Friday, March 6, 2009

25 Greatest Albums: Husker Du - 'Zen Arcade'

Punk rock was all about stripping away the excess of mainstream classic rock. Hardcore was all about moving past even the constrictions of the punk movement. This movement wasn't chronicled in any broad cultural way but played itself out in inky self-printed zines and curbside club confrontations. 1983 was a moment of great promise in this small community, with everyone sharing a dissatisfaction with the status quo of 'regular' music while simultaneously sensing some sort of zeitgeist shift.

Husker Du came to the stage like marauders intent on defiling the sacred cows of non-conformity. Oh, we're not supposed to have guitar solos? Well just listen to Bob Mould shred on a flying V and know that Eddie Van Halen wasn't the only guitar god slinging hash that year. We're supposed to have mohawks and wear leather jackets? Just look at us in our midwestern shit-kicking get-ups. Drummers only sing in Night Ranger and The Eagles? Watch Grant Hart howl and pound.

Double album rock operas are bloated and pretentious?

Get a load of this, fuckers. 'Zen Arcade' is 4 sides of experimental, emotionally wrenching, loosely themed, bone-crushingly heavy and tragic music. When word got out that Husker Du was releasing a DOUBLE album, the hardcore community got its collective knickers in a twist.

When you look at the cover, you already know that this isn't your basic 28 minutes of sloganeering and teenage anger. The stacked cars of the junkyard. The crude colorization. The two slightly stooped figures. An iconic image. One that perfectly captures the alienation and decay contained therein.

In an oft told story, Husker Du had been spurned by Twin/Tone Records, the Minneapolis record label famous for The Replacements. They fled the local scene and signed with SST, the mother of all '80's indy labels, which was owned and operated by Greg Ginn who doubled as the creative force behind Black Flag. This was a strange union of midwest gay art house noise and sun soaked Southern California cock rock.

The 'gay' part of this story mirrors the strange oversight much of frat house America had in ignoring Freddie Mercury and even the name of his band. Both writers in Husker Du were gay but this never was discussed until well after the band broke up. American Hardcore, for all its supposed liberality and progressive thinking, was highly homophobic and aggressive.

It is also important to consider the conditions under which Husker Du recorded 'Zen Arcade'. They flew to Redondo Beach. They did a bunch of speed. They recorded 25 songs in 40 hours. They mixed 25 songs in 45 hours. At the end of 85 hours, they'd spent $3,200 and they had a 4-sided monster whose reverberation is still being felt today.

Most of the songs clock in between 1:45 to 2:20. What this does is lend epic status to the songs that stretch out even to 3:30 and beyond.

We follow a disaffected teen as he runs away from home. This is never explicit in the lyrics but it has come to be common knowledge among fans of the band and album. The opener is 'Something I Learned Today' which careens around just the way a kid storming out of his house might. It moves directly into 'Broken Home, Broken Heart' which lets us know how our journey is starting. The tone shifts with the third song, a shimmering acoustic chamber of regret by Hart called 'Never Talking To You Again'. The strange convergence of a punk anger and a folk sensibility makes for a tragic little interlude.

Things start to disintegrate and fracture here. Mould sings of 'Chartered Trips' which could be the actual trip the kid is on or a drug reference. Either way his surroundings have ceased to be familiar. They are obliterated with 'Dreams Reoccurring' which is an eerie wordless collage of piano and feedback. 'Indecision Time' is a buzzsaw of confusion and 'Hare Krsna' shows us how a vulnerable lost soul could find comfort in such an erasure of a personal trajectory.

And that's just Side 1.

During Side 2 the journey becomes increasingly treacherous. He moves 'Beyond the Threshhold' through 'Pride', 'The Biggest Lie, 'Masochism World' and eventually finds himself 'Standing By the Sea'. This song is a perfect Act ender, in that we've followed this flight, which has seemed to move from precariousness through false revelation and winds up in what ought to be a contemplative peace. But looking at the ocean is not a redemptive force. In fact, the waves of feedback create a mounting anxiety which threaten to sweep us away.

