my influencers, my fellow bloggers.  What follows are just a few examples of the many successful efforts by determined blog-evangelists to wrestle funds from my wallet.  In each case below, I had been completely oblivious to the existence of the musical drug on offer before finding myself targeted, only to become hopelessly hooked afterward.

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The Bevis Frond - White NumbersLetting loose phrases like “psychedelic-infused, guitar-driven” and “two solos multi-tracked so that they interweave and dance,” Vinyl Connection (VC) was clearly on the offensive when he aimed his review of the album White Numbers by the previously-unknown to-me band The Bevis Frond right between my eyes.  His unabashed, premeditated attack on my proclivities was further evidenced by his “casual” mention in the review’s very last line of the fact that Bevis Frond leader and guitarist extraordinaire Nick Saloman had at one point auditioned “for Procol Harum.”  VC knew damn well that my adoration of former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower meant I would be defenseless against any volleyed connection no matter how tenuous.  Sure enough, I bought White Numbers almost immediately and have since added two more Frond albums to my collection.  Listening to the 42-minute “Homemade Traditional Electric Jam” as I type this, I cannot imagine how I ever survived without having Mr. Saloman’s smoothly jagged six-string vulnerability in my life.  Well played, VC, well played.

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Tinariwen - Aman ImanWhere some would choose full frontal assault, 1537 instead opted for long-term siege interspersed with sporadic barrage in his ultimately successful effort to force me into expanding my musical map to include the troubled sub-Saharan nation of Mali.  He started way back in May 2013 with what seemed initially to be just another in his steady stream of well-written, humor-filled reviews of his eclectic LP holdings.  As he described the album Amam Iman by Malian band Tinariwen he knew what he was doing however, injecting lines about “sorrow, regret, anger and hope” delivered via “intertwining traditional instruments and guitars; lots of beautifully played guitars” that were crafted just so as to ensure their being forever carved into the tissues of my mind.  I mean, just look at his skill with a semicolon, for God’s sake.

After allowing yours truly to stew in those juices for a while – Over three years!  What magnificent patience! – 1537 let loose a fresh bombardment in September 2016 via a review of a separate Tinariwen EP, this time combining the prose artillery with a precision-guided video of a Tinariwen-soundtracked melancholy road trip through Joshua Tree National Park.  I was obviously powerless to stand against the onslaught any longer and out came the checkbook.  As Aman Iman plays now and I marvel at the unique guitar, drum, and vocal stylings of bandleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and his Touareg collective, I can only joyfully embrace my inner desert nomad and offer kudos to 1537 for his relentless mission focus.

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Ulver - KveldssangerHeavy Metal Overload (HMO) proved himself a master of misdirection and the subliminal in his subtle, nuanced and impressively effective quest to get me to lay out for – and subsequently be entranced by – the album Kveldssanger by Norwegian black metallers Ulver.  Knowing well my knee-jerk aversion to black metal’s guttural growls and/or puked vocals, HMO invested years into wearing me down by regularly featuring hell-spawned Scandinavian extremist Beelzebub-fronted bands in between ingratiatingly adorable internet-spanning commentary in defense of KISS’s atrocious Unmasked album.  I couldn’t help but pine for each new post.  So, when he finally launched his review of Ulver’s 1995 debut, Bergtatt, in May 2016, I was putty in his endearingly Satanic, Glaswegian hands.

Realizing I’d be wary of any direct hard-sell, HMO adroitly avoided any mention of Kveldssanger in the Bergtatt post itself.  Instead, he carefully employed phrases such as “seductive, alluring, and magical” while emphasizing the debut album’s “dreamy acoustic guitars.”  Embedding a song from Bergtatt without scary vocals was his masterstroke.  Still cautious but also intrigued, I inquired via a comment into the representativeness of the soothing embedded song, at which point HMO deftly pulled the trigger via a seemingly cast-off aside about Ulver’s second album Kveldssanger in which “they went full-on folk” with “No gruff vocals at all!”  Just as HMO had foreseen when crafting his diabolical plan, I was immediately onto the Spotify whereupon Kveldssanger’s spell was cast and my credit card number lept into the ether.  Even now from the first gorgeously-plucked notes of album opener “Østenfor sol og vestenfor maane” I have to physically restrain myself from taking a hammer to the piggy bank.

