Monday, March 23, 2009

"Jukebox villains" or "The power of Kim repels you"

I was sitting at the Red Dragon on Lyndale Saturday night, nodding my head to the bar’s always excellent jukebox roster of classic funk and hip-hop, when something unexpected fell upon my ears. Straining to hear over the barroom buzz, I identified the smooth opening strains of Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.” Assuming it to be the five-minute radio edit, I chalked it up as a welcome, out-of-left-field selection.

But when the song cruised past the five minute mark and started spiraling off into serious noise-rock territory, I realized there were mischievous forces at work. Some prankish hipster had queued up the full-length version of “The Diamond Sea” from 1995's Washing Machine, and the increasingly packed house was going to have to endure all 19 minutes and 35 seconds of its feedback-dripping glory. Maybe it was just the Red Dragon’s dangerously strong mai tai talking (seriously, it should be illegal to drink more than one of those things in a sitting), but as Thurston Moore’s atonal antics escalated and I watched a wave of irritation ripple across the room, I just had to lean back and chuckle.

As my wife can attest, I’m a big fan of aural vandalism. Back in the early days of our cohabitation, I used to delight in slipping Lou Reed’s anti-musical masterpiece Metal Machine Music into her CD changer when she wasn’t looking. I eventually halted the practice out of fear that she’d outright break my pricey import disc. In my barista days, my pal David and I would often try to clear the coffee shop of bothersome customers by firing up an especially difficult album – Nico’s The Marble Index, say, or something by the aforementioned Sonic Youth.

But there’s a special place in my heart for jukebox jerkitude. I think it’s the dedication that impresses me. It requires a financial investment, however small. If caught, one risks the wrath of a roomful of booze-swilling strangers. And like all the best forms of vandalism, it makes a noticeable impact while incurring minimal physical damage to other persons or their property.

Applied creatively, a jukebox hijack can add a welcome dash of surrealism to an evening out, but there’s a thin line between amusing and just plain obnoxious. Sometimes it’s a question of volume. Inserting a lone Ricky Martin track into a playlist of classic country tunes can be funny, but playing the entire Ricky Martin: MTV Unplugged album (yes, such a thing exists, for some reason) start-to-finish takes it too far. Other times, it’s a matter of setting. Those public domain “Music for Every Occasion” albums can yield some great non-sequitorial material, but take care – follow up Night Ranger with “The Star Spangled Banner” in the wrong bar, and you could be looking down the barrel of a decidedly non-ironic beatdown. And sometimes it’s a combination of both. I’ve heard a friend play Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” back-to-back-to-back in a small town bowling alley, much to the delight of the other patrons. Try the same thing in a hipster pub and you’ll likely get little more than some affected eye-rolls.

Like anything ironic, jukebox vandalism is best doled out in small doses. When the closing squawks of “The Diamond Sea” finally faded out on Saturday night, the assembled crowd looked relieved to have the format switch back to something easier to groove on. Following up with another aural assault like The Velvet Underground’s “The Murder Mystery” – another coffee shop favorite – would have been just plain dickish. As it was, our unknown prankster added a caustic conversation piece to everyone’s drunken Saturday night. I, for one, applaud that achievement.

- Ira Brooker

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Getting a bad rap: Five failed hip-hop crossovers

[Originally posted at MadeLoud]

(I'd hoped to have some original content up this week, but I have too many looming deadlines to make that happen. Next week!)

These days, hip-hop is a thoroughly ingrained part of our musical culture, and possibly even the defining sound of an era. As such, it’s been integrated and co-opted into nearly every genre imaginable, from the alterna-funk of early Beck albums to the meathead metal of Limp Bizkit to the country twang of Bubba Sparxx.

But it wasn’t so long ago that the world of rapping and record-scratching seemed weird and exotic to musicians outside the hip-hop sphere. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, adventurous rock and pop artists started to explore the outskirts of this upstart genre with wildly varying results. There were a few successes – Run-DMC’s collaboration with Aerosmith comes to mind, as well as portions of the Judgment Night soundtrack – but, as usual, it’s the failures that were truly fascinating.