The sound, emotion, and energy of Side 3 are all at a higher emotional maturity. He has gone through the crucible of adolescence and has emerged scarred but somehow glorious. In 'Somewhere' which kicks the side off, Hart howls into his past and tries to imagine a place where 'the dirt is washed off with the rain/where there's happiness instead of pain'. Two songs later, Mould turns the view outward as the narrator starts to place himself in a larger context. 'Newest Industry' throws us into a soylent-green type dystopia where individuals are sucked into a machine that uses them without regard for their humanity. The familial anger of the teen who fled his dysfunctional household has realized that his parents are merely products of the society which birthed them. The side ends on an absurd note, as 'The Tooth Fairy and The Princess' proves that fairy tales have become obsolete in a world that chews up and spits out its young.

Side 4 is where Husker Du project 'Zen Arcade' past noble experiment into the land of genius and generosity.

'Turn On The News' is their finest moment on record. The narrator has synthesized all of his experiences into a new sort of consciousness. He is no longer trapped by his own story. He has looked past his own pain and sees how much trouble has befallen all of us. Hart screams for us to 'Turn On The News' as Mould shreds a guitar into an unholy alliance between Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Band and The Clash. When you stop to think that this is essentially a live track, your sense of the album all of a sudden shifts into overdrive. This is a perfectly articulated world view.

And then they BLOW IT ALL TO HELL AND BEYOND. Earlier there had been the short instrumental experiment of 'Dreams Reoccurring'. Well, when dreams reoccur, you wind up with 'Reoccurring Dreams'. This is the 'Dark Side of the Moon' of the hardcore world. Thirteen minutes and forty-seven seconds of backwards looped screaming feedback guitar, piano plinking and crashing cymbals and drum rolls. When you commit to the whole piece it is like being dragged into a fun-house mirror where you can't see yourself, you only see shapes and figures that have totemic and symbolic meaning. Moments happen and disappear. Then they reappear in different forms. Your sense of narrative and narration is stripped completely away. They make you forget that they are a three piece power trio. Your perception of them will not hold.

If 'Turn On The News' is the knockout punch, 'Reoccurring Dreams' is a sick and twisted victory lap around a stadium that is tearing itself apart.

After this album came out, everyone knew that hardcore wouldn't be able to hide its light under a bushel for much longer. The world was waiting.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

26 Greatest Albums: Nirvana - 'Nevermind'

This has been posted here as 'Quelle Chanson, Non?' already. But since I went back in time to France yesterday, I thought I'd stay there for another day.

Quelle Chanson, Non?

My fifth year of college (!) was spent abroad in Orleans, France at L’Universite d’Orleans. Up until that point, I’d lived in Rhode Island all my life. From the time I was 15 until that year my main contact with the world outside of Little Rhody was through various punk rock bands.

This is what ’83 to ’91 looked like for me…

7Seconds were from out West and toured relentlessly, singing melodic breakneck hardcore punk that thematically took on ‘important’ issues like racism, sexism, and ‘the-world-doesn’t-understand-our-mohawks-ism’.

Minor Threat were from D.C. and not as upbeat as 7Seconds. They were more attuned to the forces that lay behind the ills of society and therefore less inclined to sing passionately about being able to change it. They later morphed into Fugazi, another of my all-time favs.
The Midwest was represented by a two-headed hydra of searing punk rock, The Replacements and Husker Du. The Replacements were the ill-advised Thursday night booze-off before a big test and Husker Du was the all-night study session for a political science exam that devolves into a meth-fueled rage against some machine.

All these bands were connected to other lesser lights. Before the internet, there was DIY (Do It Yourself) punk rock. They started their own record labels, they printed their own LP’s, they drew their own posters. They toured the country in vans sleeping on the couches of their biggest fans.

Rolling Stone didn’t write about them, radio wouldn’t touch them with an any length foot pole, MTV was already in the business of creating megastars, and the majority of the public winced at anything that was LOUD. I vividly remember playing a Replacements song for a friend of mine in high school. This guy was a musician, a guitar player who liked heavy metal for Pete’s sake, but he simply COULD NOT HEAR THE SONG. All he heard was noise.

