Thursday, October 11, 2007

Point, counterpoint

An attempt to stimulate debate and thoughtful contemplation re: the state of the U.S. economy, utilizing the power and promise of the Internet for said purpose. And if someone has better sources than me, then use them for Pete's sake.

Point: Don't worry, everything is fine. Really. Would the government lie? Go and buy something.

Jobs and prosperity! Yay!

A strong, strong economy.

Did we mention that this is a strong economy?

Wow, things are looking great! I guess things are looking up and there's no need to fret about the future as long as W's crew are writing the economic "analysis."

In an attempt to support our noble president, I tried to pluck similar, upbeat opinions from the vast universe of business/financial/economic commentary that is available on the Internet, I really, really tried, please believe me.... you think I want to quote the government in my blog?

Hmmm... not much positive stuff out there. Instead, I found a lot of arguments along these lines... and there are tens of thousands more.

Counterpoint: what has the President been smoking?

Make your minimum payments, and we might extend your line of credit! Wouldn't you like that? Aren't we generous?

Be happy, be productive.

Work for a living but can't seem to get ahead? Screw you, it's your own fault.

Pay it forward.

The American dream, or hamster wheel?

The Consumer Price Index: a lie?


Well, that's just how free markets work, slacker! Oh, wait a minute...

What do I think?

James McMurtry is no newcomer -- he's been recording and touring for nearly 20 years. The following song is from his excellent album from last year, Childish Things.

I believe this video is unofficial, but it pretty much summed up how I feel about the state of this land when I came across it a couple of months ago. It's a powerful, moving song, simply stated in terms anyone can understand.

But why listen to James McMurtry, or to me for that matter, when W is so clearly on top of the game, and Bernanke and the Fed are just waiting to bail out the billionaires from their bad bets? Isn't that good for us all?

If you're not angry or worried, I'd like to move to your planet. The weather must be nice there.

I would love to be able to tell my son that the USA will be a free, prosperous and shining beacon of democracy when he is older. I'm not optimistic. Now, discuss...

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Behold my boy!

Okay, I know it's been nearly a month, but those of you with little kids can probably understand why Wendi and I have been a little distracted lately.

Simon was born September 7th after what we believe to be a particularly grueling labor. He was a week overdue and labor was induced by Wendi's fantastic and compassionate doctor, Dr. Wester. Wendi's water broke on its own (she was quite proud of this) and after about 12 hours of labor was ready to push.

And push she did, for nearly three hours. At first things were progressing nicely, but about halfway through the second hour she tired considerably. Eventually things stopped progressing and Wendi made the decision to have a cesarean section.

Dr. Wester earned his money! I will never be able to thank him enough. As it turned out, Wendi made the right decision because Simon came into this world a big boy -- 9 pounds 11 ounces. We heard that if they had tried to go ahead and deliver him with forceps, the results would have been pretty bad for both mommy and the boy. NO!

Wendi was very, very strong and this fact was remarked upon by all attending medical staff. She kept her composure better than me, because I kind of um, broke down at one point when I saw her in tremendous pain. My hat is off to her.

We were in the hospital together for the better part of a week, both because of Wendi's recovery and Simon's developing a bit of jaundice, which thankfully cleared up nicely after a day strapped to a glowing, comfy looking UV device. We jokingly called him "UFO baby" after seeing him like that.

I took off a week of work, most of which was spent in the hospital with my wife and boy. Wendi's mother, Shirl, flew in from NC and spent the second weekend with us, and we have had many meals and good wishes thanks to her, my own family and friends. The past few weeks we have spent enjoying and consolidating our bonds as a family unit.

Simon is generally a mellow guy and though caring for him can be a strain, as with every baby ever born, I think Wendi and I both agree that he is the best thing that has happened to us. We love him intensely.

At long last, some photos to show you what I mean.... we think he's probably going to have blue eyes, and that seems to be the consensus among others who have met him.

Whatever his eyes' color, one thing is certain: he's going to be a handsome guy, even better looking than me ;-)

We three, in the hospital tired but happy.

Simon himself, resting on my hairy leg about an hour ago.

Daddy loves his boy!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Hurry up and wait

Here's some general news about what's happening in my life. There will be no encyclopedic treatises on musicology this time. I know I've written about music a lot, and will again in the future. It is after all a major presence in my life.

I'm taking a short break from writing about music. I'm glad most of you seemed to enjoy my epic breakdown of 1980s music, and thanks for your own insights.

It sure beats writing about my other professional field, accounting! Would anybody like to know about how pipeline inventory accounting works. Anybody?

I hear crickets chirping.

What follows is just general stuff:

In case you didn't know (how could you not?), Wendi and I are expecting a baby boy. Soon. Thursday was the due date. Both of us, especially Wendi, are beyond ready for Simon's arrival.

But the kid is stubborn, just like his parents. Wendi has been having increasingly intense and frequent Braxton-Hicks contractions for some time now, but there has not been any definitive sign that labor is imminent. The irony is that we've educated ourselves thoroughly on the ins and outs of child birth attended many hours of childbirth classes, consulted several doctors, talked to numerous experienced mothers and read half a dozen or so books; we still don't have a clue as to what is happening! Heck, Wendi knows better than I do what's happening in her own body. A lot of times she describes some-or-other sensation she's having and I can only mumble in agreement, because I'm not female and have no idea what she's talking about.

I think we both feel it's time for this ripe bean to come O.U.T. Wendi is increasingly miserable. Particularly in the past month, aches, pains and cramps have multiplied exponentially. Poor girl! I am doing what I can by giving her lotion rubs and massages daily, as well as moral support, but of course it's not enough. Only popping that kid out will bring any real relief.

Yesterday evening we thought Simon was on his way! We dined at a little Vietnamese restaurant up the road that we discovered shortly after moving to our new neighborhood a couple of months ago. We had almost made it through a plate of egg rolls when Wendi's face scrunched up, her eyes widened and she said "oooooo!"

As I said before, I'm not female. I can't tell what she's feeling. I must rely on her descriptions of what she's feeling, and her body language. "This feels different," she said, slightly out of breath -- meaning it wasn't a typical, common Braxton-Hicks. I hated to see her in pain, but I think that we were both excited that it might actually be happening.

The contraction faded after a few minutes, but by the time the waiter had brought Wendi her plate of pepper shrimp, she had already had another. Which was followed by another. By this time she had lost her appetite (which was a shame -- the shrimp was very tasty) and left the restaurant to wait in the car while I hurredly scooped our food into boxes and settled the check.

We kept joking with each other that it was the spicy food that caused it. If palates really do develop somewhat in utero based on the food choices of the mother, as I've read, then Simon will definitely crave hot peppers, green Tabasco sauce, curry, Mexican food, Vietnamese food and Thai food. We definitely like some kick to our meals.

Sadly, no baby last night. The four or five regular contractions ended almost as soon as we arrived home. So now it's back to playing the waiting game. The past three weeks, since Sy has been officially full term, has seemed to last almost as long as the entire preceeding eight months.

This won't go on much longer, though. Wendi's next doctor's appointment is Tuesday. If the baby hasn't come by Thursday, she will be scheduled for an induction next weekend. We hope it doesn't come to that, but either way this means that there will be pictures of Simon posted on this blog within a week or so. So stay tuned!

My job at TransMontaigne is so-so. I've gained a lot of invaluable knowledge and experience at my new position for the last ten months, and I am very glad that I work with the accounting group that I do -- my boss Nick is a genuinely nice guy and he's very smart and good at what he does. Most of the problems I have with the company are with the organization itself, or lack thereof as it were. The corporate culture is of a notoriously chauvanist, good-ol' boy sort. Fiefdoms and petty rivalries abound there.

And the stories I could tell you about our trading group, the type-A personalities who trade petroleum futures and contracts all day on the NYMEX exchange! These guys think the that the company exists for them, and them alone... which I guess it kind of is. See what I mean? Jerks, all of them... as I am fond of saying, they are not paid for their kind dispositions and sunny personalities. They are paid as they are because they make money.

On to music. I haven't really recorded any music or done much writing at all for nearly three years, for various reasons -- college, estrangement from/reconciliation with my beautiful wife, financial difficulties, all too many moves, and now an imminent baby. Entire seasons have gone by with me barely touching my guitar.

After we moved to Englewood, I decided that I really need to accomplish something musical this year. I forced myself to start playing regularly again, and we bought a 12-string guitar recently on a whim. In short order I found some inspiration coming back... it's funny how the muse never really goes away and can be awakened again with a little bit of effort.

There were times in the past couple years when I felt like I just couldn't write music anymore. Ideas would be tossed aside, forgotten or half-baked and left for dead. Sometimes I didn't have much focus and when I did try to concentrate I often was stymied by a lack of ideas and frustrated that I couldn't finish the ones I had. Most of all, I often just couldn't work up the motivation to sit down and write something.

It's funny how it works. I've always thought that anybody can write a song. They do take effort, concentration and willpower to create, but some of the best ones I've ever written have just popped into my head out of nowhere -- a fragment of melody, a chord change, a chorus, a line of lyrics or sometimes just a song title -- while I was hiking, or doing the dishes, or something equally unrelated to music.

