Monday, October 29, 2012
Roger McGuinn’s Back From Rio came out while I was living in the UK. I got to hear him play at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. And while I think the pop life seeds were in my circuitry from the very beginning of my life - an aural aesthetic fusing beauty, tragedy and romance into something so alluring that it becomes a kind of worldview - I don’t think that any of this became fully explicit for me until that night at the Corn Exchange. I heard McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker ringing out sublimely into the night, and in that moment I knew what I was about. I can’t even really fully articulate what I felt, but I know it included joy, a sense of belonging, a feeling of inclusion... I knew then that Roger McGuinn gets me, and if he gets me there must be others who get me, too. I know all of this probably seems vague and not entirely coherent, but it’s just so hard to get at what I’m trying to explain. I think tonight’s song does a better job than I could do with a million words. Listen to the jangle of the dual 12-string guitars and perhaps you’ll understand. Listen to the lush harmonies, and to the song’s addictive tunefulness. You might notice a feeling of dread building inside you as the song fades, as if you’re about to be abandoned by a loved one, but then you’ll quickly come to the realization that, unlike the loved one who’s gone to stay, you can experience the beauty of this song again, and again…
at 5:59 PM
Sunday, October 28, 2012
Chris Hillman had a great deal of success with the Desert Rose Band. But you wouldn't know this unless you listen to FM country stations, which I never do because most of that music sounds to me like the soundtrack to a lynching. I realize that probably sounds snobby and narrow-minded, but it's how I feel. It's a symptom of how polarized America has become. I don't even wanna dabble in anything that's associated with the red states, except maybe good barbecue. I hope - but have no real way of finding out - that Hillman is an anomaly in that world, that he's not of the same ilk as so many of the backwoods folks who I imagine are the DRB's hardcore constituents. The reason I mention all this is that, if you're like me, you probably had no idea (until I told you) that the DRB had a Number One hit on the country charts with today's song in 1988. And guess what? In spite of everything I've said here, it's a lovely song. I stepped outside my bubble for a few minutes and was actually rewarded for it. Perhaps there's a lesson here...
at 1:57 PM
Saturday, October 27, 2012
I didn't have any awareness of Earle Mankey when I was a teenager, but I ran out and bought the one and only Tress album, Sleep Convention, which Mankey produced, immediately after seeing the video for Delta Sleep on MTV, circa 1983. It is one of the most hauntingly gorgeous tunes you'll ever hear. The great thing about New Wave is the emphasis on minimalism, the idea being that there's a paradox in music where the more spare it is, the more dramatic it sounds. I don't think this is always and everywhere the case, but there's something to be said for leaving some things to the imagination, allowing thoughts to run wild in an uncluttered soundscape. This is exactly what happens with Trees. I wouldn't say their music is simple because you'll hear some fairly unusual chord changes in the songs, and some freaky play with tempo, so perhaps frugal is a better word, frugal yet extremely heady and deep. Delta Sleep was perfect for me at the time. And like so much of the music Mankey's been involved in, it's the kind of song that sticks around in your head for a long time. Mankey's work for Sleep Convention necessarily sounds a bit dated now, but he coaxed some amazing music out of Trees. Time hasn't diminished the power of the songs on Sleep Convention one bit...
at 3:27 PM
Sunday, October 21, 2012
One of PLU's iron-clad axions when it comes to pop music is that if Earle Mankey is involved, it's gonna be good. A few days ago, I was thinking about the music I listened to in high school, and I remembered a record I bought when I was in 9th grade, Sleep Convention, by a band called Trees. I'll post a song or two from the album in the next few days, but for now suffice it to say that the album had a profound impact on me. Trees were definitely New Wave. The songs on Sleep Convention are arty but also amazingly tuneful. Artiness often prevents music from being tuneful because a big part of artiness is dissonance, and usually dissonance is the opposite of tunefulness. Arty tunefulness is extremely rare. Bowie made a career of it, but Bowie is Bowie, and let's just say that not a lot of people can do what he does, no matter how talented they are. So, anyway, I was thinking about how much I loved Trees. I started poking around on the internet for info about Sleep Convention, and I found out that it was produced by Earl Mankey. I didn't know this back then. I didn't even know who Mankey was until I moved to LA. Let's call this the Earle Mankey Effect: You hear something that's somewhat obscure, but it's also incredibly hooky and has a cool L.A. vibe, and you eventually discover that it's produced by Earle Mankey. This has happened to me on at least a half-dozen occasions. Back in the early 70s, Mankey was the guitarist on the first two Sparks records. Sparks are an acquired taste. It can be a bit of a challenge to get past their campiness, but the hooks eventually sink in if you're patient. And once they do sink in, the music becomes a bit of an addiction. Something tells me this addictiveness is, in large part, Earle Mankey's doing...