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The above are only a tiny sliver of the vast mass of taste tampering effected upon me by multiple musical mentors, both physical and virtual, over the course of my susceptible life’s journey.  I hope to add many more like stories via this occasional series in the future.  You know me though, so don’t hold your breath.  At minimum I’ll hopefully manage to post at least a few more before my homeland implodes.  (Smile)

Repo Man: And Yet, I Blame Society

At the height of the Reagan era, the 1984 movie Repo Man offered a character, Otto (played by a young Emilio Estevez), that embodied all the anger-fueled angst of the period’s idiot youth, a term I use not in insult but rather in honor of the confused, narcissistic life phase I think most all of us pass through.  During that phase – which it appears from recent events not all of us outgrow unfortunately – everybody outside our narrow clique is viewed as de facto stupid and either owing us something or needing to get the fuck out of our way.  It is dire stuff… and it is easily one of the funniest films made in my lifetime.  It was one of the first DVDs I ever bought and I still consider it a must-own.

Repo Man (movie poster)

The movie makes little attempt to follow a cogent plot – something about dangerous decaying alien bodies smuggled off of a secret government base in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu – and instead simply proceeds to put Otto and his fellow oddballs into a series of one-off scenes in which they spout magnificently-crafted odes to cynicism, pessimism, and human foible.  An internet search will show that almost every line of dialogue in the film has been deemed quotable out of context.  Harry Dean Stanton especially, as Otto’s mentor and keeper of the Repo Man code, utters golden nugget after golden nugget.  It is one of my never-to-be-acted-upon fantasies to be insolent, boorish, and brave enough to speak like Harry Dean does in this movie.

But this isn’t a movie review, it’s a soundtrack review, and the Repo Man soundtrack is as wonderfully foul, crude, and filled with unfocused energy as is the movie.  It was my introduction to the West Coast punk scene of the early 1980s, a scene dedicated to finding, isolating and surgically removing the hidden “cerebralism” from the late-70s punk of the Sex Pistols, the Dead Boys, and the Slits in order to focus more intently on the nihilism and the bile.  As you can imagine, it’s gloriously jaunty stuff.  Let’s dive in:

Repo Man (soundtrack)

Iggy Pop: “Repo Man” – By no means a great Iggy Pop song, I’d nonetheless deem it a good one.  The movie uses it twice, once without lyrics during the opening credits and again at the end, this time with Iggy’s inimitable voice.  Only the version with vocals is included on the soundtrack album, but I think the instrumental is actually more important to the film itself.  Its wholesale usurpation of the “Peter Gunn” riff sets the tone for the movie, evoking urban decay surrounded by vast empty desert.  I most like this song for one lyric however, a line I always remember but seldom can place until I hear it and am again reminded where it comes from:  “I’m looking for the joke with a microscope.”  In context, the song implies the search is doomed to fail.  The sentiment fit the Reagan era well, and it fits again now, 30-plus years later.

Circle Jerks: “Coup d’Etat” – In the movie, this song soundtracks a street mosh made up of angry suburban kids.  Its relentless energy, driving rhythm and shouted vocals are perfect for the scene.  The naiveté of the lyrics, seemingly jumping back and forth between describing a right-wing military takeover and a leftist anarchic people power uprising, is priceless.  The anti-idealism of the song’s non-politics deftly encapsulates the nihilism of the early 80’s punk movement… and the breakneck riff is freaking awesome!  “Attack their embassy” indeed …

Circle Jerks – Coup d’Etat (1983):

Suicidal Tendencies: “Institutionalized” – This is probably the most widely known song on the soundtrack and its evocation of young white alienation certainly captures the film’s mood.  That said, the song barely registers during the actual movie.  As such, I’m going to set aside review of the song itself to share a related personal story:  Back in the mid-1980s, even we Utah-bred youngsters who recognized our ignorance of the broader world always took solace in the idea that we were way less sheltered than our neighbors to the north, the backwards Idahoans.  Even so, I duly embraced for years a story told me in 1984 in Peru by a fellow missionary who hailed from Boise.  Elder Rick wowed me with the tale of a band called Joy Division whose vocalist had killed himself, leaving his remaining bandmates to reform under the “Suicidal Tendencies” moniker.  The story was perfect, with a twist of the sardonic that really appealed.  It would be near 20 years before the intrusion of the internet would steal that fantastic musical anecdote from me.