Lou Reed – “The Original Wrapper”

Back in the ‘80s, mainstream white America seemed to be of the opinion that rapping was little more than rhyming quickly over a beat. That prevailing notion led to any number of painfully unfunny parodies, and a career low point for at least one rock icon. Much of Lou Reed’s much-maligned Mistrial album comes off like Lou doing a bad John Hiatt impression, but on “The Original Wrapper,” the former Velvet Underground front man embraces his inner Chuck D.

For three-and-a-half baffling minutes, Reed delivers a monotone ramble on AIDS, yuppies, Jerry Falwell and other hot-button issues of 1986, all the while employing waffle-making as some sort of inscrutable metaphor. Odd though it may be, there’s a certain surreal appeal in hearing the man who wrote Berlin deliver a choice couplet like “Ooh-poo-pah-doo and how do you do? / Hip-hop, gonna bop till I drop.”

Bo Diddley – “Kids Don’t Do It”

It’s tough to imagine a more spectacular failure of good intentions than the great Bo Diddley’s sole venture into the genre for which he laid much of the groundwork. Unfortunately, every element of this 1996 cautionary tale seems miscalculated. Employing a flow that would have sounded played out a decade earlier, Diddley and guest rapper Philosopher G (actually Bo’s grandson) lay down the heavy-handed saga of Willie Junior, who starts running with a gang and pays the ultimate price.

Trafficking in clunky rhymes like, “Being in a gang is really lame / Being in a gang ain’t doin’ your thang” and “Don’t take your Mom and Daddy’s gun to school / Because the one that gets shot just might be you”, Diddley gets his message across with all the subtlety of the guest speaker at a middle school anti-drug assembly. The elderly blues man’s heart was clearly in the right place when he delivered this missive to at-risk urban teens – who obviously represent a huge segment of Bo Diddley album-buyers – but the end result is about as effective as a “back in my day” rant delivered by someone’s agitated grandpa.

Buckshot LeFonque

Over the past few decades, DJs have sampled and scratched up countless jazz tunes, and jazz producers have incorporated raps and break beats to great effect. It’s somewhat surprising, then, that full-on efforts to meld the two genres have yielded such spotty results. For every success like Guru’s Jazzmatazz series, there are a dozen failed efforts by artists who just didn’t quite seem to get it.

Case in point: Branford Marsalis’ Buckshot LeFonque project. Over the course of two forgettable mid-1990s albums, the trumpeter and former Tonight Show bandleader crafted a blend of jazz, R&B, rock and hip-hop that was considerably less than the sum of its parts. Even the assistance of DJ Premier couldn’t elevate an undistinguished MC like Uptown, and the constant genre-hopping makes for an unfocused, disorienting experience that provides a glimpse of what hip-hop might be like if Bill Cosby ran the world. Save for the catchy title track from 1997’s Music Evolution, the group’s output proves that as a hip-hop auteur, Marsalis makes one hell of a horn player. At least it stands as a cautionary example for future producers: there aren’t many surer ways to destroy a hip-hop track’s credibility than incorporating samples from Jay Leno’s monologue.

Blondie - "Rapture"

Hating on “Rapture” is a tricky proposition. On the one hand, it’s a major single by one of the more significant bands of the early ‘80s, and one of the first hit songs to bring rap to a mainstream audience. On the other hand, it kind of sucks.

A number one hit in 1981, “Rapture” at least has its references in order. Debbie Harry’s enthusiastic rap does right by hip-hop history by name-checking founding fathers like Fab Five Freddy and Grandmaster Flash. Unfortunately, those shout-outs are mixed into a bizarre, mildly embarrassing second-person narrative involving a space invader with a penchant for eating unlikely objects that rhyme with “Mars.” The lyrics may have been forgivable if they’d been part of a freestyle flow, where the immediacy of the performance excuses occasional lazy rhymes and awkward phrasing, but Harry presumably sat down and penned “Rapture” well ahead of time. Were lines like “And you don’t stop / You keep eatin’ cars / Then when there’s no more cars / You go out at night and eat up bars” really the best she could come up with?

