Tuesday, May 31, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 41 (113)

When people refer to irony nowadays, they're generally not talking about the subtle irony you learn about in your 9th grade English class, the kind you find in Herman Melville and Charles Dickens, but rather irony as the common syntax of the postmodern condition, where it’s become virtually synonymous with cynicism. Irony has become such a pervasive and seemingly natural part of the collective consciousness that we often find ourselves in conversations where it’s difficult to discern whether the other person is being ‘serious’ – which is to say transparent, pure, true, earnest – or ‘ironic’, as in playful, sarcastic, obtuse, opaque, and what have you. I frequently have this problem in my own family. No matter how hard I try to make a simple declarative statement as to how I feel or what I think, they assume I’m pulling their leg, poking fun, and internally undermining what I present in its immediacy as the truth. And the funny thing is, I often lose track of whether I’m being serious or not myself! All meaning is slippery and always already deconstructed. There was a time, not so long ago in relative historical terms, when irony was subversive. These days it’s different. Irony as cynicism engenders paralysis, stagnation, and puts us all in a prison house of unstable language. We don’t know what to do or say, how to be, what to think. We don’t know what the truth is. And the ‘undecidability,’ as the post-structuralists refer to it, seems so stuck in time, monolithic and indestructible. Heidegger has a notion of modernity as a ‘fallen moment,’ which I think is more applicable today than ever. The more you look for the truth, the more you realize that it’s not out there. It’s why Fox News garners a whiff of respectability. When relativism becomes the dominant paradigm and everything becomes a text to be subjectively interpreted, then who’s to say that Rupert Murdoch’s truth isn’t every bit as legitimate as Noam Chomsky’s? It’s hard to imagine a turn back to transparency or to a naïve belief that the truth will set you free. It would be like returning to travel everywhere by bicycle after 100 years of riding around in cars, which, come to think of it, we may actually have to do at some point in the not-too-distant future, so who knows but that there might be an epistemological return of some sort… When and how did irony become conservative, I wonder? I’m thinking off the top of my head here, but it was probably in the 1970s, in the wake of the seismic social changes of the previous decade that uprooted so much of the long established meanings and assumptions. It’s sad that progressive social change turned into its opposite, but that’s the dialectic of enlightenment for you. The 60s were the peak of human civilization. And yet, the conservatives are correct (though not for the reasons they think) when they hold that the 60s are also responsible for the beautiful world we live in today…

Monday, May 30, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 40 (112)

When I was a freshman in College, Steve Trejo, from Los Angeles, lived on the same floor as me in the dorm and turned me on to Devo. Steve had bleached platinum hair, wore loud colors - oranges, pinks, reds, yellows - and was almost never seen without sunglasses, even when we went down to the bars on Marshall street at night. He was a total California stereotype, at least in appearance, and I found his special brand of West Coast charisma to be quite alluring. Sometimes I think that Steve planted the initial seeds of my California odyssey, along with all the LA bands I liked so much, like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, the Minutemen and X. Steve was into that stuff, too, and knew far more about it than I did, so we really hit it off. He was very smart as well, a graduate of the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, and seemed from my perspective at the time to be the only other person at Syracuse University who was at all equipped academically and intellectually for college. He actually read books! (Naked Lunch, Sometimes A Great Notion, In Cold Blood...). We took a philosophy class together - 'Human Nature' - and would sit around his room, smoking pot, listening to cassettes, and discussing Hobbes, and Locke, and Marx, and Sartre. It was admittedly a little unsettling to have conversations about species-being and alienation with a dude wearing dark shades indoors, but I got used to it eventually and he opened my eyes to a whole different way of being in the world just by virtue of his curiosity, his generalized enthusiasm, and the way these things translated into how he carried himself. I was a cynical, hunkered-down New Yorker, and he breezed into my life, a bright-eyed life force who opened my mind. I eventually lost touch with him. That's how these things go sometimes. But I'll never forget him. ...Prior to meeting Steve, I had always thought of Devo as a novelty act and never took the music seriously because of their zany futuristic image. I tend to resist 'quirky' music. But with Devo it's different. The quirkiness serves to cloak their acerbic edge somewhat so that it becomes more subversive. And in spite of the music's punky dissonance, the tunes stay with you. This morning I listened to Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, and for the rest of the day I was singing tonight's song to myself over and over again. I always think of Steve when I hear Devo, and so even though they're from Ohio, I always associate their music with this city of angels...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 39 (111)

Apologies in advance. I had to work all day today, so I don't have a lot of energy to write this post tonight. ...The Motels are not a band I generally regard all that highly, but Suddenly Last Summer is very much in line with what I was talking about yesterday. No amount of plastic corporate sheen can take away from the emotion the song evokes. The production sound is full-on 80s computers 'n synth, very muffled and cold in some ways, but it works really well in this instance. I love the pulsating beat created by the sequencers and drum boxes, and the faint electronic bells that give the song its trance-like feel, perfect for driving on the Hollywood Freeway in the wee hours of the morning. There's also a subtle distorted electric guitar that drops in and out of the mix at just the right moments, which makes listening to the song feel like walking in an ambiguous dream, one where beautiful memories become painful as they get filtered through subsequent experiences of loss and the desire to recapture lost sweetness. You kind of want to wake up from the dream because the overriding sensation is one of disappointment and anguish, yet there's something pleasing about the whole thing at the same time, so you keep your eyes closed and hope for a different ending to something that's already happened...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 38 (110)

