Thursday, June 30, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 71 (143)

The double detachment of third person, past tense was just as difficult for him, his words frequently slipping into an especially ugly brand of the passive voice on those occasions when this more journalistic modality was deemed appropriate… To begin a thought piece in this manner, with a fragment that assumed familiarity with something said elsewhere, though not referring to it explicitly, struck him as a very REM-ish thing to do, and it reminded him of the pleasure he had derived as a teenager in trying to decipher Michael Stipe’s lyrics. There’s a splinter in your eye and it reads react… Back then, REM was for him like mac and cheese, peanut butter, and Chips Ahoy, comfort food for the ears, to mix metaphors, music that calmed him down when he felt uptight, picked him up when he felt down, and gave him strength to carry on in the face of repeated heartbreaks and disappointments. But as the tinny production value of the first few albums became increasingly difficult for him to abide, REM lost some of their luster. Still, there has never been the slightest doubt as to the greatness of the music itself, amounting to a kind of power folk pop, and peaking with the songs collected on Fables of the Reconstruction, the band’s third album, produced by Joe Boyd. Unfortunately, Boyd could not recreate the magic touch he had in the 60s and early 70s, when he made the likes of Nick Drake and Fairport Convention sound so warm and intimate. Fables sounded exactly the opposite, cold and distant, but this was not entirely Boyd’s fault as it would have been impossible for him to step outside the available technology and ascendant corporate ethos of the Reagan era. This was why seeing REM live became so essential to their most devoted fans. Freed from the stifling constraints of the studio, the band would grow wings and fly. He got to see them several times, the most memorable of which was their show at Radio City Music Hall in the spring of 1985, with the Minutemen as the opening act. Not a bad double bill! …REM were not at all extroverted on stage, but they didn’t have to be because they took performing seriously, and their amazingly tight shows - 100 times fresher sounding than anything heard on the albums - unleashed an energy that would fill any room with communal good vibes and joyful jingle jangle. There have been very few bands that could match REM’s quiet intensity on stage, and he has never forgotten the rapturous energy that flowed through his body when he saw and heard them play live...

Oy vey, this was really hard!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 69 (141)

Richard Lloyd is my guitar messiah. I grew up listening to Television, played the grooves off of Marquee Moon and Adventure, as well as the various bootlegged recordings I had of the early Richard Hell period, and though I always admired the intense fury of Tom Verlaine’s guitar playing, I identified much more with Lloyd. Verlaine is an incredibly accomplished player, but there's a flat, emotionally austere quality to his musical persona that leaves me cold. For me, it’s Lloyd’s vulnerability that makes Television such an unforgettable band. Without Lloyd's soulfulness as a complement, Verlaine would be just another ho hum cynically detached genius. How dreary and dull. Give me something I can believe in. ...It's quite revealing to look at what Verlaine and Lloyd have each done as solo artists. Verlaine's solo material is unremarkable. With Lloyd out of the picture, the music becomes brittle and a bit lifeless. But Lloyd's solo material pulses with love and loss and pain and sorrow and struggle and joy. Misty Eyes is one of my favorites. The lyrics are impressionistic, but I recognize myself in them right away, the regression to childhood, the yearning for a return to the ecstasy of sexual discovery, and the enduring power of formative romantic experiences. And he does it all in a way that feels off handed and casual, suggesting that this is just the way his mind naturally works, yet it’s also deeply thoughtful, daring to actually feel something, to be emotionally engaged after coming through the crucible of punk’s alienated worldview - so bored, so tired, so fed up with any lingering remnants of 60s idealism. Lloyd's approach takes courage, a willingness to stand for sentiment and meaning without the grating nihilism that afflicted so many of his peers. And it's impossible to miss just how much the guy adores the guitar. There’s obvious technical virtuosity at work, but no amount of expertise can give a guitar player the ability to make the thing cry, sing, laugh, scream, hum, vibrate, dance, and grunt the way Lloyd does. These things are primordial and transcend technique. Lloyd has such amazing feel, the way he hammers on and off notes, knowing exactly when to quiet down and when to add emphasis. ...For some reason, talking about all this now reminds me of a personality test I took a few months back, which revealed me to be INFJ (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging). An INFJ is also known as a Protector and a Mystic Writer. Apparently, only 1 percent of the general population can claim to be Mystic Writers. Dunno whether this means I’m fabulously special or a fucking freak, but what I take away from my test result when I cut beneath all the Jungian jargon is that I’m a guy who loves redheads, Raymond Chandler, kissing, perfume, the mountains, the ocean, contemplating the cosmos, and the Beatles and Byrds. But then, I knew all this about myself already, so what's the point of taking a test? ...I’ve never met Richard Lloyd, except over Facebook, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s an INFJ as well. When I hear him play his guitar, it’s like listening to someone who thinks and feels and dreams all the same things I do…