I don't know where this stuff comes from, nor do think that I'm specially blessed. Long years of appreciation, practice and love of music have just allowed me to listen to and follow my ideas where they lead... sometimes. On a good day. I'm nobody special and I've had my own fallow times and failed experiments with music.

Anyway, I've now written about twelve songs for what I'm planning to be a full length "album" of almost completely acoustic music... just me and my guitar for the most part. The songs are mostly introspective and more than a third are purely instrumental. Sometimes a piece of music just doesn't need words to make a statement, and I've really enjoyed having a 12-string guitar for the first time in my life. I want to show it off, as well as my new set of bongos.

This is an ambitious project, given the limited amount of time I have. Heck, I will have a new son to take care of, and my job ain't getting any easier. But I need to do this, and I think people might even enjoy listening to it. I don't record songs that I don't want to enjoy listening to. I've got all the gear and software I nead, and recording will allow me to learn Sonar (my exceedingly, indimidatingly complex recording/mastering software) the way I've been telling myself I will for the past two years, since I've had my computer.

I'm not doing this for money. I don't care about being famous anymore. That stuff is all a racket, anyway. I'm doing this because... well, music is what I do! If that's tautological, so be it. Music is a passion in my life. I will never, ever give it up for any reason, as long as I draw breath (and as long as I have fingers to play).

And now, movies. Since we moved, we've been going to see a movie every other weekend or so, among them Sunshine (an intense science fiction thriller), The Simpsons Movie (very, very funny and just as bitingly satirical as the TV show, though I utterly tired of the marketing campaign behind it), and today we saw Sicko.

Uh oh.

I know what you might be thinking: "Here goes Matt again on one of his political tirades." No, no. I'll save that for later. Sicko is a documentary made by Michael Moore about the U.S. health care industry. Whether you love Michael Moore (he's one of my personal heroes) or hate him should not prevent you from seeing this movie, which I believe to be his best.

Michael Moore has an undeserved reptutation as an America-hating, left wing extremist. He's been painted that way for a long time by the right, and though I thought Farenheit 9/11 was rather shrill in a preaching-to-the-choir sort of way, I was happy that he had the guts to make that movie.

I don't think Michael Moore hates America at all. I think he wants to see it become a better place. What could be more patriotic? He's only anti-American if you consider dissenting from the Bush administration/neoconservative agenda to be equivalent, which I don't. Watch his conversations with average Americans in his movies and then tell me how much he hates America.

One quality that makes Sicko so powerful is that the stories it tells are mostly not of people without health insurance, but of people who had health insurance that failed them spectacularly. I think most Americans would agree that our current health care "system" is headed for a train wreck in the near future, or at least that the system as it exists now is grossly ineffecient, unfair and wasteful. For all the talk of a market-based system being the most inherently effficient one, we have tens of millions of people with no health care at all, and large corporations with a manifest interest in providing less health care to control costs.

These are fundamental flaws in the capitalistic, corporate model we currently use to provide healthcare to Americans, and other countries do it better and more cheaply. The current system cannot continue for much longer. America is losing its competitive edge to the rest of the world. No amount of flag waving and singing of anthems will change that. You want America to be the best country in the world? Listen to people like Moore. And me, of course.

But don't take my word for it. See Sicko for yourself. It is Moore's most compassionate and least shrill movie -- though there is plenty of sarcasm and more than a few of his trademark absurd moments -- and at the very least it will make you think, even if you disagree with some or all of it. Check out his website here.

See? He's not some raving monster after all! He's a very funny and compassionate guy. There should be more patriotic Americans like him :-p

That's all for now. Look for baby pictures soon :-)

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Flashback: 1980s, Part III

OK. This is it. I promise that this will be the last time I write about 1980s bands for the foreseeable future. I know it’s rough knowing a longwinded music nerd who thinks anybody cares about this stuff, but hey, in the end I think that I wrote these posts mostly for myself anyway, just because I enjoy listening to, and thinking and writing about music.

So, now for Part III… lets start with a couple of legendary bands I didn’t mention in the last two posts…

The Pixies

After my last post, Wendi and I were discussing this list. We realized with a shock that, once again, I had left out yet another fantastic 1980s band, The Pixies… which is even more unforgivable considering that Pixies are one of my favorite bands of all time – not just the 1980s – as well as one of the most influential of the past 20 years.

This band predated the 1990s so-called “alternative rock” (I have always loathed that term!) movement by a few years, but Pixies’ deep influence upon thousands of bands in the years since then belies their short lifespan – really only four years (1987 – 1991), four albums (Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova, and Trompe Le Monde), plus a debut EP that was really their demo tape remastered for commercial release.

Singer Black Francis (who now goes by the handle Frank Black – get it?) was the major creative brain behind Pixies, though bassist Kim Deal also contributed, particularly to their first bona fide album, 1988’s Surfer Rosa, which was produced by über-indie producer Steve Albini and sports his immediate and unpolished studio sound – the band in a room, playing their songs… loudly.

That album sounds fresh to this day -- Pixies took the standard pop/rock band lineup of guitars/bass/drums and turned it upside down; their model for writing songs became known as “loud quiet loud” to reflect their unique fusion of pop with punk rock dynamics, which has been borrowed by countless bands since then. The formula: build the tension in melodic, subdued verses only to explode with unleashed energy during the choruses. Pixies songs have no flashy guitar leads, can go from melodic crooning to crazed screaming in a manner of seconds, and usually employ remarkably unusual, taut song structures that still manage to sound like pop songs… most of the time.

The first thing you notice is Frank Black’s voice -- it’s a crazed, unhinged yet surprisingly melodic thing that grabs your attention if it doesn’t make you recoil in fright. Frank sounds wild and dangerous, which compliments his screwy lyrics, most of which have an internal “logic” of their own – sometimes he even sings in Spanish for no particular reason (he holds a college minor degree in Spanish).

The lyrics deal with things like old art movies (the immortal “Debaser”), sea monkeys (“Shrine Of The Sea Monkeys”), the planet Mars (“Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons”), traveling through time and space with one’s sweetheart (“Velouria”, a song with extremely bizarre chord changes), sarcastic mockery of higher education (“U Mass”, with a sneering refrain of “it’s educational!!” after describing various college debaucheries), and the pleasures of driving one’s car into the ocean (“Wave Of Mutilation”). They also covered a Jesus And Mary Chain Song, “Head On.”

Sounds weird, I know… and Pixies were definitely weird – heck, they even had a song called “Is She Weird?” I don’t really know what most of their songs were about, to tell you the truth, but I can tell you that all of them will smack you sweetly upside the head the way that great rock music is supposed to. They were yet another band with no bad albums. Their musical arrangements were as tight as the songs, never overplayed but musically compelling.

The tension between Black (who has since released a slew of excellent solo albums) and Deal (whose band the Breeders found quite a bit of commercial success in the 1990s) proved too much for the band, which split up in 1992. The irony is that, since they broke up, the Pixies have become more popular, more influential, and sold many more albums than when they were together.

This led to a reunion tour in 2004/2005, which Wendi and I were privileged to see down at Richie Center on the DU campus. It was a packed house, and I was amused to notice that Wendi and I were of approximately the same age group as the rest of the crowd. We are used to being older than most people at rock shows these days. I guess Pixies must be a Generation X thing.

Are you listening, you little whippersnappers?!??! We’re cooler than you!

The Police

Everybody knows the Police, so I won’t spend too much time on them. But it should be noted that, in addition to being one of the biggest pop bands of the 1980s, they were also one of the most interesting. The Police’s unique blend of reggae, rock, jazz and pop influences set the template for the New Wave sound, still sounds original today, and has inspired countless, mostly inferior imitators.

Singer/bassist Sting, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland were all excellent musicians, and though their chops are apparent on all five proper Police albums, they went out of their way to keep things simple. There’s hardly a guitar solo to be found in any of their songs.

From their first album, Outlandos d’Amour, the band clearly had reggae on the brain – they mixed reggae beats with punk attitude, plus fantastic songwriting courtesy of Sting. Much more than a cheesy pop songster, Sting’s songs brimmed with clever wordplay, compelling storytelling, social consciousness and sarcastic attitude.

Copeland also happens to have one of the more recognizable drum sounds in rock music. The guy’s beats and fills were both minimalist and unique, always throwing in a fill here a snare crack there, or a backbeat where you least expected it, never flashy, but jaw-droppingly proficient. Plus, he just smacks the skins so hard and precisely…. few rock drummers have ever equaled his creativity and talent.

The Police’s biggest hit was the deceptively tender ballad “Every Breath You Take,” from their best selling album , 1983’s Synchronicity, which if you listen closely to the lyrics not only never utilizes the word “love”, but is in fact a dark tale of obsession and jealousy, set to a nearly perfect pop accompaniment.

Personally though, my favorite record is 1981’s Ghost In The Machine. It has a dark and spacious sound throughout that compliments the introspective but energetic songs such as “Spirits In The Material World”, “Invisible Sun” and the upbeat “Rehumanize Yourself”. It also contains the ferocious masterpiece “Demolition Man” which manages to sound totally punk rock without actually being punk rock at all… this song in particular will prove to you that Copeland is one of the greatest rock drummers ever, and it even has cyberpunk horn chart stylings to give it lift.