One more wistful gem from the South Pacific before returning to music with a little more of an edge. Some of my music geek friends wince when I suggest that Crowded House have their moments. I realize that they are a bit corporate-alternative verging on Middle of the Road. Their vibe is very specific to the late 80s, and in most cases I have little interest in bands that do what Crowded House does. But I also try to remain open minded about these things, which is a good thing in this case because Don't Dream it's Over is one of the saddest songs I've ever heard. I don't associate it with any experience in particular, yet I always stop to listen when I hear it playing in a yuppie restaurant or at an upscale 'art house' cinema. The song never fails to make me feel sweet pain. It proves that, under the right circumstances, even the most coldly and rationally market-researched music is capable of creating a haunting atmosphere and can evoke feelings of deep sorrow and loss. Maybe it's just that I have a big place in my heart for melancholy music. This goes back to the first Beatles and Beach Boys albums my parents bought for me when I was five years old. I always connected more with A Day in the Life and In My Room much more so than I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Surfin' USA. Eventually I embraced happy music as well, but it's the sad songs that, even to this day, affect me most deeply. One paradox that's especially interesting to me is that there's actually an element of joy in a great sad song. When I hear the opening guitar chords in Don't Dream it's Over, chiming like church bells at a funeral, along with the mournful organ and the quietly desperate pleading of the singing, I feel like the only thing stopping me from crying is that the whole thing is so sublime...

Friday, May 27, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 37 (109)

I don’t generally respond well to the overproduced, murky production style that dominated so much of the music of the 80s, but nor do I favore the low-fi reaction against it. I don’t understand the appeal of music that sounds like it was recorded in a small bathroom. I want my music to be rich and full and clear. But there are a handful of exceptions, like New Zealand’s Tall Dwarfs – basically Chris Knox, Alec Bathgate, and a bunch of drum boxes – whose wonderfully off-beat albums for the legendary Flying Nun record label, Hello Cruel World and The Short and the Sick of It, occupied a central place in my consciousness for a few years when I was a student, first at Syracuse University then at Cambridge University. Again, Tall Dwarfs are far more arty and eccentric than most of the stuff I’ve been obsessing over these days, but there’s no point in getting hemmed in by rigidities. As long as this blimp is landing for a brief stopover in the South Pacific, I might as well take in some of the best stuff the region has to offer. …After parting ways with Bathgate, Knox became a solo artist and released a series of excellent, somewhat more accessible albums throughout the 90s. Tonight’s song is one of my favorite Knox tunes. I love the sentiment. For some reason, these guys from New Zealand always seem to say things in the way I would want to say them. Listen closely for how the fuzz boxed guitar kicks in at the middle verse, boosting the song's passionate vibe exponentially. Empathy is not something I give lightly, but by the end of the song I’m right there with Mr. Knox. I feel the desperate intensity he feels, and I cross my fingers in the hope that he’ll get what he wants…

Thursday, May 26, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 36 (108)

Here’s another bit of yummy pop euphoria from the Chills, off their classic album, Submarine Bells. The song really captures my restless, excited mood at the moment. The Chills make music for those of us who have faith in the healing power of a perfect pop song, faith in the things that make us feel good, that feel so right even as they exist in the long and frightening shadows cast by the unknown. There are moments in life when you have to say fuck it and wade through the danger, armed with nothing other than your belief in love, friendship and redemption, all of which find combined expression in the heavenly pop hit. In Martin Phillips’ hands, pop becomes synonymous with transcendence. I’m the most atheistic, material-world-oriented, skeptical, non-spiritual person I know, yet pop imbues me with a belief in a kind of secular metaphysics. It’s a belief system that allows me to let my guard down, just a little, to be brave, trust my instincts, and have faith in the existence of a place where love and music become one. The love-music nexus will free you. I believe this. I have to believe it because if I don’t I’m left with nothing. I know it all sounds like gobbledygook, but I don’t care. I believe in the love-music nexus. It’s a heavenly pop hit, for those that still want it…

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 35 (107)

The Chills are not really power pop, but they make exquisite music, so tuneful and pleasing, and I’d have to say that they are my favorite among the many great kiwi pop bands. I would also say the same thing about Martin Phillips that I said about Dwight Twilley a while back. When his music caresses my face and body, all my fear and insecurity dissolves, and I know I’m hearing a kindred spirit, somebody who gets me on a deep and intuitive level. He’s quite simply a magnificent songwriter with such a keen and effortless sense of melody and heavenly pop ecstasy. Tonight’s song still feels to me after all these years as if it were plucked from the innermost regions of my psyche. It’s the longing and yearning and desire that get to me, feelings I’ve struggled with all my life, attached to one person or another along the way, the ever elusive need to love, to be loved, to be validated. It can be such a painful sensation, yet Phillips soothes the hurt with his sweetness and empathy. It really does feel like he’s speaking for me, and I love him for that. …Unfortunately, I guess he decided to re-record the vocals for a retrospective Chills compilation, and the new singing is much weedier and far inferior to the original on (the aptly titled) Brave Words. I don’t understand why he did that. Don’t fuck with perfection. It’s like remaking The Manchurian Candidate or Hawaii Five O. What’s the point? There’s nowhere to go but down. Whatev. Martin Phillips gets a pass from me on this one. In fact, he’s earned as many passes as he needs for all the joyful moments he’s brought me over the years. There’s nothing more gratifying than feeling completely understood…

