Friday, February 15, 2008

We Were A Band Called Fecund Youth

My musical obsessions began in high school and are forever linked to my two best friends, Tom and Justin. We were a band, which is what all friends are in high school almost by definition, but we took it one step further and actually created music.

I was already an obsessive creative documentarian and I saw no reason to write and practice songs without recording them. We used a boom box and cassette tapes. We pressed record and performed. I still have these recordings and finally digitized them to give Tom on his wedding day. My girlfriend says I sound like Alvin of the Chipmunks singing The Ramones.

Collectively we also became fans and part of the punk movement that was happening all over the country. Tom was the first to be into this type of music. I remember he had a mohawk in Junior High and this caused a shockwave to pass through the administration. I was still listening to my parents' Beatles records, show tunes, and old folk albums. Tom played me Minor Threat and I flipped my lid. Justin was more of a classic rock guy, idolizing Bruce Springsteen to the point that he once drunkenly held court on New Year's Eve and admitted that he actually wanted to be the Boss.

This mix of styles came out in our music.

I'm one of those lucky few who can honestly say that their upbringing was not full of chaos and pain. My parents met at a sock hop when they were 16 and are still so in love that you can almost hear Bill Haley and the Comets playing every time they enter the room. I have three sisters who I am extremely close with and I have a large extended family of cousins who function as siblings/fountains of fun. Don't worry, this isn't one of those "in spite of all the advantages I still dreamt of doing myself in" essays.

But it is a story about how suicide made an artist out of me.

I'd gotten to high school dreaming only of playing left field for the Boston Red Sox. Oh, I dabbled in school plays, but I was basically a sensitive jock. I played soccer, ran track, and chased girls. I flirted with the underground by getting into the DIY punk scene in the early '80's, and I smoked dope and played hacky-sack, but I was not driven to bouts of self-expression.

My two best buddies and I were anti-social butterflies, and we occasionally holed up in someone's bedroom and played covers of Run DMC or The Clash. Puberty made life intense in the way that film noir was squirmed in your seat but everything was pretty damn sexy.


A casual acquaintance wandered off behind the local hospital, sat against a mound of construction dirt, and ended his life with a gunshot. He'd been popular, good-looking, affable, you name it. He'd briefly worked at the fruit market where I drove a van around town delivering vegetables and I liked him. He also once hung out with me and my "band" while we butchered a Marshall Crenshaw song for hours.

Word spread like wildfire. The toga dance that was scheduled for that evening was in jeopardy until the school decided that it would be better for everyone to have a place where they could get together. I vividly remember putting my head on a cute girl's bare shoulder and knowing that nothing would ever be the same.

I'll leave the ruminations about why, how could this, etc. for those who faced this terrible tragedy with people much closer to them than I was to Mark. Since I know that their pain far outweighs mine, I can only say how much that scares me. I was demolished.

The funeral is a blur. Fittingly it rained and I remember walking from the funeral back to Tom's house enjoying the fact that my suit jacket was being ruined. That seemed more than appropriate to me.

Shortly after that, my two buddies and I stopped playing covers and started writing songs. They were the guitar players and I was the singer so it fell to me to write lyrics. Once I started I couldn't stop. We wrote two albums worth of material in as many months and I had reams of lyrics to spare.

That was 20 years ago and I haven't stopped. As I prepared to return for my 20 Year Reunion this August, I'd written thousands of poems and hundreds of songs. I don't pretend that sheer volume counts for anything; my point is simply that the event transformed me into a writer, for good or bad.

I've been in a series of bands since that first one over 20 years ago. Bands called One Man Out, The Mahoneys, The Altar Egos, baby monolith, Coyote, The BOMS, New Mischief. But none will ever mean as much to me as the first. Just me and my buddies telling each other how we felt.

Our name came from something a teacher said in the class Justin and Tom shared that dealt with civics/US history/politics. Mr. Laffey was a Boston College intellectual who'd played linebacker back when helmets were leather. He talked about the conflict between generations and classes.

He said there was a clash between the old and the 'fecund' youth. And voila. We were, and still are decades later, Fecund Youth.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bono Beckons

I am an early adapter when it comes to music. I bought U2's 'Unforgettable Fire' for my best friend when we were in 8th grade. No one had even heard of them yet and he seemed a little bummed about my gift. Two weeks later he had flipped out about them. By the time 'Joshua Tree' exploded, I'd already moved on.