You really can’t go wrong with any of the Police’s albums, or their songs for that matter – even though they are vastly overplayed on the radio to this day. Amazingly, for a band that broke up acrimoniously in 1984, they even reunited for a tour this year. Too rich for my blood – the cheapest tickets to the Denver show were over $100.00. It’s hard to have much respect for gouging people like that. But that’s OK I guess… I can still listen to Ghost In The Machine for free.


Yet another British band.... I’m starting to think that the early 1980s could almost be considered the 2nd British Invasion. Another preeminent band of so-called the New Wave, Squeeze’s three massive hits, “Tempted,” “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” and “Coffee In Bed”, were soulful exhibitions of superb songwriting, with a focus on the complexities of relationships. “Coffee In Bed,” in particular, is one of the bitterest breakup songs I know of, inspired by a coffee mug stain on an old notebook. And all three of these songs enjoy heavy rotation on classic rock radio to this day.

Indeed, Squeeze in the early 1980s was a worthy successor to the Beatles. Their soul-inflected melodies and clever, infectious songwriting gave Squeeze quite a bit of success backing the day. But they were much more than the sum of their hits – as far as I know, there’s not a bad song on any of their albums.

Talking Heads

Among the greatest – and most artistically complex – of the New Wave bands, Talking Heads enjoyed more success than almost any other band of the 1980s except for perhaps the Police. Talking Heads was essentially David Byrne’s vehicle. This band is too well known for me to comment extensively here… I imagine that every American has a favorite Talking Heads song at this point. But no mention of great 1980s rock music would be complete without Talking Heads.

Listen to the lyrics of now-overplayed rock classics like “Once In A Lifetime”, “Burning Down The House,” “And She Was,” “Life During Wartime,” “Nothing But Flowers” or their first hit, “Psycho Killer.” Byrne’s sardonic humor, absurdity and storytelling ability shine through every one. One of Wendi’s favorite TH songs, “Up All Night”, was written by Byrne about babysitting his infant nephew. “Once In A Lifetime” is about a midlife crisis/breakdown. And of course, the music was a groovy mix of rock, pop and world rhythms that the band exploited to great effect on albums such as Fear Of Music and Remain In Light.

Paradoxically elliptical and immediate, Talking Heads songs always made you think. And I can’t think of one that I don’t mind hearing to this day, even though the radio plays them to death. Talking Heads is another band that really doesn’t have any weak songs or filler material, except for maybe their last album Naked… which still contains several bright moments.

This band will probably never play together again, because their breakup was particularly bitter. Byrne later disavowed all the other members’ contributions, even though keyboardist Jerry Harrison had made his own mark with Johnathan Richman the proto-punk/indie band Modern Lovers in the 1970s, and bassist Tina Weymouth with drummer Chris Frantz had several hits as Tom Tom Club, including the quirky hit “Genius Of Love “

Lest you think that Byrne was an egomaniac, Harrison, Weymouth and Frantz released a terrible album in 1996, called No Talking, Just Head, that proved the band was nothing without Byrne’s talents. Oh well… as John Lennon once said of his own band, which likewise disbanded in acrimony and infighting, “you can always go back and listen to the records, even if the band isn’t around anymore.” Amen to that.

That’s a paraphrase… you get the point.

Tears For Fears

Another band that probably doesn’t need much explanation, but they need a mention too. The hits from their 1985 album Songs From The Big Chair are almost synonymous with the decade. Anybody reading this who hasn’t heard “Shout”, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” “Head Over Heels,” or their later hit “Seeds Of Love” from the album of the same name, either wasn’t born at the time, or needs to go back and determine why exactly they apparently were hiding in a deep, dark cave in the deserts of Mongolia.

But this band was pretty deep – I believe their name comes from an interest in “primal scream” therapy. Their songs are personal, well-written and cathartic, and hold up surprisingly well after twenty years.

The The

The The was the brainchild of British songwriter Matt Johnson, and his dark, introspective songs were melodic, disarmingly catchy, and, as in the case with so many great British bands of the era much more popular overseas than in the U.S. I’m not sure why this band isn’t better remembered today, as The The’s brooding songs have an intensity and staying power moreso than most bands of the era.

Nevertheless, The The made a lasting mark on the American and British “alternative” scenes. Johnson fused electronic drums and synths with guitars and acoustic instruments in a manner that sounded natural and effortless, which is probably a big reason The The’s music doesn’t sound dated now, even though the records definitely have an 80’s sound. They recorded about 7 or 8 albums over 12 years or so, of which the best are 1983’s Soul Mining, 1989’s Mind Bomb, and 1993’s Dusk, the last of which mostly abandoned the synths in favor of a more organic, bluesy sound.

As far as I know, there’s not a bad song on any of them. “This Is The Day” (from Soul Mining had the good fortune to be featured in a car commercial some years back… which was an odd choice because the song is actually more about despair. The lyrics, if taken at face value, might seem optimistic – if Johnson didn’t sing them so desparately…

“Well you didn’t wake up this morning / ‘cause you didn’t go to bed / you were watching the whites of your eyes turn red / the calendar on your wall / is ticking the days off / you’ve been reading some old letters / you smile and think / how much you’ve changed / all the money in the world / couldn’t buy back those days / you paw back your hands / and the sun burns into your eyes / you watch a plane flying / across a clear blue sky / this is the day your life will surely change / this is the day when things fall into place”

Catch the darkness in there? It sounds like a man who’s watching his hopes slowly crushed in an orgy of self-loathing, sung desperately… but set to a very nice melody, of course. I guess that’s why somebody thought it could sell cars. Matt Johnson’s lyrics are personal but they don’t hit you over the head – they are open to interpretation, as the best lyrics usually are.

Another melancholy, but paradoxically hopeful song is “Uncertain Smile”, from the same album, which is to me sounds like a love letter from one separated, scarred lover to another… it’s a song that just, well, sounds like new love and radiates a kind of heartbreaking, guarded optimism despite the vague lyrics… in this song the mood of the song and the vague lyrics compliment each other. Does that make sense? I would quote the lyrics here, but I like this song so much that I plan to record my own version of it. So there.


What can one say about U2 that hasn’t been said before?

They were the superstars of the 1980s, and one of the few bands whose popularity has barely diminished since. In my opinion their best era was their first five albums, of which the first, Boy, and the fifth, The Joshua Tree are the best – nice bookends to their most creative and passionate work.

1980’s Boy is an often-overlooked masterpiece of early, punky New-Wave stylings, every song bursting with energy and passion. The highlights are the heart-on-sleeve, soaring “I Will Follow,” the driving “Into The Heart”, and my personal favorite, the full-on guitar rave-up “Electric Co.” – though my favorite version of that song can be found on the 1983 live album Under A Blood Red Sky, which incidentally was recorded here in Colorado, at Red Rocks Amphitheater, just outside Denver, in Morrison.

However, my favorite U2 album (and I think there is a consensus that it is their best), is 1987’s The Joshua Tree. In addition to spawning several massive radio hits like “With Or Without You,” “Where The Streets Have No Name,” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” there are also great songs like “Red Hill Mining Town” (about the economic/social death of a small Welsh mining town), “Bullet The Blue Sky” (about the Vietnam War… I think), “Mothers Of The Disappeared” (about the thousands of “disappeared” victims of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1970s Chile), “Running To Stand Still” (about a heroin addict), and the weirdest U2 song of all time, “Exit”… ok, I have no idea what that tune is about, but it’s full of tension and darker than almost anything they’ve ever done, before or since.

U2’s previous album rivals The Joshua Tree in excellence – The Unforgettable Fire is Wendi’s favorite U2 album, and includes their tribute to Martin Luther King “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” (which was a massively popular single), and expansive and heartfelt classics like the twisted “Wire” and desperate love song “Bad”. The album was titled after a book of the same name, The Unforgettable Fire referring to the sight of the first atomic bomb detonating over Hiroshima in 1945.

Let’s just say U2 never knew of A Weighty Topic Of Great Social And Political Importance that they didn’t attempt to tackle in some way. Eventually, U2’s weightiness began to sag. On the successor to The Joshua Tree, Rattle And Hum, their pretentious righteousness began to bore a lot of people.

Seeking higher ground, they reinvented themselves in 1991 with Achtung, Baby an album of songs that dripped with sarcasm and winked at their reputation as earnest prophets of righteous passion. On songs like “The Real Thing” (a sarcastic ode to slick advertising campaigns), they managed an ironic grin while staying musically potent (or trying to, anyway). But this new, self conscious U2 always seemed a bit too calculated to me… though they cranked out records throughout the 1990s, they steadily strayed from what once made them great. Irony and sarcasm can be powerful, but when combined with a rampaging, narcissistic personality like Bono it can get old – really fast.

By the 21st century they apparently realized that their era of jeering at commercialism – while reaping its benefits at the same time – had become transparent and ugly. Once again they attempted to change their attitude on the albums All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, returning to the earnestness that had once been their trademark on songs like ATYCLB’s “It’s A Beautiful Day”.