This scene would be replayed throughout the late ‘80’s for me, both in high school and in my first few years in college. I had my circle of like-minded friends. There were four of us. Tom, Justin, Joe, moi. We were occasionally a band, but more often than not we were intense spectators. To be a fan of this music meant a certain level of danger. Concerts were rag-tag affairs in which the crowd threw itself against itself as ferociously as possible. There were violent elements who were attracted to this kind of freedom and we often found ourselves rescuing punk maidens from slam-dance circles and avenging uncalled for elbows with punches. Skinheads, completely missing the point, weren’t dancing so much as they were trolling for conflict. Depending on our mood, we either gave it to them or didn’t.

Outside the shows this underground element would collide with ‘normal’ American life. The leeriness of capitalism was astounding. The feeling of ‘us vs. them’ was overwhelming. Restaurants would refuse to serve you. Store owners would deny you their products. Business owners would REFUSE YOUR MONEY. I could romanticize that whole aspect as having added some level of enjoyment, but to be honest, it just sucked. I had thousands of ‘what is the deal with THAT’ conversations with my co-conspirators. The justifications we concocted on behalf of our oppressors could never quite be pinned down into any certain set of criteria. Suffice it to say, we were, by definition, outsiders.

Did this status affect my view of said mainstream? In other words, was I as much of a douchebag to the world as the world was a douchebag to me? Of course not. I bought ‘Thriller’ like everyone else. I rocked out to Van Halen’s ‘Runnin’ With The Devil’. I lusted over Sade. I never cared for Madonna, but I didn’t SPIT at people who did. I even had some classic rock in the collection. My tastes ran towards punk rock but I could appreciate Duran Duran, perhaps the weirdest boy band ever. And Prince was from Minneapolis like my other two favorite bands. What wasn’t there to like about Prince?

But my open-mindedness was definitely not reciprocated. For some reason the music that meant the most to me was not just disliked, it was seen as a threat.

So, college happened in there somewhere. In between punk rock concerts, I did a ton of plays at the wonderful University of Rhode Island theater department. I had a series of disastrous relationships and abused alcohol. I HAD A BLAST.

I kept three majors. Theater, English, and French. My youthful enjoyment of Inspector Clouseau had improbably turned into a major. Thus everything about my French studies seemed vaguely comedic to me. The opportunity to live in France for a year was going to be a laugh riot. I’d completed 4 full years of college and only needed 9 credits to graduate. 5 classes per semester equals 15 credits, so you do the math. Over the course of my two semesters in France, I only needed to do less than one semester of work. France was in trouble, people.

That summer wasn’t exactly a victory lap of an exit. I got Lyme’s Disease and went through a horrific breakup. I left the country an emotional wreck and very unhealthy. In fact, I took the last of my antibiotics right before I got on the plane, hoping they’d done their work. I invested in an expensive CD Walkman and a small set of speakers. I brought two notebooks of CD’s with me, perhaps 20 of my favorites.

My first couple of months in France were primarily recuperative. I went to classes with my other Foreign Exchange students, I ate pleasant dinners with my host family, I went to every movie in town to get used to listening to French when I didn’t have to respond. I read in my little dorm room. I ate the same meal twice a day at the cafeteria. Slowly the language unfurled itself to me and social situations became bearable.

Two of my American friends had joined a local American football team and made some French friends. This was what I was after. Instead of hanging out with my classmates, other non-French speaking foreigners, I began hanging out primarily with French people. But America was about to reach out to me.

The campus of L’Universite d’Orleans is a 20 minute bus ride outside of the city of Orleans. We all began to spend far more time in the city and very little on campus. On one of these excursions, we stopped in at FNAC. FNAC (said as one word by the French, hilarious) was the French version of Tower Records. In a ‘holy shit I feel old’ side note, Tower recently disappeared off of the face of the planet.

I’d been in France a couple of months and I’d yet to buy any music, preferring instead to start smoking. So I wasn’t all that into going to FNAC, to be honest. I loitered, looking at French chicks. A song came on over the in-store stereo system. I AM NOT EXAGGERATING ANYTHING THAT FOLLOWS.

