Category: Stories & Essays

It’s Gettin’ Dark in Here: Tim McGraw’s “Good Girls” (2009)

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Waylon Jennings’ “Cedartown, Georgia” ( 1971) is both an amazing and horrifying song. In it, our grizzled hard workin’ protagonist describes his plan to murder his cheating wife in a most relaxed, tuneful, and matter of fact way. It’s so great and so f-ing wrong at the same time. It is absolutely as creepy and beautiful as Bobbie Gentry”s legendary “Ode to Billie Joe”. Country music has openly embraced and sung about terrible crime scenarios for decades, centuries, long before all the now beloved Dateline’s, Serial’s, My Favorite Murder’s and their brethren hit the video and audio airwaves. While the country music death march has slowed down considerably over the years, there have been some pretty cool assertive, feminist revenge party songs that have waved the murder flag pretty effectively in the 2000’s, Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”, and Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs” to name a couple. Today though, want to exult a damn fine murder ballad with no “winners”. Tim McGraw is a beloved country superstar who, since his debut in 1993, has racked up countless piles of platinum and # 1 albums and singles. I’d take him over Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan or any of the other supposedly “hunky” doofus’s out there because he has some properly good songs and frankly, seems way cooler. With that in mind we’re going to go back in time so we can shine a light on his superior contribution to the irrational, jealous country murder ballad canon. In 2009 Tim released his tenth studio album, “Southern Voice” and nestled within it was a song called “Good Girls”. It was written by pedigreed country songwriters Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo ( who co-wrote Lonestar’s crossover megahit “Amazed”) and the Warren Brothers ( who co-wrote Dierks Bentley’s country # 1 “Feel That Fire”). While Tim is the narrator in the song, he is not an active participant in it’s storyline and is just there to tell the terrible tale . The story he relates is about 2 best girlfriends, Jesse and Jenny. Jesse calls Jenny to insist they hang out, drink some Boone’s farm wine and chase the moon right outta the sky. They hop in Jesse’s car and take off like a bottle rocket. Turns out Jesse has an ulterior motive which is to confront Jenny about messing around with Jesse’s man. It doesn’t go well. Next verse Tim offers up is about the news report the next day which tells of a car parked on the tracks and a train with no time to stop. The only witness to the whole event is “a Weeping Willow on a foggy hill” and as Tim is describing it all in detail, well, for all intents and purposes, he is the all-knowing, noble and empathetic tree ( being the only one privy to what happened in the car that preceded/resulted in the tragic ending)…which I very much like the idea of. It’s got an achingly earnest vocal, and is built on a foundation of crying guitar straight out of the wistful, dusty old Bob Seger ballad “Main Street” ( which is also awesome). Yeah,“Good Girls” sounds like a Dateline episode put to music but it’s also really f-ing good. And even with it’s glossy, not remotely gritty or raw production there’s still something oddly striking, sinister and retro about it. Something that brings to mind that dark old country tragedy tradition. Let it proudly hold it’s irrational, impulsive head up next to “Cedartown”  forever.

“If I can’t have him neither one of us will”. You better believe it.

Hear it here:

And here’s Waylon’s beautiful and wrong “Cedartown, Georgia”:

 

 

 

The book on the highest shelf…

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One of my abiding memories of art school ( okay, I’m one of those people, please don’t hate me) involves a particular incident that occurred during a regular weekly critique class. The professor was a successful professional photographer, not world famous, but known enough. A normal class session with her involved our taking turns hanging our latest masterpieces on the wall, after which she would lead a discussion of the works’ respective “merits”. We were teenagers in NYC so yeah, there were a lot of photos of local landmarks, homeless people, or in my case, parking meters and empty swings ( I was shy so I only took pictures of inanimate objects not people). By the end of the semester she’d grown so frustrated with the quality of our output that she just couldn’t take it anymore. In the middle of a class one day, she snapped. Exasperated, she turned toward us and yelled ” You are all visually illiterate !“. No one responded. My pictures weren’t on the wall at the time thankfully… buuuut, you know, it was pretty clear she’d meant all of us, that we collectively sucked. And I too was an official member of the visually illiterate.

I’ve pondered this observation over the years and narrowed it down to one primary source. If I was visually illiterate™, in my mind there was clearly one main culprit. It wasn’t my lack of art history education that adversely affected my vision, I’d had a whole bunch of that. It’s just that DaVinci, Van Gogh, and Degas couldn’t compete with the behemoth that dominated every creative thought that sprouted within my mind. That behemoth was a book, and that book was The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics. It took a hold of me as a child and kept me in a headlock for years. It acted as the filter by which I absorbed, appreciated and created art. I blame this book for everything.

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That’s Alan Aldridge on the right, the man responsible for all this.

Okay so the brief history of the book goes something like this. The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics was published in 1969. It was conceived by illustrator Alan Aldridge who up to that point was mostly known for his slew of stunning novel covers for Penguin Books ( Come look at these, oh man ). His Beatle idea was inspired by an interview he’d done with Paul McCartney for the British Sunday Newspaper The Observer in 1967 which also featured his own illustrations. Upon the articles publication, Aldridge was inundated with approving, excited fan mail. People went nuts for these illustrations. That overwhelmingly positive response gave him an idea, as in if people loved this handful of images this much they might really go crazy over a whole book of Beatle inspired art. Soon after he approached many of the leading graphic artists of the time including David Hockney, Ralph Steadman and Peter Max, and asked if they would be interested in creating pieces of art based on specific Beatle songs. In nearly every case the answer was a resounding YES.  It’s amazing to think that at that point The Beatles were so almighty and ubiquitous and had such cultural cache that well known artists in a completely different medium literally jumped at the opportunity to make art about The Beatles art. It was meta before they actually called stuff meta. Aldridge offered the eager artists a list of songs to choose from and those that didn’t get chosen, he would illustrate himself. He also posted multiple ads soliciting fan art to potentially include as well. And so The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics was born.

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This is the 1967 Observer cover that started it all.

I met this book by accident. My Mom’s book collection was housed in a tall shelf at the foot of a staircase. The bottom half featured a set of World Book Encyclopedias from 1973 and a myriad of books about antiques. The higher shelves featured more adult fare including Nancy Friday’s “My Secret Garden” ( for those unfamiliar, a then bestseller featuring explicit true life sexual fantasies written by what seemed to be hundreds of suburban housewives) as well as several romantically themed horoscope books ( “Sexual Astrology” anyone?). The books in this “adult section” were the absolute epitome of the beige but swinging seventies. My brother and I had been warned not to touch anything on those top shelves. She’d made it implicitly clear that the books “up there” were “not for children”. That was all the incentive I needed to pursue some in depth exploration. Without really saying anything, Mom had said too much. With that admonition, I made it my mission to get on a step ladder and/or literally use the shelves themselves as steps to examine these illicit books at the top of the mountain whenever she went out. And that’s how I first got my hands on The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics. I knew who the Beatles were, had heard songs on the radio but I hadn’t truly discovered them yet. I was a late pop music bloomer and to be frank didn’t know very much until I turned 10 or so (read about the epiphany here). Still I was inexorably drawn to this book. It was the biggest book on the top shelf and it had a cartoon on the cover. It was essentially a picture book. My attraction to it couldn’t have been greater if it had been covered in chocolate. And so down it came into my kid hands every chance I got.