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 34 (106)

I’m not a huge Go Betweens guy, but I admire Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan’s songsmithing, and the band has its scattered moments of lovely melancholia. When I say I admire Forster and McLennan, I mean to say that I appreciate what they do on an intellectual level even if I don’t really connect with it emotionally. The problem for me is that the Go Betweens are art pop, and my taste these days isn’t very arty or sophisticated. But things used to be different. Music for me is usually an extension of what’s going on in my life elsewhere. I got heavily into the Go Betweens when I first moved to California 20 years ago. I was living in Berkeley in a dingy walk-up on the corner of College and Russell. It seemed to rain every day in the East Bay that winter. I had moved to California to bask in the sunshine and warmth after the incessant rains I’d suffered through in England. The good weather would have to wait until I moved to Los Angeles… I had no friends in Berkeley and worked in a doctor’s office as a receptionist alongside nurses who lived in towns like Fremont and Concord. It was very alienating work. The phone rang all day. Every person on the other end was a whiner. I hated the patients and secretly wished death on many of them. They all needed something, an appointment for a pap smear or rectal exam, a prescription for Vicoden or Xanax, a sympathetic ear to listen to a long, boring litany of ailments… I took myself much more seriously in those days. I probably wouldn’t like that guy if I met him today. I was making plans at the time to go back to graduate school and saw myself writing many scholarly books on deep philosophical, sociological and aesthetic topics. I represented myself to myself as a Hegelian Marxist, molded in the image of Georg Lukacs and Karl Korsch, but with a pessimistic streak I picked up from Adorno and his negative dialectic, which was an elaboration on the dialectic of enlightenment he developed with Max Horkheimer. I was also fascinated by the debates over the nature of postmodernity. I rejected Lyotard’s concept of le differend as the epistemological corollary to postmodern society because it implied irreconcilable discourses leading to political paralysis and stagnation. But these days it’s hard to argue with Lyotard’s vision. I’ve been told that postmodern ideas are passé at this point, but I really don’t see why. Descriptively they seem to apply now more than ever. Advanced capitalism is fractured and fragmented, but also technocratic and based on crisis management. Collective political action seems so untenable. I realize that this line of thinking only strengthens the existing structures of power but…I don’t know. I no longer have the energy for those discussions. I was so deadly serious in those days. I wanted to immerse myself in complex ideas and block the actually existing world out. I was sinking in the quicksand of my thoughts without knowing it. I was still so innocent and naïve. And this combination of seriousness and innocence made the Go Betweens just the thing for me. Hearing them now takes me back to that frame of mind. It’s not a place I feel comfortable being in for too long, but it’s not too bad for a few minutes once in awhile…

Monday, May 23, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 33 (105)

They must secretly put something in the water in the South Pacific because so many great pop bands have emerged from Australia and New Zealand. You’ve got Martin Phillips and the Chills. Chris Knox and Tall Dwarfs. The Clean. The Bats. Crowded House. The Go Betweens… And lots more that I know less well. Maybe it’s the case that power pop takes hold in Anglophone British colonies but not in England itself. Something about the satellite experience transforms the Beatles and the British Invasion into a different but closely related animal. I don’t know. I’m shooting in the dark here. It could just as easily be random happenstance. …Of all the bands from that region of the world, the Someloves, from Perth, are my favorite. It’s like I was saying last night: They’re almost too good. They do everything a guitar pop geek wants and needs. Their best songs have two, three and sometimes four multi-tracked guitars, each one as clear and high up in the mix as can be. The tambourines elevate the dramatic vibe of the music in the manner of all the best power pop. And the harmonies are just right. If I have one quibble it’s that some of the songs are too long. A great pop song should never be more than four minutes, and you should really try to compress it into three minutes if you can. I think the thing with the Someloves is that they have so many great ideas, and it feels like they want to make sure they get to all of them in every song, but the effect sometimes is to make it all too much, if that makes sense. It’s like eating chocolate or hot dogs. You eat one and it’s the greatest fucking thing you’ve ever tasted in your life. You eat two and it’s still pretty good but maybe a little excessive. Eat three and you feel sick. The Someloves will never, ever make you sick with their music, but some of the songs can be overwhelming. Pop shouldn’t overwhelm. Leave the overwhelming to progressive rock. Something like Good Vibrations might be overwhelming, but only because its so tight and compact. The whole point of great pop is to create a quick burst of euphoria, and that’s it. Make it so that I want to hear the song again. I’ll listen to a three-minute song numerous times, back to back to back. A five-minute song, not so much. But this is really only a very minor criticism. The Someloves create a sunshiny romantic vibe with their music. Everything’s beautiful down under. Everything’s groovy...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 31 (103)

