Friday, September 25, 2009

"Broke, Busted, Disgusted" or "Wolfking in creep's clothing"

NewsRadio is one of my favorite TV programs of all time, a smart, fast-paced comedy boasting the finest ensemble cast of its era. While he was never my favorite cast member, Andy Dick was a vital piece of the NewsRadio dynamic. His portrayal of reporter Matthew Brock as a childlike weirdo prone to pratfalls, freak-outs and hero-worship was off-kilter and endearing.

In the years following NewsRadio, however, Dick became primarily known as an out-of-control druggie prone to truly inappropriate outbursts in public settings. With every new drug bust or model-groping, a little bit of the shine came off of the Matthew character. By the time Jon Lovitz, of all people, gave Dick a sound thrashing for disrespecting the late, great Phil Hartman, it was difficult for me to separate the comedy from the comedian. I still love Dick’s work on NewsRadio, but when I watch it today, I can’t help but wonder how stoned Dick is in any given scene, or just how close Joe Rogan was to punching him out with the cameras rolling. Losing a TV friend like that just makes me sad, and I kind of hate Andy Dick for spoiling Matthew.

It’s not news to anyone with an awareness of the ‘60s California pop scene that John Phillips was an unconscionable bastard. It wasn’t until this week, though, that the world learned the full degree of the man’s bastardity. In rock star terms, Papa John’s descent into worthless junkiedom could be viewed as an occupational hazard. His cavalier abuse of a liver transplant he clearly didn’t deserve ratcheted up his detestability a few notches, but still didn’t place him in the upper echelons of celebrity bastards. This whole daughter-fucking thing, though – that’s pretty much one of the last remaining unforgivable sins.

Obviously, the biggest crime here is the one perpetrated by John against his daughter. If Mackenzie's allegations are true, and I rather believe they are, he took a sacred role of trust and guidance and used it to score a convenient drug buddy and sex partner. Transgressions don’t come much viler than that. But Phillips also committed a crime against his own artwork, and that of his numerous talented collaborators. As noted by my favorite pop culture commentator Sean O’Neal, from now on any time “Monday Monday” or “California Dreaming” gets queued up on a jukebox, someone’s going to make a snide remark about Phillips’ private perversions. Certain venues will probably stop playing anything Phillips-affiliated altogether, for a while at least. The sins of the father have sullied an amazing body of work, and that’s a tragedy in its own right. (As for Mackenzie Phillips’ claim that Mick Jagger had been lusting after her since she was ten – well, you’ve heard “Stray Cat Blues,” right?)

A few years back, I discovered Phillips’ first solo record, John the Wolfking of LA, in my local library’s CD section. I’d never heard of it before, but having a general if not passionate appreciation of The Mamas and The Papas, I figured it was worth a listen. As it turns out, it’s something of a minor masterpiece, and maybe my favorite artifact of the California country rock era. Phillips’s songwriting was never stronger than on this collection of sometimes sad, sometimes sleazy, always deeply personal pop songs. The music is fantastic, moving effortlessly from the reflective strums of “April Anne” and “Holland Tunnel” to the piano hall stomp of “Mississippi” and “Let it Bleed, Genevieve.” I quickly came to regard Wolfking as that ultimate object of hipster desire – a should-be classic album that hardly anybody else knew about.

Now I’m left to wonder just how tainted Phillips’ masterwork will be. I’m certainly not naive enough to think that all, or even most, or even many, of my artistic heroes are good people. I’m currently reading a biography of Lou Reed – my musical idol numero uno – that pulls no punches about Lou’s assholery toward just about everyone he’s ever had dealings with. That type of thing doesn’t upset me. I can fully appreciate the artwork of people who would probably bug the hell out of me at a cocktail party. Sometimes it’s fairly clear-cut – what film buff hasn’t watched a Roman Polanski movie and felt a twinge of guilt at enjoying the work of a fugitive child-rapist? Other times it’s more personal. Andy Dick’s sins clearly don’t rival those of John Phillips or Roman Polanski, but they’re almost as distressing to me because I hold NewsRadio so dear to my heart.

I’ve been listening to John the Wolfking of LA off and on since Mackenzie Phillips’ revelation. I’m somewhat relieved that the experience isn’t quite as tainted as I’d feared. It’s still a damn fine album in every regard, but I can’t help seeing it in a different light. The songwriting is personal to the point of autobiographical, so knowing that his incestuous affair was developing around the same time the album was being recorded makes Phillips’ references to secret lovers and infidelities feel pretty icky. Especially troubling are a pair of outtakes: “The Frenchman,” in which the singer warns a young girl against starting an affair with an older lover, and “Lonely Children,” just for its title.