I’m glad that they’ve matured, and given up the sneering commercialism… their release party for the album Pop from 1997 was held in K-Mart! That’s a bit too ironic, even for my taste… heck, it borders on hypocritical. But its hard to take seriously anymore a rich rock star like Bono, who these days campaigns for impoverished countries while setting up shelters to avoid taxes in his native Ireland. Plus, he apparently thinks he’s Jesus. U2’s glory days have long passed, but their best era – the 1980s – will always be near my heart.

“Weird Al” Yankovic

Rather than spend a thousand or more keystrokes explaining to you the genius of Weird Al, I ask you to see for yourself, if you don’t know already. He is known for his hilarious parodies of pop songs, of which there were many. But he could also be very funny with his own tunes. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “Dare To Be Stupid” It’s a loose parody of Devo, but stands proudly on its own. Wallow in its greatness.


Where does one begin with XTC? They were one of those bands that never really went away… their music is that timeless. They are remembered as purveyors of intelligent, masterfully written pop songs, yet they never achieved massive success in the USA – though they have always had a devoted cult following.

There are a few reasons for this lack of mainstream success, none of them convincing. In a perfect world XTC would’ve been showered with as much or more praise as the Beatles for their mastery of songcraft. Every single one of XTC albums is worth hearing, and most of them are classics from beginning to end – the best are 1979’s Drums And Wires, 1986’s Skylarking, and 1992’s Nonsuch -- but interspersed with these there are a half-dozen others that are all excellent listens..

Their first two albums harped on a sort-of proto-New Wave, herky-jerkyness (their first record is great, but Partridge’s yelping can get a little tiring, lost amongst the manic music. Their 2nd album Go 2 has one of the best and most bitingly sarcastic album covers ever, composed entirely of text, as well as containing the immortal song “I Am The Audience”), and though they are both quite good, the band really hit it s stride with Drums And Wires. Not really a pop album in the usual sense of XTC, Drums And Wires is nonetheless a great example of how pop music mutations can achieve new heights of inventiveness. XTC hit it big with the song “Making Plans For Nigel” from that album – a thudding, sarcastic song about an upper-class boy whose life is planned to the second by his overbearing parents.

That they never achived superstardom can be chalked up to several factors. The band never played live after 1982, due to panic attacks suffered by singer Andy Partridge onstage because of a murderous touring schedule, into which they were forced for several years by their record label. Though Partridge and bassist Colin Moulding were always the heart of the band, in the 1990s, the band was forced into semi-retirement by departures of other members and a dispute with their record label (a different one) which prevented them from releasing any music at all for more than seven years. And really in the end, the rather dumpy Partridge and bandmates didn’t really look like rock stars anyway, which is a mortal blow to any hopes of stratospheric sales in the MTV age.

Despite all this, their records are gems, and there are many of them. Skylarking alone rivals the Beatles’ best work, and even trumps it a bit, being more topical and jaded. For instance, the working-class anthem “Earn Enough For Us” tells the story of a poor young couple on the edge: “I can take humiliation / and hurtful comments from the boss / I’m just praying by the weekend / I can earn enough for us”. It’s not a whiny song, but its definitely cathartic to hear for anybody whose ever lived from paycheck to paycheck with little idea of how to plan beyond the next one. “That’s Really Super, Supergirl” is a bitter relationship song, “Ballet For A Rainy Day” is a gorgeous exercise of melody and impressionistic poetry, and “Dear God” became a surprise hit in America – in fact their only real hit here, I think.

Clever lyrics and topics abound in XTC’s music. Drums And Wires is an earlier album with an almost punk-rock edge to it that helped set the template for the New Wave sound – but holds up after 27 years on its own. Other 1980s albums like Black Sea tackle topics like militarism (“Generals And Majors”), thuggery (“No Thugs In Our House”), and English Settlement’s rollicking, sarcastic “Respectable Street” gives a thorough whipping to classism by describing a suburban couple who can’t believe what’s going on their street.

XTC’s instrumental prowess should not be taken lightly – they were among the most inventive of pop groups, using unusual chord changes, melodies and instrumentation on songs like Skylarking’s “Another Satellite”, at other times going for utter simplicity as on the later song “Stupidly Happy” (from 2000’s Wasp Star) which consists almost entirely of a single chord. Partridge is an excellent guitar player – listen to the finger-picked chord changes to “Knights In Shining Karma”, from 1999’s Apple Venus to see what I mean.

These days, XTC is pretty much done for… Partridge and Moulding are nearing retirement and are pretty sick of each other. Who wouldn’t be, after 25 or 30 years of making music together? But what a legacy!

Ok, I proclaim this list to be at an end. But there are literally dozens of other bands & artists from the 1980s that deserve to be mentioned, like The Smiths, Jane’s Addiction, Prince, Lords Of The New Church, 45 Grave, The Clash, Simple Minds, Cocteau Twins, The Knack, Dead Can Dance, They Might Be Giants, The Alarm, Missing Persons, Nina Hagen, Kate Bush, The Cramps, The Cult, Men Without Hats, The Teardrop Explodes, Bauhaus, The Fixx, Dire Straits, Peter Gabriel, Peter Murphy’s solo work, Genesis, Yaz, Pigface, Blondie, Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers…. but I have to stop somewhere unless I’m going to write an encyclopedia.

Sheesh, maybe I already have!

If y'all are really, really nice to me, and if you ask in advance, I may have a compilation CD of some of these bands to give out next time I see you. This stuff is just too good to ignore or forget.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Flashback: 1980s!!! Part II

Wow... I had originally planned this thread to only include 8 or 10 great bands of the 1980s, but it quickly spiraled out of control. Not because I am particularly opinionated or loquacious (who, moi?), but because the more I thought about the subject, the more great bands came to mind.

So, here is part II... please don't take my word for any of this. Check these bands out and see if you agree in the end... the 1980s were not at all a fallow period for rock music. First, a mea culpa & update to my last post, a band I should not have neglected in the way I did...


I am embarrassed and ashamed that in Part I, I did not include Devo, one of the greatest bands of the late 70s/ early 80s. My only excuse is that the hot weather of late made my brain short-circuit – and that’s not a very good excuse, because Devo was one of the defining bands of the era, as well as one of my favorites.

Devo’s best, and first, album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo was actually released in 1978, so maybe technically they aren’t a 1980s band. But their big hits “Whip It” and “Freedom Of Choice” came with the release of the album Freedom Of Choice in 1980. It’s hard to think of another band that so perfectly captured the 1980s synthesizer sound, so I feel duty-bound to include them on this list.

Though Devo scored quite a few pop hits in their time, they were so far ahead of the era that you get the feeling that most people who bought their records didn’t understand what their songs were really saying. The band’s name came from leader Mark Mothersbaugh’s pet theory that the human race is not evolving, but “de-evolving” backwards as a result of the pressures of technology, consumerism and apathy. It’s hard to think of a more cynical and sarcastic band of the time than Devo. They used synthesizers and electronics to express a robotic, mechanical and frankly depressing vision of society as a homogenous mass of consumers with few individual thoughts among them.

Their videos reflected this too; my favorite video (as well as one of their best songs) is “It’s A Beautiful World”. In case you didn’t guess, Mark Mothersbaugh really thinks the world is anything but beautiful. The video makes this quite clear – and it’s a great example of early music video editing using stock images for ironic effect.

Devo had a unique image too: contrary to the usual image of rock bands as long-haired freaks, the guys of Devo looked like fascists out of a George Orwell novel. This was of course meant to be ironic, as Devo was an intellectual, subversive band whose true beliefs couldn’t be further from fascist ones. But the image stuck.

Depressing? Sure. But their music was groovy, if somewhat mechanical by design… particularly as the years wore on. The title track to Devo's third album, Freedom Of Choice, is a groovy denunciation of mindless consumerism and insulting marketing techniques: “In ancient Rome/There was a poem/About a dog/Who found two bones/He licked the one/And picked the other/He went in circles until he dropped dead/Freedom of choice/Is what you got/ Freedom from choice/ Is what you want” Devo’s synth-pop surface belied its subversive undercurrent.

Devo later went downhill, focusing more and more on synthesizers until they eventually sounded like every other generic synth-pop group of the time. But even pure synth albums like Oh No, It’s Devo! had great songs ridiculing mindless consumer behavior, like “That’s Good” and the sinister “Peek-A-Boo” (chorus: I can see you / I know what you do / Cuz’ I do it too / HA HA HA HA!!!).

But Devo’s debut album is their most guitar-oriented and still my favorite. “Jocko Homo” could serve as Devo’s manifesto, and a spazzed, polyrhythmic and thoroughly reworked version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” still gets the most play of any Devo song on rock radio to this day. It’s still worth a listen to me, because I have never been able to figure out where the 1-count of the beat on “Satisfaction” comes in. Try it sometime – you’ll see what I mean.

Freedom Of Choice is only slightly less good, meaning… it’s pretty dang fantastic by any standard, herky-jerky electro pop music with a bite. Tight!

The Minutemen

No relation to the modern-day anti-illegal-immigrant militia! Another prime example of a first-wave punk rock band that could really play their instruments, the Minutemen lived up to their name – they specialized in short songs, most of which hovered somewhere between a minute or two in length But their music was anything but slight. They were probably the most startlingly original and diverse of any punk band before or since. And as their name also might imply, they were among the most political of American punk bands – just behind the Dead Kennedys though not nearly as sarcastic.