My memory of this moment is like one of those long unbroken movie shots…the camera starts up in the very highest corner of the store. The song begins and slowly the camera begins to swoop, capturing the silly French fashions, the funny haircuts, the multi colored crazily buttoned jackets, the pointy shoes, late ‘80’s American culture re-appropriated back to Europe and funneled inappropriately into Mass Appeal. The focus of the shot narrows in on the face of an obviously American post-teen. As the music builds, the camera nears his face as his mouth opens, his toes tap, his head bounces. He is obviously AMAZED at this sound. The sound obliterates everything else.

The camera stays in close up. The song ends. The next voice you hear you have to try to imagine a little bit. Do you remember the morning rock DJ in your town? Do you remember the inherent utter hyperbole in their speech? Now cross that with Inspector Clouseau…

‘Eh, mes amis, quelle chanson, non? C’etait le Number One des Etats Unis, la nouvelle son de…”

Interjection: Did I just hear him say that was the Number One song in the United States? When I flew out of Logan Airport, the number one song was ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It for You’ by Bryan Adams. It had just replaced ‘Rush Rush’ by Paula Abdul. Those were the big hits of the summer. Think about that for a second.
Cut back to gape-mouthed post-teen…

“…la nouvelle son de Nirvana! Smells Like Teen Spirit de l’album Nevermind.”

Dropping the camera metaphor, I could barely believe what I’d been hearing. I tore over to the Rock section and found Nirvana. Sold out. I had heard of them after they put out their ‘Bleach’ album in 1989 but I hadn’t bought the album and knew very little about them. I was almost angry. That song was Number One??? What the hell was going on back there???? I turn my back for one second and all of a sudden everyone can handle loud music??? Not only can they handle it, but it is THE MOST POPULAR SONG IN THE COUNTRY????

I seriously thought about getting on a plane and flying back to the States.

Imagine you work for a political candidate, Mr. So-and-so. You’ve been tirelessly campaigning for years. You’ve poured your heart and soul into a race that people seem ambivalent about at best. By some fluke, you are on a deserted island when the actual voting takes place. Your isolation makes you wonder what ever compelled you to get involved in politics in the first place. A plane flies overhead. Instead of rescuing you, it drops a newspaper on your head. The headline says, “So-and-So Elected in a Landslide!”

I’d spent the better part of ten years catching flak for how loud and out of control my tastes were, how what I liked was actually an affront to decent American consumerism, and that such a horrific assault on art and sound was everything that was wrong with the youth of today.

Bryan Adams was considered a ROCK STAR. Huey Lewis (god love ‘im) was a ROCK STAR. Now, I have nothing against either of these guys, but…come on. ROCK STARS? I don’t think so. Rock stars scare people. David Bowie is a ROCK STAR. Mick Jagger is a ROCK STAR. They scared people! They might even have slept together just to show the world they could do whatever they wanted! ROCK STARS change how people view the world.

I have never felt such a sensation of vertigo as I did that day in that French record store. One listen of that song and I knew that NOTHING would be the same when I got back to America. Name another song that could truthfully make such a claim.

One final note. I only got 8 credits and had to take another class when I got back Stateside. C’est la vie!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

27 Greatest Albums: Led Zeppelin - 'Remastered Box Set'

I was bludgeoned into liking Led Zeppelin. I'd made it through 4 years of high school and 4 years of college without being sucked in. To my mind, punk did loud better and heavier than this metal. They were tin foil to me, not steel.

I used to rag on my cigarette smoking dirtbag friends in high school who would fumble with their walkmans and cold fingers and light up Marlboros on the Commons and lose themselves in 'Houses of the Holy' or 'IV'. It was 1986 for chrissakes. Do you losers want to come out of the time capsule any time soon? You are missing punk rock.

It was a tragedy to me that these music lovers with an obvious affinity for volume, power, and aggression were wasting their time on a dinosaur when Husker Du was a whole new species.

College did nothing to dissuade me of this opinion in spite of the mullets and dorm room posters and classic rock radio blaring out from Cabriolets, Civics, and Grand Nationals. My tastes broadened to be sure. You can't go to 87,000 theater parties and not change some fundamentals. But I held Zeppelin at more than arm's length the whole time. I turned the channel when 'Stairway to Heaven' came on and I didn't really know too much about the rest of their work.

All of a sudden I'm in Paris.