at 2:48 AM
Saturday, October 20, 2012
City is the last album Roger McGuinn was involved in before more or less falling off the grid in the 80s. I don't have a lot of familiarity with it because, in my life as a Byrds fanatic over the past 20-some-odd years, it's always appeared to me as a record that's probably best avoided. The sleeve makes it seem like one of those horrible 60s-guys- trying-to-do-80s-music monstrosities. My copy of the record (when I still owned records) was pressed on thin, cheap, mass-produced vinyl, the kind of thing that puts me in touch with the sense of dread people like me (liberal, neurotic, pessimistic) must have had as the Reagan era beckoned. Also, the record is credited to Roger McGuinn and Chris Hiilman "featuring Gene Clark," which, knowing what I know, is hard for me not to interpret as 'Gene's too fucked up to be a full-on participant on this one.' And that depresses me. You know what, though? That cliched thing about not judging a book by its cover turns out to be some serious wisdom in this case. I wouldn't say City is a great record. I'd even be hard pressed to say it's a good record. But it was easily the best thing these guys had done in god knows how long. This is probably a minority opinion, mind you. There doesn't seem to be much written about the record anywhere. This is likely because the music suffers from much of what the sleeve telegraphs that it's going to suffer from (so maybe the point is that judging a book by its cover is ok, as long as you keep a semi-open mind). The overall sound on City is, as expected, flat and tinny, in keeping with what all records sounded like starting in the late 70s. But some of the material is pretty ok, even when the guys try to be "current" with New Wavey sounding arrangements or songs about rollerskating. Your initial response might be to laugh with derision, but give at least some of these songs a chance. I hear McGuinn's 12-string chiming away here and there, albeit under layers and layers of 80s tin foil, and I think to myself, 'this works, sort of...'
at 11:56 AM
Monday, October 15, 2012
in which Roger McGuinn lends further proof to Pop Life Unlimited’s Iron Law of Cover Versions, namely that they almost always suck. But this one really sucks. It’s hard for me to get my mind around the fact that this is the same guy who did this, and this, and this, and this. What a depressing difference a decade makes. You can tell that corporate rock is at its nadir when disco motifs begin to creep into the arrangements, not because disco is bad, but rather because hearing white rock guys from the 60s try to play disco will make you want to stick a sharp pencil in your eardrum. And when, at the beginning of tonight's clip, you see McGuinn swinging his tush to that disco beat, you may also be overcome with the desire to scratch your own eyes out...The original version of American Girl is not a perfect song. It’s almost ruined by the thumping bass line in the bridge (white disco rearing its ugly head here as well). But the song has elements of perfection. The main riff, played in octaves, is a thing of simple beauty. And then there's those lovely hand claps. The song’s spirit cries out for a joyride down Mulholland with the top down on your Mustang convertible, your best gal riding shotgun. Petty injects the music with a transcendent vibe, call it teen-o-rama (and all that melodrama), and Phil Seymour adds just the right touch with his cheeky little ‘make it last all night.’ So in some ways there’s no place to go but down if you try to cover the thing. And McGuinn covering a guy who many saw as himself a McGuinn copycat tells you everything you need to know about how lost Roger was by 1977. Thankfully, Thunderbyrd (oy vey) was the last solo album he put out for 13 years, and when he finally returned with Back From Rio, he'd regained his focus and got back to doing the kind of thing he was always meant to do. The break definitely did him some good, though there’s still the small matter of McGuinn Clark and Hillman…
at 6:26 PM
Saturday, October 13, 2012
About three years passed between No Other and Two Sides to Every Story, released in January 1977. I'm getting a little tired of saying this, but it's not a very good record. Like No Other, Two Sides was deleted and virtually impossible to find for the longest time. Every time it popped up on Ebay, the reserve bid was like $150 for a worn-out and scratchy vinyl copy. I'd actually never heard it until a re-released edition came out about two years ago. Hear the Wind is the best song on the record, a yearning ballad that's guaranteed to break your little heart. It's a rare moment of excellence amidst a sea of mostly unfocussed, half-baked material, likely a reflection of Clark's inner torment and torturously slow descent into the abyss. The footage I pulled for the song looks like it might be from the 80s or even the early 90s, right before Clark's passing. It's kind of hard to watch because he looks so lost, everything from the goofy ponytail-earning-bolo tie getup, to the hauntingly blank look on his face, to the cheesy Star Search-like set he's been relegated to playing on. Be warned that to watch this footage is to witness a man nearing the end. But there's also a certain dignity in the way he delivers the song. No matter what life did to him, or what he did to himself, Clark always had that beautiful voice, distinctly understated yet perfect for this type of material...