It's interesting to me that, in spite of being so heavily influenced by the Beatles and the British Invasion, there's not really much power pop that's come out of the UK. At least not stuff that I know of. It's largely an American phenomenon that later reverberated in Australia and New Zealand, but not so much in Britain. There are exceptions, like the Records, Dave Edmunds, Badfinger, and XTC, and there may be a lot more that I'm not aware of at this point. I realize now that I've only begun to scratch the surface with this stuff. So let me put it this way: The vast majority of the power pop that I like, so far, is American. As for today's song, I like but don't love XTC. They're a bit too quirky for my taste. There's an arty element to what they do that puts me off. I don't mind artiness - David Bowie is a hero of mine, as is Peter Hammill, and I love a lot of progressive rock and Krautrock - but I don't want my pop to be arty, unless you consider something like Good Vibrations or I am the Walrus to be arty. Again, there are exceptions to my aversion to art pop, if you will, like a lot of Todd Rundgren's music, where even the most accessible stuff has strange things going on. But how many Todd Rundgrens are there? This sets the bar impossibly high. He can do arty pop and make it enjoyable on multiple levels, but most artists doing pop can't and shouldn't. It's for this reason that I've never really been able to fully penetrate XTC. I've tried many times over the years, but they've yet to click for me. Still, I like Senses Working Overtime a lot, and I'm sure I'll go back to XTC every so often, just to see if maybe I can have a breakthrough and connect with what they're trying to do...

sweet dreams, polly stevens

I don't want to get too deeply into this because I feel like my blog is rapidly degenerating into a profile of a shut-in male spinster and his cats, but I made the difficult decision today to put my Polly down. Life was never easy for the sweet girl. It can't be when you come from the factory wired to be scared, shy and perpetually on edge. Somehow she survived through 14 years of it. And in spite of herself, she brought so much joy and happiness to my life. I adopted her and her brother Vinnie right after a bad break up while I was still in graduate school. The three of us lived in a rickety walk-up apartment on Silver Lake Blvd, right across the street from Spaceland. Polly was always very cerebral and sensitive. She didn't like for me to be affectionate with her unless it was on her terms. She most certainly didn't like people, except for me, and then only grudgingly. But her reluctance to be more outgoing only made it more delightful when she decided to nuzzle up next to me on the couch or in bed. There are few things in my life that have been as pleasurable as the sound of Polly purring in my ear as she lay on the pillow next to me at night. A few girlfriends came and went over the course of Polly's lifetime, but she was always here for me, a much-needed constant amidst otherwise unrelenting change. We grew closer when her brother died. She really liked being the only cat in the house, I think. But I wanted a second cat, perhaps selfishly, and Polly withdrew a little bit when Vito came into our lives. Vito and Polly didn't really get along, but I can tell he already misses her. He's giving me looks like, 'Where is she, what did you do with her?' She's gone to a more tranquil place, Veet. It just got to be too hard towards the end. She never really recovered from her dental surgery. There's a part of me that wonders why the vet at the animal hospital thought Polly was a suitable candidate for dental surgery given her age and generally dodgy health. But this is not a time to place blame or feel bitter. They did what they could for her, and I did everything I could to make her feel comfortable. Before she was euthanized today, the two of us got to spend some time alone together. I held her and kissed her and cried a lot of tears. She felt so good in my arms, and she looked at peace for the first time in a long time. I told her how much I loved her, and how much better my life has been for having her in it. I think she understood. I hope she did. Thank you dear Polly for loving me so much. I'll never forget you, and I'll always love you...

Friday, May 20, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 30 (102)

In their New Wave power pop guise, Utopia played a kind of progressive pop. On the one hand, the songs have all the trappings of perfectly executed pop. The self-titled album that followed Deface the Music is remarkable in the way the catchiness just gets more infectious with every song. Your head is dizzy with hooks by the end of it. It's Exhibit A for those of us who want to believe that Todd Rundgren is a pop guy first, and only after that should you think of him as an experimentalist. Still, the side of him that's a daring risk taker is not to be simply shunted off to the side. While the songs on Utopia are undeniably first-rate pop, the song structures, chord progressions and harmonies are all very unusual to say the least. There's a fair bit of weird stuff going on if you're willing to sit down and get into a meditative frame of mind where you focus on nothing other than the music. You may need something to help you do this, if you catch my drift. The record takes you by surprise because it'll just register as Todd Rundgren doing another great collection of pop songs if you just put it on as background music while you're doing dishes or folding the laundry. This is why I think of it as progressive pop or progressive power pop. The hooks are the immediate lure, but there's a lot of ambitiousness in the music as well, which comes in through the back door unannounced. It's really a fascinating record, one that's not overly heady, unless you want it to be, in which case it will repay each successive listening sesh with something new, and strange, and lovely, and...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 28 (100)

