Friday, February 8, 2008

Beatles Vs. Stones

I figure I will just get this one out of the way. Otherwise it will hang over this whole blog silently, the White Elephant that none of us will acknowledge.

In many ways, there is no comparison between these two bands. I have childhood memories of The Beatles. They were important to me as a cultural lighthouse before I went to kindergarten. My mother is a wonderful guitar player and I thought she'd written 'When I'm Sixty Four' until an embarassingly late age. A large canon of songs were mistakenly attributed to my mother by me early on, old folk songs and new standards alike.

So there is something primal about The Beatles to me, something that goes back so far in my consciousness that it coincides with my infancy and the sense of being totally provided for and catered to. I was listening to The Beatles and crapping my pants, ok? I didn't hear The Stones til much later.

I vividly remember being in my cousin Ken's basement listening to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This would have been the late 1970's. Somehow the idea came up that The Beatles had broken up. I don't think I'd ever even thought of The Beatles as being real people, they were more like the air, or the mountains, or God. They simply WERE. This being so, they couldn't simply STOP being. But they had 'broken up'. I heard that term applied to The Beatles before I ever heard it applied to a romantic couple.

A gulf of sadness enveloped me as this realization hit me. They'd broken up??? Huh? How could this music happen and then be rejected? What they hell were they thinking? It was at this moment that I first understood that being a grown up was going to suck. And then they started scaring the hell out of me. If The Beatles couldn't be happy, how the hell was I going to manage it?

The moment passed and Ken and I probably went outside to pretend The Red Sox were finally winning the World Series.

Aside from The Beatles, I was primarily listening to 'Oliver', 'Oklahoma', Don McLean, and The Raunch Hands, a vocal group from Yale. This wasn't really music fandom yet as it was imaginary play. I was IN 'Oliver', I was IN 'Oklahoma', the story songs of Don McLean and The Raunch Hands were platforms for play. The Beatles were the first band that I was a fan of, that weren't means to an imaginary end.

Strange connection to The Stones in there. While listening to Don McLean's 'American Pie', we were somehow aware that the whole Devil portion was a metaphor for Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones at Altamont. I've come to hate the conservative 'things were more authentic way back then' bullshit attitude of this song in spite of its undeniable melody, but this song was so powerful to me as a youngster that I had a built in distaste for The Rolling Stones.

Flash forward to high school. I've now become a dyed-in-the-wool punk rock aficionado. I have disdain for all things classic rock. Led Zeppelin are bloated bullshit artists. The Stones are hopelessly passe. The only songs I really know are 'Satisfaction', 'Jumpin' Jack Flash', etc. I'm still not crazy about either of these songs to tell you the truth.

But then I heard 'Sympathy for the Devil' on the radio. I find it hard to believe that there was a first time that I heard that song, but there was and it was during my adolescence. Now, I know this song has almost become a cliche itself with the falsetto background and all, but I remember the specific bit that first caught my interest. I remember the DJ saying, "The Stones! Sympathy for the Devil". The title alone was more interesting than any of the music I'd heard from them up to that point. All of a sudden Mick Jagger is singing about driving a tank during the Blitzkrieg??? About making sure that Pontius Pilate washed his hands??? What's more, it was as if this was an answer song to Don McLean. Oh, you think I'm evil??? Take this!

My definition of punk rock expanded to include The Rolling Stones.

Flash forward to 1999. I am doing a play in North Carolina. Since high school, my taste has become almost pathologically eclectic. I can't stand not having the best of any genre, even if I don't particularly care for the genre itself. Hence the Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums. I've continued to dig The Stones, buying 'Beggars Banquet' to get 'Sympathy for the Devil', and 'Exile on Main Street' to get the inside scoop on the madness.

But I would still not really characterize myself as a FAN. They are dinosaurs that I can enjoy, that continue to be alive in spite of the meteor shower of modernity.

And then I met Melody. Someday I'll write a music post about that first meeting. Suffice it to say that her name doesn't feel like an accident to me. The first few weeks of knowing Melody barely feel real to me, they feel like a great romantic comedy that had to have happened to some other lucky guy.

At one point in these early days, we pulled out of a restaurant we'd just eaten at. She was driving off in her car, I in mine, and we were at a light waiting to go our separate ways. She was blasting 'Beast of Burden' and she yelled that it was her favorite song at the moment. Needless to say, The Stones grew in my estimation along with my exploding heart.

She appreciates The Beatles, but for her The Stones are more real, more fun. The Beatles just make her sad. And when you think about it, she's right. The Beatles were destroyed by their union, The Stones are still making music almost 50 years after they started.