Black Flag: “TV Party” – First, this song rocks.  The listener has no choice but to get pumped.  In the movie, protagonist Otto has just lost his job and girlfriend and is sitting on the curb feeling put upon, but once he begins to sing this song to himself he has no choice but to get up, punch the air, and invite the universe to “suck my ass.” Beautiful.  I like to think Henry Rollins and Black Flag penned this masterpiece as simultaneously a biting criticism and a euphoric celebration of the clueless aimlessness of their angry white suburban fan base.  I’d argue that, even three decades later, this on-its-face jokey tune still perfectly captures the uninformed anxiety of those majority middle-America youth who inhabit the hundreds of in-between non-rural, non-urban midsize towns speckling the U.S. map.  Judge for yourself:

Black Flag – TV Party (1981)

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We’re gonna have a TV party, all right, tonight!

We’ve got nothing better to do, than watch TV and have a couple of brews.

We sit glued to the TV set all night, and every night / Why go into the outside world at all, it’s such a fright

TV news shows what it’s like out there, it’s a scare / You can go out if you want, we wouldn’t dare

I wouldn’t be without my TV for a day, or even a minute / I don’t even bother to use my brain any more, there’s nothing left in it

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Circle Jerks: “When the Shit Hits the Fan” – The “lounge” version of this song on the soundtrack pales in comparison to the original angry version on the Jerks’ 1983 album Golden Shower of Hits, but it allows for the best inside joke of the whole film as Otto reacts to the band’s live rendition during one scene with the mumbled, “I can’t believe I used to like these guys.”  As an economics major and son of an economics professor, this song really spoke to me with its invocation of unemployment lines, a sluggish economy, and waning social security.  There’s a huge nostalgia pull for me too as I clearly remember my grandmother standing in line to bring home those government giveaway “five pound blocks of cheese” about which the CJs croon.

A few final notes:

— The version of “Pablo Picasso” here by something called Burning Sensations is colossally lame in comparison to the original by The Modern Lovers.  That said, it was here that I first heard the song and I cannot deny my then youthful pleasure at its bold leveraging of the word “asshole.”

— The songs by LA-based Latino punk band The Plugz are excellent, and it was a thrill to me personally, being just back from Peru and exercising my newly-acquired bilingual skills, to hear good-time rock and roll sung in Spanish.

— Beyond that novelty however, the Plugz’ original instrumental background music written and recorded for Repo Man, and which is only sampled as the song “Reel Ten” on the soundtrack album, is brilliant.  Unmistakably influenced by Ennio Morricone, the Plugz evoke a vast parched desert with just enough shiny suburban pop sheen on top to relocate the arid featurelessness to the western Anytown in which the movie is set.  I would go in big-time for an entire album offering up that atmosphere.  I wonder where the Plugz are now …

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film-soundtrack-festival

This post is part of the Film (Soundtrack) Festivalthe big-hearted brainchild of Bruce at Vinyl Connection.  You are cordially invited to check out all the entries here.

Not Much to Say Today

 

(if the video doesn’t work):

The Real World Fades to Black

Last night I dreamed of waking up.  I awoke calmly, responding to external stimuli rather than internal volition.  It was the sound of a hyper-agitated dog, actually more wolf than dog, clawing spastically from the other side of the wall behind my headboard that had stirred me from sleep.  I felt comfortable and safe in my ground-floor bedroom, with its dark wood-paneled walls and dull red color scheme.  I inherently grasped an atmosphere of danger in the sparse surrounding rural landscape and knew that I would not open the curtains to look.  The wolf-dog trying to scratch its way in was one of many and I had an awareness of the predatory canines routinely and viciously tearing into some species of rodent that inhabited the “out there.”  It was too early to get up so I briefly considered putting on the headphones that lay next to my pillow and listening to some music to ease my way back into needed sleep.  Even as the thought came though, I knew it was unnecessary as I would easily fall deep asleep as soon as I closed my eyes.