at 12:54 PM
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Hippy Midlife Crisis Music (HMCM), a subgenre of Corporate Hippy Music (CHM), and a branch on the same family tree that gave us Corporate Country Rock (ccr), is a style that, more than anything else, puts me in a mood to hear the low hiss of Dave Mustaine’s disdainful nihilism. Nash and Crosby’s Wind on the Water is perhaps the seminal HMCM record. Personally, if I’m jonesing for inoffensive MOR, I’d rather hear the likes of Seals and Crofts, America, Cat Stevens, Al Stewart, or Gordon Lightfoot, because the thought that Wind on the Water is a record by a former Byrd and a former Hollie upsets me a little bit, makes me wanna look at nasty facial porn. …Remember that nauseating 80s movie about those boomers who have a reunion after one of their college buddies commits suicide? Thinking… Thinking… William Hurt… Glenn Close… A navel gazing apologia for the hippie cum yuppie generation. Lots of Motown music… But no blacks within a ten-mile radius of the script… Jeff Goldblum… God I hate that motherfucker more than the hemorrhoids bulging out my asshole… THE BIG CHILL! That’s it, The Big Chill. Yes, well, Wind on the Water is The Big Chill before The Big Chill, or The Big Chill before the big chill, as it were, in which the hippies are getting older, if not wiser, experiencing the vicissitudes of life itself after having tried to opt out for so long. But the music doesn’t resonate with me because one of the unfortunate legacies of the 60s is that of adults who never grow up, never mature, yet in spite of this they have children of their own, and they indulge these children beyond saving, because the only constant in their lives has been indulgence, so their children grow up to be monsters, and total pussies, pussies who know nothing of restraint, nothing of limits, and won’t take no for an answer, can’t take no for an answer, don’t even know what NO means. This is what makes a record like Wind on the Water so worthy of mockery. Nash and Crosby would have us believe that the hippies have gained perspective and maturity with age. I wonder if this is the same perspective Crosby had when his head was buried in a salad bowl of blow… The music as music is ok. It’s unremarkable mid-70s session playerish sounding stuff, kind of like Jackson Browne without the intelligence, the type of thing that’s best heard as barely noticeable aural wallpaper at LAX, where the laughable lyrical content of the music would be obliterated by the white noise of the masses and their beeping gadgetry. It’s too bad the title Music for Airports is already taken, because that’s essentially what this stuff is…
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Maybe the reason Roger McGuinn kept the Byrds going for about two years too long is that he had an inkling of how diminished he would become as a solo artist. The one word I keep coming up with in reassessing his 70s solo material is resigned. It just doesn’t sound like he’s that into it. I think post-free-form FM radio had a depressing effect on McGuinn, in the broadest sense of the word depressing. Perhaps depressant is more precise. The music has almost no spark. I don’t blame McGuinn for this, at least not entirely. I’m sure that as the music business became more about business than music, the parameters of what McGuinn could do were increasingly limited. His 70s albums are garden variety corporate rock, nice enough but hardly anything you’d care to hear more than once or twice, hardly memorable. This from the man who’d made some of the most memorable music of all time. What’s interesting is that Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney - both of whom are McGuinn’s peers, not only generationally but also in terms of raw musical talent – made the transition more compellingly. The rock music they made in the 70s had a pop heart and a pop accent. Even songs as cloying as this, and as shamelessly nostalgic as this and this, are catchy and demand repeated hearings. McGuinn’s stuff doesn’t have the same impact, probably because the pop heart’s been ripped out, the pop accent unlearned. The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain. With his cover of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, off the forgettable Roger McGuinn & Band, he returns to a reliable source of inspiration and almost pulls it off. Almost. The flanged 12-string jangle you hear at the beginning proves to be something of a false dawn. Once the irritating (focus group tested?) second guitar* kicks in, I just wanna get back in bed and dream a dream in which I'm 16 and it's 1965...**
*Another general pop life music rule: Slide guitar/lap steel (or whatever that thing is polluting tonight’s song) can be filed with harmonica, black choir singers, and wind instruments under things that, with rare exceptions, always make (white) pop/rock songs sound worse than they otherwise would be in their absence.