Saturday, June 25, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 66 (138)

Matthew Sweet divides listeners, but count me among his boosters. I mean, he's a Born Again Angeleno, via Athens, Georgia, via Lincoln, Nebraska, who sings hooky songs of love and loss beautifully and digs guitars and harmonies and shakers and all the things we pop obsessives drool over, plus he uses Richard Lloyd, Robert Quine and Ric Menck as session players. What's not to love? When I first heard Girlfriend back in the early 90s, it was like an oasis in the grungy desert. It became one of those albums I played every day for months on end, so much that even now I always associate it with people and places and things that have long since passed out of my life. But the album still stands up, whereas so much music from the 90s just seems to be phoned in, sounding resigned to corporate domination and a narrow set of joyless formulas. Matthew Sweet is one of the few guys from that period who still sound warm and alive to me. Tonight's song is from 1995's 100% Fun, which is his best album and features many tracks that deploy a three-guitar attack. When two of those guitars are Lloyd and Quine, how can you possibly go wrong? You can't, and while a number of the songs are sad, the album has an upbeat energy that justifies its great title. Let it be known that I love Matthew Sweet and I don't care how many cranky, contrarian rock snobs think otherwise...

Thursday, June 23, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 64 (136)

In spite of the oceans of critical jizz spilled over the dB’s back in the day, I always felt their supposed greatness was an illusion, the result of groupthink amongst an insular group of pencil necked music writers. I see the band as a bit of a lost opportunity. This may sound like harsh judgment, and it’s largely a matter of taste and my resistance to arty pop, but I think I like the idea of Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey much more than the reality. There’s no question that the two of them had a great feel for the craft of writing sharp, tight and nicely self-contained pop songs. The trouble for me is that the melodic hooks, with some scattered exceptions, just never really materialized with any consistency. The dB’s might’ve been as big and as good as REM if they had only made their music a little more accessible. After Stamey left, Holsapple and Co. released Like This, which, again, critics said they loved. The album has nice moments but to this day I still find listening to it to be an exercise in frustration. I keep hoping that it’s a grower and that I’ll eventually have that magic moment of recognition, but I’ve yet to break through with it, having tried multiple times over the course of almost three decades... Tonight’s song, the opener on the dB’s debut record, Stands for Decibels, is the best thing the band ever did. It shows me what they could have been if only they’d opted for an approach that was a little sweeter, a little less tart. The song holds a special place in my heart because it was the first song I heard, back in the early 80s, on that life changing day when I moved the radio dial on my Technics stereo from WNEW, 102.7 FM, a hesher rock station in the midst of an identity crisis, to WNYU, 89.1 FM, an excellent college station that introduced me to so many new bands at the time and was such a refreshing change from the relentless repetition of Layla, Pinball Wizard, and Sympathy for the Devil. I love lines like, ‘we are finished, as of a long time ago’, and the chorus, ‘I don’t enjoy you anymore.’ I also dig the interesting percussion and – duh! - the jangle of the band’s Byrdsy guitars. The most interesting aspect of the song to me now is that it’s the dB’s at their best and most accessible, but even so you can still detect some arty pretension creeping in if you pay close enough attention. I suppose some of this is an artifact of the music’s time and place. It was the 80s and some of the new generation of bands, like the dB’s, were trying to distinguish themselves by breaking free from what they perceived to be a tired way of doing things. But the thing about melody and tuneful hooks is that, in formal terms, their elemental significance to the art of the pop song transcends time. I would have rolled my eyes if I heard a dinosaur like myself say this back when I was in my 20s. But I was so much older then, and I’ve since come to recognize the metaphysical component to pop purity. You can only fuck with it along the perimeter. You can’t alter or elide the fundamental essence that gives the music its heartbeat…

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 62 (134)

