Friday, April 25, 2008

Prince, Pt. 2: Madison Square Sponge Bob

Prince is a cartoon. I described him at Jones Beach as a special effect, as if he'd been computer generated. With any other artist I might have feared a letdown with seeing him for the second time, but I had no such fears with the midget dynamo from Minnesota.

Can we take a bit of a detour here? How odd is it that Prince is from Minnesota? Of all the urban landscapes that could have spawned the premier R&B funkster of the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, is there a more unlikely spot?

For whatever reason, R&B is considered an urban art form. Atlanta, Detroit, New York, Chicago...these hubs all have their own exalted place in the history and evolution of our national music. But Minneapolis?

R&B conjures up images of a decked out populace partying til the sun comes up. They are wearing slinky dresses, sharp suits, glittering accessories, and fine smelling perfumes or colognes.

It most certainly does not conjure up parking lots outside of music clubs with freezing people in rubber boots, mittens, gloves, hats, and hooded parkas scraping 2 inches of snow off of their windshields.

But from this milieu Prince Rogers Nelson came. By 17 there was a bidding war over who would release his first album. He signed his record contract on the condition that he be allowed to compose, perform, and produce every sound on the album. So when you hear Prince sing 'I Feel For You', the song that Chaka Khan would take to the top of the charts, you are hearing Prince and only Prince. Every sound is made by that little purple dude.

I imagine him as a teenager shaking off the snow and getting down to the business of being a musical prodigy. How do you find the time to learn how to play, among others, guitar, piano, bass, drums, keyboards, trumpet, and saxophone? All while playing varsity basketball? And preparing for a giant career that you've already got mapped out? About which no one who knows you has any doubt? How does this happen? Did I mention the dancing which is as forceful and capable as any Broadway showboy?

To illustrate how bizarre I find this location of talent to be, close your eyes and picture the Coen Brothers classic film 'Fargo'. Now splash Prince circa 'Purple Rain' all over that dreary snow blown whitewashed silence. To quote millions of tech savvy texters, WTF?

Well, it happened. We all have the evidence to prove it, from the DVD of 'Purple Rain' to last year's transcendent Super Bowl performance, to Coachella which goes down this weekend.

My second live experience with Prince came at Madison Square Garden, the only time in my 8 years there that I paid to see a concert. I saw Barenaked Ladies for free but that's another story entirely.

Ever the showman, Prince first appeared to the panting masses via some sort of underground hatch which he rose out of all in white in a blinding white spotlight. He was wailing away on his guitar while the band snapped immediately into some sick funk 100 yards away on the MSG stage. He then sunk back into the floor and reappeared on stage.

I won't even try to describe this performance in comparison to the one at Jones Beach because when it comes to Prince, there is no off night. He is Prince 24/7, sometimes more than that according to those who know him. He barely sleeps in order to pump out the volume of music that rushes through that teeny body.

Go back and watch the Super Bowl again if you can find it on YouTube. Remember that the man you are watching has an artificial hip from dancing for 30 years in high heeled boots.

Who else could pull this shit off? And he's from Minneapolis!!!!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Prince, Pt. 1: Jones Beach

For some reason I never thought I'd get to see Prince live. Most of the acts I followed throughout the '80's and '90's weren't popular enough to be a difficult ticket to purchase. But Prince? I imagined having to mortgage my parents house and hold a few hostages in order to get a seat.

It's hard to be a Prince fan. Seriously. He rubs people the wrong way, namely my hot girlfriend. I can understand that. If I were a girl he'd creep me out too. What could be stranger than having an effeminate midget bump and grind the top of his head into your midsection while telling you he wants to watch you touch yourself in the bleachers while he shoots hoops?

His sexual come-ons are juvenile and obvious, he seems to think he's the only dude who ever talked dirty or wished his girl would get freaky. Oooh, you blowin' my mind Prince Rogers Nelson! How taboo! You like titties!

But I just can't help it. I love the little guy. First of all, he's a mixed race midget from Minnesota which accords him instant underdog status in just about every category you could possibly imagine. Second, he plays every instrument known to man. Third, he is the Bruce Springsteen of R&B, putting on legendary concerts that last all night long and often continue late night at a smaller club near the arena.

My love affair with Prince started, like most of America, with 'Little Red Corvette' and blossomed into total obsession when 'Purple Rain' came out. Unless you were living off the grid and mailing letter bombs to city council members in 1984 Prince was ubiquitous.