My two closest friends during my time in France were Dane and Chris. Chris I knew from French classes at URI, Dane is from New Orleans so we met overseas. Dane somehow knew a French guy who had a studio apartment in Paris that we could use whenever we wanted as he traveled the world working for his Dad.

Chris had a childhood friend coming to visit, a next door neighbor who was like a sister to him. We took the train up to Paris to pick her up at the airport. We'd spend a couple of days in Paris and then head back to Orleans.

We bustled her from the airport to the apartment. She was pretty exhausted so we decided to stay in for the night. She is gorgeous by the way and Dane and I are already actively competing for her attention as Chris plays the big brother and tries to keep his lecherous friends away from his innocent charge.

We make a typical French dinner, which is a plate of ham, a plate of cheese, some olives and cornichons, and a couple dozen bottles of wine. We'd planned to go out and see Paris but pretty soon we are having too much fun to go anywhere. The apartment is very small and almost completely bare but for the mattress on the floor. And the compact disc player. And one disc.

Led Zeppelin's catalog, newly remastered for compact disc.

Dane becomes enraged at me when I slur the great Zep. He then proceeds to play their catalog in chronological order as we consume more and more wine. Chris' friend, J. we'll call her, is very aware that Dane and I are good-naturedly vying for her. She dances with one of us, then the other, then declares that she has to take a bath. She does and the presence of a naked girl in the next room sends the party into the stratosphere.

Dane Chris and I are drinking wine, screaming over the screaming Zep, and devouring ham and cheese. You'd think there were 300 people at the party. But there is just us.

Our reverie is interrupted by J. who needs a towel. Towel? There isn't even a chair, you want a towel? But there is something that will serve just as well and it is an appropriate substitute.

An American flag.

The guy who owns the apartment is a lover of America, as many young Frenchies are. He has hung a giant American flag on his wall. We rip it down and fold the naked beauty into the Stars and Stripes. I know it sounds sort of lewd, 3 guys and a drunk teenager fresh off a plane, but it was the sexiest, most innocent display of feminine guile I think I've ever witnessed.

She sat wrapped in the flag for the remainder of the evening, a stand-in for all the girls back home we were missing, the American girls.

Somewhere after midnight but before 5AM I finally got Led Zeppelin. And even though they're Brits, when I hear those drums, those guitars, that voice, I always see a hot naked American enveloped in the symbol of my homeland.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

28 Greatest Albums: Fatima Mansions - 'Viva Dead Ponies'

While in France I picked up a copy of an album called 'Viva Dead Ponies' by Fatima Mansions. Fatima Mansions take their name from a housing project in Dublin built in the 1950's. By all accounts, the place is a nightmare.

I seem to recall having a long distance phone talk with my Dad from France where he told me where the name came from. I hadn't heard the group before I bought it so I was running blind. I do this occasionally, buying something solely on the aesthetics of the packaging. I've made a couple of great discoveries and just as many duds. This is by far the best shot in the dark I ever took.

'Viva Dead Ponies' is almost impossible to take in. Stylistically it refuses to be pinned down, '80's synth throwing itself into the gnawing buzz saw of '90's distorted guitar, Irish tenor crooning suddenly dashed upon the rocks of nihilistic punk bellow. Cathal Coughlan, lead singer/songwriter/visionary, takes us on a tour of modern Dublin and it is terrifying.

Here is a track list.

1. Angel's Delight (4:32)
2. Concrete Block (0:16)
3. Mr. Baby (2:53)
4. The Door-to-Door Inspector (4:13)
5. Start The Week (0:25)
6. You're A Rose (3:31)
7. Legoland 3 (0:27)
8. Thursday (3:38)
9. Ceaucescu Flashback (0:13)
10. Broken Radio No.1 (4:38)
11. Concrete Block (0:27)
12. Farewell Oratorio (0:59)
13. Look What I Stole For Us, Darling (3:05)
14. The White Knuckle Express (04:15)
15. Chemical Cosh (01:42)
16. Tima Mansio Speaks (0:17)
17. A Pack Of Lies (02:52)
18. Viva Dead Ponies (05:13)
19. More Smack, Vicar (0:52)

I lost my copy of the album somewhere along the line and it went out of print. Melody tracked it down on eBay and bought it for me. Someday I might have to dedicate a daily post for each of the above songs.

