Thursday, March 19, 2009

19 Greatest Albums: Let's Hope It's Beck or Jeff Buckley - 'Grace'

The year is 1997. It is May and New York is blossoming. Maria is pregnant with what will turn out to be Cashel. We work together at The Hub, a channel on AOL. I am writing a column a week as Legs Urbano, investigating urban legends for the Urban Legends website.

It seems an impossibly naive time in the city. The internet boom is in such full force that money is being thrown at anyone with an idea. People still smoke in bars. Clinton is flirting with the whole world. In fact, one of the legends that had started to surface on my site was that Clinton had had an affair with an intern. Unlike the albino alligator in the sewer, this one was true.

Even that brewing scandal seems quaint now that we've had 9/11, Abu Graib, Cheney hunting old friends, fake yellowcake, and the collapse of the economy. We all gathered every morning at the offices in midtown and played ping pong until we had good ideas. We were making it up as we went along.

Several years earlier, when Maria still lived in Providence and we were doing the long distance dating thing, Jeff Buckley was playing an in-store appearance at a record store in Providence. I took the bus up and we went and sat on the floor as he sang a short set of material from 'Grace'.

In person he was somewhat of a disappointment. He was not as handsome as he seemed in the shots on the album and this made that seem like a bit of a pose. He was sort of a runt, stringy hair, a bit of a dirtbag.

But when he sang, all of a sudden the James Dean beauty that infused the photos on 'Grace' appeared like a shot. He became larger, larger than he'd seemed, larger than life. Then the song would end and he would shrink back down to the little scrawny dude who just didn't know what to do with all these people watching him. He seemed like a monk who all of a sudden has to pray in front of an audience.

To anyone who wasn't around when the album came out, you might not be able to fully grasp the feeling he brought out in people. He influenced so many singers that his style seems inevitable, like something that was there all along. But, no. If you go back to 1994 there was a grunt and groan aesthetic born from grunge that was passing for emotional depth. Jeff Buckley shot an arrow through the heart of that bullshit.

I can't help but compare the sound of 'Grace' to the vision I have of New York prior to 9/11. There is a simplicity and ease that can never be duplicated.

Working for an internet startup in those days meant that I was something of a town crier to my friends who weren't connected to the internet. So when word started coming in that a 'young white male rock musician' had passed away, I was one of the few who knew about it. There was a short period of time when those were the only details we had. Young white male rock musician. It was rumored to be Buckley but no one knew for sure.

One of my coworkers, no doubt busy creating a slide-show that would seem prehistoric today, spoke out into the common space...

"Let's hope it's Beck."

I've always been startled by the blackness of that comment, which never fails to make me laugh. And it seemed like after we found out who it really was, everything started to come apart at the seams.

Less than 4 years later, my marriage would be over, The Hub would be long gone, Bush was President, and the city was in flames. Thank god you could still stand in a bar and have a smoke.

But not for long.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

20 Greatest Albums: Joe Strummer &The Mescaleros - 'Rock Art & The X-Ray Style'

As far as I'm concerned, this entire Top 50 List could consist entirely of Beatles, Clash, Rolling Stones, and Replacements albums. So in order to shake it up and distinguish it from other similar lists, I've forced myself to include questionable entries, i.e. albums that I wrote, my sister and cousins wrote, and 'Chinese Democracy'.

So no, this album by Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros is not better than 'London Calling'. 'London Calling' has its place in the pantheon as one of the greatest albums of all time in any genre. So why should I write about Joe Strummer in place of that? Because.

I came to Los Angeles several times before moving here. Two days after Cash was born I was flown out on a callback for a beer commercial. That was my first time in LA. The second time I came I booked myself into an Extended Stay hotel for a couple of weeks and tried to scare up some meetings. The third time I came...well, that's what this review is really about.

Earlier that year, my cousin Mike had been visiting New York. As usual, debauchery and comedy ensued. This might have been the beginning of the 'Law and Order' skit that we've been amusing ourselves with, whereby a regular civilian when faced with homicide detectives, continues vigorously polishing silverware or stacking cantaloupes instead of sitting the hell down and answering the questions.

And Mike played me Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros. I remember we were riding in a cab somewhere, it was already quite late, and Mike said in that insistent tone I've come to expect great things from, "Dude, you've gotta listen to this album."

The Clash had been the true template for the band I'd been in in high school. As much as I love The Replacements, The Clash are the true height of rock and roll. Some famous quote called them "The Only Band That Matters" or something to that effect. And I think in many ways that was true. For my friends and I, their breakup was as crushing as The Beatles had been to the Baby Boomers.

And then Joe Strummer disappeared. Mick Jones pushed the boundaries of popular music with his rock/rap outfit Big Audio Dynamite, music that is still influencing the scene today. If you check out their stuff you'll not be able to believe it was recorded in the '80's.