The closing of my dream eyes and tranquil drift back into figment sleep was exactly and oppositely matched by the opening of my flesh eyes and a gentle, genuine wakening.  I felt comfortable and safe in my sixth-floor bedroom, with its plaster walls and off-white color scheme, but I was nonetheless deeply confused.  My mind could not reconcile the sparse, rodent-filled plains and middle-eastern urban landscape I knew to dually exist on the other side of the curtain-covered window.  I wondered why I could no longer hear the wolf-dog’s clawing even as I questioned why I was thinking about wolf-dogs at all.  It was too early to rise so I briefly considered putting on the headphones that lay next to my pillow and listening to some music to ease my way back into needed sleep.  Just as my thoughts coalesced on a specific album but before I could act, my eyes closed and sleep returned.

This morning, I awoke with a strong desire to hear the latest album by Bloody Hammers, Lovely Sort of Death, which I had just received in the mail yesterday.  I read of the gothic rock / doom metal band only recently and have quite enjoyed some of their earlier recordings I’ve been background streaming at work.  I fixed some French toast and watched last evening’s PBS Newshour online while I ate, but the album kept infiltrating my thoughts.  So, comfortably fed and updated on ongoing catastrophes both natural and political back home, I grabbed the iPod and headphones and headed for the elliptical.

Lovely Sort of Death

As first track “Bloodletting on the Kiss” begins, I get an immediate Type O Negative feel — a vibe that carries through the entire album — but also find the mid-80s new wave of Simple Minds repeatedly coming to mind.  The Simple Minds free association continues with “Lights Come Alive,” but third track “The Reaper Comes” conjures instead thoughts of Gary Numan’s dystopian coldness, a sense that proves to permeate the subsequent tracks as well.  While the pace of the album is generally slow, even verging on sluggish early on, things pick up as you go deeper into the tracklist.  In fact, “Infinite Gaze to the Sun” and “Astral Traveler” offer legitimate headbanging opportunities.

This is not warm music.  It is cold and calculated, giving off no feel of having been played by a collaborating set of musicians.  The sense of separate recording of each instrument and vocal is stark, although the impression of an expert hand in the careful, deliberate layering of the individual parts to engender the whole is also clear.  The stratified notes and beats that bind together to form each song give the album a potent, doom-laden heft.  Accomplished in composition but simple in the playing, this music seems crafted in black and white.  Any addition of color would sound out of place, so look for no guitar solos or drum breaks as the songscapes unfold.

I rate this LP highly but imagine it being more for the recoiling rodents out there than for the stirred-up wolf-dogs.  It evokes dim bars sparsely inhabited by moody locals rather than neon-lit clubs filled with enthusiastic partyers.  I’d confidently recommend it to anyone who stoically hopes for happier times to come but doesn’t truly expect them in their heart of hearts.  If you strive to keep hidden a deep sense of cosmic aloneness and regularly find yourself irrationally mired in your own dispiriting thoughts, I think you’d like this one.  On the other hand, if you are generally content with your life and its path, I suspect you may find Lovely Sort of Death somewhat plodding and hard to connect with.

Despite the old-timey horror show look of Bloody Hammers’ Anders Manga and Devallia (above), the mood of their music is less the demented carney violence of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and more the alone-in-the woods anxious dread of The Blair Witch Project.

Despite the old-timey horror show look of Bloody Hammers’ Anders Manga and Devallia (above), the mood of their music is less the demented carney violence of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects and more the alone-in-the woods anxious dread of The Blair Witch Project.