I experienced a tiny surprise unrelated to it’s content when I opened it for the first time. Inside the front cover was a crumbling, dried, pressed rose. This book clearly had some secret sentimental value to Mom. Not that I cared, the most important thing I noted upon this discovery was that if I made one wrong move, the flower would slide and rain out of the book in tiny pieces like confetti . So whenever I took it down from that initial point forward, I would sit on the staircase in front of the bookshelf, gently lay it across my lap and read it in a gravitationally sensible way to ensure nothing happened to the flower thus further ensuring that Mom wouldn’t find out that I was perusing her “dirty” books ( because of course in my ridiculous, paranoid little peanut brain, I assumed she was actually dusting for fingerprints and checking to see if books had been shifted around every day. I was an idiot).

The book is laid out simply. There are Beatle lyrics with accompanying illustrations next to them ( or nearby). Some are literal, some are visual interpretations only the actual artist could explain the meaning of. But there is a consistent visual that makes itself known pretty quickly.

Breasts. This book is absolutely brimming with them. Nearly every song’s accompanying artistic interpretation features a breast depiction. There are more breasts in this book than there are pictures of Ringo ( this is not an exaggeration, if you feel like counting you’ll see). To a lot of people, The Beatles were clearly SEX.

And so inevitably there is also some tasteless, misogynistic shit in this book. Though as a child I wasn’t conscious of it and didn’t fully comprehend what I was looking at, the weird subversiveness of some of the art. I took everything at face value. Check out the faces below representing “Dr.Robert”, “Sexy Sadie” and “Helter Skelter” respectively.

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Beatles = Breasts

Questionable but know what, I totally love these. Helter Skelter is Helter Skelter.

Of course initially, my absolute favorite works were the ones with the actual Beatles in them. Especially Alan Aldridge’s ridiculously colorful, cartoony and psychedelic ones. I wasn’t even close to what you’d call a Beatle fan at that point, owned no Beatle records, and they were long broken up…but the gravitational pull of even their mere images was indescribably strong, especially the McCartney visage ( it’s official, Paul is magic). I still think the Aldridge depiction of “There’s A Place” (below) is better than the actual song.

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Yeah,Yeah,Yeah

I quickly developed favorites and it wasn’t long before I started getting out my tracing paper and copying stuff so I could look at them in the privacy of my room. Not just the ones depicting Beatles, oh no, but the ones of cartoon eyeballs murdering each other. A young man with enormous sideburns making out with an old lady. A “Taxman” eating humans and expelling them in just the unpleasant way you might think. The tightly buttock-ed “Mr Kite”. I could not stop staring at this shit. And so no one was safe from my pencil.

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I’m gonna say it: Mr.Kite has a nice ass.

As I got older, I inevitably grew weary of the book, wasn’t moved or shocked by it anymore and forgot about it, meaning I didn’t look at it much, if at all, once I was a teenager. Little did I know it was too late, it had infiltrated my mind forever and was never going to go away even if I never looked at it again. To this day, I love (live) to draw ( in ballpoint pen mostly) and I can see this book in literally everything I make, I can’t deny it. It’s in me.

Yeah, that one in the lower left hand corner is Paul McCartney, so we’ve come full circle. In fact my Mom has recent drawings I did of John Lennon and George Harrison hanging in her house. Drawings directly inspired by the ridiculous book she attempted to warn me off.

A friend was in the UK recently visiting his in-laws and mentioned that his elderly father in law insisted on gifting him with a book from his vast home library. The book was not of his choosing. He was specifically offered a vintage copy of…The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics.  The fact that his 80-something father in law thought that this particular book was important enough to make a special show of giving it to him as a keepsake, well, I took it as a weird yet beautiful affirmation. The book is of it’s time, it’s a wonderful mess of  sometimes questionable, sometimes beautiful imagery: a truly oddball timepiece.

To close, here’s my favorite piece (below). It’s by French artist Jean-Michel Folon and accompanies the lyrics to “Blackbird” in the book. It’s both sad and optimistic and it’s relationship to the song is loose and interpretable. It’s the blankest, emptiest piece in the whole book …but at the end of the day kind of says it all.

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Another View: On Ryan Adams

Preface: Earlier Last this month we ran a piece by PuR contributor Andy Moreno about the recent Ryan Adams allegations and got some compelling feedback. While some people were empathetic to her argument, others took issue with it. Kathryn Musilek and Andrew Gerhan of Nevada Nevada have written a response to that initial editorial.

Here it is.

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In her recent essay , entitled” Touch, Feel, Lose and Cry…”, Andy Moreno writes that art is not the guilty party. In the case of Ryan Adam’s recently publicized abuse allegations we would tend to agree, it wasn’t the art that made Adams do what he did. Likewise we do not think Ozzy’s Suicide Solution made John Daniel McCollum shoot himself, nor do we think Rammstein and video games made Klebold and Harris shoot up their school. However we diverge from Moreno when she then mourns for the loss of audience Ryan Adams’ work is sure to suffer and the loss of his various music industry deals his wallet has suffered. Although she rightly empathises and voices regret for Adam’s human victims, she argues that the art itself should not be made a victim as well.

We would counter that the art is already a victim of Adam’s actions, and (the collective) we have no say in the matter. Art does not exist in a vacuum, it was created by someone, someplace and at some point in time. This gives it a context, and that context has everything to do with how a work is considered and appreciated. In 1913 Listeners rioted when they first heard Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring. Now that we’re accustomed to the cacophony of an industrialized world and screamo bands, The Rites of Spring sounds like beautiful, if incredibly spooky, classical music. Punk rock was shocking in 1977. Blink 182 and The Vans Warped Tour less so in the 2000s. Ryan Adams’ songs used to exist in a context where he was an alt country icon. Now they exist in a world where he, the creator, is understood to be a serial abuser. The context has changed and therefore the meaning of the work has changed, and it was changed by Adams’ own hand. Although it is far from the biggest atrocity he has committed, he has desecrated his own artistic legacy. He has soiled his own songs for anyone with true empathy for both the numerous women he abused, and the art they stopped making because of that abuse.

We should mourn for these women, but we should not waste time mourning Adams’ work for several reasons: firstly people are far more important than songs. Art is made by people. Some art has “soul”. Some is sad, happy, angry, sexy, etc. However a piece of art isn’t a person. It doesn’t have a soul, nor does it feel any emotion and cannot be emotionally abused. Art doesn’t need our protection, people do. In this case these people are the women who were victimized by Adams’ sexual and emotional abuse, and this is the most important part of all of this by far.

Secondly, if we are going to mourn for songs in the wake of Adams’ actions, we should really mourn for the work that wasn’t and won’t be made by his victims. Take the 20 year old the New York Times refers to as Ava, who “…had been a gifted bassist by the age of 9”, and who, after Adams has not played another show and is now “put off” by the idea of being a musician. Or the 35 year old Courtney Jaye who said that after Adams abuse “something changed in me…it made me just not want to make music”. Ryan Adams music has been heard (and purchased) by millions. His victims had this opportunity taken from them by Adams. Abusers who violently and harmfully occupy artistic space, keeping women out of that space, should not be collecting huge checks for their streaming and radio royalties.