Now, I am not knocking U2. I own several of their albums...'Achtung, Baby' (shut up, Mike!), 'Joshua Tree', the underrated 'Pop', and 'How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb'. They have gone beyond mere critical judgement into cultural landmark status. But do I sit down and CHOOSE to listen to them? No. If they come up on iTunes random I might let the song play out, but more often than not I'll skip 'em.

So here's my U2 timeline. I bought 'Unforgettable Fire' because of 'Pride'. They didn't sound like anything else on the radio and that appealed to me. Shortly thereafter I really got into hardcore punk music and I moved on. I thought 'Joshua Tree' was amazing but I don't think I bought it.

One of my good friends was a true believer. He called me up to say that he'd stumbled upon 2 third row seats for their show that evening at the Boston Garden. Did I want to go? Hell, yeah! I cancelled my plans and we met up in the afternoon to make the 2 hour drive north.

Now, I'd never been to the Boston Garden but it was a special place for me, being the home of the Boston Celtics. At this time, Larry Bird was at the height of his powers and you couldn't get a ticket to a home game if your life depended on it. I'd also heard my Dad tell stories of going to see the Bruins play in the afternoon and hiding in the bathrooms until the Celtics played that night. I imagined him and his buddies to be like the Artful Dodger in 'Oliver', smoking cigarettes at age 10 and giving the cops a hard time.

Up until that point, I'd only been to medium size clubs or bars to see bands. This would be my first arena show. Third row no less! U2!

They were at the absolute apex of their fame at this point...that new fame where everyone seems amazed and energized by the spotlight. Their music had opened up and easily filled the space in the Garden. This isn't easy. There are very few bands who don't lose their essence when writ large. U2 seemed to swell right along, in fact it seemed as if they might burst the roof off of the joint.

3rd row sounds really close but in reality it is still a good 60 feet away and the stage was raised. But we could see the expressions on their faces, the sweat, the wonder. So when Bono asked for a volunteer from the audience to play 3 chords, we went insane trying to get noticed. I was still a novice on guitar but I could sure as shit play 3 chords if I had to.

I became a flopping rag doll aching for attention. I screamed Bono's name. I am embarassed to recall these details. They chose the GUY SITTING RIGHT NEXT TO US.

Moments later, there he is, onstage at The Boston Garden with U2 playing guitar next to The Edge.

So close. But they were so good that this close shave didn't diminish my enjoyment of the evening. They turned the lights on in the building for their encore and left the crowd singing along to 'How long?' 15,000 of us filed out still singing.

I'd grown accustomed to musical expression designed to hit the back of the room, not a football field away. I am still blown away by the sound they managed to make, just 4 guys. 4 guys!

This would have been 1987.

Cut to January 2002. I am visiting Los Angeles to scare up auditions for pilot season. I am still in shock from 9/11. The Patriots have made it to the Super Bowl. At the very last minute, my cousin swings a couple of extra tickets. He's pulled strings. My buddy Jeff and I have about 8 hours to plan. We cannot book a flight into New Orleans directly, they're all sold out. We have to fly to Dallas first and then drive the 8 hours to New Orleans. We are pumped.

I am a huge Patriots fan but I've never been to a single game. My first Patriots game will be the Super Bowl. Amazing.

Jeff and I are like 9 year olds as we go. We aren't wearing big foam # 1 fingers, but we might as well be considering how we're acting. Our rental car is a giant gray granny Oldsmobile. We exit the airport, make a beeline to a Circuit City, and buy a radar detector.

We average 100 miles an hour across Texas. Turns out the radar detector isn't necessary as people are passing us left and right. We are supposed to be meeting a group of folks at Emeril's restaurant that evening. It is Mardi Gras on top of Super Bowl weekend so New Orleans should be insane. I've never been so I'm going to get the ultimate show.

We roll into New Orleans, roll out to the restaurant, eat an amazing Emeril meal, revel in our good fortune, enjoy each other's company. The next day the Super Bowl looms!

Paul McCartney comes out and sings 'Freedom'. Terrible song, but it is Paul freakin' McCartney. The echo of 9/11 is powerful and Jeff (a fellow former New Yorker) and I are moved. But there is a game to be played!