In an amazing footnote, we were lucky enough to score free tickets to The Rolling Stones 2006 concert at Dodger Stadium. There they were, teeeeeny tiny action figures blasting an ungodly noise that they'd begun honing in the 1950's. Sure The Beatles recorded 'Sgt. Pepper's', 'The White Album', 'Revolver', etc. etc. But The Rolling Stones are continuing to gather no moss in their own unparalleled fashion.

If I was stuck on an island by myself, I'd take The Beatles. If I was lucky enough to have Melody with me, I'd happily take The Stones and dance away in beautiful isolated unity.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Top 10 Music Movies

These movies all are about people who make music. This makes them musicals of a sort, but what make them interesting to me is that they examine the creative process. Rent away!

1. Hustle and Flow: Being a lo-fi home recording artist myself, I am always skeptical when anyone tries to depict the creative process that goes into recording a song. If you are a music fan of any of the legions of performers who have released recordings that they did at home, I suggest you watch this movie. It will give you keen insight into the highs and lows of lo-fi. My parents even loved it. And I guarantee you they don't listen to gangster rap in their spare time.

2. That Thing You Do: Maybe it is the sight of dewy Liv Tyler cheering the boys on in a succession of 60's outfits; maybe it is the fact that Tom Hanks wrote some songs for his pet project; maybe it is the unadulterated joy that the group gets when they hear themselves on the radio for the first time and dance around the drummer's dad's appliance store; maybe it's Steve Zahn; I don't know what IT is, but That Thing You Do has it. Did I already mention the dewy Liv Tyler? Well, she's Liv Tyler and she is DEWY.

3. Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny: I am tempted to put this first on my list because I can't stop watching it right now. And when I say I can't stop watching it, I mean that I have watched it almost every day since I bought it 3 weeks ago. I am not kidding. Trying to write a FUNNY song that also rocks hard enough to be a legitimate rock song doesn't seem impossible in their hands. Each song is tasty, ridiculous, hilarious, and catchy-as-Dave-Grohl-in-hell. Seriously, give this one a chance. I don't know if I can be completely objective and I might be one of the people who drank the Kool Aid, but I can't imagine anyone not getting a kick out of this movie. And yes, I just did some sort of weird triple-negative thing that I can't explain. Jack Black and Kyle Gass are rock AND comedy gods in an unholy alliance of tune-age and laughs.

4. Prince: Sign o' the Times: Everyone knows Purple Rain. I'll write about it later on down the list. But this is the one to see. Why? Well, for one thing, we don't have to watch the pure hilarity of Prince acting. Seriously, he and Madonna should do a movie together. I think the whole medium of film might implode into the ether at the badness. No, this is a CONCERT film. But not your ordinary concert film. It doesn't have that back-of-the-arena after thought feel of most concert films. It has a gorgeous visual style and lavishes the viewer with treats. And then there are the songs. He does a medley of his old hits but for the most part the film goes song by song through the double album 'Sign o' the Times'. Sure he's a weirdo. Sure he's a demagogue. Sure he thinks he's the only one who ever had a sexual fantasy. But man can he give a concert.

5. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould: I can't even remember anything about this movie except that I can't recommend it enough. Glenn Gould is a kooky Canadian concert pianist who rocketed to international acclaim very early in his career and then spent decades defying expectations. The film doesn't have anything to do with any of that, but I can't remember what it is about. Watch it.

6. Purple Rain: I just wrote about Prince right above so I'm bored with it already. Great movie though. I always wondered how small that motorcycle was in real life. Like, was it a Matchbox motorcycle? Was it a moped with a Halloween costume on?

7. Come Feel Me Tremble: Paul Westerberg's weird-ass home movie of his tour/recording sessions for the album of the same name. He asked for fans to send in footage they'd shot at his solo tour of 2002. He toured without a band for the first time ever and stayed behind after almost every show to sign autographs and chat with his longtime fans. It didn't make any headlines, but this was something akin to the Grinch cutting the Christmas ham. The live footage is interspersed with stuff he shot in his basement while recording. Seriously, this is a WEIRD movie. But awesome.

8. Don't Look Back: D.A. Pennebaker's awesome documentary about Dylan in London. This should probably be at the top of the list because if you watch it, it is supremely disconcerting. You know it was shot in the '60's but it is so MODERN feeling that none of the movies from 1-7 would be possible without this one. (Well, Tenacious D would be possible but you catch my drift!) You forget that Dylan was young, tough, and crazy until you see this flick. And you'll forever be glad that he dumped Joan Baez. He's smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee and she's strumming some stupid folk song in the background trying to steal the spotlight. You want her to shut up so you can watch Dylan type.