Sex Clark Five, a quartet, actually, from Huntsville, Alabama, made arty power pop, often of a hyper-intellectualized variety, which is not typically a sub-sub-genre I relate well to, but their melodic chops are so good that I find them hard to resist. Tonight’s song, with its changes in time signature and epic, politicized lyrics, might even be characterized as progressive pop. I tend to think of pop and prog as being on opposite ends of the spectrum, but SC5 have a hand in both. You can really see why they never gained much attention beyond college radio and a few nerdy critics here and there. It’s pretty heady stuff. But they’re a band that can do many things well. While Sarajevo is filled with musical and thematic complexity, there are other tracks on Strum and Drum that simply channel the Beatles and the Byrds in fairly straight-forward ways, with maybe just a wrinkle or two in a few places. …SC5’s studio sound is a bit lo-fi for my taste, but again their wonderful melodies and obvious love of music trump all else and make them one of the very best guitar pop bands to have come out of the South...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 60 (132)

All this thinking I've done over the last week or so about the Memphis scene of the 70s has reminded me of how much good guitar pop has come out of the South more generally. For all the reservations I have about Big Star, I appreciate the way they spawned a subsequent generation of southern power pop, culminating with REM's rise as one of the biggest American bands of the 80s and 90s. But other than REM during the first five years or so of their existence, Mississipi's Windbreakers are, for my money anyway, the best band of this second southern generation. It's hard to tell whether they were being cheeky, a la Spinal Tap, when they named themselves the way they did, or if this just occurred to me because I have the mentality of a five year old. Either way, the Windbreakers made ethereal pop music that sounds like something out of the Lonely One's most vivid wet dreams. ...A lot of 80s southern pop has a kind of angular, slightly dissonant, slightly arty feel to it that doesn't always agree with me. I want to like bands like the dB's, Let's Active and Sex Clark Five more than I do because I can tell that they like a lot of the same things I like. But I often find myself struggling to find the hooks and thinking that the music just isn't poppy enough for me. Not so with the Windbreakers, led by Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff, two guitar fetishists that seem to have an intuitive grasp of what guys like me want and need in our music. I'm sometimes given to hyperbole when my enthusiasm gets the better of me, but I can say without reservation that Ghost Town is one of the finest pop songs I've ever heard. Everything about it speaks to me in the way I want to be spoken to. I dig the phrasing of the song's opening line - gin and tonic with a twist of lime - along with the sad, fragmented impressions that follow. I also love the intricate, arpeggiated rhythm guitar playing that glides along underneath the keyboard solo. And all the while, the song's tuneful hookiness creates a tingling warmth at the center of my soul. What's really amazing is that, while Ghost Town is their best song, imho, the band recorded about a dozen others that are almost as good. It's a real shame they remained so obscure and unknown. I think I should make it one of my missions in life to turn as many friends on to the Windbreakers as I can. It starts with you, dear reader...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 59 (131)

#1 Record is the only Big Star album I like anymore. By the time you get to Radio City and especially Sister Lovers, things sound way too gloomy and weighed down by life. Some of their songs just make me feel so sleepy, exhausted and drugged. It's not a bad vibe to latch onto once in awhile, but nor is it music I feel like hearing very often these days. A friend of mine once made the astute observation that Big Star is a band for young people who take themselves very seriously. I can confirm this because I used to be one of them. But now that I'm no longer so young and self-important, the band doesn't speak to me the way it once did. I was introduced to the their music when I was an undergraduate at Syracuse University in the mid-late 1980s. By the time I was a graduate student in England, studying to be a wannabe radical intellectual, Big Star became the soundtrack to my life. Their music works very well in an English context, where the weather is unrelentingly grey and damp and depressing. In sunny Los Angeles, the music doesn't have quite the same impact, at least not for me. Still the poppiest numbers on the first album still pack a nice punch and can even bring a smile to my face when they come up on iPod Shuffle. Chris Bell takes the lead vocals in tonight's song, which is one of the earliest instances of revivalist power pop and provided a template for many bands to follow thereafter...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 57 (129)