The first half is hard fought and we are in the game. When halftime starts, there is an unbelievable flurry of activity on the field as the workers create a huge stage for the halftime show. The lights go out and the crowd goes crazy.

Almost 15 years after I inadvertently saw U2, here they were again. The stage is a giant red heart. I know they played more than one song, but I can only remember 'Beautiful Day.' During the entire performance, the names of those who perished on 9/11 scrolled over the audience in light. All of a sudden, the Super Bowl seemed like an after-thought. I was at this game to see this.

Up until Super Bowl Sunday, I'd maintained a defiant stance in regards to 9/11. I was lucky enough not to have had any direct loss. I didn't feel as if I had a right to lose my composure when there were so many who'd suffered so much more. But there, in the Dome, under the care of an Irish rock band, I shook off the shackles that those bastards had thrown around me.

I reclaimed my right to grieve for my homeland.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Monster At The Pixies

During my rock and roll years in Rhode Island, I had chance after chance to see The Pixies play. They shared a label with Throwing Muses, a great RI band, and they seemed to play together a lot. I wanted to see both. Well, I eventually did, but only years later and not together.

Throwing Muses played Summerfest in Central Park and I finally saw them. Great show, but somehow I don't feel like rock and roll is served well OUTDOORS. The very nature of the music calls for containment to rebel against, a context that conflicts with the chaos expressed. That being said, Throwing Muses were a force to be reckoned with. On a side note, their song 'Hunkpapa' has somehow become associated with my own Dad, so they will always have a hallowed place in the O'Malley household.

The Pixies were another story. When I heard that they'd broken up, I was very upset. I'd passed up opportunity after opportunity because I always assumed that I'd see them one day. They were always playing, and even once I'd moved to New York, I felt as if it was even more likely that I'd see them there. But it wasn't meant to be. The usual frictions split them up (drug use, creative control, etc.) and The Pixies were no more.

I continued to follow Frank Black...his solo records were chock full of awesome teeny rock songs, expansive anthems, and weird obsessions. The playing was tasty, the sound was crisp, the songs were great. There didn't seem to be any of that 'who is he without a band' hangover that most front men go through. He was instantly Frank Black and had a mystique all his own.

Meanwhile, his (and The Pixies) influence was EVERYWHERE on the radio. You walked out your door in the morning and tripped over a band ripping them off. Much like The Replacements, they had to watch other lesser lights buy mansions off the back of their style.

Time passed. I moved to L.A. in the fall of 2003. Life was strange. I catered to make ends meet in between auditions. I spent most of my time on the phone with my girlfriend or on iChat with my son who had moved to Maine. These dual separations led to perhaps my darkest hour. I don't mean some emergency room stay, jail time, no, just your ordinary garden variety crisis of the soul.

By the fall of 2004, I had begun to unravel. It seemed as if every aspect of my life was out of joint. Nothing was functioning smoothly. This started to manifest itself in lots of unpleasant ways. Specifics? Not all that important. But a rage settled over me like an invisible net.

Oh, there were mitigating factors, of course. A whole slew of new friends, great creative projects (plays, music shows, etc.), the Red Sox...ah, the Red Sox! They fit into this story somehow too.

It was the night of the first game of the World Series. I was on an unbelievable high from their improbable/impossible comeback against the Yankees. They were playing Game 1 against the St. Louis Cardinals. I was catering in the morning. And what was I doing that night?

The Pixies had reformed. And they were on tour. There was no way I was going to miss them this time. They were playing down in Anaheim in some outdoor stadium. I bought 2tickets and wound up planning to attend with a new friend.

Then everything went wrong. The party I was working started late. I thought I'd have time to go home, shower off the booze I'd been slinging, pick up the tickets, pick up my friend, and head down together. Now, he'd have to pick up the tickets for me and meet me in Anaheim. I left the party as soon as I could.

Now, on any other day, this kind of thing would have sent me into a fury. For whatever reason, this night was a turning point. I met the setbacks with a sense of calm, even appreciation. "This means I'll get to listen to the Sox on the way down!" "I'm still getting to see The Pixies!"

This kind of reaction is NOT the norm for me. I rail against inconvenience. I am a control freak.