Has there ever been a stranger chart topping artist? '1999' and 'Purple Rain' are wack-fests of the highest order. You get the feeling that you've been sucked into one of Prince's dreams and not just listening to his songs. My friend Justin once complained of Prince that his music just doesn't sound alive and it is a criticism that can be flipped into compliment. The songs are soundscapes that don't correspond to any blueprint, no matter how consciously he's echoing James Brown, George Clinton, Hendrix, The Beatles, whoever. They don't sound human, they sound Prince.

After 'Purple Rain' everyone wondered what he would do next. He made two more fictional movies that rank up there with 'Ishtar' and 'Waterworld'. 'Under the Cherry Moon' is my favorite album of his but it could possibly be the worst film ever made. My main problem with it is that there is no live performance of music in the film. Which leaves us with Prince's acting/physical comedy skills which rival Chuck Norris. Imagine Chuck Norris trying to sing 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag' and you'll have some idea of how bad Prince is in this movie. 'Graffiti Bridge' was even worse, so bad in fact that I never even saw it.

He fell pretty far from the height of 'Purple Rain'. Then he released 'Sign O' The Times' and all was right again with the world. If you've never heard this album get it immediately. He also released a concert film along with the album which is as good as 'Cherry Moon' is bad. Why? Because he leaves out all the parts where he's not performing music live. He runs through every number on the double album as well as a medley of his previous hits. It is a masterful film and a gorgeous live show.

I thought that was as close to seeing Prince live as I'd ever get.

Cut to New York City 1997. My wife (now ex) and I were expecting a child come October. We'd moved to Park Slope in anticipation of the big event. Actually, judging by the stroller congestion, moving from Manhattan to Park Slope after a pregnancy is a law of some kind.

My buddy Andy, who would come to be known as Quasi Uncle Andy after my son was born, called me up to remind me that his birthday was coming up. July 25. Who was playing Jones Beach that night? The little purple dude.

I was now enough of an adult to realize that tickets to popular events could actually be obtained if you paid attention! The ex is a big fan of Prince as well but couldn't be expected to boogie on down when she was looking as if someone had shoved a Volkswagen under her shirt.

Jones Beach is a dramatic place to see music outdoors. I am not a big fan of the outdoor concert. I think that a roof to rock and roll is like a lid on a teakettle. It won't whistle without the pressure.

But Jones Beach has a grandeur to it because it sits on a harbor. You see the ocean stretched out behind the stage and feel as if you are on some sort of cruise ship. Oddly the open sea creates a sense of intimacy. Our seats were floor level about 25 rows back.

Yes he played every song you might think he'd play. Yes the band was tighter than a drum. Yes he switched instruments left and right, drums, bass, keyboards, piano, etc. Yes he changed outrageous outfits just often enough to give the show a theatrical flair.

All of these things were memorable. But what I'll never forget, what I marvel at to this day, is his dancing. The mixture of execution and spontaneity were staggering. He'd be on one side of the stage soloing on his guitar which he would then throw offstage to a roadie while pivoting and twirling into a full on high step sprint which he detoured into a two-knee slide popping up at the last second to land on his knees on the giant purple piano's bench pumping his fist into the air at the exact moment the band cut away and finishing by playing some impossibly intricate piano piece.

He was a special effect. He did not seem human, much like the criticism levelled at his music by Justin. After seeing him live, I understood why his music sounded so alien, so non-flesh-and-blood.

Because he just ain't like the rest of us.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Element of Danger

What is that strange quality that a band or artist has to have to put them in the 'pay attention until they or I die' category?

The remastered Replacements albums have gotten me to thinking...as a fan I categorize music in several ways, ways that are often convoluted and contradictory.

Tom Waits is a good example. He's a genius in my mind but I've also completely stopped paying attention to him. His quirkiness has gone too far for me to stay engaged. There was a period of several years in the '90's when I might have proclaimed him to be my favorite artist.

Elvis Costello, same thing. His prolific nature has made following him something of a chore, like a homework assignment that you are actually interested in but don't give 100% on because you might care about the history of Belarus but there's that party on Saturday...

Bjork at one time held a sacred spot in my Hall of Fame. Whenever I hear her voice now I get the urge to be nasty to old handicapped ladies. Enough with the quirk. Enough with the 'we recorded this on an iceberg using didgeridoo, theremin, a saw, 243 kazoos played by the entire prison population of a small suburb of Reykjavik, and a deaf Barbershop quartet'. Seriously. I have HAD IT WITH BJORK.

