R.E.M. — 1980 to 2011
now you’ve worked it out
and you see it all
Radiohead releases their new album this weekend:
If you want a traditional CD, you’ll have to wait until late March. It’s always an adventure to see where these artists have been traveling.
I was strolling to work this morning when I idly thought, hey, a great name for a band would be “Difficult Listening Hour”…then you could get away with playing any kind of crazy shit.
And then the chill went down my spine.
The initmatable Mead Hunter, who loves music as much (or maybe even more) than theatre–an obsession I, of course, share–recently posted some classic pieces from television shows on his blog (to wit: “They don’t make ’em like this anymore”), which prompted a bunch of folks to chime in (so to speak) regarding other memorable themes, and yours truly wondered who wrote the wonderful Saturday Night Closing theme song.
No one answered, so I took a quick tour through Googleland and found it was Howard Shore, SNL’s original musical director, and the tune is “Closing Theme (A Waltz In A).”
It never stuck me before as being in 3/4 time. What did strike me about it was the flood of memories it triggered, a lot of good times nights, probably a little bent, hanging with your friends…looking for heart of a Saturday Night. There was a time when Saturday Night was so much a part of the social fabric of my comrades that parties stopped when SNL came on…or at least shifted their emphasis. Saturday night kept going after the show was over, but it was part and parcel of the booze…and whatever…and laughs and tail chasing and whatnot that makes up life in your 20s. I can actually remember slow dancing to the tune with this utterly beautiful…but that’s another story, and a long time ago. And I can remember swaying arm in arm with friends as the cast often swayed arm in arm. It was kind of a time when you felt invincible and did everything you could to test it.
I still watch the show now and again, but it seems to have lost some of its magic. I was there at the beginning…I remember watching the first episode with George Carlin as the host and thinking: my God…what is this? How could something this good get on television? And for a kid living in the Northwest sticks, it was a window into a faraway hipdom that introduced me to musicians like Elvis Costello and Talking Heads. You spent Saturday Night in front of the TV for 90 minutes then spent two hours at the record store the next day. Like Rolling Stone magazine in its heyday, it sewed the tribe together.
Time passes on, as do Not Ready for Primetime Players and, more sadly, friends. But music remains, which is another reason we love it–because it can transport you to the deeply buried television or movie house or photo album in your mind. So here you go…raise a glass…and let your cynicism ebb a bit and the memories circle woozily: neon, tequila, cigarettes, and ratty couch full of ratty friends, who you love very much.
Nostalgia may be a trap, but, taken in small doses, it’s not the worst of drugs….
Lately, I’ve been going through one of my Missing New Orleans periods. It’s inevitable for anyone who’s lived there any time at all because, really, there’s no other place like it, and I think the hot weather stirs the memories (cue Louis Armstrong’s “(You Don’t What It Means) To Miss New Orleans” or Tom Waits’ “I wish I was in New Orleans (in the Ninth Ward)”).
Scratching the itch, I watched Les Blank’s documentary “All for Pleasure” about New Orleans and it’s year-round carnival mindset, including a lovely section on how cook crayfish during which the cook pours a shoebox full of cayenne pepper in the boiling pot, and there’s a brief bit where this all-American guy’s looking out his window at a bunch of happy drunks wearing green bowlers for St. Patrick’s Day, and he turns to the camera and says something like, “You know, there ain’t no place in the world where you can do that. Where you can just drink beer in the street and throw your cans in the gutter. It’s a place where you can feel a little bit free.” And he says it with such love that, even though it’s absurd, if you’ve lived there and seen pretty much, well, everything, and accepted it with a shrug, warts and all, you can’t help but feel your heart turn ever so slightly.
Also, nothing ever gets done down there. The place is falling apart. It’s a lousy place for ambition and worse for consistency (excepting certain traditions, for which there are no exceptions…like hangovers for Lent). So, for an ambitious artist who finds himself working harder and harder and sometimes wondering why and why, you have to have a Mardi Gras for the soul. And, coming up on my first-year anniversary of playing guitar, I think I’ve found a little Mardi Gras I can carry with me.
That is, when I play guitar–and granted I still don’t play and probably never will play well–the world just kind of goes away…and can just fuck off, man. The other day, a buddy came over, brought his Ibanez with a Gibson/humbucker set-up, and we tried a couple songs, had some laughs, told some stories (some of which we’d both told before but listened through again), and then at some point we tried playing “Police on My Back” by The Clash, and suddenly, when we hit that chorus (“Monday, Tuesday…”), we both fell into the same rhythm pattern automatically, and it was like…groove. And we both sat back and went, hey! Like good drugs, you immediately want more.
It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to be good. Nobody’s starting a band or looking to make money. I’m a professional writer and a semi-professional photographer, and, believe me, that’s enough pro art for anybody. But it’s nice to synch into that moment and feel the flow. Which really is what the blues is all about and what I bought the guitar to learn.