Traffic was insane on the way down to Anaheim. Why? Who knows? What should have taken me an hour took two. Did I lose my composure? Nope. I listened to the Sox and took it all in stride.

I got to the Stadium just in time to hear Bellhorn hit the homerun that put us up 11-9. I hadn't let any of the obstacles ruin my mood. I was very proud of myself. My friend Andy was waiting in the parking lot with the tickets and the payoff was going to be seeing a legendary band reunite for people like me who had missed them the first time around.

They didn't disappoint. Their sound expanded beautifully to fit the large space. It felt immediate and vital and part of the present. Not some trip down memory lane.

Then he showed up.

I sat in the front row of seats in a section right above one of those walkways that go from one side of the arena to the other. We were 8 to 10 feet above those who walked by and had a perfectly unobstructed view of the stage. On either side of us were empty seats. The place was packed but there was so much room to move around that many seats weren't filled.

Andy sat on my left. A few seats away from him sat a couple of girls. Suddenly a force of nature rustled past them into the seats between. He sat fuming. He punched the concrete wall repeatedly. He leaned over the railing and screamed at the top of his lungs at passersby, startling them greatly. He yelled things like "I will kill Pixies!" Then he would fall silent with his head in his hands. Andy and I exchanged glances with the girls on his left. When he leaned forward to terrorize, one of them mouthed "Don't leave us!"

On any other night, I might have been furious with this violent intruder. But tonight? I felt one degree removed. Like this could be me without a support system and with one too many nights of partying. There but for the grace of god. I saw his knuckles become bloody with each successive punch. I wanted to help him but I knew that any interruption would be taken as a challenge, as aggression. He was pure agressive id.

The day had been a lesson for me already; this monster seemed like a message from god. At my core is a rabid beast seeking conflict. Left unchecked I am a wall puncher of the first order.

Somehow, 15 years after I'd first had my chance to see The Pixies, I finally turned a corner. He eventually stormed off, screaming as he went. He'd never remember the music, he'd never know how many people he'd frightened. His life was a funnel of disdain.

Andy had to leave early. I sat in the crisp air alone and let The Pixies do their thing. I'd chosen to be there, after all.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ran Cold, Now Hot

To doubly prove yesterday's post, I will now go down the same list through the eyes of a newly smitten lover...

# 1: Lyle Lovett: Yes his hair is too much. Yes his face is lopsided. Yes he sings not out of the SIDE of his mouth but seemingly from all the way in BACK of his mouth. Yes his brand of goofy artsy cowboy/ranch-hand can seem like the flimsiest of poses. But then he comes out with something as classic and honed as 'If I Was The Man You Wanted.' You forget about him for a second and are transported into some world where dust and rope are what men know best. Where the beat of hooves is heard more often than the beat inside a woman's breast against your own. Where the sky can not contain your grief.

# 2: Van Morrison: It is harder for me to dig into why people love Van Morrison because my opinion of him has twisted so greatly from appreciation to disdain. But if you want to figure out WHY Van Morrison is one of THOSE artists that still seem to make news decades after starting out go back and listen to 'Astral Weeks'. He and his acoustic guitar are a band in and of themselves. Around him play members of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Their parts seem almost like angels. He is a soul in trouble and they are buoying him, helping him cope. This was well before he started believing he was the next coming of Ella Fitzgerald so his vocal serves the song instead of the other way around. 'Slim Slow Slider' is amazing.

# 3: Primus: When Les Claypool stops wearing penguin suits and takes himself even the slightest bit seriously the results can be astonishing. There is something terrifying in his view of the American experience which makes him the perfect author of the 'South Park' theme song. How can you dance to Columbine? Well, you shouldn't but he'll make you. Try 'My Name is Mud' on for size. Probably their biggest hit, it tells the strange little tale of two friends. Shoes are stepped on. Murder ensues. Murder songs are a grand tradition in rock and roll; Primus brought that history into a much more disturbing realm...reality.

# 4: Wilco: Sure Tweedy is tired. But is there a rock band out there right now that epitomizes American music more than this one? They are like The Band in that they are so authentic that they are almost anonymous. I won't even bother to highlight a song they have so many. Now that I think about it, I don't know why I included them on yesterday's shit list.