Alex Chilton is typically viewed as the main creative force within Big Star, but for my money the late Chris Bell is the guy who made the band good. Big Star's music went south after Bell left, becoming heavier, less poppy, and more experimental and fragmentary (which is to say more druggy). Part of my admiration for Bell admittedly comes from the fascination I have with the secondary figures in pop and my soft spot for tragic figures more generally. The harrowing liner notes for the posthumously released I am the Cosmos, written by Bell's older Brother, reveal that, while Bell was obviously deeply troubled - a clinically depressed heroin addicted Jesus guy - he was also a soft-spoken gentle soul who became overwhelmed by Chilton's more aggressive, mercurial personality. Tonight's song shows what Bell was capable of without Chilton. It's one of the most amazing tributes to the Beatles I've ever heard (and is actually mixed by Geoff Emerick). Bell's feel for subtle hooks are on full display, along with his gift for melding his solemn outlook on life to gorgeously piercing melodies. It's definitely not the perky, light 'n airy side of power pop. The refrain that closes the song - I'd really like to see you again - caps off a deeply haunting listening experience, one that'll have you marveling at the way Bell transforms his inner torment into sublime pop art...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 55 (127)

Another thing I've noticed about the Memphis scene is that it tended to produce very somber sounding records. I'm not talking about melancholy lyrical content here but rather about the way the albums actually sound, their physical sound, if you will, or the production value. I can't quite put my finger on what it is exactly that gives the music these guys made such a rainy day vibe. The best example I can think of is the three Big Star albums, each one sounding more gloomy than the one that came before it. There's a strange juxtaposition between the music that makes you so happy because it's well crafted and hooky and perfect on so many levels, but then there's just a certain weightiness to the way the records are produced that makes them sort of...depressing. Even the Scruffs, who obviously had such passion for music and came up with such joyous melodies, have that elusive thing going on where the production value darkens the mood of the music somehow. Is it the use of echo? Is it just some intangible manifestation of 70s malaise? I wish I could say definitively what it is. You can also hear it on Van Duren's Are You Serious and Tommy Hoehn's Losing You To Sleep. When I listen to these albums, I feel like I'm hearing something recorded in a dark room littered with empty whiskey bottles. I'm not trying to say that it's unpleasant listening. Not at all. All these Memphis guys made great music and it's a shame they never received more recognition for it. But I'm starting to think that the reason a lot of their music was ignored has to do with it's generally downbeat sound. I personally like melancholy sounding music, but I think most people want songs to transport them from whatever sadness they have in their lives. Then again, maybe this is just me but I find that a beautifully realized sad sounding song can make you feel so good inside...

Monday, June 13, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 54 (126)

Tonight’s song is the best offering on Tommy Hoehn’s 1978 lost classic, Losing You To Sleep. The Big Star fans out there will hear it and be reminded of Chris Bell’s solo material. In fact, a lot of these mid-70s Memphis power popsters sound kind of similar, but that’s ok because they all create a lovely vibe, rich in pleasing Beatlesy guitars and resonant percussion. My sister pointed out last night that Hoehn is a bit closer to rock than a lot of the stuff I’ve been sampling here of late, but I still hear pop as the main motivation. Hoehn’s music is driven by an obvious desire to create quick bursts of euphoria, and his heaviness never slides down into full-blown rock, which is an especially good thing in the case of Love You Tonight because the song’s peak moment of ecstasy would be obscured and lost if things got too heavy. I’m talking about what happens at roughly 2:03 when the line ‘say goodbye’ gains added emphasis as it’s followed by a joyful interplay between tambourines, guitar, and backing vocals. Hoehn’s beautiful singing flutters along above it all, guiding the melody to a dramatic fade out that makes me sad every time I hear it because I just don’t want the song to end. But then I remember that less is more with almost all great pop. Pop songs can’t give in to noodling and heaviness without negating themselves as pop. So be forewarned: Tonight’s selection will leave you wanting and needing more. I’m very confident of this. I’ve come to realize that the irony of the best pop songs is that they induce a hunger that can never be completely satisfied.

PS - This version of Love You Tonight, the only one I could find on Youtube, is not the version from Losing You To Sleep and is not quite as good, but I think you'll still be able to hear what a great song it is...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 53 (125)