Their early albums hewed close to the traditional punk rock template of bar chords, shouted lyrics and speed, but by the time the double album Double Nickels On The Dime came out in 1984, their sound had expanded to include tangents of jazz, funk and neck-snapping instrumental prowess. On that masterpiece, D. Boon’s Telecaster guitar throws out minimalist but unbelievably complex funk chops, stabs and rhythms, bassist Mike Watt beats and snaps his bass into submission with some of the most complex lines ever laid on tape, and drummer George Hurley keeps it all down with great funkitude when he’s not propelling everybody to greater heights of creative frenzy.

In spite of their virtuosic sound, they never sounded long-winded or tired – true to form, Double Nickels On The Dime contains a whopping 44 songs, all of them clocking in at under 3 minutes each – and most are significantly shorter than that.

The Minutemenwere overtly leftist politically, but their often strident lyrics denouncing big business, the Reagan era (“Jesus & Tequila), war and imperialism (“Vietnam”), and working dead-end jobs (“This Ain’t No Picnic”) were tempered with a sense of humor and a sort of punk sentimentalism on songs like “History Lesson Parts 1 & 2”, in which singer/guitarist D. Boon explains the story of how “Punk rock changed our lives.” It’s all set to music of great diversity, creativity, virtuosity and tightly controlled experimentation. The Minutemen, particularly on Double Nickels On The Dime sounded like a band that could play anything, and often did.

This band ended tragically in 1986 when Boon was killed in a car accident. Watt and Hurley considered quitting music altogether for a while (I have heard Watt describe Boon as his best friend), but ended up soldiering on as fIREHOSE with superfan Ed Crawford (who reportedly showed up on Watt’s doorstep unannounced, guitar in hand) and recorded a number of awesome albums under that name for the next 7 or 8 years.

Watt, in particular, has become somewhat of a grandpa/father figure to the whole underground scene in the past 20 years. Though he’s never been showered with filthy lucre, he’s released a number of solo albums in addition to his work with fIREHOSE, and played/recorded/toured with plenty of indie music luminaries such as avant/jazz guitarist Nels Cline, the reformed mega-band Jane’s Addiction, and in J Mascis’s (of Dinosaur Jr.) band The Fog a couple years back.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Watt live twice some years back – never have I seen anybody play bass like that. He smacks the snot out of his “thunderstick” (his term for it) seemingly randomly, fingers flailing, arms pumping – but then you listen to what he’s actually playing. He’s astoundingly precise and musical. He’s melodic and complex, but never overplays.

Picture a graying, average-looking guy with facial hair (he sported a long, bushy beard both times I saw him), wearing a flannel and jeans, playing bass like nobody else can. If you were to meet him on the street you might think he wanted some spare change. That’s Mike Watt, but don’t worry, he won’t ask for change -- and doesn’t need your money anyway. Long may he live!

Oingo Boingo

The began their career as The Mystic Knights Of Oingo Boingo, in the 1970s, and as the 80s went on they became one of the premier, so-called New Wave bands along with Devo and Talking Heads.

They gained the reputation of a party band, mainly because of their biggest hit, the title track to their 1985 album Dead Man’s Party. But their eclectic style had a darker side as evidenced by the early MTV hit “Nothing Bad Ever Happens”, as well as their swan song, 1993’s album Boingo.

That final album is a writhing mass of tension that includes denunciations of the first Gulf War, an energetic cover of “I Am The Walrus”, and the epic 16-minute closer “Changes”, a reflection on the ups and downs of life that is a fitting end to an under-appreciated band of the 1980s.

Oingo Boingo’s leader, Danny Elfman, has since the mid-1980s become an accomplished composer of film and television scores, to this day. He has contributed to a number of Tim Burton movies, and composed the theme song to The Simpsons. Didn’t you know that?

The Pogues

Shane MacGowan, lead singer of the Pogues, has about three teeth in his head, all of them crooked. It’s the logical end-result of decades of alcohol abuse and bar brawls. Which is fitting, because that’s what the Pogues music sounds like. This “Irish” band (MacGowan was Irish but the band was based in London) became known for its perfect melding of traditional Irish bar music and punk rock, all vomited forth with plenty of working-class attitude. Their 1985 album Rum, Sodomy And The Lash drips with attitude, beer and knuckles. The song “Dirty Old Town” pretty much encapsulates their appeal: “I kissed my love / by the factory wall / dirty old town /dirty old town”. Music to kiss your girl or start a fight to, take your pick.

The Replacements

This band was a preeminent American underground rock band of the 1980s. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Paul Westerberg wrote some of the most memorable and unapologetic rock songs of the era. They never became more than a mid-level band but are remembered to this day for their spirited songs and notoriously drunken performances – their unprofessionalism was probably a big reason they never broke really big.

But then, they never took themselves too seriously anyway, near as I can tell. They changed their name to Replacements from the Impediments after being banned from a club for disorderly behavior in their hometown of Mineapolis. The band’s early sound was brash punk rock, but later on they became just a damn good rock n’ roll band without apologies. Their defining work is their third album Let It Be, a record whose sound is nothing like the Beatles album of the same name. It’s a howling blast of pure rock n’ roll adrenaline with enough diversity to keep it from being monotonous.

They really didn’t care – I remember that one of their videos consisted entirely of a single shot: a guy putting a record on the turntable, then kicking back and smoking a cigarette as the camera focused on the twitching speaker. Such attitude admirably forced the viewer to focus on the music rather than the visuals. But their reputation as drunken curmudgeons doomed them – they were never able to shake their image as unreliable hooligans. Bythe time they cleaned up their act in the late 1980s it was too late – their chance had passed and the band broke up. Westerberg has put out sporadic solo albums every few years since.


Oh yeah, and speaking of preeminent American underground rock bands – except REM went from the underground to being superstars in a few short years at the end of the 1980s. Their last six or seven albums haven’t been very good; the album Monster from 1994 was their last decent record I think. However their 1980s work (basically, their first five or six albums) still sounds as good today as it did then, and they deserve a mention on my list.

REM is too well known now for me to spend much time remarking on them here, but I will mention a few things. Michael Stipe’s obtuse and poetic lyrics always appealed to me, and Peter Buck’s guitar sound launched a thousand jangle-pop ships. I think their best album is their fifth, Document, even if “The One I Love” and “The End Of The World As We Know It” are way, way, way overplayed on classic rock radio these days. But Life’s Rich Pageant is a melodic, fuzzed out masterpiece too, and their least popular album, Fables Of The Reconstruction, contains some of the band’s most creative work.

I’m sorry to report that this band became too big for its britches in the 1990s. I saw them live in 1995 and was disappointed – they were lifeless on stage, played the songs at flaccid tempos, and bassist Mike Mills wore a ridiculous suit of mirrored sequins. The no-frills passion of their early days was long gone by then. None of this prevented Stipe from preening and constantly mumbling witless banter into the microphone, that day at Fiddler’s Green amphitheater in Denver. A travesty!

I pretty much wrote them off as a disappointment after that, but in their 1980s heyday, REM was a fantastic band with an arty mystique. What a shame.

The Specials

Another British ska band of the early 1980s, their eponymous first album actually came out in 1979, but hey… close enough. With a slightly more traditional ska sound and more biting lyrics than fellow scenesters, Madness, the Specials’ first album is a classic from beginning to end. Their most famous song is a cover, the ska standard “A Message To You Rudy”, which takes the form of a sobering lecture to Rudy (this the short form of the slang term “rude boy” – which in Jamaican street terms means gangster): “Stop ya messin’ around / better think of your future / time you straighten right out / or you’ll wind up in jail”.

Their originals were just as good, and it’s hard to pick a favorite, though “Stupid Marriage” (with the immortal line “naked woman / naked man / where did you get that nice suntan?”) and “Nite Klub” (a disdainful view of night club life) both rank highly.

I admit: The Specials/ is the only album that I’m really familiar with, but it’s so good! The Specials are also notable for being one of the few racially integrated second-wave ska bands, with both black and white members. Though ska was originally a Jamaican style, most second-wave ska bands were white as a generation of working-class British youths adopted the sound as their own. The Specials appropriated the Two-Tone graphic pattern of a black and white checkerboard on their albums to reflect their belief in racial integration.

Once again, I must stop for now... if anybody else is a fan of any of these bands, or even if you absolutely can't stand them, I would love to hear about your opinion. I live for this stuff. So many bands, so little time and space...

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Flashback: 1980s!!!!

Music of my flaming youth -- in the 1980s, I was force-fed a steady diet of early MTV and hair-metal bands infused with a terrible mix of pop artists that exemplify all that went wrong with popular music in the 1980s. Examples, of which there are unfortunately many: Belinda Carlisle, Lionel Richie, Motley Crue, Chicago, Billy Ocean, Debbie Gibson, Deff Leppard, Hall & Oates, Whitesnake, the Footloose and Flashdance soundtracks, as well as any number of formerly vital artists who lost their way in that time -- such as David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton... you get the idea. C.R.A.P!! The sort of stuff you can hear in any supermarket these days, modern-day Muzak, only more annoying.