I suppose only time will tell just how big an impact my new image of John Phillips will have on my love of Wolfking. I suspect that it will never again attain its full luster for me. Just as it’s impossible to watch Twilight Zone: The Movie without thinking about Vic Morrow and his young charges being decapitated, it will be tough to appreciate the bouncy rhythm of “Mississippi” without flashing on Phillips mounting his own drugged-up daughter. Still, I’d like to hope that after enough time has passed, I’ll be able to appreciate a tune like “Topanga Canyon” for what it is: a pleasant little ditty about a self-loathing junkie driving to the country to score some smack. Now that’s the John Phillips I’d like to remember.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

“I’m OK, you're Computer” or “Blues for Pablo Honey”

A little while back I had a conversation with my uncle Gene, a career educator who’s one of the best-read, most intellectually curious people I’ve ever met. He’d recently started reading William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, possibly my favorite novel of all time. He confessed that he’d given up on it about a quarter of the way in out of frustration with Faulkner’s circuitous, repetitive storytelling. I started to stand up for my man Bill, but when I thought about it a little, I decided to leave well enough alone. Truth is, Absalom, Absalom! is a laborious slog. I ultimately find it invigorating, chilling and fascinating, but I absolutely can’t fault anyone who doesn’t respond to Faulkner’s intentionally grueling style.

I bring this up because I find myself on the other side of the coin when it comes to Radiohead. Now, I’m somebody who’s pretty aware of the modern music scene, and I like to think I have pretty good taste. If I don’t get the appeal of a popular band, I usually just chalk it up to not being my speed and let it ride. But Radiohead is different. This is a group so universally beloved that I’ve always felt like there’s something wrong with me for not falling head over heels for them.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve never disliked Radiohead. I’ve been moderately fond of them ever since my pal Nathan picked up Pablo Honey back when it first came out in ‘94. Trouble is, I’ve never gotten past moderate fondness, so I’ve long been perplexed by the endless stream of superlatives heaped on the band. Every time I hear OK Computer referred to as the default Greatest Album of the 1990s, my brain says, “But that’s a decade that produced In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Enter the 36 Chambers and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain!” And whenever someone refers to Radiohead as “our generation’s Beatles,” my thoughts turn toward the equally adventurous but more pop-friendly flows of OutKast.

I sometimes feel like this is a failing on my part – 50 million Thom Yorke fans can’t be wrong, right? I’ve been browbeaten so many times by my friends and colleagues that I feel I have a responsibility as a music fan to teach myself to adore Radiohead. I recently took my most proactive approach to date, sitting myself down with the band’s entire discography (including a couple of non-canon selections that I happen to have in my possession) and listening in earnest for whatever it is that’s been eluding me. The results have been equal parts frustrating and illuminating. Here’s my take on every album, in order of listening.

Kid A
When I’ve felt like I was on the verge of a Radiohead breakthrough in the past, it’s usually been while listening to a track from this album. I figured that made it as good a place as any to start. I wasn’t wrong – the best parts of Kid A embody the things I like most about Radiohead. Cuts like “The National Anthem” and “Optimistic” are slightly off-kilter, intensely produced tracks that aren’t afraid to rock out. Call me pedestrian, but that’s what I find enjoyable, and Radiohead is damn good at it when they put their minds to it.

Unfortunately, a lot of Kid A indulges the other side of Radiohead – the moody, broody soundscapes that flutter interminably against Thom Yorke’s mournful vocals. A lot of people have told me that these songs are the primary evidence of Radiohead’s genius. If that’s the case, genius treads a fine line between deadly dull and painfully grating.

Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP
I like this one. I like it quite a bit, actually. It’s like a compaction of the elements I most appreciate on OK Computer. The songs are well-crafted, straightforward and flow together well. I especially appreciate the instrumental “A Meeting in the Aisle,” as Thom Yorke’s vocals are a constant stumbling block for me. The guitar work and arrangement on “Polyethylene” veer fairly close to classic rock territory, which is a welcome development in my book. There’s a cool, trance-y vibe to this EP that’s not nearly as self-serious as a lot of the band’s work, and I dig that a lot.

I’ve read this one described as the band’s overlooked masterpiece. I do not find it to be that. In fact, this is probably the Radiohead album that gives me the least to grab onto. It’s not bad, by any means. The production is elegant as always, and the electronic experimentation is consistently interesting. But at the risk of sounding like a record executive in a bad movie, “Where’s the single?” It’s not the case with every band, but with Radiohead I find that having at least one semi-conventional, stand-out track to focus on really helps me wrap my head around the rest of the album. Amnesiac doesn’t have that, and is thus my least favorite of their discs.