One important detail I neglected to mention yesterday is that the Scruffs are from Memphis, meaning that the city known as the Home of the Blues was, at least for a short sliver of time in the 70s, also a power pop hot bed, giving rise to Big Star, Tommy Hoehn, Van Duren, the Scruffs, and probably a bunch of others I either can't think of off hand or have yet to discover. What's especially interesting about all these Memphis power pop guys is the way they show up on each other's records to lend backing vocals, guitar playing, tambourine shaking, and whatever else. Together they formed a tight ring of collaborators, a little insular and incestuous, but not in a bad way at all. ...Today's song is another one of my favorites from Wanna Meet the Scruffs? Sadly, it's also one of only a small handful of Scruffs songs available on Youtube, further emphasizing my point that the band has never really gotten the recognition it deserves. An interesting question to examine would be why Big Star, who were not commercially successful over the course of their few rocky years together, eventually became canonized as the greatest thing since the Rickenbaker guitar, while the Scruffs have remained hopelessly obscure amongst everyone save for a few ornery record store clerks scattered throughout America's college towns. Is it that Alex Chilton was in the Box Tops or something as simple as that, or is Big Star's music just better or more accessible? I don't think so, but who knows? It's often the case that success is simply the result of life's random rolls of the dice. Life can be so cruel, you know? But I think you'll really enjoy Tragedy. The words I would use to describe the song's arrangement are hurried, slapdash and perhaps even slipshod. And yet, along with the passionate, almost unhinged singing, the roughness of the sound lends the song a satisfyingly raucous feel. Much of it seems like it was done spontaneously, in the moment, and in one take, which is always something I appreciate (even if I also think Steely Dan-esque anal retentive perfectionism also has its place). ...One other bit of coolness I'd like to point out is that in the final verse the line 'it's just a teenage dream when you're old' becomes it's just a teenage dream then you're old. This might just be a mistake, the result of doing a lot of the song in one take, but I doubt it. I think it's a purposeful and subtle bit wisdom that Stephen Burns somehow managed to squeeze into a song that clocks in at not much more than two minutes...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 52 (124)

I'm having a nice time eating, drinking and relaxing at the country house my sister and her husband own in a rural part of New York State. I don't really know where we are in exact geographic terms, except that it's about two hours or so from the city (yet also light years away, if you know what I mean). It's one of those dirt-poor towns that, thanks to a combination of a widespread love of guns and god, on the one hand, and the abject lameness of the Democratic party, on the other, is deeply and irreversibly conservative. Throw in a knee-jerk hatred of the president simply because he's black and you have a guaranteed windfall of votes for the GOP. But in spite of all this, the pace of life here is delightfully slow and tranquil. I couldn't live up here full time, but it's very nice for a weekend here and there. ...So much of the experience of hearing music for me is about the way the music gels with my physical surroundings. And, to be honest, these rustic environs are much more suited to Clarence White-era Byrds or Workingman's Dead than they are to the more cosmopolitan sounding pop bands that continue to fascinate me. But I'll try my best to get into the proper frame of mind in saying a few words about the Scruffs, who recorded some of my favorite music ever. Even to this day, some 35 years after the release of the majestic Wanna Meet the Scruffs?, they remain one of the most inexplicably underappreciated bands of the 70s. Every time they pop up on my iPod, I discover new idiosyncrasies, subtle features of songs that make me want to listen to them again and again. Thematically, the irreverence of the Scruffs puts them squarely in the domain of punk, very much in the same vein as Richard Hell and the Voidoids. But what distinguishes the Scruffs from a lot of punk is their song structures, which are infectiously poppy without being overly simplified. Their vibe is much more akin to Television than the Ramones, and then throw in tighter songcraft, along the lines of the Raspberries and Pezband. I apologize for all this referentiality, but it seems like it's the only way to characterize music nowadays... A big part of the appeal of the Scruffs is Stephen Burns' words and singing. There's definitely some irony in what he does, but he delivers the songs in his high register with such incredible passion and abandon that you never feel even the slightest bit of condescension. Many rock/pop musicians of Burns' generation and demographic fell into the trap of contempt for their audience. I realize that this was part of the way punk deconstructed the spectacle of rock, but knowing this doesn't make the feeling of being talked down to any less grating, and it's why I've never been completely comfortable with the codes and rituals of the punk experience. I want my music to invite me in and to be as excited about itself as I am. In listening to the songs on Wanna Meet the Scruffs, you can't help but get caught up in the band's love of music, even when they're singing songs like I'm a Failure, Revenge, and You're no Fun. They're pretty much everything I look for in music, and whether this is your first encounter or you've heard them many times before, I hope you dig 'em as much as I do...