Good news for the Lonely One’s still miniscule but gradually growing readership: The post I was writing at the time of the Blogger meltdown last week – the one recounting my sordid boiler room adventures to the sweet sounds of Nick Gilder’s Hot Child in the City – has been recovered and inserted in its proper place, May 11. So if you have any curiosity at all as to what I sick fuck I am, feel free to scroll down... I was talking to a good friend of mine yesterday about what a remarkable career Todd Rundgren has had, both in making his own music, from the Nazz, to his solo work, to Utopia, and in producing such a diverse cross section of artists, from the Band, to Badfinger, to Grand Funk Railroad, to the New York Dolls, to Meat Loaf, to XTC, among others. I admire the guy so much, yet I also find his body of work to be quite vexing. I’m talking here about his own material. It really has no consistency in the sense that there’s no signature Todd Rundgren sound for us to grasp onto. I want to believe that he’s first and foremost a pop guy since, for me anyway, this tends to be the stuff that resonates the most and that has a beating heart. He can be quite tender and passionate when he chooses to be, though he does so only sporadically. Part of the problem is that he’s extremely intelligent. This is admirable, of course, but thoughtfulness is not always an asset in music, unfortunately, especially if it leads to material that’s overly intellectualized and brittle sounding as a result. So much of Rundgren’s work consists of him trying to make specifically stylized albums, often very heavy handedly, and in a way that sounds mannered and cold, instead of just letting the music happen more spontaneously. Does that make sense? Even the apparent spontaneity of Something/Anything, with its mistakes, and retakes, and in-studio banter, seems contrived somehow. So we have him doing a series of pop albums, followed by proggy experimentation, followed by a Beatles album, followed by New Wave albums… A lot of this music is very good, but no stable identity emerges, and we’re left wondering just who this Todd Rundgren really is. Having said all this, I certainly adore a lot of his stuff, especially when he works in the power pop idiom. It’s just that I want to love his full body of work more than I do. I want to know Todd Rundgren and get closer to him. But he teases me and then pushes me away, only to bring me back, pleading on my hands and knees, with some perfectly realized bit of pop ecstasy. It’s so frustrating. He may be the closest thing America has to a David Bowie-type shape shifter, only even more elusive, more fragmented, more infuriatingly detached. I want so badly for him to show me some kind of sign, to reveal some enduring core, and to be warmer. But perhaps it’s his not doing these things that makes him as great as he is…

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

my power pop addicition, no. 27 (99)

With Utopia’s Deface the Music, Todd Rundgren deconstructs the Beatles and creates a masterpiece of postmodern pastiche, one that celebrates the enduring power of pop as a cultural force even as it seems resigned to the exhaustion of its capacity for innovation. The album is one of the most fascinating of Rundgren’s long and prolific career, and it provides further proof that the man is one of the most compelling figures in popular music. …Any discussion of the roots of power pop has to start with the Beatles and their emphasis on tight, compressed, hooky songcraft. Some bands, like Badfinger and the Spongetones, then take the added step of explicitly trying to sound like the Beatles. But Rundgren’s studious devotion to Beatles-type song structures on Deface the Music moves things to a whole new level as he makes simulacra from actual chord progressions and instrumental passages lifted from songs like Fixing a Hole, I am the Walrus, Eight Days a Week, She Loves You, and Day Tripper, all in an effort to essentially make a new Beatles album. There are some who will critique this whole enterprise as a big derivative yawn. Who cares if Rundgren can expertly do the Beatles? But I think what makes Deface the Music so interesting is that Rundgren seems to understand implicitly that originality is no longer possible, if it ever was. The Beatles, after all, are essentially Buddy Holly + Liverpool. The Stones are Chuck Berry + Little Richard + Muddy Waters + London. The Byrds are the Beatles + Dylan. And so on and so forth. Pop records don’t get made in a vacuum but rather emerge out of an increasingly media saturated and commodified environment, where mechanical reproduction and market forces limit creativity to known quantities, and where the artistic process is reduced to the cobbling together of familiar ‘influences.’ Rundgren makes this explicit with a self-consciously mimetic album that validates what the pomo theorists refer to as the death of the author. The genius artist with whom great ideas originate becomes what he always was, a comforting if also reactionary fairy tale and form of wish fulfillment, and he’s now replaced by the artist as assimilator, a bricoleur who defaces the music with fragmented, infinitely referential collage. All this doesn’t speak too optimistically for the health and future of cultural production, but in Rundgren’s hands, I must say, the creative bankruptcy of postmodernity manages to sound fucking great…

Sunday, May 15, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 25 (97)

The Cars were a big part of my experiences at Camp Greylock, especially during the summer of 1980, which I think was the peak of the band's popularity. ...The owner of the camp had a daughter named Maggie, probably about five years older than me. Maggie was extremely foxy, and she flaunted it knowingly. The memories are a little blurry after all these years later (yeah, right!), but she had dark hair, blue eyes, and an amazing body, especially her bouncy, youthful breasts. You have to understand that when you're a 12-year-old boy, and you already walk around with a boner all day long anyway, and you've been away at an all boys summer camp for weeks on end, you become very sensitive to the female form. When Maggie would show up at the lake wearing her tight red one-piece swim suit with a plunging neckline, a quiet hush would fall over all of us. We didn't know what to do with ourselves. It was like mass paralysis. We'd shoot each other looks and giggle amongst ourselves, but it was nervous laughter that we were all using to cover up the aching each of us had in our loins. I'm not gonna get into beating off because I think I've covered the topic enough for the time being, but suffice it for now to say that jerking off at camp was difficult because there were very few private moments available to the campers. We were almost always with each other in packs. We all found ways to scratch our itches, but doing so proved to be a logistical challenge. ...One of my best friends at camp was a guy named Michael. We were just simpatico on a number of levels. Neither of us were particularly good athletes, but we were both obsessed with comic books and music. We spoke the same emotional language and shared some of our most personal secrets and feelings with each other. We were both overtaken by red hot burning lust whenever Maggie showed up on the scene.