**In this dream I'm also flat footed, or gay, or some such.
**In this dream I'm also flat footed, or gay, or some such.
at 8:01 PM
Sunday, October 7, 2012
I gotta be honest with you: I’ve been dreading the moment when we would arrive at the Souther Hillman Furay Band. The best I can say for this utterly transparent attempt to manufacture a CSN-type supergroup is that they are perhaps not quite as horrible as they are almost unanimously made out to be. But the stuff is completely devoid of any shred of inspiration. There’s no joy in the music at all, which is what inevitably happens when the only motivating factor is the receipts. The paradox is that music made only for money almost never makes money, or at least it never makes the serious money it's intended to extract. The Eagles are the exception that proves this rule… If the SHF Band had simply been Furay and Hillman (the Springfield + the Byrds), they might’ve had a fighting chance to do something worthwhile. I place the blame on two people for the grimness of the music: Firstly, there’s JD Souther, a rock mercenary if ever there was one, and whose name should really be DB Souther; 2) David Geffen, who hatched the idea for this product, likely out of his corner office at Asylum headquarters, where many other equally soulless / manipulative / venal / greedy / tedious / completely market-driven ideas were undoubtedly also birthed. What’s amazing to me is that SHF went on to release a second album, just in case you might’ve been thinking that the first was the absolute bottom of the barrel…
at 6:58 PM
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Lady of the North is autobiographical, allegorical/symbolic, and heartbreaking. The pastoral verses depicting peace, love and contentment are each time answered with others expressing the anguish and dread that, for Clark, always seemed to be just around the corner. I can relate to this. Some of us have a hard time experiencing unadulterated happiness because we know it's fleeting, and the pain of losing it is worse than not having it at all. I’m only half kidding when I tell friends and loved ones that I don’t do ‘in the moment.’ …There’s a weird disconnect on much of No Other between the raw and abject sadness of its emotional tone and the slickness of the production value. Depression isn’t supposed to sound so polished and corporate. This is what I meant yesterday when I said that No Other is a strange album. The songs are good but the record as a whole is…I don’t know…there’s something a bit off about it. It doesn’t cohere somehow. It’s far more worthy of your attention than anything McGuinn, Hillman or Crosby did in the mid to late 70s, but it’s still flawed in a way I can’t completely articulate. Part of it is that it’s a rock album and Gene Clark is a pop guy. He’s at his best when he’s doing three-minute love songs with great hooks, multipart harmonies and tambourines. He’s in his element when the music is light and deft, even if it’s sad ‘n blue. Keep it simple, keep it compact, don’t ramble. Verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-verse-done. The music on No Other is the opposite of this. A few of the songs are over six bloody minutes long! That’s not what we’re looking for with Gene Clark. …I may be overestimating the extent to which it was possible for Clark - coming from where he came from - to have made a pop record in the mid 70s. Even Paul McCartney, Mr. Pop, was making turgid rock records at the time. Band on the Run is a fun album, very catchy, but it’s definitely hard and even heavy. …The movement from mid 60s pop to mid 70s rock only seems like devolution now, with several decades hindsight. At the time it sounded and felt like progression and growth. I can remember a time, as a little kid, when I definitely preferred the White Album to With the Beatles. So it may not be entirely fair for me to complain that No Other is all rock, no pop. Even still, the sadness I feel when I hear it is not only a reaction to the music’s content but also to its awkwardly navigated form. The record's downbeat strangeness comes from Clark's poignant effort to find his way amidst world that's passed him by...