Friday, June 10, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 51 (123)

The Beat's Rock 'n Roll Girl is a nice little song, but its significance transcends the pleasure it provides for listeners over the course of two minutes. The song arrived on the scene in 1980, a weird, transitional, contradictory moment in the history of rock and pop. Rock had by then become as bloated and indulgent as ever, achieving an apogee of heavy handedness in the form of Pink Floyd's The Wall. At the same time, punk and new wave exposed the old guard arena bands as ossified artifacts of a bygone era, the only trouble being that quite a few otherwise admirable and talented bands of the new generation, like the Pretenders, the Cars, and Cheap Trick, could not avoid co-optation into a corporate rock machine that was still quite potent even over the course of its slow demise. It certainly was confusing for me at the time, though I probably experienced it less as confusion than as a simple set of identity choices. My natural inclination at 12 was to be a dope smokin' hesher and to stick to the meat and potatoes of the Who, Hendrix, the Stones, Zep, Cream, Clapton, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult... In fact, the B.O.C. show my step-brother-in-law took me to see at Nassau Coliseum, I believe in the spring of 1980, was truly a quasi-religious experience for me. All that pot and middle class teenage rebellion floating in the air forever transformed my outlook on life. But I also sensed that the over-elaborate ritualism of arena rock was dying a slow death, ever so gradually becoming obsolete in the face of the more stripped-down and direct approach of Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Graham Parker, the Ramones... And yet, a lot of these artists also eventually got caught in the magnetic pull of corporate commodification. I suppose one of the sad inevitabilities of the culture industry is that it presents the artist with a choice - sell out or fade into obscurity. Some continue to do compelling things once they've been absorbed, while others just get their money but lose their identity and dignity, and so they end up fading away in just the same manner as if they hadn't sold out. Capitalism is a ruthless fucking meat grinder. And this is why Rock 'n Roll Girl still sounds so interesting to me, even though it's quite conventional in some ways and doesn't have the staying power of some of my favorite pop songs. Listening to it today demands historical perspective. Within the transitional context of the late 70s and early 80s, the song registers a vote for the good guys. Unlike My Sharona, with its noodling guitar break that sounds like a concession to the suits in the board room, marring an otherwise fantastic pop song, Rock 'n Roll Girl never gives in to the temptation of focus group results and market research. There's not one ounce of heaviness in the song. It's just a pure perky delight but feels like a featherweight Golden Gloves rookie stepping into the ring with Evander Holyfield. The rookie's gonna eventually go down hard and knows this about himself as the bell sounds, but he doesn't care. This is the moment he's worked all his life for, and he's ready to make his stand...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 50 (122)

Add the Michael Guthrie Band, from Athens, Georgia, to the list of groups that will leave you scratching your head, wondering why they didn't make it big. And as usual, the only answer I can come up with is that, as a general rule, people tend to have bad taste. In 1981, the MGB released Direct Hits, a veritable treasure trove of power pop magic. When I first heard the album about 15 years ago, it took a while for the music to grow on me. The basic template they follow is the one initially laid down by the Who, with lots of heavy power chords and songs that split the difference between rock and pop. But once the hooks sink into your skin and begin to circulate in your blood, you'll be wanting more and more of this stuff... Today's song is one of
the finest on Direct Hits and is yet another tune that gets at the mood I'm in at the moment as I continue to wrestle internally with some of the melodrama I was forced to deal with in connection with my high school reunion. It's funny how you can try so hard to do the right thing, to do right by yourself and by others, but in the end sometimes trouble just finds you, no matter what you've done to prevent it from doing so. But I shouldn't complain too much. For the most part, it's been a lovely week for me here in NYC. I'm accompanying my sister and one of her best friends to the country this weekend, where we'll join my brother-in-law for a weekend of good food, a fair bit of drinking, and some low-impact engagement with nature. Then on Monday I'll get on a plane, head back to my adopted hometown, and everything that's happened, good and bad, will be stored in my memory, where I can draw on it all periodically for inspiration and perspective... Now, sit back, relax, put a set of cans on if you have 'em nearby, and let the hard driving yet deceptively tuneful stylings of the Michael Guthrie Band take you away...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 49 (121)

One of the nice things about having a blog is that I periodically receive emails from strangers who tell me that they like what I have to say and give me encouragement to keep on going. Not that any encouragement is necessary since this is really a labor of love. Of course, I get the occasional bit of criticism as well, and I can be very thin skinned and defensive, but you have to expect that there will be people who disagree with you if you have strong opinions. So far, the nice people seem to be more motivated to reach out to me, which is probably a good thing. I recently received an email from Abe in Madison, Wisconsin, who made me aware of the Shivvers (yes, with two Vs), a power pop band from Milwaukee who garnered legendary status in the Midwest during the late 70s and early 80s. After having now listened to everything Shivvers I could get my hands on, I have to say that I'm ashamed of having never heard them until now because they're absolutely fantastic. Tonight's song is my favorite of all their songs. I think you'll agree that Jill Kossoris' vocals are splendid, and the song packs quite a little perky punch. I still don't know much about the Shivvers, but the only thing that really matters is that I dig them mightily, and I think you will, too. Thanks, Abe!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 46 (118)