Prince – Diamonds and Pearls and the “Love Symbol” album

You’d think Prince would be the last guy who’d feel the need to enhance his funk quotient, but at some point in the early ‘90s, the Man in Purple apparently decided his sound was losing its street cred. His solution? Recruiting New Power Generation dancer and amateur MC Tony M to bust some sub-par flows on his next couple of albums.

One might assume that music as funky as Prince’s signature style would lend itself easily to a hip-hop coupling, and perhaps the experiment would have worked with a more talented rapper on board. As it stands, the otherwise solid Diamonds and Pearls and “Love Symbol” albums grind to a halt every time Tony M’s thoroughly generic rhymes take center stage, dragging down even a semi-classic like “Sexy M.F.” Give Prince credit for nurturing homegrown talent instead of bringing in big-name guest stars, but Tony M’s legacy is more Apollonia than Sheila E.

[Note: Prince has apparently ordered all Prince video clips removed from the internet. What's up with that?]

- Ira Brooker

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Don’t Call it a Comeback: Four artists with stellar second acts

[Originally published at MadeLoud.]

From Kurt Warner to Mickey Rourke to the Democratic Party, 2008 was a year of comebacks in American pop culture. For imaginatively bankrupt media outlets, that meant yet another round of glib remarks about the supposed refutation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous statement that “there are no second acts in American lives.” It would be a trite reference even if the commentators weren’t mangling Fitzgerald’s intention, but F. Scott wasn’t talking about second chances.

Theatrically speaking, the second act is where the themes and situations set up in act one come to fruition, where preamble and character sketches develop into a genuine story. Taken in that spirit, Fitzgerald’s quotation looks even more cynical, especially since it’s so frequently true. The following musicians are the exceptions to this off-putting rule, the rare artists who managed to evolve while neither clinging to their early sound nor reinventing themselves to suit their times. In a perfect world, we’d all have second acts as well-conceived as these.

Dr. Dre

Being a member of N.W.A. must have been exhausting, what with the constant pressure to be harder than thou and true to the streets. As the hip-hop supergroup began to splinter in the early ‘90s, most of the members carried their personas through to their solo careers: Ice Cube raged against social and political machines, Eazy-E played the prankish horndog, MC Ren explored the intersection of funk and Islam.

Producer and MC Dr. Dre looked to be heading in a similar direction with the release of his groundbreaking solo debut The Chronic, but it was that album’s guest appearance by an up-and-comer named Snoop Doggy Dogg that pointed the way to Dre’s greatest legacy. Over the next two decades, Dre served as producer/mentor for a string of artists who represented the ever-changing face of hip-hop.

From Snoop Dogg to Eminem to 50 Cent, Dre has helped change the face of hip-hop several times over. He’s also put his unmistakable production stamp on an endless array of projects by industry icons like Raekwon, Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z. And lest anyone think he’s lost his skills on the mic, he’ll still toss out the occasional vocal appearance to fill the massive gaps between his solo albums.

Ike Turner

When you’ve got the lead guitar credit on what’s often acknowledged as the first rock & roll single of all time, you might be excused for wanting to rest on your laurels. Not so Ike Turner, the flashy axe man who laid down the definitive distortion riff on 1951’s “Rocket 88.” As the leader of the roving R&B act The Kings of Rhythm, Turner carved out a decent living and a respected position on the ‘50s night club circuit. If he’d continued down that road, he might well have fallen into an Earl King-type niche: a seminal rocker beloved by historians but forgotten by the general public.

Ironically, Ike achieved his greatest fame by stepping out of the spotlight. He found something special in a powerful young vocalist named Anna Mae Bullock, soon rechristened Tina Turner. As their artistic collaboration grew, Ike took a small step into the background, continuing to write and arrange killer R&B productions but putting Tina’s unmistakable electricity front and center.