Thirdly we have a new context and this demands new art from people who deserve our attention and admiration. This is actually a moment of hope and possibility within the larger shadow cast by Adams abuse. As the #metoo movement shines a light into the dark corners of the rock club, the recording studio, and the offices of the music industry in general, rock should be liberated from its legacy of taint caused by (some of) it’s creators. This is an opportunity to create and to champion new art that is free from the burden of this baggage. In this new context we find ourselves in, this will be better art than what we were clinging to because we, ourselves have been changed.

Our final point is that of Adams business ties which were severed after the news of the allegations broke. His record label, touring partners, and several companies who had given Adams equipment endorsements all put collaborations on hold or parted ways with him. Moreno acknowledges that this makes good business sense for the companies involved but predicts that society will suffer because this art has value to it and it will now be withheld. We agree that this is good business sense. The various deals were penned with an understanding of Ryan Adams’ identity, and this was irrevocably altered by Adams’ actions. It is these actions that have already robbed society of the value of this art. Even if the labels still put out the records and the bookers and promoters still organized the tours, the benefits of this artwork have been erased by Adams’ actions. All of these entities have a limited bandwidth for collaborating with and supporting artists and they should free up the space for art that is not tainted. Plus Adams owns a recording studio and can continue to create and distribute his work on his own to whatever audience remains, unless the FBI investigation being conducted yields indictment(s) for which he is found guilty and he loses his assets and/or his freedom. It is a safe bet some, if not all of his victims don’t have facilities such as PAX-AM at their disposal.

We just hope that when we hear his music, rather than feeling sad that we may not enjoy it to its fullest extent, we can feel sad for the victims of Adams and of all the abusers in the world of art-making, and that our sympathies lie more with the victims than with the inanimate albums we used to enjoy, guilt-free. We hope that his songs sound different, weaker, less admirable or even skeevy in this new context of his abuse, or that even if they sound the same that they feel different. If they don’t sound any different to you, we encourage you to read more about what he’s done, and imagine how his music might sound or feel if you were one of those women, or if your sisters, friends, or mothers were abused by him. Would you still feel that the art is the thing that needs protection?

Touch, Feel, Lose and Cry, Cry, Cry

Preface: PuR contributor Andy Moreno and I had a long talk about the recent allegations directed toward Ryan Adams and the conversation was complicated. The obvious questions surfaced. Does continuing to listen to the music of someone you know has done something terrible, has hurt other people, mean you are tacitly okay with what they’ve done? Does the art itself exist as a completely separate entity from the artist? We started talking about Adams and inevitably moved up the “genius” ladder and ended up discussing Michael Jackson, Miles Davis and Picasso. Brilliant artists yes, but people who did despicable, damaging, and unforgivable things to other people.

I loved John Martyn, the late English folk rock legend. He made some indescribably beautiful music that pulled me through the darkest of times: there was a year where I listened to him every single night to help me calm down and sleep. Those songs were a light. Years later I discovered that while he was recording all this powerful, heartfelt music, he was being physically abusive toward his wife Beverley on a regular basis. He was a raging, drunken asshole. It was repulsive to hear, still is, probably always will be. It’s been hard to reconcile in my head that I still adore his plaintive and sad signature song “Solid Air” and still listen to it, because part of me wants to hate him, cut him off.

Andy wanted to write something regarding Ryan Adams. Here it is.

Full disclosure, Ryan Adams has been one of those artists that I’ve seen many times live, and whose music I have obsessed over through it’s many phases. I have rooted for him knowing he’s probably not a nice person in the same way I secretly love Woody Allen films.  His vocal tone and range is so precious. His songs rain to use his term. Even though he rejects all connection to Alt-country, those Whiskeytown songs were all favorites of mine.  When I hear them I still go places that no other music takes me. Ryan’s Heartbreaker and Gold albums in particular, along with a few others, helped me get through very tough relationship despair and grief and then later became the live soundtrack to more horrid recklessness of my own creation.  Touch, Feel, Lose was a lifeline for days. I was playing and repeating the track as if to stop hearing it would bring all the hurt rushing up to my head. Come Pick Me Up’s, ‘take me out, fuck me up’… I clung to this song on many nights like a raft floating through the lonely abyss. ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina what compels me to go’…Firecracker, Sylvia Plath, Answering Bell…a plethora of music to ache by.  For me, there was nothing else for days. And some of those days lasted for years. In short, if those songs weren’t allowed to roam the earth I don’t know what.  I seriously don’t.

So it seems almost ironic that he would become the next Hall of Shamer in regards to his private dealings with women. Right now though before we continue this much needed war on the misuse of power we definitely, most certainly need to put focus on the other silent victim, the art itself.

You want to hear my truth?  I don’t think the art is, was, or ever will be the guilty party.  Art needs some type of protective rights just like helpless babies and kittens, rescue dogs, the wild horses of Arizona, the tired, hangry polar bears.  The creator is not the art. This means something. I believe the division is crucial here.

If you rape or kill someone, you should go to jail and if you’re career is ruined, not my problem. I am very torn though over companies acting as judge and jury over anyone, as if they are a living breathing soul. I believe companies should put out art based on it’s value, not the artist’s virtuous standing.  If you make a killer song or record before, during or after a wrongdoing that work should be allowed it’s freedom, in my opinion.

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The actual art or product whether it be food, movies, paintings, music or songwriting, whatever the form, is very valuable to society and once formed can move, provoke, stimulate, inspire and heal, separate from it’s maker.  Some work even achieves greater heights. I have to say I consider the art form as the true precious commodity at stake here. Not that I don’t have deep compassion or serious empathy for anyone who falls victim to abuse.  Of course I do. But while all of us very imperfect humans try to work all this out we must consider the truly defenseless. Creativity sometimes comes out of our most deranged twisted folks. It comes out of pain, not only from the beautiful, happy people but lost idiots and damaged souls.  It’s the one good thing we do that separates us from all the other animals. Do we have to squash the work as well as the person? Throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak? For example, no one I speak to is surprised at all about the accusations because even though I adore so much of Ryan’s music, it was no secret in town years ago that his behavior was less than stellar as a regular human walking the planet.  He was an immature little punk with new money and a penchant for young girls. And his songwriting wasn’t always brilliant, but sometimes it was. I just read that based on written stories and an upcoming investigation his unreleased albums are now being squashed immediately including 2 on Blue Note Records. I get that it’s a smart business decision but are these companies really doing us a service? I also get the artist would be monetarily rewarded but support of the art is not condoning their private behavior.  If you see it that way, we’re going to need to drastically reduce our record collections. I can cringe hearing Ted Nugent’s political views but please crank that Stranglehold.  I don’t have the answers but there must be another way. After all, so much of that side of this argument is driven by the original hater, Mr. mean green himself, the almighty dollar.  And we all know he is not that sensitive, so we need to stop pretending companies have real hearts, accept that they are equally flawed and realize that pendulum could swing the other way one day.  I personally do not want to start being judged by Target or Citibank, or Whole Foods for my shoddy behavior. Plus why take away the one positive thing that we might get from all this ugliness and hurt? That’s the beauty, if this makes you want to exit the Ryan Adams train then it’s your God given right to do so and no one can take that privilege away unless we let them.   I just see us losing more freedoms if we start navigating creativity by some corporate-made moral compass.