9. Amadeus: Somehow this movie gets us inside Mozart's head. It makes a rock star out of him and forces us to deal with him in the way we deal with superstars of our day. The genius of this is placing Salieri right there along with him...this contextualizes him so that we see him more clearly. Imagine a movie about, say, Bruce Springsteen in which John Cougar Mellencamp must constantly compare 'Pink Houses' to 'Born in the USA'. Poor Jonny Cougar!

10. This is Spinal Tap: I won't even go into it. Don't even talk about it. We all understand so let's just...shhh.

If you watch these movies back to back it will be a full day of joy.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Clowns to See Clowns

College. My life is a loop of audition, rehearsal, performance, party. There are 4 main stage productions each year and I am determined to appear in each.

An evening of Moliere one-acts has been scheduled and I am cast in 'A Doctor in Spite of Himself.' My Meisner/method teacher has decided to do the whole show as clowns. We all wonder how sense memory and independent activity is going to help us know when to throw the bucket of confetti.

The three plays are rehearsed independently of one another and virtually everyone in the theater department is involved. One of the plays has been transformed into a modern day Italian American gangster/guido comedy and one is being done as a traditional mask extravaganza with corsets, powdered wigs, and small faux birthmarks above each painted lip.

Everyone is having a blast. Our cast is smaller than the other two and rehearsals are quite strange in that we don't wear clown costumes. I don't know how to describe how uncomfortable this is. But imagine going around on Halloween and asking for candy in your regular clothes and trying to convince people that you are some sort of ghoul. It ain't easy.

As the show approaches, my friend Joe and I find out that The Replacements are playing on a Friday night in Providence. We immediately buy tickets and then try to convince our drill-sergeant director/mentor that he should cut rehearsal short so we can see the show. On principal he refuses. We offer to rehearse at another time over the weekend. He refuses. On principal.

We have fevered drunken meetings where we contemplate outright mutiny. What's he gonna do about it? Cancel the show? What if we both get sick? (Let's do another shot, yeah...) It's ridiculous, the show is 10 minutes long and we are rehearsing for 4 hours, why can't he...(insert baby crying noises).

In retrospect I gotta hand it to the director. He stuck to his guns. And he was right to. We had no business buying tickets to a show that started during a rehearsal time. But we did.

If rehearsal went well, we could get out on time and zoom the 40 minutes up I-95 to the Veterans Hall. Up until this rehearsal, things were not going well. We could not find the pace, we couldn't execute the bits, we felt self-conscious and silly. My character was a drunk and a lech and I felt funny with the girls in my lap and the bottle in my fist and the ogling and everything.

Somehow, though, with the urgency of wanting to get the hell out of there, I got it. I actually CLOWNED. I had no clown training, thank god, to draw on, so to feel true clown behavior emerge was quite shocking and obvious. All of a sudden, I didn't want to cut rehearsal short! I wanted to keep going! I was finding it!

Needless to say, our director/drill sergeant had mercy on us and let us go...sure we missed the first few songs of the show but we made it. And I always thought it was ironic that the clowniest band ever The Replacements helped me find my inner clown.

I also was somewhat shocked to realize that I cared more about the show than seeing my heroes perform. I wanted to be the best damn Moliere clown ever. That evening's rehearsal had given me a glimpse of how far humor could be pushed when you gave up the illusion of reality.

I'll never forget seeing my costume for the first time. True to form, the shoes were huge and floppy. The wig was garish. The buttons were gigantic. Somehow I developed a face with the makeup kits we were all required to buy. Our set was a gypsy wagon that was dressed to look like a house, as if we could set out on the road and perform this show anywhere. There were large colored boxes strewn around the stage to be used as necessary as tables, chairs, horses, trains, or beds.

The mask show preceded us in the evening and they ended their hilarious show in a tableau. The applause rang and then clowns attacked! We pushed our set onto the stage, grabbed the bosoms of the ladies, kicked the butts of the gents, dumped confetti on their heads, mocked them, and shooed them off stage.

What ensued was 10 minutes of chaos and hilarity. The best part about it was seeing my friends on stage with me buried in their clown costumes. There was something surreal about how complete the disguise was, something disorienting and ticklish. Yes, it was Alec who played the father of the girl I was trying to woo, but it was also this strange growling primary color toad who shook his fist and stomped his big feet.