Good though he was, Ike was just one of thousands of supremely talented musicians working the ‘60s circuit. Tina, on the other hand, was a once in a lifetime performer. Working together, they were a force to be reckoned with. It’s just a shame Ike chose to end his second act with abuse, violence, and scandal.

Lou Reed

As the face at the forefront of one of the artiest bands of the 1960s, Lou Reed cultivated a brooding, thoughtful persona laced with an acidic cynicism that was directly at odds with the era’s prevailing peace-and-love vibes. The dour influence of author Delmore Schwartz, Reed’s collegiate mentor, ran throughout the band’s early output. When Reed led the Velvet Underground through a paean to heroin, for example, it came off not as a celebration of hedonism, but rather as a combined wail of self-loathing and drugged-out exultation.

Much of Reed’s early solo career seems dedicated to eradicating his formative days, but not via the whole-cloth reinvention employed by David Bowie. Bowie invented a series of carefully crafted alter egos, each with its own elaborate back story, but his musical output followed a fairly identifiable trajectory. Reed, on the other hand, seemed determined to avoid pigeonholing at all costs, pinballing from the glam rock strut of Transformer to the literate tragedy of Berlin to the atonal mind-fuck of Metal Machine Music.

Reed’s genre-scrambling even included occasional digs at his art-rock beginnings. His Rock & Roll Animal and Lou Reed Live albums featured proto-metal covers of Velvet Underground songs delivered with a snotty sneer that could easily be taken for derision. His Street Hassle album opens with a sardonic reprise of the Velvets’ “Sweet Jane” in which Reed openly mocks his own lyrics. Ironically, Reed’s efforts to defy classification only solidified his reputation as the godfather of art rock, a ballsy risk-taker who wasn’t afraid to fail in his pursuit of something different.

Mark Mothersbaugh

Devo was all about subversion. Their peculiar brand of new wave weirdness took to task the crumbling social and artistic structures of post-Nixon America with a tongue-in-cheek delivery that made their sometimes sardonic message all the more effective. Along the way, they experimented with electronic sounds and mixed media presentation in ways that would have a profound impact on the pop music landscape for decades to come.

There’s nothing in that formula that points to “beloved composer of children’s music,” but that’s exactly the direction Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh took in his second act. Mothersbaugh first caught the film scoring bug while working on Neil Young’s outré musical comedy Human Highway in the late ‘70s. By the early ‘90s, he was working extensively in the field of, film, TV and video game scores.

Like fellow rocker-turned-composer Danny Elfman, Mothersbaugh typically crafts scores that tone down his natural quirkiness without eliminating it entirely. His appropriately eclectic résumé includes “Rugrats,” “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and “Crash Bandicoot,” as well as several collaborations with his cinematic soulmate Wes Anderson. No one could have forecast that the brain behind “Penetration in the Centerfold” and “Jocko Homo” would one day be entertaining a generation of Nickelodeon-loving youngsters, but again, Mothersbaugh knows a thing or two about subversion


Friday, March 6, 2009

Of David Byrne, Lou Reed and the yawning chasm in the pit of my soul

As often happens, I had a moment of clarity while watching The Colbert Report the other night. Stephen’s guest for the evening was the estimable David Byrne, quirky as ever. Near the end of the interview, Stephen put forth his theory that artists like Byrne are obsessed with not falling into the singer’s famous archetype of the middle class man with the beautiful house, beautiful wife and large automobile. After a moment of reflection, Byrne admitted that he’d spent much of his life terrified of being “normal.” Man oh man, do I ever feel him on that one.

I too am terrified of normalcy. Growing up, I had no doubt in my mind that I would be internationally beloved by the time I was 20. I was certain that I was a remarkable person, and as such, I should always strive to stand out from the crowd. Thus, I wore ridiculous clothes to school, co-founded an oddball rock band, cultivated obscure tastes in film, books and music. I did everything within my power to announce to my small town surroundings that I was Unique and Exciting. If something I enjoyed caught on with the mainstream, I renounced it immediately. The Beatles were like a religion to me in middle school, but when one of the football cheerleaders showed up at school wearing a Let It Be t-shirt during freshman year, I denied them three times before the cock crowed. Being a contrarian became a lifestyle in and of itself.