Wendi and I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. We were talking one day and realized that, though most music fans consider the 1980s to be a lost decade in terms of musical quality, there were actually quite a few artists/bands that we still love, whose music has withstood the test of time. Which, when you get to be our ages, is really the only test that matters.

So, for the music geek in you, I submit the following for your consideration: a few bands/artists, from the 1980s that not only didn’t suck, but made a lasting impression on your humble author. My list is not exhaustive and consists of artists commonly considered to be in the category of rock music; for instance, I excluded heavy metal and rap music (which I happen to love, but space and time precludes their inclusion -- they're subjects in and of themselves). The list is in alphabetical order, as I really don’t care for “best-of” or “top pick-a-number” lists.

Unfortunately, as often happens when I get to writing, this list rapidly spiraled out of control; not only is it not exhaustive or complete, but I have to go to bed and only got to the letter M. Oh well, here we go!!

Camper Van Beethoven

Good ol’ Camper Van, the band that virtually defined the term “college rock” in the 1980s. They had a melodic, rather folksy sound augmented by a fiddle player, which was a great contrast to their sarcastic, goofy and often surreal lyrics on songs like “Take The Skinheads Bowling” from their first album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, and the spoken narrative “Peace & Love” from their eponymous third album. They scored a minor MTV hit in 1988 with “Eye Of Fatima”, a song about a burned-out hippie drug dealer, but they are probably best remembered for a violin-flecked cover of Status Quo’s psychedelic 1960s anthem “Pictures Of Matchstick Men.”

The band disintegrated acrimoniously in 1989, and singer David Lowry went on to form Cracker, which became one of the biggest (and most overrated) bands of the early 1990s that never approached the wry Camper Van Beethoven in wry creativity and cleverness. I mean, this is a band that recorded a version of the ENTIRETY of Fleetwood Mac’s album Tusk on a whim!

A lot of longtime fans were surprised and pleased when they reunited in 2004 for a tour and new album, New Roman Times.

The Cure

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Cure, but their contribution to the 1980’s canon of good music cannot be overlooked. Wendi is a massive Cure fan and no doubt could write a lot more than I can about their merits. Gloomy, yet surprisingly pretty songs on albums like Pornography and Disintegration cemented their reputation as torch carriers for the goth and alternative scenes.

Personally, my favorite song of theirs is the fever dream nightmare of “Lullaby”, in which Robert Smith whisper-sings over a minor key, yet surprisingly gentle accompaniment, about being eaten alive in bed by a giant spider. The video is a little lost gem from that long-ago time when MTV didn’t completely suck.

Echo And The Bunnymen

Often overlooked, EATB were always much more popular overseas, especially in their native Britain. In the USA, they are mostly known for their dreamy, yet propulsively danceable single “Lips Like Sugar” which is from their self-titled 5th album from 1987. It’s a great song, with an immortal, simple and perfect guitar riff, but this band was much deeper than their rather silly name and single-hit status in the States might imply.

For me, their song “Rescue” from EATB's first album, Crocodiles epitomizes what made them great – the lyrics “things are going wrong / won’t you come on down to my rescue?” are belted out in a strangled moan by Ian McCulloch – it’s so arresting because it’s so simple and universal… anybody who has ever felt trapped and helpless can immediately relate.

Another melodic gem, and probably their second most famous song, is “Killing Moon” which was later covered by Pavement, among others.

Gang Of Four

Progenitors of what later would become known as the genre of post-punk, Gang Of Four meshed angular, throbbing, often atonal guitar riffs with scathing, anti-capitalist lyrics. Their minimalist approach and pervasive influence can be heard in countless later bands such as Fugazi & Shellac. Unlike the bands I’ve described so far, there was very little pop music in Gang Of Four, except for the occasional disco-esque beat such as in an otherwise virulently anti-military song “I Love A Man In A Uniform”.

The band was named after the four Chinese politicos who were blamed by the Communists for the worst excesses of China’s Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, tried and convicted in a face-saving attempt by the state. The band was not Communist, but lyrics like “the problem of leisure / what to do for pleasure / ideal of a new purchase / a market of the senses … this heaven gives me migraine” from the song “Natural’s Not In It” leave little doubt that they didn’t care to conceal their contempt for capitalism, materialism, consumerist society and the corrupt structures of contemporary power.

Their overt politics would seem didactic and pretentious if it weren’t for their inventive instrumental prowess – spiky guitars and beats propelled by a relentless, almost danceable groove that perfectly complemented their biting lyrics on songs like “A Hole In The Wallet.” Heady stuff.

Hüsker Dü

Ok let’s get this out of the way first -- Hüsker Dü was named after a Danish board game (don’t ask me why) and means “do you remember”. They were one of the most beloved American punk bands of the 1980s, and in my opinion one of the best. Their early albums are a bit unfocused, but the in-your-face angst and breakneck speed of albums like Zen Arcade (a double album recorded in just three days) are among the purest examples of indie gold.

And, unlike many punk bands, Hüsker Dü were excellent musicians – singer/shouter Bob Mould has a ringing, slashing guitar attack that is instantly recognizable, drummer/singer Grant Hart was one of the best underground drummers of his time – have one listen to Zen Arcade's epic, 14-minute closing instrumental “Reoccurring Dreams” to see what I mean.

Their final album, Warehouse: Songs & Stories, suffers from overproduction (a victim, like so many bands, of that reverbed-out 80s production) and a thin drum sound, but is their most melodic and heart-wrenchingly personal.

Sadly, this band also suffered a bitter breakup – to this day, Bob Mould and Grant Hart have barely spoken, and then mostly by slamming each other in the press. Mould found quite a bit of commercial success both with his subsequent solo albums and with Sugar, a band that recorded a few albums in the early 1990s and sounded much like the direction Hüsker Dü was going when they broke up.


A band at the forefront of the so-called 2nd wave of ska that took Britain by storm in the late 70s and early 80s, their biggest hit, “Our House” was ironically nearly free of ska influence except for the horn charts – but nevertheless a great song. These guys had a sense of humor with musical chops and respect for ska music to match.


A lot of bands begin with a high degree of musical inventiveness. As commercial success beckons, they just can’t sustain the juice as they try to appeal to broader audiences with watered-down music that doesn’t have the same edge that made them worth listening to in the first place. Not so with Ministry – with Ministry, the conventional narrative is almost completely inverted.

Their first album, 1983’s With Sympathy, was a danceable, electro-poppy, if slightly dark affair that gave no hint that by the 21st century they would be known as the elder statesman of industrial-strength heavy metal. Quite a journey – but mid-period Ministry set the standard not for heavy metal as it is known today, but for industrial music of a particularly influential kind.

Ministry's 1988 album, The Land Of Rape & Honey, , is widely considered their best and is an ingenious fusion of the sequenced, pounding rhythms of industrial music with squalling guitars. It’s also infectious as hell – the grating but precisely processed guitar riffs and sequenced drums of “Stigmata” and “The Diety” will burn into your brain and scar you for twenty years (they did for me, anyway!). There are also all-electronic, heavy but danceable electro-industrial workouts like “Golden Dawn” and “The Abortive”.

In later years, Ministry had a long creative dry spell, particularly in the late 1990s when I pretty much wrote them off as washed up, later to recover (in fine form, although with much greater focus on heavy metal) with blistering speed metal albums like last year’s Rio Grande Blood. But they never topped The Land Of Rape & Honey, one of the definitive recordings in industrial music – a musical genre that can be surprisingly conservative and boring. Not in this case.

Whew!! And you thought the 1980s consisted entirely of disposable pop and cheesy synthesizers. I love this was just the 1st half of the alphabet! Check back again for Part II… this was 1st just the 1st half (?) of my personal, beloved alphabet of great music from the 80s. If anyone has anything to add, I would love to hear it… no matter how cheesy it is. Just don’t get mad when I roll my eyes ;-)

Stay tuned. If you dare ;-P

Monday, May 28, 2007

Everywhere, anywhere... nowhere, USA

I have a few thoughts (well, an essay, really) regarding some of the comments people made regarding my last post, which I was originally going to post as a comment on my blog. But posting on one’s own blog comments is kind of tacky, don’t you think? And anyway, a few themes that were touched on deserve a little more space… ok, make that a lot more.

First of all, regarding living downtown being a “choice”: yes, I chose to live here nearly ten years ago (if you count Wheat Ridge as downtown – which it is, as far as you guys might be concerned). Then I moved to Jefferson Park (in Denver) for about 4 years, a neighborhood overlooking downtown, and finally Capitol Hill, 3 years ago.

But it’s not as much of a choice as you might think. In Wheat Ridge, the area in which I lived bordered Denver and Edgewater, another, itty bitty ‘burb of Denver only about 8 blocks wide. While not a ghetto, the area is definitely of lower middle-class character with tiny, aging houses. Jefferson Park is now a mostly Hispanic area where you will hear more Spanish than English spoken at the local Safeway. The houses have more character but most are older and crumbling. What do these areas have in common? Cheap rent.