It’s one thing to have music in your ears. It’s another to have it in your hands. It’s your own little Mardi Gras, and it’s all for pleasure.
This is (mostly) Mead Hunter’s fault, but he responded to one of those questionnaires about the “15 albums that changed your life” and it’s like…oh man…I’m doomed to pick up such a thread. I’m just going to do 10 because otherwise I’d go nuts.
Here goes…keeping in mind this is my life and not meant as any kind of critical review. And not necessarily in order…just as they came to me.
1. The Rolling Stones: “Hot Rocks.” Naturally, me and the boys. “Exile on Main Street” is still my favorite Stones album, I love the “great four” that stretch from “Beggars Banquet” to “Exile” (and include the unforgettable “Let It Bleed” and the album that seemed to represent the darkest and strangest of my New York days, “Sticky Fingers”). But this one was my constant companion as a lonely, probably too bright kid burning up the backroads of Southern Oregon, and it led me to the blues and jazz, for which even “Emotional Rescue” and “Dirty Work” can be forgiven.
2. The Doors: “The Doors.” Psychedelics, revolution, Vietnam…did I mention psychedelics? It was all here in one shot, and it would have been epic if they’d never done another album. (Not the worst advice, though “Strange Days” was pretty good.) Sad to say, I’m still a sucker for “The End”…even writing about it makes me want to put it on…but “Break On Through,” “Soul Kitchen,” and “Journey to the End of the Night” (which led me into a lost period of reading Celine and Norman O. Brown, you bastards) are wonders.
3. Jefferson Airplane: “Surrealistic Pillow.” Have I mentioned drugs yet? There’s so much to love on this album, even when it’s stupid. Mostly, it was a fond look back on an era I was just old enough to taste the end of but too young to be completely drawn into. And one of my most cherished memories is riding on a warm summer’s night in 1967 in my cousin’s convertible in the hills above San Diego, the city below a sheet of diamonds on the velvet, bordered by dark ocean, with “Somebody to Love” bursting fresh from the AM radio.
4. Beethoven: “Ninth Symphony.” When my peers were listening to, uh, Foghat, I was down with the deaf German. Probably a more dangerous role model than the rock gods, but, my God, the “Ninth” is just the whole universe, isn’t it?
5. Miles Davis: “Bitches Brew.” Who could imagine? Who could still imagine? Davis opened the door to vistas you can explore for the rest of your life. “Kind of Blue” is still a masterpiece, but “Bitches Brew” is just the greatest, unholy mess imaginable. The only reason I don’t include a Hendrix album on this list is that Hendrix, though he doesn’t play a note on this album, is all over it.
6. The Clash: “London Calling.” At one point and time, this was the most important music being made. At least for a bunch of us. Though it seemed all elbows and knees, it was, at heart, as smart as it was powerful. Plus one the of greatest album covers ever (in the days when you could hang an album jacket on your wall for art).
7. R.E.M.: “Life’s Rich Pageant.” R.E.M. had already produced wonderful albums, but this one seemed to be some kind of jagged peak, a manifesto, energetic, mysterious, and hopeful at a time when all three were in short supply.
8. Tom Waits: “Rain Dogs.” Ramshackle, jangling, booziness in the back streets of New Orleans, New York, Singapore, wherever, in an eternal twilight of junk store craziness, come ons, hard luck stories, and broken hearts. An album you want to throw your arm around and clink bottles with. And mind movies to last a lifetime.
9. Bob Dylan: “Soundtrack from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” What? No “Blonde on Blonde?” “Blood on the Tracks?” Well, of course. It’s just this slight but moving collection of jams put a spell on me that ties, I think, to growing up in the West, in the country (and not some country-and-western bullshit country, but the real thing), and feeling the land as a part of your soul.
10. U2: “The Joshua Tree.” A personal selection, really. There’s greater music out there, but this came at a time when I was changing, when I was leaving New York and setting out for New Orleans, and soon would end up back in the Northwest, broke and starting over, and its echoing catalogue of empty spaces, nameless roads, and painful longing gave me a place to go to feel both promise and loss. Plus wonderful production values from Mr. Daniel Lanois, genius.
If I go into “honorable mentions” I’d be here for days, but just a couple need to be mentioned: Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps”; Elvis Costello’s “My Aim is True” and “Armed Forces”; Dire Straits “Love Over Gold”; Nirvana’s “Nevermind”; Ry Cooder’s “Soundtrack for Paris, Texas”; Warren Zevon’s “Excitable Boy”; Ride’s “Nowhere”; Johnny Cash’s “Live from Folsom Prison”; B.B. King’s “Watermelon Blues”; John Lee Hooker & Miles Davis “Soundtrack from The Hot Spot”; Marianne Faithfull’s “Broken English”; Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Robert Cray “Showdown!”; and, of late, My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless.”