And now here I am at thirty, not yet famous and slouching steadily toward normalcy. I’m happily married and gainfully employed with a daily commute to the suburbs. I own two cats, a sensible car and, within the next few weeks, my very own house. And good gravy, does it feel weird, particularly the part about the job. I used to read Dilbert and watch Office Space and pity the poor saps who could sympathize with the characters. I was convinced that such a fate could never befall an artist and individualist like me. And yet, here I sit in my cubicle, sneaking in a clandestine blog entry in between mundane, soul-numbing work projects, and I fear myself a cog in something turning.

In that same interview, Colbert suggested that for someone like David Byrne, normal is weird. Byrne essentially agreed, saying that he’d given it a try and it hadn’t really taken. Perhaps that’s why 9-to-5 life has proven so toxic to me. For folks like David Byrne and me – and I’m going to go ahead and put the two of us in the same boat, because self-aggrandizement is one of my favorite pursuits – the mundane is the unfathomable. I’ve had a lot of weird writing jobs in my time, from crafting press releases for a children’s country music singer to playing Frisbee with Hugo the Hornet to leading a séance aimed at resurrecting the ghost of Pete Maravich. For me, none of those experiences is anywhere near as surreal as hiding behind fabric-covered walls eight hours a day while trying to come up with my three-dozenth synonym for “stretchy.”

A couple of days ago, I listened to Lou Reed’s 1986 album Mistrial, one of Lou’s bigger critical failures. I don’t think it’s as bad as its reputation, but I can’t deny that it’s a really peculiar, rather difficult album for which I’m seldom in the mood. This time around I finally hit on why Mistrial just doesn’t work: this is the sound of Lou Reed trying to be normal.

Everything about Mistrial is in line with the times, from the overproduced, generic rock to the uninspired, sometimes insipid lyrics. This was the period when Lou was kicking drugs, settling down and putting his prior hedonism behind him. That stab at real-world normalcy appears to have bled through into his art, distilling a reckless, risk-taking weirdo into a second-rate Bruce Hornsby. Simply put, normal just doesn’t work on Lou Reed.

Thankfully, the last couple of decades have seen Lou getting his weird-ass groove back, recording album-length meditations on death, staging gonzo rock operas and writing 18-minute songs about feeling like a possum. Not everything has been a success, but even the failures have been interesting. That gives me hope.

Perhaps normalcy is just a necessary phase imposed upon the abnormal by age and economics. Maybe I’m just serving my short sentence in this fluorescent-humming hellscape, paying my dues because I wanna sing the blues. I take comfort in the knowledge that I still hate this as much as I did the first day I set foot in a corporate office. As long as I can keep myself from getting numb, there’s hope.

And to tell the truth, when I’m behind the wheel of my compact automobile, heading toward my beautiful house and my beautiful wife, I never ask myself, “How did I get here?” That question only arises every morning as I drive in the opposite direction.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Buying into selling out, starring Chris Knox and Know One

(Originally published at

You may not know
Chris Knox’s name, but you’re probably familiar with his work. He’s the man behind “It’s Love”, an insanely catchy tune from his 1999 album Beat that was the foundation for last year’s big Heineken ad campaign. You know, the one where all the peoples of the world bond over a new light beer? With that endlessly singable “I always needed this but I never knew how much I wanted it” chorus? Yeah, that’s the one. Skillful direction by indie filmmaking god Todd Haynes would be enough to make the spot stand out, but it’s Knox’s song that keeps popping into our heads at all hours.

Obviously, using popular music in commercials is nothing new. Car companies and chain restaurants having been mining the classic rock vaults for decades, to the point that a whole generation probably believes Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock” was written as an ad for Chevy trucks (Editor's note: True for me!). Recently, though, certain innovative advertisers have taken a new tack, using songs by lesser known artists to lend themselves instant hipster cred.

