Thursday, October 16, 2008

43 Greatest Albums: Prince - 'Purple Rain'

Now that Prince has played the Super Bowl it is hard to remember back to when he was still a fringe force. Sure, 'Little Red Corvette' and '1999' were smash hits but there remained an element of oddity to his presence. He pouted at the camera and stroked his guitar lasciviously but who the hell was this guy?

We were about to find out.

Nowadays it is common to see major musicians appear in the movies. It is almost like product placement. Britney, Pink, Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Lindsay, Harry Connick, Jr., J-Lo, Madonna, Dwight Yoakam, Tim MacGraw, Jewel-zegger, Ludacris, Ice Cube, Aaliyah, Queen Latifah, Eve, the list goes on and on.

Some reach for star turns, others try to find small parts in serious films, but the line between the music business and the movie business has never been more blurred.

But in 1984? MTV was still this giant baby, drooling all over us and crapping its pants on a regular basis. They barely played black musicians. The videos consisted of leotards and bizarre face makeup and sound stages. My parents refused to get cable TV, god love 'em, so I longed after MTV like a shipwrecked sailor staring at a distant freighter that I couldn't possibly signal.

Again, not to harp too much on the societal differences but without an Internet we didn't have too much warning. All of a sudden 'Purple Rain' was coming soon to a theater near you. Rated R. I was 15.

I remember seeing the video for 'When Doves Cry' first. Prince is in a bubble bath with flower petals. He insists on slowly climbing out of the tub. The groans of the song kick in and you get the uncomfortable feeling that you are looking in on someones porn collection. Interesting that they chose this song to kick off the airplay as it is a truly bizarre tune. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Somehow I got in to see this film. There were tits. Prince rode a little teeny motorcycle around and brooded in sequins. Symbolism ran rampant. Occasionally he would take to the stage and OBLITERATE it. The audacity of the whole thing was apparent to me even as my adolescent hormones raged for full control. My brain, while addled by blood loss, was still well aware that some cultural shift was happening. It was as if the rest of the country was one giant teen hormone as well, sighing in relief that someone was finally coming right out and admitting how horny they were.

Now to the music which is of course astonishing.

It opens with 'Let's Go Crazy' and the song itself invites insanity. A tightly wound little top spinning on a perfectly polished floor, it gallops along without effort until that guitar solo explodes it and then the top becomes a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the diamond studded mirror of a pimped out Cadillac.

'Take Me With You' lays it on the line and adds a layer of romance to the sheer cock rock of 'Let's Go Crazy'. It sounds vaguely feminine but Prince isn't afraid to let the girl wear the pants in the family so all we know is the intense longing that infuses the music with an almost tragic eroticism.

'The Beautiful Ones' starts to veer off into surrealistic territory. The keyboard figure that drives this song is a curlicue of obsession. It folds over and over on top of itself until Prince can no longer take it and he must scream out over the top of it and tear it down with the roar of his guitar. The universal pain of wondering whether you will be chosen by the one you crave gives this song an epic sweep that raises the stakes considerably.

Next up is 'Computer Blue' and it is an oddly prescient little ditty. Computers at this point were still off the radar of most folks every day lives. In comparing himself to these distant glamorous machines Prince carves an even stranger place out for himself in our consciousness. He barely seems human by this point, what with the metallic nature of his clothing, his other-worldly talent, and his deliberately obscure lyrics. At least, obscure until the next song.

One cannot overstate the effect that 'Darling Nikki' had on the young male population of this great country of ours. Prince had the balls to create a hotel lobby for us, one that had a girl sitting in it pleasuring herself with a magazine. The vaguely nasty tone seems to come out of his inability to trust lil' ol' Appolonia but the adult layer of twisted lust went right over all of our heads, pun intended. There she still is for all time, unconcerned with time or place, using whatever she has at her disposal to get the fuck off.

Now we come to 'When Doves Cry', the spark that set the tinderbox aflame. Apparently the album was ready to go to press and Prince pulled it back in order to make one change. He erased the bass line on this track. Go ahead and take a new listen. Once you notice the lack you realize how essential that space is to the effect of the song. It gives it that strange ethereal quality, that sense of alienness, of even alienation from itself, of OTHER.

Prince is about to put the album into a higher gear, revving the engine up for the home stretch. I liken this stage of the album to a flurry of fireworks right before the grand finale.

'I Would Die 4 U' is a perfect pop song, upbeat but not glib, intense but melodic, intricate but simple. Also, it is proof positive that Prince was ahead of his time. He was already texting.