 

Ephraim Lewis: It Can’t Be Forever

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This is a sad story. British singer Ephraim Lewis made a grand total of one album. It was called “Skin” and released in 1992 and was full of chilly, introspective, life affirming alt-soul. While overall it’s a pretty fine record, it’s also undeniably “of it’s time”, featuring very slick early 90’s production values ( faux strings, muted horns, shimmery backing vocals) and that pseudo electro-cool groove that became so common in the wake of Massive Attack’s “Blue Lines”.  Still, it’s full of sinewy, anthemic and memorable songs and the filler is minimal. And Lewis’s voice is absolutely beautiful, rising up from the bottom of the sea to the most glorious of falsettos with ridiculous ease. It sounds like a first album, full of promise, a few killer songs, and endless potential. And frankly, in that respect, it’s no different than Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”, another by no means definitive statement, despite the grand hyperbole regularly attached to it. Like “Grace”, it’s a snapshot of an ascending talent who was going to make something truly great in time.

While not perfect, there are some undeniably stunning moments on “Skin” , specifically the slinky, sinister groove of it’s initial single “It Can’t Be Forever”, the desperately keening title track, and the languid and sultry beauty of  “Drowning In Your Eyes”   (the latter being the finest recorded moment of Lewis’s career). The vocals are absolutely faultless throughout.

Elektra, Lewis’s label, believed in him wholeheartedly and why not, he had absolutely everything going for him, the voice, the looks, all of it. They had expectations and believed “Skin” would be big.

The video for  “It Can’t Be Forever” received a bit of MTV airplay and the album garnered a few positive reviews and went on to sell over 100,000 copies worldwide. Pretty damn good for the debut of a previously unknown singer… but disappointing from a record company perspective based on the millions of promotional dollars that had been invested to launch it.  Besides “Skin”, Lewis also contributed an ethereal beauty of a song on the forgettable “Made in America” soundtrack in 1993. And… that’s where it ends. That was all his recorded output. He never got to make his grand artistic statement, his big record. He was dead before he even reached his 27th birthday. He died in 1994 under dramatic, sordid, and still not quite explicable circumstances in LA while beginning the recording of what would have likely been his breakthrough 2nd album with none other than Glen Ballard, the legendary producer/writer behind Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill”.

His death wasn’t publicized and at that point in the technological universe, even though I was working in a mega record store, I didn’t hear about it until a month after it happened. It was shocking and extraordinarily sad news to say the least.  Two years earlier I’d met Lewis at one of those old school record release party things set up by his label and he’d been a charismatic sweetheart. It was a pretty low key event to celebrate the release of his aforementioned debut album. The venue it was held in was decorated with cheap cardboard “flats” depicting the album cover and as apparently talking to him wasn’t enough for my immature, overly jacked up arse, I took the liberty of tearing one right off the wall in front of him, like you do, and having him sign it for me. He laughed and said “Ha, tear it right off why don’t you !”. This is it:

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A bit battered and stained (from what I have no idea) as I had it hanging on my office wall, frameless and vulnerable from the next day onward. Anyway, he happily let me fangirl all over him, allowed me to ask inane questions and stand way closer to his person than I probably should’ve.

Admittedly, I was already a bit of a fan at that point and prior to that meeting had fallen pretty hard for his brand of spiritual, and sexy alt soul. Plus he was British which appealed to my obsessive Anglophile tendencies. He was important enough that for all these years I’ve kept that page at the top of this piece from a 1992 Interview Magazine in an old portfolio case in my closet. Just never wanted to throw it away.

Here’s where things get complicated. Electra believed in Lewis’s potential and were willing to keep investing in him but they needed hits. Which to them meant casting aside his producers/co-writers from the unsuccessful ( in their eyes) first album, Bacon and Quarmby and connecting Lewis with someone with a proven track record, namely Glen Ballard ( who at that point had a myriad of big time credits to his name including co-writing Michael Jackson’s mega”Man in the Mirror”).

And things were changing not just professionally for Lewis, but personally. By 1993, he had parted ways with his long-time girlfriend and fallen in love with a man. According to Paul Flowers, his boyfriend at the time, Lewis said he’d never felt more contented or at peace with himself as he had within this new relationship.

In early 1994, Lewis headed to LA to begin work on his second album with Ballard. By all accounts he was feeling pretty good. And more comfortable with his sexuality. It was all coming together. But it only took a heartbeat’s worth of time for everything to crumble into pieces. While in LA, Lewis immersed himself in the local nightlife. Met people. Partied. And ultimately indulged in drugs.

On the night of March 18th, 1994 police were called to the apartment complex Lewis was staying at while recording in LA. He was creating a disturbance, yelling, climbing from balcony to balcony undressed and behaving in a disturbing manner that suggested he was having a bad reaction to some kind of drug he’d ingested ( post mortem reports support this). By the time he crashed through a top floor window, the police had physically reached him and there was a confrontation. Something occurred resulting in his falling off the top floor balcony onto the street below and suffering life ending head injuries as a result. Sordid, terrible, shocking. There’s been speculation that the police had something to do with this, that they’d tased him, which resulted in his panicking then jumping. Another story went that he’d threatened them with a makeshift “knife’ fashioned from a piece of broken glass from when he’d crashed through the top floor window and was in such a deranged state that he’d suddenly leapt off the building without prompting. We’ll never know.

It’s a terrible story. A terrible waste…but there remains this sweet old record out in there in the world you can still listen to right now, that’s worth listening too, that may really touch you. And there is also this heartbreakingly beautiful live performance which says more than anything we’ve offered here :

That voice huh ? Still makes me cry. Ephraim Lewis, he was something.

Listen to “Skin” on Spotify :

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/5XZnllNMwSlcILCQnjOCnJ

 

Backworlds we’ll go: Paul D’Amour on the Origins of Lusk’s Free Mars

Alicia Berbenick is a writer and musician from Brooklyn. She has an unnatural obsession for weird shit that she constantly needs to get down on paper. Here’s a story of one of those obsessions.

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It was April of 1998. I was at the tail end of my middle school years and all I cared about was music—new music in particular. One night I couldn’t sleep, so I snuck downstairs to the living room to watch MTV (which was outlawed in my home). 12 Angry Viewers was on, a show that only lasted two years but sought to introduce people to more subversive music. It was there in the early hours of the morning that my pre-teen self fell in love with a track named “Backworlds” by the supergroup Lusk. The video juxtaposed childhood innocence and nostalgia with blood-sucking, explosive violence. The song was equally jarring, luring me in with a poppy keyboard loop of an earworm, then exploding into this beautiful psychedelic chorus before it corrodes into uncomfortable, repetitive shouting. I’d never heard anything like it. The record was called Free Mars, a title that really spoke to the fiery, weird parts of me that felt suffocated by the world. I saved up, bought it at The Wall, and put it on repeat for the next 20 years.

It is a collage work of sounds pieced together by two brilliant musicians with the help of so many of their talented friends. To fans, Free Mars is one of the most underrated and overlooked records of the ’90s; yet there is little-to-no information out there about how the record was made. I wanted to see if I could get at the root of why it was so life-changing for some and passed up by too many, so I reached out to Paul D’Amour. D’Amour is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, musician, composer and producer. Most fans probably remember him for his writing and signature bass sound on Tool’s Undertow. At the start of our conversation he mentioned more than once that “no one ever wants to talk about [Free Mars].” But beneath those comments, I thought I could hear the sound of a proud parent.

“Backworlds” won high ratings on MTV’s short-lived jury style show 12 Angry Viewers, giving it heavier rotation on the channel.