It’s a mutually beneficial situation for advertisers and artists. When Cadillac employs Led Zeppelin’s “Rock & Roll”, they risk alienating a large swath of children of the ‘70s who already associate the song with cherished moments of their youth. Many baby boomers trace the death of the ‘60s spirit to a 1987 Nike ad that employed The Beatles’ “Revolution” as a sneaker-selling tool. But when an advertiser builds a campaign around a more obscure track, they provide their target audience with a new discovery and the artists with an instant fan base.

The classic example is VW’s use of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in a 2000 TV spot. The largely forgotten British folkie posthumously became an overnight sensation, with his Pink Moon album reportedly selling more copies in the month following the commercial’s debut than in the previous 30 years combined. When tunes by Apples in Stereo and Modest Mouse turned up in Sony and Nissan commercials that same year, a small contingency of indie rockers declared the bands dead to them, but thousands more hit the record shops in search of “that song from the commercial.” Nowadays, the lines between creativity and commerce are even further blurred. When an oddball art rocker like Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes is re-writing his own songs for use in Outback Steakhouse ads, you know the cultural climate has shifted.

Chris Knox’s song falls somewhere between the Nick Drake and Modest Mouse models. An alt-music legend in his native New Zealand, Knox has maintained a small cult following in the U.S. since his days with the seminal low-fi rock group Tall Dwarves in the early 1980s. Since the Heineken spot, he’s seen an explosion of stateside interest in his work. Online searches and iTunes sales for “It’s Love” boomed since the ad debuted during last year’s NBA playoffs.

“They seem to've gone mildly ballistic in that forum,” says Knox. “YouTube views of the ad – a slideshow of the full song, a kid dancing to it, someone’s dog running round to it, et cetera – currently total about 250,000, and there's been a largely positive reaction. Also, my German-curated MySpace site is getting hit way more frequently, with 13,000 punters having listened to ‘It’s Love’ therein. It’s utterly fascinating reading YouTube comments and the like. I think it's widely assumed that I'm reasonably young and new on the scene,” the 56-year-old rock veteran laughs. “Someone even thought it was The Beatles.”.

As happens just about any time an independent artist is faced with the prospect of actually making money, performers who allow songs to be used in commercials face accusations of selling out. That doesn’t much bother Knox. “I have little problem with having a song used in such a way if I like and respect the product that is being hawked.” He notes that he has turned down commercial offers in New Zealand from companies that don’t jibe with his vegetarian and environmentalist viewpoints. “Admittedly I wasn't as thorough with Heineken but, hey, I like beer. I didn't actually click that it was for their Premium Light brand until after I’d accepted their filthy lucre. We don't have that over here, so I'm hoping it ain’t too undrinkable.”

It also helped that the advertisers took an artist-friendly approach. Portland-based ad agency Wieden and Kennedy – the folks behind such memorable campaigns as Nike’s “Just Do It” and Old Spice’s Bruce Campbell ad, as well as that infamous “Revolution” spot – contacted Knox’s publisher and label and offered the singer a deal that he calls “modest by their standards, but quite sweet by mine.” The agency’s e-mail even took preemptive action to allay any fears that the song might be misused. “They had embedded a Quicktime of their rough cut with my song accompanying, so I had a very clear idea of how it would sit.”

Knox isn’t sure what long term impact the Heineken ad will have on his American popularity, but for the time being he’s enjoying the ride. “I've got Thirsty Ear, who released Beat in the States, onto it,” he explains. “Dunno how they plan to take advantage of the notoriety, but they have access to iTunes sales figures.” While the commercial didn’t air in New Zealand, it generated a bit of publicity for Knox on the home front as well. “It's not often that Kiwi songs get used in overseas ads so, amazingly, it's considered just a little newsworthy.”