After the insane variety that we've been happy witnesses to by this point in the album, can you blame Prince Rogers Nelson for taking a moment to brag? The joyous self-affirmation of 'Baby, I'm A Star' is well earned and it allows us the chance to agree. The darkness of the album falls away for a moment and Prince does indeed seem to be a light from the heavens, showing us the way. All we have to do is look up and there he is.

Lastly, 'Purple Rain', the title track. And if ever a title track deserved to be a title track then this surely is it. From the very first chord it is clear the kind of ride we are in for. And Prince doesn't disappoint, drawing every ounce of drama and tension into and then out of this song in moments of total release and abandon. It is 8 minutes and 41 seconds long and every inch an anthem.

Up til 'Purple Rain', we'd all been staring at a void. Bob Dylan, Prince's fellow Minnesotan, said a hard rain was gonna fall and it finally did. What he didn't say was that the rain would be purple and it would break its fall with a twirl and a split.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

44 Greatest Albums: The Descendents - 'Milo Goes To College'

In 1982 The Descendents put out their first full length record, 'Milo Goes To College'. Anyone who was familiar with the band, and there were several hundred of us across the nation, knew that the title of the album was not code of any kind. Milo Aukerman was their lead singer and he had gone off to college. To us they were already superstars. Their debut album announced that they were no longer really a band thanks to higher education.

If you heard The Descendents right now you might not think twice about them. But in this case context is everything. Hardcore punk music was rapidly transforming the music business against its will. Much like rap, it began to succeed in spite of the rigorous attempts of those in charge of mass media to squelch it. Most of the hardcore music was angry, political, naive, and boring. We listened to that section of the genre almost dutifully. But The Descendents were LIKE US. So like us that one of them was going to college. They weren't Wham! They weren't The Thompson Twins. The music they made that we loved so much was not lucrative enough for Milo to abandon his education.

There are 15 songs on the album, none of which clock in at longer than 2 minutes 14 seconds. I don't even know if I should bother singling anything out. This album is like a time machine for me, instantly dropping me back into my buddy Tom's room. We probably walked to his house from high school. We might have gone into a record store. We might have bought sodas at the 7/11. When we got to his house we rummaged through the cupboards and found something to eat.

We turned on his amplifier, he plugged his guitar in and we started playing the songs we wrote. We were no different from The Descendents who we probably just listened to. Tom's Mom would shout up to us and tell us to turn it down. So we would. Then we'd probably do our homework.

Justin would show up and we would bust each others balls mercilessly. Someone would get their feelings hurt, usually me. Feathers would be ruffled and then smoothed somehow without any real discussion. We longed for booze and weed. We lusted after chicks. We talked sports. We talked smack.

In the background Milo would be singing 'Suburban Home'. California pop run through a wood chipper. Imagine The Ramones are supposed to do a show in a garage that opens out onto Venice Beach. Their equipment is all set up and ready to go. But The Ramones can't do the show! The Beach Boys circa 1964 stroll up to the stage and offer their services. They play their set without changing the amplification at all.

This might capture the spirit of The Descendents. Throw in a dash of potty humor, outsider resentment, teenage hormones and you've got quite a brew.

I just came here from Facebook. If The Descendents happened today they'd have a myspace or facebook page 2 days after they got together. By the time I heard about them in 1984, Milo had already completed his freshman year.

I only wish they'd recorded the sequel. 'Milo Completes Grad School'. Which he did.

Monday, October 13, 2008

45 Greatest Albums: Bruce Springsteen - 'Nebraska'

I don't like the E Street Band. There. I said it and I don't care who knows it.

OK, fine, 'Born In The U.S.A.' is a perfect album but I think 'Born To Run' is overrated, 'The River' sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of one, and 'The Wild, The Innocent, and The E-Street Shuffle' is just embarrassing. At their worst they remind me of a coked out middle manager over-dancing to Journey in white jeans.

Most bands are BANDS. You can't separate one of the members from the rest. This is why the E-Streeters are ultimately session players and not members of a band. I don't care how many photos they put on the cover of Bruce leaning on Clarence or Little Stevie or Max. It is Bruce and whoever he brings along for the ride.


The E-Street Band did their best to uphold this mandate but who could live up to an all-encompassing quest for immortality? The true anthem occurs not with forethought, but with humility. Listen to 'Born To Run' and try to find a humble moment. You can't do it.

I also find it ironic that 'Nebraska' is considered Springsteen's first solo album. In my opinion his albums were all solo records, this one merely was honest enough to admit that he didn't need all those other guys, they were just part of his show.

Admittedly to this point this has not been a review of 'Nebraska' but a referendum on The E Street Band. While this might seem unnecessary it is vital in understanding just what makes this album so great and such a departure. Bruce recorded the songs you hear on 'Nebraska' as templates for the band to build from. They took these home demos and expanded on them in typical E-Street fashion.