# 5: Bob Mould: Here's another one! This guy is a rock legend, a true guitar hero and I tore him a new asshole yesterday. I ought to be ashamed of myself. He is a genre unto himself. On 'Workbook' he brought a delicate acoustic feel to songs of emotional fury so intense they could only be categorized as bombast. 'Brasilia Crossed With Trenton'? I mean, who else could write that song? Something changed lyrically along the way and he stopped reaching me directly but his riffs are always tasty.

# 6: Leonard Cohen: Whenever I try to give up on Leonard Cohen, I try to remember that as we speak he is probably preparing gruel for a society of monks that he lives with. This guy is a true renegade. One song in particular is ruined for me forever and it is probably my favorite. On Rob Wasserman's amazing 'Duets' album, he covers 'Ballad of the Runaway Horse' with Jennifer Warnes. (Yes, Joe Cocker 'Love Lift Us' THAT Jennifer Warnes). It is 6 minutes of a stand up bass and her voice and the story of a girl trying to tame a horse. Somehow this elegy to unrequited tragic love seemed like a good song for my ex-wife and I to dance to as our first dance at the reception of our wedding. Yikes. You could practically hear people saying, "Maybe I should have objected when I had the chance."

# 7: Pearl Jam: Here are two things I like about Pearl Jam. They hit worldwide fame and then deliberately went anonymous. They downsized. That makes them very cool in my book. They have lasted. That's one. The other one is a little more involved. My sexy girlfriend had/has a deep crush on Eddie Vedder. Now, she is a true music fan who has turned me on to many of my favorites, so I have to respect her opinion. When she was in college, Pearl Jam were at their height of fame/visibility/powers. She went to see them, front row, and she ripped off her shirt to throw up to Eddie Vedder. She wore a bikini top underneath because she anticipated this frenzy. The world needs hot girls like her to show their appreciation in this manner. I applaud.

# 8: Roxy Music: In the 1990's you could get a girl to sit in the dark with you if you gave them a little bit of wine and happened to play 'Love Is The Drug'. At first they'd be all 'His voice is funny!' Then they'd ask how you heard of this band. Then they'd ask to see the album cover. Then they'd giggle at the nipples. Then you both knew that girls had breasts with nipples. Then they'd make you turn the light back on. But it was close!

# 9: Weezer: I actually really love Weezer. My aforementioned sexy girlfriend put 'El Scorcho' on a mix tape for me and it blew my mind. Still does! The goofy rap lingo in the gnarly punk riff; the beats! Man, they have sick beats. We saw them play at Jones Beach and they were ON. Weezer shouldn't be on yesterday's list, actually. Their latest song 'Beverly Hills' had me toetapping but then I soured on it really fast. However, this is an original American sound. Rivers Cuomo is such a wild card; he could wind up serving 20 terms on some Town Council and turn his back on rock entirely. The only frontman who seems like your Civics teacher.

# 10: Arcade Fire: I am not wrong about these guys. They suck.

Grand Prize: REM: The little band that could. Has there ever been a more unlikely success story in rock? They aren't sexy; they aren't scary; they aren't funny; they aren't loud; they aren't soft; what the hell are they? But I gotta hand it to 'em for 'Losing My Religion'. A perfect pop song about...uh, about...umm. A perfect pop song!

My apologies to these artists for stringing them along and flip-flopping emotionally. But like I said. Love is a bitch.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Left By The Wayside

I am a fickle lover. My affections rev from zero to infinity in no time at all and occasionally at top speed I hit the ejector seat. I know, it is cruel, it is unusual, but I am not the US court system. I am a music lover.

My collection is rife with flings, all out love affairs, obsessions where I drop all other suitors and focus all my attention on one artist. I spend too much money on them, I imagine a future with no other possible options, in short, I freak out.

Some of these mad crushes slowly morph into long deep friendships. Some are like that person you hook up with repeatedly over the years, never quite letting go of the romance, but never diving all the way in. Some flame out and leave you wondering, "What the hell was I thinking?"

This post deals with the unfortunate latter category.

# 1: Lyle Lovett. Yep, he got me. I bought Lyle Lovett and His Big Band, I marveled at his quirkiness, I cheered when he snagged the most famous girl in town, and I stopped caring before she did.