Knox at least came into the commercial world with an established cultural cache, however small. Indie rapper Know One is another case entirely. The New Orleans-based MC has enjoyed local acclaim for much of the past decade, but his audience has never extended too far beyond the Crescent City. That is likely to change in the near future, as “My Back in the Day Song,” an anthemic cut off of his 2007 album Know One’s Home has recently been tapped as the theme for a new McDonald’s TV spot.

Know One’s initial hook-up with McDonald’s came through his licensing company Audiosocket, who pitched the track after learning that the burger barons were searching for “a nostalgic type song with a hip-hop vibe” to spread awareness of their new sweet tea. “The slogan is something like ‘McDonald's sweet tea: It takes you back,’” Know One explains. “The idea for the commercial is this guy takes a sip of sweet tea and is transported back to his childhood, with his mother pouring him a glass of sweet tea. I guess the hook on my tune fits that back in the day vibe.”

After McDonald’s confirmed their interest in “My Back in the Day Song,” the track was put through an elaborate vetting process. “McDonald's ad agency hired a musicologist to make sure there were no samples in the tune,” Know One says. “The musicologist decided that while the song contains no samples, it did resemble The Verve's ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ in chord structure, so they wanted to re-record the tune in order to distance themselves from the resemblance as much as possible.” That entailed sending Know One into the recording studio with New Orleans horn maestro Mark Mullins and a Grammy-winning engineer to crank out a slightly modified take.

Know One agrees that the cultural landscape has gone through major changes of late, eliminating reservations he might have had not so long ago. “Six or seven years ago, I would have said there's no sellout greater than to sell your tunes for commercial use. Now, with the death of CDs and record contracts – not to mention the fact that radio only plays 20 or so artists – licensing music to film and television seems to be one of the only ways for indie artists to go beyond the internet and have their music played for a wide and diverse group of potential listeners.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Me and Lou and everyone we know

On March 2, 1994 I purchased my first Lou Reed album.

I spent a lot of time in the library my freshman year of high school, poring through a large book called, simply, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. It was a fairly basic overview of popular music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but what I liked best about it was that it listed birthdays for all of the featured artists. I wrote up a long list of notable birthdays in one of my spiral notebooks and entertained myself for a few weeks by wishing my friends a happy Billy Preston’s birthday, or lifting my lunchtime juice box in a toast to the birth of Joe Cocker. (Yeah, I was a real cool kid.)

So it was that I knew March 2, 1994 was Lou Reed’s 52nd birthday. That afternoon, my mother and I made a brief stop at the Pamida discount store in Sparta, Wisconsin. While browsing the store’s small but eclectic music section, I spotted a cassette tape of 1975’s Lou Reed Live peering up at me from the $3 bin. I didn’t know much about Lou Reed, but my friend Nathan had recently introduced me to the Velvet Underground’s first album and I’d been wanting to learn more. I took the coincidence as a sign from above and bought the tape.

After dinner that night, I made my usual retreat to my parent’s room, where I lay across their bed on my belly and slipped my new purchase into our rickety dual-deck boom box. I closed my eyes and tuned in as the screeching guitars of the opening track, “Vicious,” roared to life, After a lengthy intro, Lou’s nasal sneer broke in: “Vicious / You hit me with a flower / You do it every hour / Ah baby, you’re so vicious.” I was expecting something mellow and quirky, like the only Lou Reed solo song I knew, “Walk on the Wild Side.” This was different. It was weird and loud and, well, vicious. And I knew right away that I wanted more of it.

My interest in Lou Reed continued to grow over the following year, although the financial realities of being 15 and jobless prevented me from purchasing any more albums. I dubbed a copy of Lou’s first album and half of his 1989 masterwork New York from my friend Paul’s parent’s collection. My copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico, dubbed over one of the dozens of poor quality self-help tapes left over from my parents’ brief 1980s involvement with Amway, became my “pump-up” music before JV football and basketball games. While the other jocks jammed out to Soundgarden and Dr. Dre, I shut my eyes, turned up my walkman and drifted away on a cloud of “Heroin.” I’d never had so much as a can of beer in my life, but I was fairly certain that the sensation I got from that song measured up to any drug trip I could have taken. Yes, I was about as deeply into the smack shooting, leather bars and filthy streets of mid ‘70s New York City as any devoutly Christian teenaged honor student from mid ‘90s Western Wisconsin could be.