OK, so now I've had some time to absorb everything that's happened with respect to this high school reunion. What a trippy couple of days! It hasn't been all good, but most of it has, so I'm trying to focus on the positive things. One thing I've been pleasantly surprised by is that almost everyone I dealt with, even those with whom I wasn't close back in the day, seems so nice and accepting now. This may be the result of having been fairly well liquored up, so perhaps the good vibes were all a distortion, I don't know. As is to be expected, the big build up to the event now leaves me feeling a bit deflated with the whole thing passing by just as quickly as it arrived. I don't have kids to fall back on, so there's some lingering emptiness that's likely to be with me for a few days. I made overtures to lots of people - 'let's stay in touch this time,' 'call me when you're in LA', etc. - but I'm not sure any of it will pan out with the passage of time and a return to my normal routine back home. We'll see. It'd be nice to make a few extra friends and be a little more social than has been my MO as an adult. As far as the friends I've managed to stay in touch with over the years, everyone was really great and made me feel at home, even though I've worked so hard to extricate myself from NYC private school insularity. Doing so was absolutely the right thing for me to do, and I'm kind of glad I'm able to keep it all at an arm's distance, but it's nice to venture back into it now and again, especially since we're all grown ups now with real lives, and most, if not all, of the petty backbiting and jockeying for position is a thing of the past. All in all, this reunion thing was overwhelming in the emotions it conjured up for me. It's not something you can really prepare for. But I'm glad I did it. I feel as if I've exorcized some demons and inched that much closer to the guy I want to be...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 45 (117)

I'm gonna need a day or two to process all the emotions and remembrances from the reunion. It was great fun but quite intense. While I catch my breath, enjoy this great one from Sweet...

Friday, June 3, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 44 (116)

Today is my 25th high school reunion. I've felt a whole bunch of conflicting emotions about this thing for weeks, but I must say that I'm now looking forward to this evening quite a bit. I reconnected with Caroline last night for the first time in 30 years. She's every bit the angel I hoped she'd be - gentle, kind, honest to a fault, and just a beautiful person inside and out. Meeting her after all this time made me feel like everything's gonna be ok tonight. It's a given that there's gonna be some assholes at this reunion, people I'm glad aren't in my life anymore, but I'll have my small handful of friends with me, the ones who love me and see the good in me, even when it's hard to do so, and they'll help me make it through in one piece. Tonight's song, which was originally recorded by Cheap Trick, is for all of us who were traumatized, to varying degrees, by such an intense, non-reality-based school. We made it, we survived, and in a lot of cases we've even prospered, sometimes against the odds. ...OK, this is starting to sound too ra-ra-sist-boom-ba now, so let me bring the focus back squarely to the music. It's interesting that some American power pop bands are so huge in Japan, whereas on the home front they've only managed to garner marginal attention at best. Shoes are one of those bands. I don't really understand why they weren't superstars here. I mean, they're just so good and do everything perfectly. When everything else seems so fucked up and dismal, they take me to a lovely place. They lift my spirits and make me understand that as long as I have guitars in my life, along with Molly, Polly's spirit, and a few great friends, along with some high harmonies here, some tambourines there, then I'm a very lucky dude who's got it pretty good...

PS - I think you'll really dig the added extra goodie at the front end of the video tonight. I've said it before but I just can't help repeating myself...these guys get me.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 43 (115)