 

 

You Send Me: Mom, Steve Miller and Sam Cooke

I didn’t know who this guy was and I certainly had no interest in being forced to extend feigned cordiality to his interloping ass.  My recently divorced mother had been set up with him by friends and had apparently found much to like.  He was someone with whom she thought there could be a deeper connection and so for this, his first visit to our house to pick Mom up for dinner and a movie, she hoped for a mutually positive first impression with us kids.  Before he came, Mom took 14-year-old me aside – possibly doing the same with my 12-year-old sister – and admitted to liking the gentleman, expressing her wish that I would like him too.  Regardless, she asked me to be polite when he arrived.

With a surly attitude attributable to normal adolescent contrarianism but exacerbated by the then personally unrecognized yet nonetheless real hurt and jealousy roiling within a confused child of a breaking home, it was all I could do to stand there and shake the 30-something intruder’s hand and mumble a “Nice to meet you too.”  Having complied with the letter, if most certainly not the spirit of my mother’s request, I quickly exited the uncomfortable scene for the reassuring refuge of my room and my music.  I placed side two of Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like an Eagle LP on the turntable and sought to escape from whatever incomprehensible bullshit was occurring upstairs.

Two songs in and after six or seven minutes of much friendlier exchange with my 8-year-old youngest sister and her visiting playmate, Mom came downstairs to open my door and say they were headed out.  I don’t recall my exact response but am sure that today’s teenage equivalent would be along the lines of, “Fine, whatever.”   As she headed back upstairs leaving my bedroom door open, Steve Miller’s version of “You Send Me” drifted out of the speakers.  Just before they left, I overheard the stranger say something to my mom like “Do you think he has any idea where that song comes from?”  As the front door closed, I heard Mom reply in a tone of sincere pride, “Oh, he knows.  He knows everything there is to know about music.”

Nearly 40 years later I still remember the feeling Mom’s words spurred in me as if it were happening right now.  My mommy understood me, was proud of me, and was not leaving me.  I don’t know how I would have described it then but the sense of relief flowed over me like a warm wave.  I may have even shed a few tears.  Somehow in those few words offered to someone else, Mom had managed to reassure me that she would remain my protector and advocate even as our lives changed drastically and against my will.  There would still be plenty of rocky road ahead to traverse, but from that fleeting moment forward, I never doubted that Mom would be there to support me through it.

THANKS MOMMY!!

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Now, the dark, hidden truth about the above is that I actually had no freaking idea where “You Send Me” came from.  To the extent I thought about it at all, I figured it for a Steve Miller original.  Oops.

There was no question that I needed to make Mom’s words true post-haste.  Even in those pre-cellular, pre-internet days, it didn’t take long to uncover that Sam Cooke had composed and first recorded the song back in the late 50s.  So, when just a few weeks later I spotted a used copy of the Cooke’s Tour album at a local thrift store, I enthusiastically handed over my 25 cents.  The record didn’t include “You Send Me” but I felt confident that my owning it would forever preclude any doubt about my musical knowledge should I be tested on my mother’s matter-of-fact assertion.

In the end, no such challenge ever came.  The interloper became my step-father before the year was out, staggeringly within one day of another invader, this one allowed in by my father, being declared my new step-mother.  In hindsight, I can happily affirm that, for all the bumps, things turned out well.  In fact, where most poor buggers have to make do with at best two parents to assist, love, and guide them into adulthood, I was blessed with four.  And throughout all of it, music continued, and continues, to magically provide escape, embrace, and enlightenment just when I most need it.

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Steve_Miller_Band_Fly_Like_an_Eagle

 

A quick note on Fly Like an Eagle:  The cover of this excellent album from 1976 has to be among the most misleading ever when it comes to giving a sense of what’s inside.  The gale-force electric guitar histrionics promised by the cover photo of Mr. Miller are nowhere to be found on the LP.  Instead, Steve’s brilliance is demonstrated mainly in acoustic – and acoustic-style electric – playing on a set of grooving rockers, spacey interludes and emotive ballads, all of which evoke a warm, breezy California feeling for me.  To be honest, the somewhat vanilla version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” is probably the album’s least-impressive moment, although the acoustic guitar accompaniment still rates it a winner in my book.  As the big hits “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Take the Money and Run,” and “Rock’n Me” are well known and widely loved, I’d draw new listeners’ attention to “Serenade,” an acoustic-driven, mid-tempo melodic rocker with unique harmonized vocals that conjures a campfire-lit beach under a vast, star-filled sky.