"She makes my dick so fuckin' rock hard," Michael admitted to me.
"Me, too. Those tits are insane. I feel like my dick is gonna rip right through my shorts."
"Can you imagine what it would be like to get a blow job from her?
"Or just to see her naked. I'd give anything."

Which gave us an idea. The two of us conspired one afternoon to follow her back to her bunk after she was done swimming. Everybody knew which bunk she slept in and which guys were coming and going from her quarters after hours. Michael and I followed about 50 yards behind her, barely able to contain our excitement. We snuck around the back of the bunk, hoping to catch a glimpse of her changing out of her swimsuit through the back window. The bunk was built into a hill, pitched at an angle, so that we could stand about ten feet away and see down into her living space. From our vantage point, we saw everything going on in there. She combed her hair and posed for herself in the mirror, but she never took her batching suit off. She just put on a pair of cutoffs and a t-shirt over it. It might even have been a Cars concert t-shirt, one of those black baseball shirts with semi-long white sleeves. And yet, even without seeing any skin, watching her was still so intensely erotic, seeing her without her knowing, and with the possibility that at any moment she could undress and we'd be gazing at her hot teenage body, like some scene out of an early-80s teensploitation film, the kind that used to play after hours on Cinemax and Showtime. Our fertile imaginations could easily fill in the blanks with imagery and scenarios that would probably be much more exciting than the real thing. ...I realize this story is kind of pointless and anticlimactic. I could have made something up, like Maggie saw us, two perverted 12-yr-old peeping Toms, and then invited us in and blew us both, but that wouldn't be believeable, more the phony stuff of Penthouse Forum or Little Girls Blue than anything in real life. I guess I was thinking about the Cars in their time and place, and I began to flash back to the time in my life when I was listening to the Cars a lot, and I remembered the day when the owner's daughter didn't give me everything I wanted but still provided just what I needed...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 24 (96)

The Cars occupy a contradictory position within the pop-rock nexus of the late 70s and early 80s. Their 1978 debut album was like a breath of fresh air when it hit the stores and songs like Let the Good Times Roll, Just What I Needed, My Best Friend's Girl, and You're All I've Got Tonight went into heavy rotation on hesher rock stations. Their sound was punchy, the songs were lean and compressed, and the hooks just kept on coming. The band also had a really cool image, one part druggy dissonance, one part New Wave alienation, and entirely distinct from the increasingly heavy and bloated vibe of the older and more conventional bands garnering FM airplay. But because the Cars were appropriated by an old guard looking to revive and update the image of what later became known as classic rock, the band was never really afforded the credit they deserved for doing such great New Wave power pop. They became a part of what they had seemingly set out to undermine. The incessant play of their hits on FM radio also wore away at some of the freshness they initially brought to the table, and even now I have to be in the right head space to enjoy them on their own terms as opposed to on the terms set for the band by the corporate radio behemoth through which I first became familiar with their music. But when I do manage to get into that head space, I find their music tight and exhilarating, just the way I like it. As great as their first album is, it's the follow-up, Candy-O, that I reach for most often when I need to hear the Cars. I can still remember buying the album at Music Maze on the first day it came out in 1979. I played the shit out of that record and eventually got a chance to see them play at Madison Square Garden, with XTC no less, on the tour for Panorama, the somewhat less enjoyable third Cars album and really the last one I paid any attention to. ...There's good reason for a certain amount of skepticism when it comes to the Cars, but if you can decontextualize their songs a bit, mentally removing them from the strange transitional period that compelled the band to straddle the divide between rock and New Wave, I think you'll be surprised by what an excellent pop band they were for the first three years or so...

Friday, May 13, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 23 (95)