Bruce then decided it was time to let the dream die. He scrapped the full band recordings and released 'Nebraska' as he'd recorded it...alone.

'Nebraska' begins with 'Nebraska'. As Bruce brings us along on a murder spree that spans the Badlands he immediately announces that this isn't going to be your father's Bruce Springsteen record. There is no glory, just a polite sociopath who is not sorry for his crimes, but glad to have at least 'had us some fun'. America is not the breeding ground for dreams but merely monsters who kill them.

'Atlantic City' brings us back East and into the shoes of a man who is about to commit murder for money. He's in a jam and can't see any other way out. He consoles himself by saying, 'Maybe everything that dies one day comes back' but it is small consolation indeed. Juxtaposing these two murderous narratives, Bruce dares us to find sympathy for either devil. Sure the down-on-his-luck would-be gun-for-hire of 'Atlantic City' is a pawn in some bosses game, sure his victims won't be quite so innocent as the drifter's kill in 'Nebraska', but victims they will be.

'Mansion On The Hill' is simple is as simple does. Poor man looks at rich man's house.

Next up on the docket is 'Johnny 99' in which a man is sentenced to 99 years in prison for killing a night clerk. The line 'I got debts no honest many can pay' reoccurs here and the economic thrust of the album becomes clearer. Is a man's guilt lessened by his circumstances? The men accused seem to think so but the horror of these tales doesn't allow us that kind of certainty.

Until this moment, the album is stark, finely carved, emotionally resonant, and haunting. It is about to rocket into tragedy and genius.

'Highway Patrolman' packs so much action into its 5 minutes and 38 seconds that Sean Penn made a movie out of it. It tells the story of two brothers who grow up on a farm. One goes off to fight in Vietnam, the other stays behind to work the land. They may or may not be in love with the same girl who marries the one who took over the farm. The farm goes under and the farmer becomes a cop to provide for his family. The Vietnam Vet comes back and can't seem to stay out of trouble, as much as his cop brother looks out for him. Finally he gets into a scrape that turns fatal and a car chase ensues. The Patrolman allows his brother to escape across the Canadian border. How Springsteen manages to pull this all off in rhyming couplets is astonishing. The human cost of crime and its collateral victims is brutally apparent.

'State Trooper' flips the coin to view law enforcement from the point of view of a criminal driving on the New Jersey Turnpike. He says, 'I got a clear conscience 'bout the things that I done' but still he prays that the State Trooper won't pull him over. After the first 5 songs, we share that prayer because the desperate men that people this world use murder as a means of escape.

'Used Cars' returns to the mind of the poor, as a young boy dreams of being able to afford a new car some day. The violence of the other songs persists, however, and that very dream of wealth seems like a surefire path to destruction.

'Open All Night' might have been an outtake from 'Born To Run', it's all chrome and wheels and late night driving and nowhere and no-how. But again, the context has changed so drastically that even these declarations of love and fidelity seem as if they'd been wrought with weapons, bathed in blood, cured in filth.

'My Father's House' drops an emotional A-bomb into the proceedings. A man dreams of his father's house. He wakes determined that their relationship will be repaired, that they won't hurt each other anymore, that they will love as father and son. He rushes to his car, drives to his father's house, and finds that his father doesn't live there anymore. The primal relationship is forever scarred.

'Reason To Believe' seems innocuous enough, a litany of woes that end with Bruce saying, 'Still at the end of every hard earned day/People find some reason to believe.' Upon closer inspection, this is hardly the uplifting gospel moment it appears to be on the surface. In the first stanza the narrator is laughing at a man who is prodding a dead dog with a stick. In the second, a scorned lover waits every day for the man who will never come back to her. In the third, he compares a baby being baptized to the death of an old man. In the fourth, he witnesses a marriage but later sees the groom waiting for the woman who has spurned him. The singer of these songs doesn't sympathize. There is a glint of amusement in his jaded eye, the eye of a man who laughs at the weak, manipulates the uncertain, kills the inconvenient.

This is not the sound of a man who is in a good time rock and roll band. This is the sound of a man who has decided that his band is for shit, his fans don't get the message, his image has preceded him like some sort of bullshit carnival barker, and the only connection he is able to muster is with drifters who kill for pleasure, money, or panic.

The album isn't called 'Reason To Believe'. It's called 'Nebraska'. The almost deserted setting that housed a man who thought it would be 'fun' to steal a car, drive off into the sunset, and kill everything in his path.

The scary thing is? He was born to run.