Steve Miller Band – Serenade

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Sam_Cooke_-_Cooke's_Tour

 

A quick note on Cooke’s Tour:  Sam’s first record for RCA Victor after a string of solo hits on Keen Records, this 1960 album has much more of a 1940s Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole traditional pop/orchestral feel than the soul/R&B of his late 50s hits.  Marketed as an “adventurous travelogue,” the LP offers the singer’s take on a series of “international” songs such as “Under Paris Skies,” “Bali Ha’i,” “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way),” and “Galway Bay.”  Despite the shift in style, there’s no mistaking Sam’s stunningly beautiful voice as he makes these far-flung songs very much his own.  I’m especially fond of “Jamaica Farewell” with its softened (diluted?) Caribbean rhythm and Sam’s lilting vocal, which together wonderfully evince longing for a lost love.  Best of all however is the album’s American offering, “The House I Live In,” which carries a message we statesiders would do well to remember in this divisive electoral year:

The house I live in
A plot of earth, a street
The grocer and the butcher
And the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see
All races, all religions
That’s America to me

The place I work in
The worker at my side
The little town or city
Where my people lived and died
The howdy and the handshake
The air of feeling free
The right to speak my mind out
That’s America to me

Sam Cooke – The House I Live In

Curved Air Live: Treasure for Your Pleasure

I sat in my driveway in awe after arriving home as the album played the rest of the way through.  What I was hearing was a revelation; I had no choice but to defer everything else and keep listening.  I’d known the band Curved Air for a few years and, in the right mood, considered myself a fan of their early 70s output of folk-tinged progressive rock.  But what was coming out of the speakers was something different.  The songs were familiar, but were altogether sharper, more alive, and seemed to just plain rock harder.  They were filled with zeal, anger, and raw energy, words that I would never have used to describe the Curved Air I had previously known.  I was experiencing 1975’s Curved Air Live for the first time and the experience was good.

Recorded during a late 1974 tour that the original band members had been compelled to undertake following two years of separation in order to pay off a tax bill, Curved Air Live was not the sound of a joyful group reunion but rather of five supremely talented artists working out their Curved Air Live (front)individual issues together on stage.  The reunion would last only for the tour and album release, but what a statement they would leave behind in this record.

That this is not your hippy uncle’s Curved Air of old is made clear from first track “It Happened Today” as it opens with tight, amplified keyboards replacing the piano flourish of the studio version and biting electric guitar and grooving bass brought far forward in the mix.  When Sonja Kristina’s vocal kicks in at the half-minute mark, it carries none of the twee quaintness of the original.  Instead we hear the slightly-gargled rasp of a woman on the verge, all antagonism and fury, and wonderfully so.  Wikipedia cites Kristina as explaining that, at the time of this recording, she was in a distraught emotional state following the breakup of her first marriage, and this had provoked wild, raw singing.  While sorry at the cause, I enthusiastically celebrate the result.

Second track “Marie Antoinette” probably represents the greatest, and most stirring, change in tone and feel from its studio version.  The original is a fantastic progressive folk rock song that tells the tale of the French revolution over theCurved Air Live (back) top of some excellent bluesy electric guitar wailing by Francis Monkman.  It looks back on a momentous historical event and imagines it from afar.  The live take here casts off the sense of the past and instead transports the listener directly into the scene.  The words are the same, but rawness and wrath now replace stoic storytelling.  One feels the “anger, born of hunger” viscerally, no longer just listening in but shouting along:

“We are the people of France, we demand that the
Elegant blue-blooded leeches that bleed us
Are taught what it means to grow fat and not feed us
We are the people of France, you must heed us!”

The mainly instrumental “Propositions” is another one that becomes something new here.  From Kristina’s gravel-voiced introductory shriek to the extended, echo-laden guitar and synth solos that double its run-time as compared to the original, this version leaves its earthbound, rollercoaster feel behind to launch itself into orbit on a Hawkwind-like rocket ride.