At one point, Alec had to chase me around the stage. I ran up the steps to the top of the gypsy caravan, across the window, and down the steps on the other side. He followed. I ran back up the steps, across the window, and down the other side. The effect was of me entering the house, going through a room and out the other door.

The third time up, I stopped before crossing the window. Alec continued. Thus I've tricked him. He goes down the steps and I lean out the window and wave to him. Why this was so funny, I can sort of understand, but the level of laughter was ginormous.

The gypsy platform was about 4 feet wide, plenty of room for us to run across. But somehow Alec tripped the third time through. I don't know if he was just over eager to nail the joke, or what, but as I stood hidden from the audience, I watched my clown nemesis/real life friend trip over his large clown shoes as he traversed the platform and go shooting out into theater space.

Somehow he seemed to fly upwards and away from the platform instead of down the steps. The audience saw a clown ejected from a doorway 7 feet up. I'll never forget his face as he fell. He was looking back at me through his clown makeup, still playing the part, shaking his fist at me as he plummeted towards the stage. But deep within the makeup I saw him KNOW he was going to hit the ground hard. And oh did he ever hit the ground hard.

I am laughing out loud as I write this, nearly 20 years later. And every time The Replacements come on my iTunes and make me cry, there is always a little giggle to be had.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Positive Choice

I can be brutal. When it comes to music, this characteristic is actually heightened. And, unlike most people who merely like what they like and let it go, I am something of a missionary. My fervor can only really be measured if I have converts. I will show you why you are WRONG.

Of course, I am also prone to abruptly changing my mind and embracing an artist or song that I'd shunned. So I can be maddening in that regard.

Perfect example.

Counting Crows. I literally have a special furnace in my soul that burns with hatred and scorn for this band 24/7 365. From the bullshit ends of his hair extension corn rows to the faux depth of his intentionally coffee stained notebook of trite observations dressed up in bathos and self-pity to resemble searing truths about human nature, I HATE COUNTING CROWS.

To me, they rode the coat tails of my favorite artists and got rich trotting out cheap knock offs of true masterpieces. If you think 'Mr. Jones' is deep, try 'Here Comes a Regular' on for size. 'Mr. Jones'. Sheesh. Give me a fucking break.

Here's what I want to say to Adam Duritz. YOU ARE LYING. This whole song is a lie. It reminds me of acting class, where over and over actors are reminded to PLAY THE SCENE not play the EMOTION. That song asks us to fetishize Adam Duritz' self-pity the same way he does. Well, I ain't gonna do it, Adam. If you think you are so lame that you need fake dreadlocks to appear cool, then I think so too. If 'round here' is so lame and stupid, I'm holding you personally responsible.

Don't get me wrong...I love a great song about despair. It's like the old saw about pornography - I know it when I see it. What is that line in my taste that makes me almost cry with empathy and sympathy when Paul Westerberg draws a picture of disillusionment but I want to poke Adam Duritz in his stupid eye and tell him to get over it? I don't know, but I know it when I see it.

Wait, you say, this post is titled 'The Positive Choice'...what's going on? Well, here's the rub. I still can heave up oceans of derision for Counting Crows. But a side story will shed some further light...

In the fall of 2000 I did a show in Stamford, CT called 'Side Man'. It tells the story of the child of a disastrous marriage between an alcoholic and a jazz musician. The child grows up terrorized by the disfunction. I was the narrator, i.e. the child as adult. Needless to say, the show is dark. As the narrator I had to bounce back and forth from child to adult, from immediate impact to lifelong scar.

My strategy in preparing to go onstage was to get myself into as good a mood as possible while simultaneously listening to music that tore at my heartstrings. This sort of primed the pump but kept it bottled up at the same time. Then when I needed to explode it was ready to go. My pre-show prep was especially important because once I stepped on stage, I never came off until intermission and curtain.

My girlfriend had sent me a mix CD that I'd been listening to a good deal and since it was a meaningful personal gift, it began to be the primary CD. There was a song on the second side that she had included by, you guessed it, Counting Crows. It was called 'A Murder of One'.

This song KILLED me. In writing this post I couldn't remember the title of the song so I had to go look at their website and figure it out and look it up and read the lyrics and all that. As I read them I got a lump in my throat.

Now, how do I reconcile my harsh words about a band that has moved me to tears? I don't know. I can't.

Here are the truths.

I hate Counting Crows. The whole aesthetic of the music makes me cringe and feel embarassed.

Their song 'A Murder of One' is perfect and makes me cry.

That's as positve a choice as I can make.