How do some people not fall into the scorn pit of my derision? I don't know. I almost turned on Paul Westerberg after 'Eventually' came out. I left a concert of his well before it was over. I didn't buy the first Grandpaboy EP. I flirted with moving on. I'm actually ashamed of that now. It wasn't him, it was me. I was the one who was flawed and wrong, not him or his music.

There are very few artists who are safe. The Beatles, Paul Westerberg/The Replacements, Bob Dylan, Eminem, Ray Charles, Rufus Wainwright, Sonic Youth, Prince (although he can be EMBARRASSING so often), etc. etc.

My good friend Justin was in Vienna recently on a UN trip. He had a bit of free time and went to see U2 3D. He called me on his cell phone from across the pond to leave me a message that essentially said, "Why doesn't U2 do it for me? Larry, The Edge, Adam, Bono, and I'm just like, (imagine a disinterested shrug accompanied by the sound) EH."

This message started me thinking and led to this post. To my mind, what keeps U2 from grabbing my attention/love and hurtling it into obsessive favorite status, is that they are essentially GOOD. They don't scare me. And that illusory quality is important in rock music, yes, but also in any art. There should always be the sense that the everyday equilibrium is threatened.

To me, U2 are literally preaching to the converted. When they try to be sexy and rock-star-ish I get a little embarrassed for them. When they get topical and political I agree wholeheartedly but I can get that from parsing the New York Times. In fact, the only thing about U2 that fully engages me is, oddly enough, their religious music. Perhaps because I'm not an overtly religious man this seems like the most dangerous stuff in their canon.

My favorite song of theirs is called 'Wake Up Dead Man' off their widely panned 'Pop' album. It is basically a call to Jesus to come back and finish what he started.

See? Now that scares me.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

2 Words: The Replacements Reiusses Come Out Today!!!!

Replacements reissues.

I can't really even articulate what I'm feeling today. We've had some server issues at work which are going to prevent a full post which is just fine because my brain is out of control.

The first 4 Replacements albums (Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, Stink, Hootenanny, Let It Be) are all being re-released today, re-mastered, bonus material, etc. etc.

I just read an interview with Paul Westerberg in Billboard about the whole thing, then a similar interview with Tommy Stinson.

I am so excited I'm having a hard time thinking straight.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Studebakers Revisited

A while back I wrote about the chain of events that led to my writing a tribute song to Paul Westerberg. His song about Alex Chilton + They Might Be Giants song 'We're The Replacements' = My song 'Blame It On Paul'.

However, there was a link in that equation that had gone missing. Justin and I had tried to write a tribute to They Might Be Giants one fateful day in his backyard. There are probably about 8,746 entries to come about that backyard but for now let's just say that he had a river on one border of his house and a turf farm on the other and a lot of loud musical equipment.

We wrote a great deal of material out on that turf farm, beers packed in ice, acoustic guitar on Justin's arm. This was before I'd learned to truly play the guitar myself so I was still the singer. I used to be the lyricist but Justin was quickly becoming a lyricist in his own right. He also started wanting to sing. I was starting to feel like Van Halen inverted.

But I'm a dedicated fan as well as a performer. So it was quite an easy transition to make. We still collaborated from time to time, most famously on a cassette tape that is now buried on a median strip in France for reasons that Justin and I cannot recall.

The following lyrics were to be sung in a counterpoint duet, a la They Might Be Giants. We may have actually sung it a couple of times but it disappeared into the ether. Or, at least, the music did.

The words? I found them. On my recent trip home I was burrowing in the attic. I found roughly 75 notebooks filled with scribbling torrents that more often than not rhymed.

Buried deep inside these treasures (ahem), I found the following...

They Might Be Studebakers

She was a studebaker she drove me crazy
It amazed me that a studebaker could
Grow so big
A pig with charms that alarmed
The gas station attendant
A dependent chile could not grow so wild
As she - the studebaker
She was a studebaker her high beams
The extremes that always seemed to
Grow so big
S-T-U-D-E-B-A-K-E-R
S-T-U-D-E-B-A-K-E-R
No car from the mar (that's the sea to you and me)
Could grow so large as the studebaker
She was a studebaker
studebaker
She could eat all the stu the baker made for me and you
But stu many bakers
Spoil the broth
Time to change the oil
My blood began to boil
At the thought of the coil of her tail fins
Tho her name was Marge by en larged she was a barge
We called the studebaker

----------------------

I can't tell you the depths of hilarity that this assumed in the moment of creation. If our enthusiasm were the only gauge this song vaulted right into the pantheon of novelty/tribute songs far above 'fish heads' and just shy of 'turning japanese'.

Things can get a little weird out there in Usquepaugh.