# 2: Van Morrison. I had an album of Irish standards that he did with The Chieftains which I listened to non-stop for a semester in college while living in a house with a couple of classic-rock fans. At the end of the year we had a drunken CD swap where you could choose any CD from the other guys. One of them took the Van CD. I think I got 'Pink Houses' by Mellencamp. At the time I felt robbed. I never repurchased the Van. In fact, whenever he comes on the radio I cringe. To me, he is the sound of too much fat in purple tights.

# 3: Primus. I first heard Primus while driving home from one of my first shifts working in a group home for adults with developmental and behavioral disabilities. Perhaps the intense nature of the work made me open to silliness, but Primus got to me right off the bat. I remember seeing a hot air balloon festival taking off as I heard them blast out of my Karmann Ghia's hot Bose speakers. Their virtuosity is extreme and the vision is perfectly articulated. However, when I hear them come up on my random iTunes now, I immediately get annoyed...something akin to a neighbor's annoying kid wanting you to come over and look at his science project.

# 4: Wilco. This one will be controversial to a whole slew of well-meaning smart people out there. The only Wilco I can stand anymore is the Billy Bragg/Woody Guthrie collaboration they did. And that isn't really Wilco, now, is it? The music is always well done, but I hear Jeff Tweedy sing and I want to pop him in a cold shower. Wake up and sing, Jeff!!! Being tired is not a great basic stance for a front man.

# 5: Bob Mould. This one hurts deep. Like the girl you almost married and come to find out she was cheating on you all along. With women. And inviting other guys to participate but not you. It cuts right to the core. I've written in this blog about his band Husker Du. His first two solo records were more important to me than almost any other music for that couple of years. I saw his next band Sugar on their debut tour. I thought that they were going to catapult to superstardom. Then I heard the album and wondered where that band had gone. Cut to a decade later and he's writing scripts for the World Wide Wrestling Federation and being forced out of the closet. He ought to have been the gay Jimi Hendrix and instead he seems more like Trent Lott. Total disappointment.

# 6: Leonard Cohen. I'm sorry, I fell asleep while tyyping this entry.

# 7. Pearl Jam. Their debut came out while I lived in France and I wore the CD out. Thank god. Somehow Eddie Vedder seems to think that a horse whinnying in a water trough is the most emotional sound ever created. But, Eddie, even horses whinny on KEY.

# 8. Roxy Music. Yes, they showed naked girls on the cover of their album and they pretended to be all sexy, but honestly, is there anything sexy about this music? It's like a plumber put on a velvet suit.

# 9. Weezer. I still love 'Pinkerton'. But in keeping with the failed relationship theme, Weezer is like the great date you had with a chick who wound up being both boring and crazy. I once dated a girl who kept bread in her purse and her hands were somehow sweaty and dry at the same time. Sure, we did a pub crawl in Newport, RI that started in a mansion and wound up on a tall ship but, dude, I actually KISSED her at the end of it. Ewwwww!

# 10. The Arcade Fire. You go to a party. The people at the party are all super cool in that effortless/effortful way. Every piece of clothing is strangely cut, cool beyond belief. The girls look great in a singular fashion. The glass you drink from is thrift store chic and the beverage inside it tempting. A strange girl with funky glasses and an oddly shaped purse starts a conversation. You have everything in common. She leans in close. Her hand is on your arm. She asks if you'll take her home. So far, this is the greatest party you've ever been to. This girl could be THAT girl, the one you meet who changes everything. You slowly leave the party, making friends as you go. Everyone acknowledges that you two are already an item of sorts, it seemed inevitable. Hipster dudes are congratulating you in that non-jock hide-the-testosterone way hipsters have. You are about to score. You take her car, a 50's thing with fuzzy dice. She opens the door to her apartment, a cozy one-bedroom over a garage. Her ferret bites you before you cross the threshold. Too much quirk. And stop copying Bruce Springsteen and pretending you're all homespun and shit. God, this band gets on my nerves.

Grand Prize: REM. Wow. I had every album there for a while. Had 'Chronic Town'. Loved 'em before they were famous. Cheered for 'em when they broke through to mass appeal. Woke up one day and realized that his voice got inside my clavicle and scratched on a million blackboards. It's better now that he's bald but still...

Now, are the above proclamations final? God, no. Love is a bitch.