Through no fault of my own, my Cal Ripkenesque streak ended yesterday at 94 blog posts in 94 days. The blogging site seems to have undergone a major meltdown because the thing was offline for almost 24 hours. My incredibly thoughtful 94th post - the one chronicling my onanistic adventures down in the Dalton boiler room - was a casualty of the disaster, along with the follow-up post I was writing on Nick Gilder. My first impulse was to be pissed off about it, but the blogging platform is entirely free and system breakdowns are all part of this brave new world we’re living in. So onwards we go… There’s really not much for me to say about Nick Gilder anyway. He’s another in a long line of canuck pop stars stretching from at least Rick Neufeld and the Bells, to Gordon Lightfoot and Burton Cummings, to overwrought Alanis, to foxy Avril Lavigne (nee Levine?), and all the way up to the helmeted one himself, Justin Beiber. …I’m actually Facebook friends with Gilder, along with a few hundred other balding children of the 70s, and the impression I have of him is that he’s maybe not the sharpest tool in the shed, though this isn’t relevant to anything other than my own need to indulge my inner bitch. He also seems like a lovely dude and deserves credit for remaining accessible to his fans. When Hot Child in the City came out in 1978 and went into heavy rotation on Top 40 radio, I remember being surprised when I learned that a guy was doing the singing. I think a lot of kids had the same reaction. Androgyny is a big part of power pop. The effect is similar to what happens with glam, where conventional male sexuality is subverted only to be repackaged in a form that’s more potent precisely because it's more complex and subtle. I dig it. It makes me feel less self-conscious about identifying on a deep level with the sound of Eric Carmen’s voice. ...Gender bending also helped power pop bands distance themselves from the more the more traditionally laddy approach taken in a lot of hesher rock. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I hear power pop as a reaction against rock, though in some cases, like with the Cars, Cheap Trick, Tom Petty, and even Todd Rundgren, the relationship to rock is complicated. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gravitated much more towards pop and away from rock. My taste is as sugar coated as ever. Give it to me in quick, concise bursts of pleasure, nothing too heavy or elongated. Three minutes or less is more than enough time to completely change my perspective on the day, usually for the better…

Saturday, May 7, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 18 (90)

The 1977 debut album from LA power popsters the Pop is what I hear playing in my head these days when I picture how great it must've been to live in this city in the mid 70s, back when there were still wide open spaces and infinite possibilities. The layers of guitar in tonight's song, along with its breezy romantic vibe, give the music a unique and ethereal quality that fills me with lightness and joy, much like the increasingly rare treat of riding on an open freeway at dusk. The Pop were kinda sorta in the New Wave vein with their synthesizers and semi-androgynous vocals. The record as a whole is not great, but there are at least three songs very much worth having, tonight's being the best, in my opinion. Let its lovely intricacy put you in a narcoticised-like trance, and visualize palm trees swaying in the warm summer breeze, against a red velvet sunset. I live for this kind of stuff, and I want you to live for it too...

Friday, May 6, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 17 (89)

One more trash-to-treasure pick for you today. I'm actually uncomfortable calling 8675309 trash since it's always sounded to me like nothing less than a gem. It came out when I was in eighth grade and, even though I was a total hesher rock guy in those days, I loved the song and would crank up the radio every time it came on. If it'd been done by, say, 20/20 or Pezband, it would not be the laugher it seems to have become today. Part of the problem is that it's hard to take a band called Tommy Tutone seriously. But it's an excellent song, featuring those tweaky, speedy adenoidal vocals you get with some of the best late 70s and early 80s guitar pop. It's not really New Wave because there's no synth and it's not arty or modern sounding, if that makes sense. My sister asked me about the distinction between New Wave and power pop. It's hard to say because, as I told her, the categories are somewhat subjective, arbitrary and overlapping. There's power poppy New wave - the Cars, XTC, Utopia, etc. And there's New Wavey power pop - Phil Seymour, the Pop, Nick Gilder, 20/20, Shoes. There's tons of different flavors, the varieties loosely intersecting and fluid. I'll try to get to a lot of it in the coming days and weeks ahead. But 8675309 is just a straight-forward pop beauty with great guitars, a catchy hook, satisfying backing vocals, and a wonderfully low-budget video. Dig the Shrink's office that looks like a janitor's closet on the sound stage. The Freud poster is a nice touch...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 16 (88)

I think the Greg Kihn Band is even more of a dicey proposition than Missing Persons. Remember the patently awful Our Love’s in Jeopardy song that played on MTV like once an hour in ’82 or ’83? Just horrible stuff. Really bad. I used to watch a lot of MTV at my older sister’s house during the Golden Age. She was married to a corporate lawyer who knew a lot about rock and took me under his wing. They’re long since divorced, of course, but they were total yuppies at the time. I mean, dictionary definition. They accumulated mountains of stuff. Electronic equipment. Flimsy furniture. Grooming tools. Perfumes and tons of cosmetics. Betamax tapes, including soft core pornos with Sylvia Kristel, who also was the marquee star of my wet dreams. A white Mercedes convertible with tricked out rims and something called a ‘compact disc player’ installed in the trunk, which skipped all over the place anytime you drove over a pothole. Humidifiers. Exercise bikes (that they never used). Sleek cooking utensils. Fancy bedding and closets packed to the gills with clothes and shoes and jewelry and god knows what else. They even had a fucking electric drum set for christ’s sake! So much utterly unnecessary stuff. I wonder where all that junk is now? Do you ever think about that? Is it in someone’s garage, or is it in, like, a landfill beneath a golf course? The thought freaks me out a little, you know? Multiply it by a gazillion times over decades and decades and decades. For all the conservative talk about 70s blindness to consequences – the ‘if it feels good do it’ stereotype - the Reagan mindset was far more nihilistic. If you want it, even if you don’t need it, buy it, because buying it will make you feel good, and if it makes you feel good then there’s nothing else you need to worry about, like the possibility, 30 years hence, of some yuppie detritus Swamp Thing rising up out from the 13th hole at your local muni golf course. I’m vamping here because there’s really not a lot of compelling stuff I can say about the Greg Kihn Band, far as I can tell, except that tonight’s song is very catchy and has a great power pop feel to it. The striped shirts almost give them a faint veneer of semi-New Wave respectability. Almost. I wonder where those striped shirts are now?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 14 (86)