The Bends
Why is this such a derided album amongst the Radiohead faithful? I understand that it pre-dates the sonic experimentation that would become the band’s hallmark, but I find it to be an engaging, accessible example of mid ‘90s alterna-rock. As such, it sounds a lot fresher and more innovative than most albums of that era. I know Radiohead has a certain genius for pushing the envelopes of songwriting and sonic structure, but they also have a rare gift for cranking out great rock songs. This album is full of the latter. It also features “Fake Plastic Trees,” the first of too many slow-paced, “Moanin’ Tom” tracks. I feel these songs bog down a lot of the subsequent albums, but this one is graceful and utterly lovely.

OK Computer
I’ve tried OK Computer from so many angles since 1997. It means so much to so many people who mean so much to me that I feel it’s my duty to learn to love it. After my most recent round, I can report that I’m not quite there, but I’m closer than I’ve ever been. I still patently dismiss the idea of it being the best album of the ‘90s (I wouldn’t even call it the best of ’97. That’d be Built to Spill’s Perfect From Now On), but I can’t deny there are plenty of moments of greatness here. I’d even go so far as to call “Karma Police” a near perfect song, a lyrically chilling, musically enervating mission statement that deserves its iconic status.

And then there’s “Paranoid Android,” the album’s other focal point. My reaction to “Paranoid Android” kind of sums up my reaction to a lot of Radiohead: It’s peppered with bits of weird brilliance, its lyrics sparkle and it accomplishes some impressive musical feats, but it’s ultimately overwrought and overreaching. (Also, I’ve always hated the music video for some reason.) As for the rest, my reactions vary from “Hey, this is pretty damn good!” to “How long is this song again?” (The exception being “Fitter Happier,” which just plain sucks.) OK Computer still isn’t working its way into my heavy rotation anytime soon, but I’m getting less likely to skip over it when I scroll through my albums.

Alpine Valley, WI, August 2003
This is a live bootleg I burned from a friend a while back. I included it in my listening because I’ve heard a lot of great things about Radiohead’s live set. Listening to this disc, I can definitely see where they’d put on a killer show. There’s a lot of energy in these recordings, even on the slower numbers. It’s nice to hear a band with such meticulous, layered studio productions adapting so deftly to the immediacy of the live stage. It’s not an essential album by any means, but it does a nice job of humanizing an act that’s often chilly and uninviting by design. Also, I think I may prefer this rendition of “Paranoid Android” to the original.

Hail to the Thief
This one takes some knocks from the hardcore fans for being a bit more pedestrian than its predecessors, which may be what I enjoy about it. I suppose it suffers a bit from the same hooklessness as Amnesiac, though I like this one a little better. The experimentation is scaled back a bit, but it’s still nowhere near as accessible as something like The Bends. Hail to the Thief never reaches the highest heights of OK Computer or Kid A, but it also doesn’t traffic as much in the stuff that bugs me. I guess we can call it a draw.

In Rainbows
I don’t think anything is ever going to quite make me fall in love with Thom Yorke’s singing style. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about his florid moaning that really puts me off. But I recognize that’s Yorke’s singing is an essential part of the group’s sound, and In Rainbows puts it to good use. It’s a more coherent, approachable and consistent album than anything else in their recent catalog. That said, I’m looking back at the list of my 10 favorite albums of 2008 and I really can’t see anything I’d bump off in favor of In Rainbows (Yes, I know it’s technically a 2007 release. I’m going with the physical CD version, which still gives me more integrity than the Grammys). What does it say about me that I’d rather listen to the light-pop stylings of She & Him than the universally acknowledged Album of the Year? I don’t know, but “This Is Not a Test” is sure a lot more fun to sing along with than anything on In Rainbows.

Pablo Honey
Maybe it’s misplaced nostalgia, but I like revisiting the alt-rock of my 1990s heyday. As I said, Radiohead wasn’t at the top of my list back then, but they were on my radar. Revisiting Pablo Honey today, it sounds mainly like a really good ‘90s alt-rock album. There’s not much indication of where the band would be in four short years (one point where I can understand the Beatles comparison). Honestly, I like this one quite a bit. I’d even go so far as to say that this and The Bends are my most likely candidates for repeat listening. I realize that this probably makes me quite lame.


So what did I learn from a week’s worth of Radioheadation therapy? Nothing too earth-shaking, I suppose. The band occupies pretty much the same slot it did before the experiment. I still think of them as a good group with some great songs and a fair bit of stuff I just can’t connect with. I think it’s about time for me to stop paying heed to friends who tell me, “Just keep listening and I guarantee it’ll click for you eventually.”