My “choice” was whether I wanted to live in older, poorer but lively neighborhoods with some character versus living in newer, poorer neighborhoods thrown up by some big corporation without regard to the future. I would’ve had to commute twice as far to my job, and probably lived in run-down 1970s era apartment complexes nestled amongst sun-blasted asphalt parking lots and dying retail businesses. So yes, it was a choice. A real no-brainer for me.

Then Wendi and I moved to Capitol Hill. We’ve always loved this area of town. The housing is more expensive, yes. That was also a choice, but there was also added value. You can walk anywhere you need to go in Capitol Hill, and there are bus lines that run every few blocks. You guys may remember that I was without a car for more than two years, starting when Wendi and I separated in 2005. I couldn't have made it in the suburbs that way. I work downtown and commuting by bus would’ve been prohibitive – but that’s would’ve been the least of my problems. Just getting groceries would’ve consumed entire evenings, to say nothing of doing the laundry.

Plus, Wendi and I separated but we stayed in the same neighborhood – her apartment was a 10 minute walk away, so we never really lost touch. This was a major factor in saving our marriage, I think. Had she moved to Westminster or out to Lakewood or Littleton, I think we would’ve seldom seen each other, and there would be no Simon in her belly today :-)

In Capitol Hill, everything is within walking distance – heck, I can even walk to work. This factor is important in understanding why housing is so much cheaper in the 'burbs... these days – fewer people want to commute two hours a day just so they can have another flimsy, poorly built box with a patch of chemically treated, water sucking grass.

Ask anybody who works in housing construction – anymore, big development companies come in and throw as many houses up as they can – shoddy, cheap, chipboard boxes that will fall apart within 30 years. Most housing today is not built to stand the test of time. To house people is not even its primary purpose. It is built to extract maximum profit in the shortest possible amount of time, often for a large corporation based out of state that does not concern itself with trivialities like building sustainable, affordable communities for the future.

This trend has particularly accelerated in the last 15 years or so, with few people seeming to notice, but it’s becoming harder and harder to ignore. Don’t get me wrong – construction of the past was also built for profit, but they also built stuff to last, as a lasting legacy to posterity. Do you think Wal-Mart cares what the areas around their giant, thrown-up, warehouse-style boxes surrounded by acres and acres of parking lots will look like in 30 years, or even 5 years? Of course not.

This philosophy can be seen in old neighborhoods in Denver, most of which have nice parks, great architecture and thoughtful urban design. Civic Center Park downtown, or Cheeseman Park near our apartment are great examples of this, and are big reasons why so many people want to live here. These are public works of lasting value that are cared for down through the generations.

Everyone who lives in this area is reaping the benefits of decisions made more than 100 years ago, just like people who live in the decaying “inner suburbs” of Denver are now suffering the consequences of bad decisions in decades past. Even the bad parts of Denver often have character, they are victims of forces beyond their control. I'm thinking of Globeville, a North Denver neighborhood that has managed to retain some character despite being surrounded by heavy industry, bisected by railroad tracks and I-70, and chronic poverty.

You guys all make the 'burbs sound like such a paradise. Sure, the wealthier ones where you can just wall off yourself from the poor people (except when they come to clean) are great! But things are not so rosy all over -- many older suburbs of Denver are borderline ghettos today.

I'm thinking specifically of parts of Aurora, Northglenn and Westminster. When was the last time one of you guys drove up Federal Boulevard north of I-70? There you can see the results of bad planning from 40 years ago. And the lovely stretch of sprawling asphalt parking lots lined with big box stores just down the road from your neighborhood, surrounded by “luxury” apartment complexes? It’s next in line. Just give it time.

I am hoping that our new apartment works out, but you should know that the area is far from being some suburban paradise. There are parks, just not very nice ones. We will live right next to several major thoroughfares, and crime is by no means unknown there. I'm just hoping for the best. It's not a nicer area than Capitol Hill, it's just farther from downtown and cheaper.

I suppose some people will say that most of these problems are simply examples of free markets at work; that if people didn’t want to live in these places, they wouldn’t. My response is this: while there are markets involved, they are certainly not free!

Retailers such as Wal-Mart are notorious for extracting fat tax incentives from municipalities by threatening to simply build their store the next suburb over. Consolidation in the housing industry means that public works such as parks, roads and infrastructure are now designed and built by private corporations, while being effectively financed by public dollars. When one of these big housing developments gets thrown up, often at a net tax loss to the municipality, the municipality has to provide things like traffic signals, schools, police and fire protection, water and sewer, and so on. Guess who foots the bill?

It’s more than a local issue too. Not to slag on AZ, Jeff, but you guys in Phoenix are basically living off Colorado water. All that sprawl in Phoenix is possible because of an archaic legal framework between CO, AZ, UT, NV and CA called the Colorado River Compact. This was drawn up in the early 20th century as a way for the states to share water, but the hydrological science was poorly understood at the time. It effectively says that Colorado must deliver a certain amount of water to the states downstream no matter what. All is fine and dandy as long as water consumption stays the same and there is plenty of water.

So what happened? Water consumption has spiked due to sprawling development in all the states affected by the Compact, and there is a severe drought in CO, where all that water comes from. Colorado has to tighten its water consumption to water the golf courses and the swimming pools in seemingly every back yard in Phoenix. Colorado water is fueling the development that big corporations use to make a profit. That is not free enterprise. That is exploitation of a public, limited resource for private gain. And his doesn't even consider the vast environmental impacts.

There are other examples, not just retail and water. Returning to housing for a moment: for the past 15 years, the housing bubble (oh man… haven’t even gotten started on the bubble… some other time) has been fueled by cheap money provided by the policies of the Federal Bank, and quasi-government, corruption plagued entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (two years ago an audit discovered that Freddie Mac improperly booked billions in revenue over the past 5 or so years). Real estate has always been a shady industry, but never more so in the past ten to 15 years. Effectively, big companies have been skimming the cream off the top of a deep well of public resources. Your tax dollars at work… for big business!

Tyler said something with which I agree (wow!): this is not sustainable. The peace, quiet and serenity that are so prized in the suburbs is similar to the peace, quiet and serenity of an ostrich with its head in the sand. Our kids will be paying the price for the sprawling suburbs of today, which will eventually be where all the poor people, crime and drugs are. Why do we as a society allow ourselves to pass all our problems on to our children because of short-term "wants"?

I suppose it would be best if everyone could move to a small town, “Anurbia” like Worland, WY with no crime, drugs, traffic, etc… except that by doing so, Worland wouldn’t be small anymore and all those problems would suddenly pop up. Not every place can be a rural paradise like Worland apparently is. In fact, many older neighborhoods in big cities have characters much like that of a small town like Worland. Would Worland be so nice with miles of strip malls and cheap, mass produced housing? Probably not.

And it’s not simply a matter of “choice” either. Americans’ delusions and ignorance about the true costs of their “choices” are what got us into this mess in the first place.

It’s a big picture and a long story. To understand it requires a lot of explanation, so I'm sorry if I’ve been a little long winded about this. But this is why I simply can’t get with the idea that suburbs are the fulfillment of the “American Dream”.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Of Capitol Hill, moving.... and guitars

Life rolls on. Wendi and I are moving in two weeks to a larger apartment in Englewood. We are crossing our fingers and hoping that it works out; neither of us wants to move again for a considerable amount of time. In the past 4 years for one reason or another, we have moved 5 or 6 times, depending on how you calculate it… needless to say, we are sick of it.

So we are making the long anticipated move to respectability and middle class (ha!) suburban boringness, to a slightly larger apartment in beautiful Englewood, CO. The time has come for this era to end.

Don’t get me wrong – Capitol Hill is still the best, funkiest and prettiest neighborhood in Denver, in my opinion. The problem is that it’s a neighborhood that is friendly mostly to the very rich or very young – a diverse mix of big apartment buildings and VERY expensive houses.

We will miss the trees, the people, the parks, the nightlife, the bands and the friends we have here – we won’t miss some of the shady characters, the petty crimes such theft and random vandalism, and most of all the rich people who have pumped up the price of real estate to the point where it’s all but impossible to own a house here without making more than $200,000 a year.

We simply can’t afford the space we will need when Simon (that’s our unborn boy’s name, in case you didn’t know already) comes along in a few months. My only consolation is that all of the people in this area who tried to get rich from flipping one-bedroom condos for $250,000 are now losing their shirts. Ahhh… schadenfreude can be very soothing!

Capitol Hill is generally a safe neighborhood, although being an urban, inner city area it is home to some amount of crime. It is thick with bars and nightclubs – though these are part of the neighborhood’s character, you can meet messed-up people at anytime of day, and especially when the bars close at 2:00 a.m.

There are also a fair number of weirdos and people wigging out on any number of substances. These people are mostly harmless, though it’s advisable not to talk to them, or shake their hands, which they will sometimes offer to you in hopes of gaining an opening to hit you up for a cigarette or for money. Just say no and ignore them or you'll have a new, needy and unpleasant friend.

The down-n-outers are a species of human life common to the inner city, to even a gentrified, upscale neighborhood such as this. I learned long ago to be very cool towards anybody who approaches me out of the blue trying to be friendly – it doesn’t mean they like you for your charming personality, it means they WANT something. I’m not mean – I just won’t give anybody any money, no matter how heart-wrenching their sob story is. And people do tell some whoppers.