 

Let’s take it back to 1993. Tool was on tour promoting Undertow with Failure as an opening act. D’Amour became friends with their front-of-house soundman, Chris Pitman, as well as Failure’s bassist, Greg Edwards. The three (plus Ken Andrews of Failure) would mess around by playing pop songs during their down time, which led them to produce a covers record under the name Replicants. It gave D’Amour a taste of what it was like to explore other musical avenues and, during the writing stage of Ænima, D’Amour quit Tool. “I really just wanted to have some fun and not have rules, you know?” D’Amour said. “Playing in Tool, as far as [being] creative, there were too many rules in that band. The guitar player did the guitar player thing and the bass player did the bass player thing.” As great as the band was, having creative freedom was more important to him.

Fortunately the head of Volcano (Tool’s label at the time) recognized D’Amour’s talent and allotted him a budget to create something new. D’Amour wasn’t sure what it would look, feel or sound like yet, but he knew it would be a complete departure from Tool—something experimental and really out there. “Replicants kind of spurred the creative connections between [me, Chris and Greg]. I wanted to bring in another person, so I brought in Brad Laner from Medicine. He’s a great rhythmist and his guitar sound is pretty unique as well.” The four of them began jamming together, switching instruments and conjuring strange melodies. “Originally I kind of wanted to do more like a loopy, more arty thing. Not necessarily even songs” says D’Amour. “I just thought we were going to jam and make some loops and  turn it into [something] a little more loose and psychedelic; like some of those early PiL records.“ The one thing that was clear: this record would be made with zero rules—from committing to first takes down to the harpist’s wild laugh, lingering after a track.

In the beginning, the four would meet and lay down tracks at the famed Alley Studios in North Hollywood; a place known for its early ’70s connections to artists like Three Dog Night and Jackson Browne and would later host musicians like Tom Petty and Kurt Cobain. “We were living around the corner [from Alley], so we just popped in one day and sorta got friendly with them. All the walls are just padded with blue jeans ,” he laughs. “And there’s layers of resin on the walls. It’s one of those places where you know shit went down in there.” But as Edwards and Laner became busier with other projects, D’Amour and Pitman gradually took the reigns as co-producers. “We started bringing in some other people, like Danny [Carey] from Tool, and Kellii Scott from Failure [to play drums]. We brought in a friend of Chris’s, [Dana Wollard], who was an amazing cellist and we had a harp player, [Patti Hood]. [Chris and I] basically took the ball and ran with it with what originally started in the Alley.” The two set up their own mini recording studios and, using more affordable ADAT machines, were able to finish the record.

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As far as influences go, D’Amour drew from a few places. It’s been said that this record was a concept album revolving around Iain Banks’ novel The Wasp Factory. This isn’t completely true. “I don’t think, as we were creating, that we were thinking about that book,” he says. “It just sort of made the rounds in my circle at the time. It was dark and transitory. Certainly, the imagery was really powerful.” If anything, the “Backworlds” video (directed by Len E. Burge III and D’Amour) is loosely based on a traumatic scene from the novel. In addition, D’Amour was heavily into reading old paperback sci-fi novels, so much of his lyrics would revolve around that brand of futuristic otherworldliness. In terms of influences, he was listening to a lot of Richard Davies’ work—particularly the Cardinal’s 1994 self-titled record. In both records you can also catch the influence of Beach Boys’ harmonies (another of D’Amour’s mentions). But where both of those influences were lighter, almost positive in contrast, Free Mars is an unpredictable carnival ride, bordering on the horrific, filled with dark corners of discovery and technological mystique.

As far as writing sessions went, whoever was available would get together and jam. A melody would bubble up to to surface and they’d write around that, usually with Pitman and D’Amour left to build off of what was recorded in The Alley. “We spent quite a bit of time with our harpist and the cellist,” he says. “So there’s a lot of great layers in there with them.” We’re talking about the kinds of layers that sometimes you only catch on your 86th listen, where a new sound will seem more present than before—a guitar solo floats over the top of that melody you’d previously focused on or some old haunting operatic sample peeps out from underneath rollicking keys. When asked which song was his favorite, D’Amour named “Mindray”.  “I wrote all the lyrics and really put some thought into that [song]. I think that one was like, all right, we’re done with this whole ‘jamming’ thing—let’s just actually focus and get real.” One listen to the track and you’ll hear its reverberations through the rest of the album. A sluggish drum shuffle takes you on a meandering journey through sweeping harp, layered orchestral keys and wailing guitars. The vocals capitalize on that Beach Boys harmonic influence, but are turned strange through an oscillating pedal effect.

“I think Mindray is probably my favorite…that one definitely set the tone for a few other [songs].” – Paul D’Amour

 

Other tracks borrow in one way or another from this loopy underwater vibe, both soothing in effect and paranoia-inducing in its darkness. The record runs the genre-bending gamut of sounds; from soaring epics like “Free Mars” and “Doctor” to the infectious pop found on “Backworlds” to a heavier kind of art rock on “Kill the King”. Yet a strong thread of addictive melodies prevents this record from ever feeling disjointed.

The title Free Mars and CD’s artwork and Digipak® design, too, borrowed from D’Amour’s interest in Sci-Fi paperbacks. “I had a huge box of them. I tried to mock some of those early print styles and some of the ways they used those old illustrations.” Free Mars would be nominated in 1998 for a Grammy for Best Recording Package (alongside Ænima). Both lost to Titanic: Music as heard on the Fateful Voyage, which, it’s worth mentioning, used a similar illustrative design to Free Mars.

Lusk would go on to do a short tour in small clubs, complete with Patti Hood on harp and Chris Wyse on upright bass. Unfortunately, this is where Lusk would come to an end. “Some rich dude bought our record label and he just drove the whole company into the ground in a matter of months. We’d had huge tours booked but we couldn’t do that without more support. Other labels were possibly interested, but [the head of Volcano] wouldn’t return anyone’s phone calls. [Chris and I] couldn’t do anything. It took the wind out of the sails of the project.” Though funding couldn’t save Lusk, we at least are left with a record that was born out of complete creative freedom and a rebellion from over-production. A record like this simply could not happen again…maybe that’s why its fans still obsess over it.

Today Free Mars isn’t on Spotify and, during this interview, D’Amour mentioned he had to make a few calls to fix the listing in iTunes. Fans can still find CDs on Discogs as well as a few LP pressings out there.* And the album lingers in our minds in other ways—like the recent report that another mine appeared in the Seattle Bay area, close to where D’Amour and Burge filmed the video for “Backworlds.” He laughs and confesses, “The mine from that video? We just left on the beach and it caused all kinds of trouble.” The mine that was found this past August was apparently from a 2005 Naval exercise and, though it was inert, still caused a little scare for the locals. Talk about resurfacing. As for what’s next, D’Amour and Pitman are currently working on a new project. It won’t be like Lusk, he says, but it will be something completely new and heavier. You can watch for it, along with all his score compositions for upcoming projects, on D’Amour’s website.

*Ed. Note: If you want the complete record, including “My Good Fishwife” and the secret track “Blaire’s Spiders”, you have to buy the CD or digital version. Those two tracks are not on the LP.

 

“That’s Their Pet Sounds” : Rick Springfield “Working Class Dog” (1981)

Mission statement:

No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we fuckin’ delivered the goods.

Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds” our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight, and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be, or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.