For now I'm going to concentrate on 'You're A Rose', 'A Pack of Lies', and 'Viva Dead Ponies'.

'You're A Rose' is reminiscent of a Bruce Springsteen song played by Duran Duran wasted in a pub. Lyrically it is filled with the kind of paradoxes that litter the landscape of the album. The singer praises his lover for being a 'rose in a crown of thorns' but as the music mounts he describes her attributes as if they are contained in some laundry list of atrocity...

You don't mind the queues, the burning trains
The squalid, mute despair
You don't mind deceiving lovers
You ignore the stinking air
Well, now accept you're just a person
Not the touchstone, not the face
of the ages past, their grandeur
and the death-wish of the Master Race
You're a rose

The pop majesty of the backing track makes for very strange listening. It is one of those pounding anthems of love and devotion that are the backbone of rock and roll. But look a bit closer and Cathal Coughlan eviscerates what stands for loyalty and commitment in 3 minutes of sing-along depravity.

'A Pack of Lies' uses a rolling trill of a piano riff to give us a false sense of security. As this confection bubbles, Coughlan tells the story of a dying woman seduced into a marriage by a foreigner. He brings her back to his homeland and leaves her to die chained to a railing on the ferry. Returning to her country he is now exalted and held up as a leader. The song ends thusly...

The moral of this story is: This land's a victim-farm
Don't you ever feed a beggar here, he'll eat your fucking arm
And don't blaspheme the strong ones if you want to stay alive
Now smile and give them thanks when they say, "Here's a pack of lies!

All of this takes place over what vaguely resembles an Elton John/Bernie Taupin song stripped of all '70's bombast. The keyboard is ALMOST like a real piano, the voice swoons and growls, but all is contained and perfectly okay. In short, it sounds like a lie.

Except for the snippet 'More Smack, Vicar', 'Viva Dead Ponies' is the last straw on the broken back of the album. It is a desert howl funneled through a Dylanesque ghost town. As I listened, I connected it to a tradition. We'll call it the apocalyptic evil epic dirge. The Rolling Stones 'Sympathy for the Devil'. Guns 'n Roses 'Civil War'. The Bands 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'.

These songs tend to have a sort of folk song quality to them. 'Viva Dead Ponies' is no exception. Built mainly around an acoustic guitar, you picture the singer on a cobblestone street with a battered hat upturned and empty. The instrumentation sounds like a hostile invasion, as if the modern world is encroaching upon the purer artistry of another time. I'll reprint these lyrics in full...

(Retail groceries...)

Do you know how Jesus feels
When he's behind his sportscar wheel
And the windscreen glass is all gummed up with blood?
Do you know how old Jesus feels?

For he walks the Earth again
But not in Mecca or in Jerusalem
No, he sells papers and beer in a shop in Crouch End [London, England]
For he walks the Earth again

Viva dead ponies
Come out and fight me
Viva dead ponies
Customers: Drop dead

I have switched the fridges off
And I will burn down this whole stinking shop
I will get drunk and I will break every little Islamical law
For I have switched the fridges off

Viva dead ponies
Come out and fight me
Viva dead ponies
Customers: Drop dead

"Haven't made love for a while.
It's the best way to make a child,"
Said Jesus to the disciples.
He then further said, "If you can't shift
This crate of Brillo pads by Friday
Vengeance will be mine!"

So viva dead ponies
You're afraid to fight me
Customers--pay what you owe!
Viva dead ponies
back from the circus
They lunched with Jesus
Fire in their noses all gone, all gone...

Sadly, Fatima Mansions broke up before I could ever see them live. They released several other albums, one of which I own. But something about this album in particular strikes me so deeply that it almost defies articulation. Cathal Coughlan's voice is an ungodly mix of rasp and velvet, brass and whisper. Nothing can be taken at face value. Almost relentlessly desperate and depressing lyrically, the music counteracts those valleys with almost maniacal heights of release.

If you give over and sing along, you feel as if you are tumbling down whatever walls of Jericho surround you. Only to come face to face with a new unnamed much higher wall. Built out of material you cannot recognize.

This is one for the time capsule.