I remember one freakazoid who approached me in front of a rather notorious 7 Eleven on Colfax and York a couple of years ago. He galloped up to me, bobbing, weaving and gasping in what I suppose was intended as a desperate genuflection. “Oh please sir,” he sobbed, “I just need a dollar so I can get across town to see my baby daughter who’s in the hospital. Can’t you help me out?” I was amused by his bizarre behavior, but not impressed. “No, man,” I said flatly as I got into the car and drove off.

Later that week, in front of another store on Colfax, the same guy came up to me with the same weird attempt at eliciting sympathy. This time I was less than amused but I laughed in his face as I was taking my keys from my pocket. A quarter fell out and clinked on the ground. The guy didn’t remember me, misread my actions and thought I was being friendly because I’d laughed. “Oh, thank you sir!” he gasped at me as he watched the quarter roll away. I said, “Dude, I just saw you two days ago up the street. Still haven’t made it across town, huh? Well there’s your quarter!” This guy had absolutely no pride -- he dropped down on all fours groping for the quarter on the asphalt.

I wasn’t trying to be mean, but I do not appreciate it when wastoids like that try to hustle me. Trust me, the guy had no sick daughter. This happened in front of a liquor store. Coincidence?

Some of you may remember that Wendi was mugged about a year and a half ago, while she and I were living apart. Her apartment building itself was very nice, but it happened to be just around the block from a rather notorious, four-block stretch of Colfax between Logan and Washington, which for a while was an open-air drug market. A lot of shady characters aimlessly circling the block and saying “Yo. Yo. Yo. Yo!” when you walk by.

The police have thankfully cracked down on that area in the past year or so – I personally can’t figure out why any street dealer would frequent the area, because you can’t go five minutes without a cop cruising by, but nobody ever said that street criminals are gifted with high intelligence. Anyway, that was a very traumatic experience for her (and me!), but thankfully they didn’t hurt her – just knocked her down and took her wallet.

Since living in Capitol Hill, we have been subject to more petty crimes than I can remember – a car window busted for no apparent reason, our locked bicycles stripped, Wendi’s scooter tipped over, etc. But our last straw with petty crime happened a few weeks ago, when Wendi’s scooter was clean stolen from behind our building.

Our downstairs neighbor saw it happen. Three guys and a truck came and just picked it up and took it away. He doesn’t know us (and even if he had, I certainly wouldn’t have expected him to intervene), but did his utmost by contacting the building manager Steve, who knew whose scooter it was and tried to call us – we weren’t at home.

The scooter theft was a big blow to us, because we were planning to sell it and hoped to get around $750 for it. Wendi filed a police report but because it had no registration (under 50ccs and you don’t have to register a scooter in Colorado), we of course know that we’ll never get it back.

It was terribly ironic. We’ve lived in Capitol Hill for a long time and both of us have parked that scooter all over the place for days at a time without incident, and just as we were about to sell it… gah!!!! C’est la vie, I guess.

I am really hoping that our shiny new Elantra won’t be subject to such indignities when we move to our new apartment in a couple weeks, but I can’t be too optimistic. Englewood is a suburb of Denver, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of crime. We are moving to a fairly nice apartment complex. But it’s large, which means that there’s an uncomfortable degree of anonymity, and in fact the nice lady who leased it to us said there has been some “recent activity.” We’re crossing our fingers.

Having said all of this, I will reiterate that Wendi and I both adore Capitol Hill. It is a truly beautiful urban neighborhood, warts and all. We simply can’t afford to live here and get the space we want and need for our screaming bundle of joy – who will be arriving in probably less than 3 months.

Housing prices in Capitol Hill ridiculous. Our two-bedroom apartment, with its tiny bathroom and lack of air conditioning, is priced as it is because of its location, not because it is so luxurious. A family of three simply cannot live in this neighborhood on $40,000 a year.

This is a symptom of the currently imploding housing bubble… which is a subject I have been following with great interest for a long time. But I’ll save my strong opinions on that phenomenon of mass psychology for another blog post in the future ;-)

And now for something COMPLETELY different!!!

My last post was about Led Zeppelin’s glorious “Rain Song”. Yeah I know it’s been a long time since I posted – sue me! Anyway, I thought I would make a few comments about alternate tunings, for those guitar players out there who are bored enough to actually spare a couple seconds to read this.

As mentioned previously, this song is played using a quite different tuning (DGCGCD) from the standard tuning (EADGBE) that we guitar playas know and love and on which we probably learned how to play. While it is possible to play this song in the standard tuning, it doesn’t sound nearly as good and is much more difficult to play that way.

Since my last post (was it really 5 months ago? Wow!), I have had one of our guitars tuned his way, to what I call “D Modal” tuning, and it has been a wonderful, refreshing experience for me. I’ve written a couple of new songs in the “Rain Song” tuning that sound nothing like “Rain Song,” and plan to record them as soon as I can, after we get settled in our new apartment. This tuning has a lovely, melancholy ambiguity, due to its being so friendly to suspended 2nd and 4th intervals. And it's great for getting a nice drone going.

I recommend alternative tunings to any guitar player who happens to find themselves stuck in a rut. All those classic chord shapes you learned by rote get thrown out the window, and you are forced to relearn your instrument. New chord voicings, progressions and harmonic possibilities will open up like a secret garden before your ears. You’ll be exploring the musical wilderness like a newborn wolf cub. It’s just plain fun! Plus, there are literally hundreds of other tunings of one variety or another that you can use to spice things up.

Try one or more of them. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Song du jour: "Rain Song" by Led Zeppelin

I have been playing a bit o’ guitar lately. A couple different finger-pickings, a few more progressions the could be songs, and “Rain Song.”

This has been my favorite Led Zeppelin song since I first heard it. I was sixteen. Time has never diminished my admiration of it. It is a sublimely-written, extended (exhausted?) metaphor of love and the four seasons. The hammer of the gods bombast is there too. Jimmy Page used an unusual modal tuning, DGCGCD, to great droning and dynamic effect – this is an electric guitar showcase for the ages. There is Tabulature notation for it here.

The sparkling riffs unfold like a psychedelic thundercloud, a storm on a languid, late-summer afternoon. When John Paul Jones’ misty Mellotron comes in at the second verse, a fever dream of drowsiness will rush over you. You will cease to know the flow of time and shape of space. As the titanic climax erupts you will know that you have scaled the Mount Olympus of rock music. The gods gather here in Corinthian-columned pavilions to play favorites to certain mortals like the lads in Zep, tossing down the occasional lightning bolt or guitar lick to keep the game interesting. Or is it just me? It doesn’t get much more R.O.C.K. than “Rain Song”.

Or pompous, either. Yes, the Zep could be, um, pretentious. Their biggest weak spot was always Robert Plant’s lyrics. The pantheon of rock n’ roll has already a great, bejeweled and expensive temple to Jimmy, Robert, John and John, far be it from me to befoul it -- I myself have worshiped there for years.

But let me say it plainly – the lyrics to most Led Zeppelin songs suck. Far too many songs about swords, magic, loose women, deserts, oceans, and awkward references to The Lord Of The Rings. The lyrics to “Rain Song” could’ve been written by a 10th grader for an English poetry class project to post in the hall for the school creative writing contest, in which it might have had a chance of an honorable mention:

It is the springtime of my loving
The second season I am to know
Your are the sunlight in my growing
So little warmth I felt before
It isn’t hard to feel me glowing
I watched the fire that grew so low

It is the summer of my smiles
Flee from me, keepers of the gloom
Speak to me only with your eyes
It is to you I give this tune
It isn’t hard to recognize
These things are clear to all from time to time
I felt the coldness of my winter
I never thought it would ever go
I cursed the gloom that set upon us
But I know that I love you so

These are the seasons of emotion
And like the winds they rise and fall
This is the wonder of devotion
I see the torch we all must hold
This is the mystery of the quotient
Upon us all a little rain must fall
Just a little rain

C’mon – I mean, seriously, people.... “Flee from me, keepers of the gloom”???? Whew. OK. Percy, read something besides Tolkien for a change.

But you know what? I’m ok with that. Plant's talent was always in his voice, not verbalization, and in "Rain Song" the words perfectly compliment the instrumental wizardry of the band. For Zeppelin was a tight band above all else and sweeping dynamics their specialty. Some selections from their catalog approach “Rain Song” in epic, majestic grandeur, but none better it. The baroque, vague lyrics compliment the ambitious, dreamy mood of the chords perfectly… and you can chuckle at the subtle comedy of the lyrics, as well.

I used to believe this was a hard song to play on guitar– I still do – but when using the above tuning it falls on the neck quite naturally. It’s a great song to get lost in while playing – the chords and voiceings just seem so exotic, but right somehow. When I play it I see forested glens and maidens in white robes on unicorns. Is that weird?

A note on timeliness: a post that I put up on 11/14 vanished some time back when I got too enthusiastic tinkering with my template’s html. It was brilliant – I just wish I could remember what it was about.

Finally, if you have talked to me in the last two weeks, you know my lovely wife, Wendi, is preggers. We are very happy about this bean , and thank you all for your kindness. I’m still in awe of the idea of being a father, let alone the reality.