Curved Air’s best-known song, “Vivaldi,” is likewise transformed.  The opening bombast is turned up tenfold, and leads into a hootenanny-worthy fiddle workout by Darryl Way in lieu of the classical violin of the studio version.  This is followed by an extended, spacey electronic excursion in multiple parts, occasionally punctuated by hoarse yelping from Kristina and Way’s staccato violin bursts.  Awesome!

 

Curved Air

 

The overall musicianship demonstrated on Curved Air Live is exceptional.  In setting aside the focus on harmony and gloriously pompous crescendos, diminuendos and other prog/folk affectations that characterize their early studio albums, the band members are free to truly fly as instrumentalists here.  Monkman lets escape the inner guitar hero that we always knew was lurking in the wings, with violinist/keyboardist Way and drummer/percussionist Florian Pilkington-Miksa also allowed ample space to shine.  It is vocalist Sonja Kristina however who best takes advantage of the on-stage freedom to demonstrate her range, the precious chanteuse of the studio replaced by a take-no-prisoners woman with attitude.

The “folk” side of Curved Air is not to be found in this outlier offering.  This is progressive hard rock.  I’d recommend this even as a one-off exploration for rockers put off by the artifice and pretense of early 70s “art rock.”  As for those who only know Curved Air from their studio output, prepare to spend some time dumbstruck in your driveway.

 

Marie Antoinette (live): 

Black Sabbath: Witness to The End

When I realized I was going to miss my opportunity to see the reunited original line-up of Black Sabbath live by only the slightest of Black Sabbath - 13margins, I was bummed. Their tour on the back of the 13 album, a record I liked unreservedly, was to pass through the Washington D.C. area only a few days before I would finish my three-year assignment in Bolivia. Callous fate had already conspired to rob me of the chance to see the Dio-led version of Sabbath back in 1980 (as described here), and now yet again an indifferent universe casually overlooked me.

Among the many important changes in the 33 years since the earlier Sabbath letdown was one in particular that would greatly ease the pain of this repeat disappointment. I was now a father and therefore endowed by natural law with the dual blessing/curse of experiencing life not solely individually but also vicariously through my offspring. My son and daughter would both return to the D.C. area weeks before me in order to prepare for their respective entries into graduate school and university and could therefore make the pilgrimage to the Jiffy Lube Live amphitheater in Bristow, Virginia, to see theSabbath at Jiffy Lube Live show. I purchased two tickets for the 2 August 2013 concert and presented them to the kids as well-received high school and university graduation gifts.

In the days leading up to the concert, I relentlessly bothered the kids by phone from my lair in La Paz. I demanded details of the vehicle and route they would take to the venue, suggested pre-concert playlists, and double-checked for sufficient funds to buy souvenir T-shirts to memorialize the event. I made one final call during the Andrew W.K. opening slot to confirm they were in their seats and of correct mind, and then settled down with headphones to listen to 13 while imagining myself alongside them.

The morning after, I was thrilled to receive separate rave reviews and detailed descriptions of the “amazing” show from both daughter and son. It was clear that they had not only enjoyed the concert itself but also experiencing it together just the two of them, something that had become naturally less routine as they grew toward adulthood and began to forge their own paths. I was a tad sad at having personally missed the show, but the disappointment was significantly lightened by the knowledge that I had successfully bequeathed the elusive riches to my children rather than having lost them outright.

====================

Fast forward two and a half years and the previously uncaring cosmos seemed to have actively arrayed themselves for the sole purpose of bringing me joy. Call it karma or coincidence at your whim, but I fantasize a supernatural hand in the mundane turn of events that fortuitously conveyed me from Egypt to New York City just in time to witness Black Sabbath’s 27 February 2016 show at Madison Square Garden in the first days of their announced final tour, denominated “The End.” I had all but given up on the idea that I would ever partake in the live Sabbath sacrament, but some unseen master of reality appeared to have lorded over this world in my favor.