But Joe Strummer? He was our Springsteen. Imagine that for the next TEN YEARS Bruce Springsteen was silent. Well, that's what Joe Strummer did. That's how punk rock that fucker was.

He'd put out the excellent 'Earthquake Weather' in 1989, he'd done some work with The Pogues, but it all felt like after-thoughts, like he'd decided to have some fun.

But when 'Rock Art & The X-Ray Style' snaked out of those headphones into my ears in early 2000 in a cab shooting up 6th avenue, I knew this was no after-thought.

Cut to LA. I'm again visiting knocking on mostly closed doors. This time, due to financial considerations, I'm staying at Cashel's uncle, my former brother in law's house. But I'm spending most of my time with Mike and Lisa in Venice. Mike excitedly tells me that Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros are playing The Troubador, the famed West Hollywood club. Mike immediately snaps up tickets.

I shoot up the 10 in my teeny Ford Aveo rent-a-car. In some strange fit of fiscal irresponsibility I've paid for every bit of insurance one can buy, even though my credit card supposedly covers me anyway. I am jazzed about the prospect of seeing one of the few heroes I have.

I exit the 10 onto Crenshaw. At the top of the ramp I skirt right through the tail end of a yellow light. It's about 2AM so traffic is slight. About 50 yards up Crenshaw is the ramp from the 10 going in the other direction. As I take my left onto Crenshaw that light turns green. I continue through it, thinking about Joe Strummer.

As I cross under the light, I see out of my peripheral vision a car barreling up the ramp. I realize they are not stopping at the light. They've come off the highway and must be going close to 50MPH. I brace for impact.

All is quiet. I spin, lights trace, wheel turns. I whip the wheel to keep myself from flying into the oncoming traffic of the other lane. I do either a 360 or a 720, I'm still not sure which and I come to a stop in the lane I was in but facing in the opposite direction. Imagine a car parked in a lane facing the wrong way. My brain was boggled.

The car that hit me was a giant American model. They'd taken a left onto Crenshaw, plowed through me and now pulled over on the overpass.

Here's where things get kooky.

In my head I can see the driver get out of the car and take a few steps in my direction. They are maybe 20 yards away. They are either a tall skinny black man or a short fat black woman. Both images are equally real in my memory. Perhaps there were two people in the car but I guess I'll never know. Because he/she got back in their damaged car and took off.

I sat stunned in my crumpled Aveo. An SUV was stopped at the light in the lane going the other direction. We were separated by the divider. The woman leaned out of her car and said, "You should get out of the're gonna get hit again."

I thought that seemed like a sensible idea so I put the hazards on and stepped out of the car. I walked around it onto the median strip. I felt soft and over-inflated. I sat down on the ground and called 911. Then I called Mike. He said he was leaving immediately from Venice and would be there in 20 minutes.

I could now see the damage to the passenger side of the car. It was considerable. The car had struck my car right over the back wheel well, which had saved my life. If it had hit me a second sooner it would have caught my car right in the middle and pushed me into oncoming traffic where I'd have been hit head on. As it was the whole left side was punctured and indented from the impact.

More kookiness ensued.

As I sat there, a car came chugging up from the ramp where my hit-and-run attacker had come from. This car was on fire.

A small white car, perhaps a Toyota Celica or something along those lines. It rolled to a stop directly across the street from me and the driver got out. He was a small Mexican man wearing a baseball cap. He ran across the street to a house yelling, "Agua! Agua!" Another man, perhaps his father, came running out with a bucket of water and proceeded to douse the engine. I knew this was a bad idea but I was still too shocked to try to communicate with them. The hissing from the water hitting the hot engine block sounded heinous.

The fire truck came and put the car out. It took a few attempts to explain to the firemen that these two cars were completely unrelated to one another. They asked if I was hurt and I didn't think that I was. Although my head was ringing and my ears were stuffed with cotton.

Mike came. He waited for me until the cops came which was quite some time. Apparently, if you're ever in a car accident in LA and need assistance, you have to say that you thought the other person had a gun. Then the cops will rush right over to you. But if there isn't a gun involved they have better things to do.

Needless to say it was pretty cut and dried since it was a hit and run. The extra insurance paid for the car which was totaled. I went back with Mike to his apartment and gingerly went to sleep, but not before I terrified Melody by leaving her a voice message which said something like...

"Hey babe. Got into a car accident. I'm at Mike's and I'm just gonna go to sleep."

She freaked out! Pictured me like the folks in the movie who just want to lie down after head trauma. But no, it wasn't that severe. However, I was rattled to a very intense degree. I was sore all over, very emotional, spacey, name it.

We didn't go see Joe Strummer.

I don't care about the car. I don't care about the occasional aches and pains I still get. I don't care about the shudder when I cross that intersection again, which I do at least 10 times a week.

No. I care that those fuckers drove up the Crenshaw ramp and killed my last chance to see Joe Strummer in person. He'd be dead in a year. They didn't kill me, though. You hear that whoever the fuck you are? You didn't get me.