*“That’s Their Pet Sounds” is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.

And with that here’s an artist frequently dismissed as a teen idol who defied odds and opinions to make a truly seminal power pop album…
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Rick Springfield’s BEST ALBUM : 1981’s “Working Class Dog”

Background: By the late seventies Rick Springfield was in a state of desperation. At this point he’s released 3 studio albums of okay pop rock with middling success and is maybe a teen idol past his prime. Even though music is his passion, bills have to be paid, so he auditions for an acting role on “General Hospital”, the soap of the time ( pathetic anecdote break : I rushed home from school every day for this thing and somehow disciplined myself to not start my daily school persecution crying session until 4 pm, when the show was over, that’s how invested I was ). He gets the job. Meanwhile he signs with RCA and starts making another record in earnest, newly inspired by the power pop guitar crunch pervading the LA clubs at the time, particularly from bands like the Knack. Yes, you are witnessing the phenomenon known as stars aligning.
Okay so in 1981, a lot of shit happens. Rick is starring on the still top-rated “General Hospital”, and his new album, “Working Class Dog” , is officially out in the world. If that weren’t enough,   “Jessie’s Girl”, a truly rockin’ piece of ear candy off the album has begun picking up steam on the radio, and it’s corresponding video is soon all over MTV. The song ultimately hits #1 on the Billboard chart. Now as great as “Jessie” is, and lord it is, there’s no reason to believe Rick is anything but a one hit wonder, another teen idol from the factory. At that point, pop history was littered with similar scenarios. People that, while yeah they made records, they were also TV stars, and were thereby automatically not regarded as credible musicians ( David Cassidy being the prime example). Didn’t matter that Rick was musician first and an actor “just because”, he automatically got tarred with that brush…but something weird happened and turned that whole notion on it’s ear. See, “Working Class Dog” turned out to be good, like really good, as in one of the finer power pop albums ever made. Seriously. Something that could hold it’s head up next to Badfinger’s “No Dice” and “Straight Up” or anything from Cheap Trick’s 1977-79 golden era. Why wasn’t he mentioned in the same breath as those guys at the time ? Well, Rick was a teen idol, a branded man, and all the nerdy, pseudo cool, music know it all guys who liked the aforementioned bands couldn’t bring themselves to like something all the girls were crazy for, because it had to be shiz if girls liked it. Yes. Ironic considering power pop’s roots in the Fab Four but there you go. Beatles. Stones. Same scenario. Girls loved and recognized them first and at some inevitable point, their amazing-ness couldn’t be denied. As of 2018, I can honestly say the most knowledgable and passionate male power pop heads I know, the ones that worship Big Star, The Raspberries and Flamin’ Groovies all think “Working Class Dog” kicks ass.

Why it’s his Pet Sounds :

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“I just made a seminal power pop album girl”

Rick is one of those guys that has good songs on every album. You can trust him to give you at very least 1 or 2 within every release. He’s reliable like that. Unlike, and it kills me to say this, Neil Young and Paul McCartney who at this point just can’t be trusted. Fact is if you like Rick, and continue to buy his new albums, you will be rewarded in some way.
Out of all 17, and counting, of Rick’s studio albums, “Working Class Dog” is the deepest, the punchiest, the most consistent. It’s the one.
It goes something like this:
There are 10 songs on “Working Class Dog”and they are all good.
Every one has a killer hook and sounds like a single.
Every chorus in every song is impossibly sticky and cannot be removed once they’ve suctioned themselves to the inside of your head.
Also, every song is about girls.
Since the early seventies, bands overtly influenced by that early Beatles sound and song construction were filed directly into the category that came to be known as power pop. And oh man, music writers of a certain age, gender and genetic make up love them some power pop. It is a religion. Their irrational/earth shattering love for this sound is no different than that of the BTS fan army of today ( If you don’t know about BTS, go have a Google). The most obvious way this love manifested itself in the pre-internet era was in the consistent attention bestowed upon power poppers in the music press i.e.almost any band that made this kind of music got lauded and showered with good reviews and features back in the day, even though their overall popularity usually didn’t warrant the attention and they were all pretty much guaranteed to be cult bands forever. There was something about this particular sound that struck a chord with hardcore music nerds. It was pop, but self-referential and smart and clever, with guitars all over it. It was romantic music for boys.
“Working Class Dog” is the absolute epitome of great power pop and in a 2018 musical world where the concept of what’s cool and not cool no longer exists, where it’s just about loving songs as singular digital entities, no matter where they came from, all that old baggage about “it’s for girls” can finally go straight in the garbage where it always belonged.

The Songs:

  • Rick wrote 9 of the 10 tracks. There’s lots of talk about appeasing Daddy (hers and Rick himself) and “little girls” that are alternately dirty or scared “like you”.
  • The one track he didn’t write,“I’ve Done Everything For You”, is …well okay it’s a Sammy f-ing Hagar song from 1978…but in the same manner in which Aretha Franklin stole Otis Redding’s “Respect” and made it her own forever, Rick took complete possession of this song. As in his version completely crushes the original. (Disclaimer: I am in no way inferring that Sammy is like Otis, I am just referencing the circumstance. Otis is a God, while Sammy remains and will always be a man.)
  • This album is romantic in the same way hanging out in a suburban 7-11 parking lot late, late at night ( cheap pun alert) and cruising the main strip of road in town hoping by chance to see your unrequited love is romantic. It feels eternally young and single-minded and all emotions expressed within it are as urgent as a fire alarm. It runs all the lights and is very, very horny.
  • The first 8 tracks are hook laden pocket anthems and each one to the last features an  impossibly infectious chorus. Though the competition is fierce, gonna say the one in “Love Is Alright Tonite” rules the hardest. As a side note, “Love…” soundtracks the most manic and crazy scene in cult classic “Wet Hot American Summer” and is hard to detach from that once you’ve seen it but they really do take it to yet another level of greatness.
  • For years I thought Rick was singing “You can keep your cheddar” in “Daddy’s Pearl”. I reasoned “cheddar” was some kind of slang way to say cheap opinions/gossip which made sense in the context of the song. It sounded kind of clever and weird. Plus he rhymed it with “better”. Years later found out what he is saying is actually “chatter”and was disappointed. Listen for yourself and decide but I think “cheddar” is the way to go.

 

  • “Inside Silvia” is a lust ballad. It is 100 % literal. When Rick sings “there’s one harbor where I’m safe and warm”, the “harbor” to which he is referring is Silvia herself. All the metaphors are literal on this album. I swear that is not a contradiction.
  • There is also a straight up Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar solo that wandered in off the street and somehow got lost in “Red Hot and Blue Love”. It is phenomenally disconcerting but it works in what is the most “experimental” song on the album.
  • There’s really nothing left to be said in regards to “Jessie’s Girl” at this point. It’s a classic pop song, full stop, some people love it, some people are sick of it…but it lives and will continue to do so long after we are gone.

In Conclusion:

 37 years have passed since “Working Class Dog” was released. And Rick is still out there touring and recording like a truly driven man. This thing sold 3 million copies and had 3 top ten singles and will probably never be included on any of those “Greatest Albums of All-Time” lists…but who cares what the critics say. It’s an absolute diamond, it’s his Pet Sounds.