I weighed whether to post something a little less well known tonight - I'm quite fond of How Do You Talk to Girls? - but I love Jessie's Girl and its video too much to pass it over. I see very few contemporary music videos nowadays unless I’m eating in the food court at the Westside Pavillion, but one thing I notice is that they don’t really have much narrative structure anymore. It’s usually just jaggedly edited footage of the artist striking various (frequently moronic) poses. The video for Jessie’s Girl is all the more satisfying in light of this, with a nice balance between telling a story and showing Rick Springfield et al playing the song. The song itself just gets catchier with the passage of time. It was a million light years from what I wanted in my music back when it came out (though I have some foggy recollection of privately liking it), but these days it’s exactly the kind of thing I want to listen to all day long. I dig the crunchy guitars in the middle eight (I think it’s a middle eight, but I’m not a musician), and the way they get even crunchier and rise up a semitone or so in the small interval before the song returns to the chorus. You can’t help but get caught up in how handsome the guy was, but I think his Tiger Beat looks probably diverted attention from the song’s subtle muscularity. It’s got a bit of a hard edge, both musically and thematically. She’s lovin’ him with that body, I just know it… I know the feeling all too well, Rick, but I also know that your finding another is just a matter of course…

Monday, May 2, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 13 (85)

I grew up in a well-to-do household with a lot of domestic help crawling all over the place. It’s a little embarrassing to tell you this, but there’s no point in denying who I am and where I come from. And this may sound like a horrible Hollywood cliché, but I became close with some of the servants, at least until the inevitable crystallization of class consciousness imbued me with a more restrictive sense of how to relate to people outside the insularity and incestuousness of Manhattan's bourgeois bubble. I spent a lot more time with the domestics each day than I did with my parents, who were out working, building and consolidating their careers, and earning enough money to keep the cooks and cleaners and nannies on the payroll. When I was in sixth grade, Edith, the cook/cleaner from Barbados, turned me on to General Hospital. The timing was just right because within about a year the show would become a huge sensation thanks to story lines featuring a dastardly plot to impose a new Ice Age over the town of Port Charles, and three mesmerizing love triangles, the first between Luke Spencer, Laura Webber and Scotty Baldwin; the second between Dr. Alan Quartemain, Dr. Monica Quatemain, and Dr. Rick Webber; and the third between Dr. Noah Drake, Nurse Bobbie Spencer, and (I think) Mattie Drake. I also got hooked on The Edge of Night, but it wasn't nearly as good as GH. Like my attachment to baseball and comic books, I gravitated to the routinization and predictability of soaps. General Hospital came on at 3:00, went to commercial at 3:06, 3:22, 3:37, and 3:47, and ended at 3:56. The timing never changed and neither did the commercials or even the sequencing of the commercials. Top Job. Nine Lives. Extra Strength Midol. Tide leaves your laundry springtime clean. Calgon take me away. They call these age spots, I call them ugly, but what’s a woman to do? Ask any mermaid you happen to see... I’ve always needed this type of a priori structure to give me a sense of security and order, something to provide meaning and familiar rhythm to a life that would otherwise be empty and beyond my control. It’s why I’m always on time (if not a half hour early), and it’s why some of my more loosey goosey friends probably think I’m uptight. The soaps were there for me every day, Monday to Friday. And just as the domestic help became my surrogate family, the characters on the General Hospital became my family as well. I’d worry about them at night and cared deeply about what happened to them in the same way I cared about what happened to Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, and Reed Richards. I'd sprint home from school to make sure I caught every minute of every episode. The fact that I was perilously close to failing out of school mattered much less to me than whether Noah and Bobbie would end up together.

…And speaking of Dr. Noah Drake, his character was played by Rick Springfield. I miss the days of this kind crossover between teevee and pop. What the world needs now is a new Shaun Cassidy... The thing about Rick Springfield is that his two most well-known albums, Working Class Dog and especially Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet, are deceptively, improbably excellent. The lyrics are admittedly often young and dumb and full of cum (notwithstanding the complicated emotions and circumstances depicted in Jessie’s Girl), but the melodies are amazing, the hooks completely addictive, the harmonies ridiculous, and the guitars crunch and buzz along with just enough hard edge to make you want and need to hear them repeatedly. This last point is really the test of whether a pop song works: Do you want to hear it again and again, like a little boy who insists that his parents (or nanny) read Curious George to him over and over again? With tonight’s song and three or four others on Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet, the answer is an emphatic yes, as in yes, the very first thing that crosses my mind when Calling All Girls ends is that I want and need and have to hear the damn thing again, and then again after that. At first, the synthesizers and 80s production values are likely to heighten any reservations you might have about an Australian dreamboat soap/pop star. But if you have a little patience, Springfield’s best songs will grow on you, and before you know it you’ll want them shot directly into your arm. They don’t break any new ground, and they’re in essence mechanized products of trash culture, but for those of us who can’t keep it together without predictability, routine and reliability, Rick Springfield offers the soothing balm of controlled catharsis…