at 7:44 PM
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Gene Clark’s No Other is easily the most compelling mid-70s record by a former Byrd. But this doesn’t make hearing it a fun time. It’s a pretty strange and quite frankly disturbing collection of songs, one that, to me, seems to mark the start of a long drift into oblivion for Clark. The album is slick and glossy sounding in the manner of corporate country rock, but it’s too somber to catch fire with a mass audience, and too weird to be marketed effectively. There’s nothing at all poppy about No Other. It was deleted for a long time and I can remember when it was an almost impossible record to find. I stumbled across a pristine copy purely by accident at a yard sale on Fountain Avenue in West Hollywood. I couldn’t believe the Russian guy only wanted a quarter for it… The album opens with Life’s Greatest Fool, a song that puts Clark’s signature happy/sad songwriting approach to work in a country two-step context. Over the otherwise sunny key of G major, he tells us that‘too much loneliness makes you grow old.’ Wow. That’s painful to hear, if also quite true. Elsewhere he sings, ‘we all need a fix, at a time like this, but doesn’t it feel good to stay alive?’ Whether or not this is a reference to the alcoholism he struggled with, it sounds like a desperate plea for help and understanding. This is what makes No Other so difficult for me to hear, even though much of the music is very good. I feel like I’m listening to someone who’s drinking himself to death, which is such a horrible way to go out. It’s amazing to me that he lived for another 17 years and even managed to have bursts of creative productivity in that time. So much of Gene Clark’s music up to No Other is joyful even when it’s so very sad. This is what you sign up for if you’re a pop lifer. It’s not masochism, necessarily, but rather the capacity to transform life’s disappointments through the power of music. No Other doesn’t fall into this category. If you listen to the record carefully, the music will bring you down. This doesn’t mean you should avoid it, but just know that the pop life catharsis – and Gene Clark gave us so many of these – won’t be forthcoming. It’s like, ‘ok, this is what profound sadness feels like.’ Sometimes I can go there and appreciate No Other’s deep intensity, but a lot of the time it’s just too much pain and sorrow for me to handle…
at 5:54 PM
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Roger McGuinn’s Peace On You is corporate rock pabulum for the most part, but there’s something interesting going on in The Lady. It sounds like he’s playing his Ricky through a flanger, which is undoubtedly an attempt to make the guitar sound more rock-ish, something I would normally have an aversion to, but in this case I don’t mind the vibe, even if it is very slick ‘n corporate sounding. But I still find it frustrating that McGuinn embraced the FM radio sound so completely, a move that served him neither commercially nor musically (tonight’s song might be a bit of an exception to the latter, but only a bit). By 1975, ten years gone from Mr. Tambourine Man, McGuinn was relegated to playing small venues like My Father’s Place, a club out on Long Oyland, Roslyn to be exact, one of the Foyve Towns. When I was a kid, maybe 12 or 13, I talked my mom into taking me to hear the Good Rats at My Father’s Place. She was a trooper and talked the club into letting me in when normally they wouldn't have, it being a bar and all. My mom held her ears for the whole show. This and the smell of cheeba in the air made me very uncomfortable. Parents, don’t escort your kids to rock shows, or whatever the equivalent is today. Hire a trustworthy teenage babysitter if they need supervision… Anyway, the Good Rats are the type of band that plays My Father’s place. Roger McGuinn should not be playing at such a hole in the wall, and maybe he wouldn’t have had to if he’d taken a different approach in the 70s - less corporate, more revivalist, more Byrdsy, less Eaglesish, more poppy, yada yada. I know I sound like a broken record, but at least the record’s a single, two minutes and change, and it’s ok that it skips because it’s the kind of music you wanna hear over and over again. Even with the flanged guitar, I don’t need to hear tonight’s song more than once or twice every ten years. As it plods along, mid-tempo, past its fourth minute, I’m restless and distracted, craving a strong cup of coffee and music with more life and conviction...
Click here to hear the Lady.
Click here to hear the Lady.
at 8:07 PM
Monday, October 1, 2012
I give Gram Parsons credit for not falling into trap of making corporate rock. I suppose this is damning him with faint praise or, what amounts to the same thing, defining his virtues in purely negative terms. It’s not that all corporate rock is bad. I mean, the first Boston album is amazing (even if a lot of it sounds like a beer commercial). There’s good corporate rock, and there’s even good CHM, but more often than not the stuff is dull and, by definition, formulaic. Gram Parsons’ music is not particularly corporate sounding, though this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not dull, which it is a lot of the time. He didn’t really absorb much from the Rolling Stones (other than drugs) during his encounter with them in France. The Stones were at something of a creative and decadent peak at the time, recording Exile on Main Street, which for all its overstuffed overkill is nothing if not an inspiringly debauched rock ‘n roll jamboree. One would think that being in the Stones’ orbit at the time, however peripherally, would rub off on a guy. But it seems not to have happened with Parsons, at least not musically. Both his solo records are fairly understated, the sort of fair you can play in the car with mom and dad and have it be a compromise between, say, Annie Get Your Gun and Deep Purple’s In Rock. Neither side is gonna be thrilled with the music, but neither will be miserable with it either. Family peace begins in the middle of the road…
at 5:41 PM