*One more thing ! While there have been an extraordinarily large number of crap rock memoirs thrust into the world over the years, Rick’s own  “Late, Late at Night” from 2010 is not one of them. The story does not resolve itself in the last 50 pages with descriptions of joyfully taking kids to school, cooking vegan feasts or daily one on one martial arts training sessions with an esteemed master guru like the kind that regularly surface in todays rock memoirs. Rick’s story is ongoing, unresolved and human. The book is one of the most compelling, dark, sexually charged, honest and self deprecating music autobiographies you’re ever gonna read and so highly encourage you to do so.

Hear it here:

or here:

Inglorious Results of a Misspent Youth: A True Life Story

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 Joan Jett has magical powers. Andy Moreno explains how the explosion of “Cherry Bomb” forced her to leave her hometown and find a way to ROCK forever…

I was going to call myself a late bloomer but the truth is I’m more like that old house plant you keep alive.  It never dies and you wouldn’t call it healthy or vibrant but you do give it props for defying natural laws.

By 1982 Joan Jett was out of The Runaways and off making hits. I had one foot out of my home town and another knee deep in what I call Indiana girl muck.  In 70’s Midwest, by 20 years old, you should’ve been well on your way to marriage and kids. A small starter house was a part of most friends’ worlds… if they didn’t already die in a drunk driving or overdose accident that is. I was working as a full time dispensing optician at an Ophthalmologist’s office in one of those ugly one story office buildings off of Lake Avenue in Fort Wayne, Indiana. You know those places that are completely devoid of any type of cool in an area where it was blocks and blocks of the same.  I wore nurses whites and orthopedic shoes. On my break, I would sometimes run to Taco Bell with my boyfriend and, on occasion, suck back a beer or two before returning to finish my shift. But most times I’d drive solo forfeiting food to smoke cigarettes and blast my speakers making sure to put on the “power booster” to elevate the mood. I would drive in giant squares so that I could come back in time but long enough that I could feel the wind on my face and escape the debilitating monotony. What I’m describing is a lonely loner, early signs of a deep introvert. But even recluses get bored. In the “The French Song” Joan sings I know what I am, I am what I am. I might not have known what I was but I always knew what I wasn’t.  I remember one particular afternoon, coming back from my lunch break, now in my newly purchased used canary yellow TR7 that unbeknownst to me had cracked cylinder heads and was already showing signs of major distress after only two weeks.  I sat silently in that car as it bumped and rattled, unable to turn off, painfully acknowledging that I could no longer live this particular life. I couldn’t drive up to this building one more week to this job that I felt was pulling me into some unremarkable abyss.  I thought about the week before and all the weeks before that. The reason I got this car was because I allowed my boyfriend to total my Celica GT lift-back by slamming into a pole while we were all drunk in the passenger’s seats.  That was car wreck number 6 or 7 if I was counting. I was going to be 21, not 18. My nighttime shenanigans were becoming very worrisome to the sober adult me.  Unable to get replacement parts locally, that car became a permanent garage fixture and I was afraid of the same fate.

In the following days “Cherry Bomb” came on the radio as I was dropped off yet again to the gates of doom as I was now carless.  The music felt so alive blaring loudly from inside that vehicle. I didn’t want to step out knowing that life was stagnant on the other side of that door.  It suddenly occurred how late in the game it was for me. My boyfriend was speaking but I drifted off imagining being where Joan was, this magic place where a girl like me could play guitar and live a completely different type of life.  I left my body which I was prone to do. I was shaking my head and my hair starting flying around my face. I drank up every last ounce of that song. That moment unleashed some newfound freedom that I had felt rising up recently and caused it to erupt like an oil well.  I would leave town for LA to try to play in bands! That was it! I started making a real plan. I quit that job, I babysat for my sister and saved enough money for a ticket. I got my GED. I recruited a friend. We left about 3 months later.

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Andy in 1982: play it girl…

In hindsight I should have left about 3 years before I got on that plane to California if I wanted any chance to actually fly.  I wasted just enough time to pack on enough self doubt and guilt that it was very hard to get off the ground even with all the miles between me and the muck.  I drank when I was nervous and that was generally always. It doesn’t help matters to be drunk or timid but I could never decide which was worse. So I always erred on the inebriated side. Had I moved in 1979  I believe I may have become a real musician and possibly stuck to it to this day. I had the self discipline and desire but the few obstacles I ran into were enough to not only deter but stifle me entirely. Unlike all the determined strong folks you read about with all their dreams. It’s a shame too, because women artists were just about to pop, so the timing was right in the world for someone with limited talent like me to actually make it. That perhaps was my epiphany. I wanted to be Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck.  In other words, I wanted to be credible but was convinced early on that I didn’t have what it takes to become great.  And the alternative was becoming famous and mediocre. If I was anything I would be legitimate and authentic. Or nothing at all.

This is the bullshit I tell myself.  I had about 5 years of practicing the guitar before I left home.  I was getting better but it was already apparent I was not gifted.  After more lessons, being in working bands and a few #metoo stories later I just gave up.   

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Andy in 1985: it’s on…

But Joan Jett got me out of that office building and on that plane to California. That in and of itself was giant in my small world. Her voice, guitar, and  songs throughout the years got me into those band auditions. They put me in those record store jobs. Her chutzpah kept me in the mix of excitement, meeting songwriters and artists, mingling with creativity.  She got me to New York, where I always dreamed of living.

I have enough hangups to fill five tour buses but Joan continues to motivate and inspire me to push my mole ass further into the world each year and for that I’ll always be grateful.

 

Editors note : Everyone make sure to check out the new fist pumping/tear jerking Joan Jett documentary “Bad Reputation” asap: it’s awesome.

“That’s Their Pet Sounds” : Rickie Lee Jones “Pirates” (1981)

Mission statement:

No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we fuckin’ delivered the goods.

Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds” our semi-regular feature where we endeavor to spotlight, and celebrate a heretofore maybe uncool, often unjustifiably underrated, sometimes polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be, or “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.

*“That’s Their Pet Sounds” is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.

And with that here’s an artist whom while she’s gotten her justified share of critical acclaim is still regarded as a “one hit wonder” in a lot of circles…which is pretty bullshit…

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Rickie Lee Jones’s BEST ALBUM : 1981’s “Pirates”

Background: Early in her career Rickie Lee Jones used to get compared to Joni Mitchell (a legend) a lot. Like a lot. People would often site her appearance, her singular instantly recognizable voice, her esoteric songwriting, and her jazz influences as Joni-esque which while in some respects wasn’t a reach, was an undeniably lazy and easy comparison to make. After 16 studio albums (as of this writing) it’s clear from even the most cursory listen, Rickie was a lot weirder, more self-deprecating, unhinged and unpredictable vocally, plus unlike Joni, she was/is an unabashed resident of the wrong side of the tracks ( her earlier songs often featured losers in search of sure things, drugs and Rickie’s relationships with both ). By the way, choosing “Pirates” as her peak performance isn’t necessarily a cut and dried decision as Rickie’s first 3 studio albums are all pretty deep in the quality department ( ed.note : not counting ” Girl at Her Volcano”, her standards cover album that came between albums 2 and 3 which while off-kilter and cool is kind of an outlier in the discography)…but “Pirates” gets the edge as it completely encapsulates everything she is about, and, hyperbole alert (!) is perfectly succinct and beautiful in every way.