I’m writing this post aboard JetBlue’s 7am from Burbank to NYC. I never thought I’d be one of those people who pops open a laptop on a plane, but I guess there’s a first time for everything. Last night I had an unpleasant conversation with someone I care about a great deal. It kept me up all night, and then this morning I overslept and almost missed my flight. I just managed to make it as they were closing the cabin doors. So I’m a little out of sorts right now – tired, a bit nauseous, smelly, and irritable. But I’m on a much-needed vacation now, and I’ll never be so out of it that I can’t rhapsodize for a few minutes about Shoes, one of my favorite bands ever. I put them in that rarefied group of bands that understand what I want and need everyday. It’s the celebratory riffs, the melodies and hooks, the creamy harmonies, the tightness and punchy pop excellence of the songs… A friend of mine once remarked that Shoes are a bit too vanilla. There’s something to this, I suppose. What they do is pretty straightforward and a lot of their stuff is repetitive. There’s not a lot of ground being broken with their music. But when those guitars radiate from my speakers, so sharp and perfectly distorted, I don’t give a shit about inventiveness. All I know is that I feel strong, sexy and satisfied. It puts me in an ideal frame of mind. I’m on top of the world and I can’t get any higher. It’s exactly the opposite of the way I feel aboard this flight to New York, exhausted, aggravated, and needing to puke…

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

my power pop addiction, no. 42 (114)

Skateboarding is pretty much a California phenomenon, an attempt to extend surfin’ safari onto dry land. But the fad got really hot in the late 70s, so much so that even kids in New York City were getting into it. I stole money from my mom’s wallet when I was 12 and bought myself a board at a little skate shop on 82nd Street and First Avenue, just around the corner from East Side Comics. The thing cost me $125, which seemed like a huge fortune at the time. When my parents asked how much the board cost and where I got the money to buy it, I told them that I had saved my allowance and paid $50 for it. They seemed dubious but didn’t press further. Good thing because I’m a terrible liar. I was never much good at skateboarding either, too fearful of injuring myself. I certainly didn’t enjoy cascading down steep grades or jumping up on sidewalks. These days when I surf, I still don’t like to get in the water if the waves are more than head high. …A few weeks after I got the skateboard, I took it to Central Park with my friend Dean, who had a much nicer board than mine, and we rode down a mild grade behind the Hans Christian Anderson Ugly Duckling statue near the boat pond. Now, let me preface the rest of this story by saying that, between about fifth and seventh grade, I got mugged roughly ten times, two times at knife point and one time at the point of a screwdriver. I dunno whether this was just random dumb luck or whether my long blonde hair, slight build and generally nervous disposition marked me as an easy target. As I’ve said many times before, I’m not a spiritual or mystical person (except when it comes to my pets), but there’s a part of it that feels karmic. I was constantly stealing money from my parents, shoplifting stuff from candy stores, and stealing LPs from Gimbels and Bloomingdales, so maybe the muggings were my comeuppance. I never cried when it happened, or sought out the police, or told my parents about what had happened. It all just seemed like the normal ebb and flow of events in New York City at the time. Like many people of my generation and demographic, I actually miss that piss scented side of pre-Giuliani New York, a time when danger lurked even in the most upscale corner of Central Park in the form of Puerto Rican teens who’d come down from Spanish Harlem and return a few hours later with the loot they stole from the rich white kids living on Park Avenue. Fuck those sheltered kids. They got everything they wanted, never knew privation of any kind, or the back of a drunken father’s hand, or long welfare lines, never knew people from the other side of the tracks, except maybe their doormen, housekeepers and nannies, never knew overcrowded classrooms, government cheese, or the brusing boredom and frustration of having no future. They wouldn’t miss a skateboard here or an electric guitar there. Their parents would just buy them new ones. Fuck those little pussies. …So Dean and me were walking back up the grade when two Puerto Rican hoods appeared from out of what seemed like thin air.
“You got a nice skateboard. Can I see it?”
I shook my head no.
“Lemme see it,” he said grabbing for it.
I backed off but didn’t run away. I don’t know why. He moved in closer, getting right up in my face. Dean started to cry. I just felt numb. I’d already been through this with a bicycle and a collection of comic books.
“I said lemme see it, motherfucker.”
Back then, motherfucker was a big deal. You really only heard it in Richard Pryor movies. Hearing the kid say it let me know that he meant business, and so I surrendered the board.
“Lemme see yours,” the other Puerto Rican kid said to Dean, who started whaling like a wounded animal.
I found Dean's hysteria annoying. ‘Calm down,' I thought to myself. 'Don’t be such a baby. This happens to me all the time.’ ...Now whenever I see kids skateboarding down my block in Alhambra, 2,750 miles from that spot in Central Park, I remember that day with Dean, more than 30 years ago. It was karmic in more ways than one. You’ve gotta give a little to get some back, gotta be willing to tolerate getting mugged now and again if you wanna live in a city that’s got some soul…