 

The Beginning of the End

 

My first Sabbath concert and my first visit to the renowned Garden, how much better could it get? From my pie-eyed perspective, everything was perfect. Following a good opening set by Rival Sons – an energetic, young band I had previously enjoyed in a small Baltimore club less than a year before – the legendary patriarchs of a gazillion metal genres strode onstage to massive cheers before assaulting us with the relentless barrage of doom that is “Black Sabbath,” the first song from their first album. Any concerns about their playing ability in the wake of Tony Iommi’s cancer scare, the status of Ozzy’s voice, or the impact of the absence of original drummer Bill Ward were forgotten immediately. This was truly the mighty Black Sabbath, with full power and glory intact.

 

Sabbath at MSG

 

The set list was never going to fully satisfy; there is simply too much greatness in the catalog. I was pleased however at the inclusion of personal favorites “Fairies Wear Boots” and “Hand of Doom” alongside stalwarts “Paranoid” and “Children of the Grave.” Geezer Butler’s bass awed throughout, with the “Bassically” intro to “N.I.B.” an obvious standout moment. Why “Dirty Women” from the Technical Ecstasy album and nothing at all from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage, or 13? It mattered only in hindsight for it all made perfect sense in the moment. I felt in no way cheated when the show ended; one of my loftiest musical bucket list entries had been checked off and I was ecstatic.

A word about touring drummer Tommy Clufetos and behind-the-scenes player Adam Wakeman: As anyone knows who has read my previous Sabbath-related post (linked in the first paragraph above), I have my own petulant, but honestly-held personal reasons for caring less about the absence of Bill Ward from the latter-day, reborn Sabbath than many of my fellow fans. Even so, it seemed objectively true, at least to me, that Clufetos is a formidable and worthy replacement skins-man. I felt both the power and the jazz-inflected swing that Ward was famous for in Clufetos’ drumming. Moreover, his lengthy solo during “Rat Salad,” while the elder Sabs likely took a restroom break, was naught less than amazing. As for Rick’s son, Adam, his offstage keyboards and second guitar seemed in no way meant to simply fill holes, but rather to provide a firm backing for the canvas on which Mr. Iommi painted his doom-laden art. A quick acknowledgement by the band and a wave from behind the curtain reinforced Wakeman’s unseen but vital role.

 

MSG Sabbath Tee-CD

 

I dropped nearly US$100 on the limited edition The End CD and two MSG-exclusive concert T-shirts. I give the CD a fervent thumbs-up, finding it pleasingly similar and a worthy companion to the 13 album. As for the shirts, I look forward to a future opportunity, probably involving a long drive, to compel my kids to pull on their own souvenir tees and join me in listening to a dad-crafted playlist in celebration of our “shared” Sabbath experience. (I happily note that the male heir has already purchased his own ticket to see “The End” when it passes back through Virginia this fall.)

 

Goin’ home, late last night
Suddenly I got a fright
Yeah I looked through the window and surprised what I saw
Fairies with boots dancing with a dwarf, 
all right now!

 

Kevin Mazur - Getty Images

Kevin Mazur – Getty Images

LONG LIVE SABBATH!!!

Am I Who I Was or Am I Who I Am

As I thumbed through an old missionary journal from my late teens while posting here yesterday, I came across a brief entry that I found quite comforting.  It seemed to cast a line across time to reassure me that, even after a journey of more than 30 years filled with seemingly endless, often wonderful, but also sometimes daunting change, I’m still me.  And more importantly, I still rock!

Thursday, September 6, 1984:  As of right now we are teaching 11 families and most of them are progressing…  Also, on a different line, I heard some awesome heavy metal on 99 FM today!!  Examples: Thin Lizzy, Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Ronnie James Dio, Foreigner, Ratt, Scorpions, Black Sabbath, Saxon, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard, Billy Idol.  I wrote all those so that when I am old and withered I can read this and find my way back to the fountain of life and youth:  HEAVY METAL!! “The Source”

And just for shits and giggles, here’s a note from 15-year-old me to my mom and stepdad that Mom kept.  I guess seeking to foist share my music has been a long-running proclivity.  (Note: “D.I.” stands for Deseret Industries, a Mormon Church-run thrift store.  Sadly, I have no memory of what treasures I had found.)

Awesome printing