Why it’s her Pet Sounds :

It features 3 of the  absolute greatest songs of her 40 year career, in a row, to start the freakin’ album. The LP as a whole sounds like a stream of consciousness story, and it’s stars are Rickie’s patently deluded boho romantic lost souls, and their plans that never work out or end badly yet everyone keeps on dreaming, and trying to “be alive” so to speak. “Pirates” is a soulful popped out spin on Springsteen’s very particular brand of misguided mortals like he’d been offering at around the same time (late 70’s, early 80’s), the kind of wishful thinkers depicted in his “Backstreets”, “Meeting Across the River”,and “Racing in the Streets”…but Rickie’s souls are surrounded not with meat, potatoes, glockenspiel and sax, they’re swathed in swirling orchestration, piano flourishes, and unpredictable hooks. “Pirates” is full of arcs and crescendos, like some hallucinatory broadway musical. Add to that her own warm, sinewy and otherworldly voice. To put it simply, it can get dark inside these songs but they are full of color.

The Songs:

The 2 lead tracks are Rickie at her finest: “We Belong Together” is a breathless and  desperate movie scene that builds and builds with a tripping chorus and some kick ass power drums while  “Living It Up” is all resignation, delusion, sex, and desperation. These 2 songs feel inextricably locked together, like non-identical twins born a mere minute apart and honestly I can’t even listen to one without playing the other immediately after.

“Skeletons” is ridiculously prescient and gripping ( it’s police story, will leave it at that, check it out ) with a delicate and oddly optimistic melody belying the innate sadness at it’s core. And sweet pop is alive in both the title track,“Pirates…” and “A Lucky Guy” ( about Rickie’s former paramour Tom Waits himself). Finally the ambitious, widescreen, fat jazz of “Traces of the Western Slopes”  features some of Rickie’s most compelling vocal keening, and “The Returns” sets the wistful credits rolling.

Anything sub-standard ?

Out of the 8 featured tracks there’s really only 1 that could be considered straight up filler, the overly perky “Woody and Dutch”, which yeah, I always skip.

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Here’s Rickie after winning the cursed “Best New Artist” Grammy in 1980, deservedly beating the likes of Dire Straits, The Blues Brothers, The Knack and Robin Williams which is easily the nerdiest white guy age 13-30 in 1980 wet dream list ever. Go girl …

 

In Conclusion:

As meandering ( in a good way) and epic ( 4 of the 8 tracks are over 5 minutes) as “Pirates” contents are, make no mistake, this is a pop album and very easy to latch onto i.e. it’s melodic to the core. It’s been 37 years since the initial release of “Pirates” and Rickie is still touring like a maniac…and she still justifiably features a lot of the “Pirates” tracks in her setlists. Highly recommend the multitude of acoustic and live versions of all the aforementioned tracks which can be easily found on YouTube, on Rickie’s website, plus on her official live album from 1995 “Naked Songs” because in a lot of cases they are transcendently good, as in a lot of them rival the original studio versions. That’s the thing about Rickie, even stripped down the songs are as elastic, melodic, and wondrous as the fully clothed versions. And go see her, for real, she’s really unpredictable and she’ll take you there…but visit “Pirates” now, right now, headphones, train, car, it’s her Pet Sounds.

Hear it here:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/2E3jRFNrWjqTBJEPrfIDzl

“That’s Their Pet Sounds” : Barry Manilow “Even Now” (1978)

Mission statement:

No matter who we are in this absurd, brief, and messy life we can all lay claim to a peak, a shining moment where we were the best we could be, where all the stars aligned and we fuckin’ delivered the goods.

Welcome to “That’s Their Pet Sounds” our latest semi-regular feature where we will endeavor to spotlight, and celebrate a heretofore uncool, sometimes mocked, occasionally underrated, polarizing, not as acclaimed as they should be,  “what the hell?” artist’s grandest artistic achievement i.e. their greatest album.

*”That’s Their Pet Sounds” is named after the Beach Boys landmark 1966 LP which is universally regarded as one of the greatest albums ever made but yeah, you probably knew that.

And who better to start with than one of the most maligned and popular artists ever….

 

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Barry Manilow’s BEST ALBUM : 1978’s “Even Now”

Background: “Even Now” was Barry’s 5th official studio album and went on to sell 3 million freakin’ copies. He remained so fond of it, and of that time in his career, that in 1996 he released an album of his favorite pop songs from 1978 or thereabouts by other artists and called it, wait for it, “the Summer of ’78”. He even went so far as to write a song with that same title swooning over what a great year it was. Make no mistake, Barry was really, really into 1978. Yup, even Barry knew that “Even Now” was the one.
It is important to note that all Manilow albums during his seventies heyday were essentially collections of potential singles or at least sounded like them…which means the only cohesive theme tying them together as LP’s were the fact that all the songs were performed by Barry. He was an unabashed pop artist who made singles for the radio. That’s what he did. That was his job.

Why it’s his Pet Sounds :

Okay, before we begin have to attach a disclaimer to this : at this stage in life, I absolutely detest “Copacabana”, it’s just, I fuckin’ can’t… but that wasn’t always the case, which is to say as a kid, sigh, I thought it was pretty cool. I did….but reason I bring it up is because many people will write this album off straight away because of “Copacabana’s” presence i.e. it’s the opening damn track. And look, there is a liberal coating of schmaltz on a good portion of the album ( it’ll inevitably get all over your hands…or ears, case in point “Can’t Smile Without You”, that one really oozes) …but cast your cynicism aside, because once you get past those guys and go deep, you’ll discover that “Even Now” is Barry at his melodic, lovelorn best. Yes, sentimentally over the top but also kind of dark, dazed and lost and, it goes without saying, ridiculously tuneful.

Every track is sung with complete earnestness and nearly always features a dramatic key change around the last chorus or so ( you know those award show performances where all of a sudden a gospel choir or gaggle of harmonizing children rise from beneath the stage to join in on that final chorus and take things completely over the top, well it’s like that except it’s just Barry singing).

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Okay, elephant in the room officially acknowledged, onward… 

 

The Songs: 

Want a song about not appreciating someone until it’s too late ? That’s the lush “A Linda Song”.

How about some loss, loneliness and regret ? Well the whole latter half of the record does a u-turn from corned out “joy” of “Copacabana “ and “Can’t Smile”. “Where Do I Go From Here”, “Even Now”, “I Just Want To Be the One” and  “Sunrise” supply plenty of emotional question marks.

And the guitar riff in “Leaving in the Morning” sounds like a slowed down version of the heavenly opening chord of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and as such is totally bitchin’.

The defining track on the album is the aforementioned darkly optimistic (really) and mournful “Sunrise”. In fact the cover of the album is literally a photograph of the song. It’s a world weary ballad about resigning yourself to this thing called life and trying to hang in there whilst contemplating your place in the universe and features a pretty gorgeous piano line that perfectly captures “the sad”.

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“I can be dark too bitches”

Anything sub-standard ? Well yeah, “Losing Touch” is unpleasant and the kitsch of “I Was a Fool” can grate but those are tiny gripes.

In Conclusion:

“Even Now” is Barry at his most consistent and has more top notch tracks per capita than any of his other 30 (!) studio albums. And for an album of singles really, it hangs together exceptionally well. It’s vintage AM radio gold. It’s perfectly calibrated lush, and melodic pop music. It’s his Pet Sounds.

Hear it here:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/1ILknbSc8Ll0TqA8oJKkNV