I celebrated Lou’s 53rd birthday with the purchase of 1974’s Sally Can’t Dance from a used record store. That same year I got my driver’s license and my first job, working the concession stand and running projectors at Sparta’s brand new six-screen movie theater. The sudden combination of cash and a car opened whole new avenues for music buying. I started delving into Lou’s more recent work as well as his ‘70s output. I was amazed at the literacy of the lyrics. I couldn’t believe that someone could get away with working a verse like

“Some people are into sadistic pleasures
They whet their desires and drool in your ears
Theyre quasi-effeminate characters in love with oral gratification
They edify your integrities, so they can play on your fears”

into a nationally released pop song. My respect for the man just grew and grew. I kept up my birthday tradition, but I started snatching up other albums throughout the year as well.

Near the end of my sophomore year of college, I purchased Lou’s 1978 Live: Take No Prisoners from The Exclusive on State Street in Madison, thereby completing my collection of every Lou Reed and Velvet Underground album then available, a grand total of 17 studio albums and five live releases. But it didn’t stop there. I purchased five, count ‘em, five Lou Reed t-shirts. I decided that one copy of each album was not enough – I wanted to own every one on both CD and vinyl. I also set a goal of owning every unique recording Lou had ever released, even if it was only one song on a compilation. This explains why my music collection includes the soundtracks to Get Crazy, White Nights, the TV show Friends and Perfect. Yes, I own the soundtrack to Perfect, the 1985 aerobicsploitation movie starring John Travolta as a jaded Rolling Stone reporter and Jamie Lee Curtis as the fitness instructor who teaches him how to love again. And the Lou Reed song, a raunchy dance number called “Hot Hips,” is really, really bad.

But Perfect was not the low point of my Lou worship. No, that came on March 2 of 2000, when I strolled into Know Name Records in Minneapolis and laid down ten bucks for a Lou Reed interview record. I don’t mean the kind of “What’s your favorite color?” “When did you start making music?” interview disc that teen idol pop bands pawn off on gullible middle school girls. No, this record was intended for distribution exclusively to radio DJs who were willing to fake an interview with a rock legend. It was released in 1982, along with Lou’s The Blue Mask album. Here’s how it worked: the DJ read a prompt from a pre-written list of questions, then dropped the needle on the record to hear Lou’s canned response. On side one, Lou answers questions about each of the album’s ten songs; on side two, he addresses softball questions about his career. Obviously, this is not an album you’d want to play at a party. Or by yourself. Or anywhere, under any circumstances, ever. But I went ahead and purchased in nonetheless. At this point, I realized I had a problem.

Today, fifteen years after I struck up my musical love affair, my feelings toward Lou have cooled. I still adore most of his work, and I’ll maintain that there are great things about each of his albums, but I’m not nearly as rabid about it. That has something to do with his 2003 release The Raven, a staggeringly pretentious two-disc tribute to Edgar Allan Poe on which Lou re-writes several of Poe’s poems. Most of it is near unlistenable, and it forced me to acknowledge how self-important Lou can be. Lately, he’s seemed obsessed with casting himself as a serious artiste, doddering around NYC with his ultra-chic girlfriend Laurie Anderson and spending more time on tai chi and his photography collections than on his music. I almost gave up on him all together when, on 2004’s live Animal Serenade, he directly compared himself to Hubert Selby and William S. Burroughs.

I guess most heroes eventually reveal their feet of clay, but Lou can still inspire a certain fervor in me. On March 2, 2009, I listened to eight Lou Reed albums in their entirety, then headed over to Cheapo Discs on Snelling Avenue and forked over 16 bucks for a live disc of songs from Lou’s 1973 masterpiece Berlin. Old habits die hard, I guess. And besides, Lou and I have been through a lot together.