I’ve listened. It hasn’t. And that’s okay. I’m simply not that big a fan of Radiohead, and that’s all there is to it.

I do, however, love the hell out of Jaydiohead.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Bird is the word" or "Lord knows we can't change"

It’s impossible to make an objective statement about what is funny. Humor is perhaps the very definition of a subjective topic, an unknowable abstract with as many interpretations as there are human beings. There are, however, some things which can be definitively declared not funny. Among these I would include certain diseases, various human-on-human atrocities and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. And, of course, yelling “Freebird!” at a concert.

The latter is an especially curious case. It is possible to imagine a time when yelling “Freebird!” at a concert may have been amusing, given the proper context. Say you were in the crowd at a Roberta Flack show in 1975 and some wise guy took advantage of a long pause between deeply felt acoustic ballads to holler a sardonic request for “Freebird.” In that setting, the irony of his suggestion may have been enough to provoke a titter or two. After all, Ms. Flack is a very different kind of artist than Lynyrd Skynyrd. The notion of her performing a Southern-style electric guitar anthem, particularly one of such recent vintage, would have been patently absurd.

But it is no longer 1975, and very few of us are currently attending Roberta Flack concerts. (Though not for lack of trying – get that booking agent of yours in gear, Roberta!) Whatever novelty there once was in yelling “Freebird!” at a concert has long since faded away. And yet the yellers persist, not to be swayed by obsolescence or standards of civility. At any reasonably well-attended rock show, especially one at which alcohol is served, shouts of “Freebird!” are almost as inevitable as getting stuck standing next to a jaded guy in a tight t-shirt who spends half the set explaining to his friends how the band isn’t nearly as tight as the time three years ago when he saw them play to a tiny audience in a sketchy dive bar in downtown Austin. Any time a show is lagging, or just when you’ve reached the point in the evening where all the morons start yelling unsolicited requests from the back catalog, you’re going to hear “Freebird!”

I understand the thinking behind yelling “Freebird!” at a concert. It’s an instantly identifiable, solo-heavy song popularized by a band whose music is frequently enjoyed by a demographic that many music aficionados think of as socially inferior. Trouble is, it also kicks major ass.

I am an unashamed lover of “Freebird.” From the bleeding, mournful opening guitar lick to the broken weariness of Ronnie Van Zandt’s vocal to the five-minute frenzy of dueling guitars, it’s a masterpiece of ‘70s album rock. In a just world, “Freebird” would be just as revered by the cognoscenti as any of Pink Floyd’s broody soundscapes or Led Zeppelin’s derivative caterwauling. Instead, for reasons that probably have as much to do with Yankee disdain for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern heritage and good ole boy image as with actual musical merit, it’s become a punchline without a joke.

I’ve seen artists have a lot of disparate reactions to shouts of “Freebird!” Most of them simply ignore it. Some get upset – I once saw Eels front man E stop the show to eviscerate a heckler with something along the lines of “‘Ooh, I’m gonna go to an Eels show and yell ‘Freebird’ at the band!’ That’s awfully fucking clever, asshole.” Some put their own spin on it – David Cross used to have a bit in his stand-up act where he’d present an award to an audience member who he dubbed the one-millionth asshole to yell “Freebird” during a performance. But by far the best reaction I’ve ever seen came from Built to Spill, who simply played “Freebird” note-for-note, beginning to end. It was a thrilling performance that I suspect was wasted on much of the audience. I wish more artists – Roberta Flack, say – would take that approach. There is no shortage of people I’d love to hear covering this song, though I guess that would just make matters worse by inspiring a non-stop barrage of “Freebird!” shouts at every concert everywhere.

I suppose it’s sort of a compliment that “Freebird” has spent 30 years as the go-to song for guys who love to yell things. You would think that over that span of time, another ironic hard rock anthem would have emerged to take its place. If it was me up on stage, I know I’d be much more insulted to hear someone bellowing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn!” at me, or “Nookie!” or “Whatever the Name of That Godawful Kid Rock Song That Mashes Up ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Werewolves of London’ Is!”

But for the time being, “Freebird” endures as the popular favorite. If anything is going to kill it off, it may be that very popularity. “Freebird!” has been yelled long enough and loud enough to push it well past cliché status. People are still yelling it, to be sure, but lately they’re more likely to be met with a groan and an eye-roll than a polite chuckle. Maybe things really are changing for the better, or maybe audiences are just all laughed-out from guys yelling “More cowbell!” That one’s never going to get old!

- Ira Brooker

(Photo courtesy of this dude.)