Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My son's top 10 things of 2013

My son turned four earlier this month. Like most modern kids, he's already cultivated a savvier, more sophisticated appreciation of pop-culture than my generation possibly could have attained at that age. I'm kind of bored with year-end best-of lists compiled by grown-ups, so I thought I'd attempt to pull together some of his favorite discoveries of 2013. These aren't necessarily new releases, and they're in no particular order. They're just things that helped color the boy's world in his third year of existence.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
He already dug Judy Barrett’s books (especially the rather dry Pickles to Pittsburgh, for some reason), but when we rented the excellent movie adaptation it took things to a different level, and the sequel made him a full-on fanboy. It was the first film he saw in a theater. He went in worried that the burger spider and taco monster in the commercial would be too scary, but he left declaring them his favorite parts of the movie. The taco monster in particular has been a staple of playtime for months now. He has good taste – the movies are really kind of great. Another landmark: left alone with my phone for three minutes one morning, the boy managed to download the e-novelization of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, which then became the first chapter book we read together. 

Yellow Submarine
This one is actually a triple threat, as the Yellow Submarine movie, album and song all qualified for his 2013 hot list. The boy generally avoids any entertainment featuring what he deems “mean guys,” but somehow he made an exception for the Blue Meanies. There was a long stretch where I was called on to recount the entire plot of the movie on a daily basis, and lord help me if I skipped over a single beastie from the Sea of Monsters. To this day, no matter what album I put on, he invariably asks if we can listen to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack when it’s over (skipping “Eleanor Rigby,” of course, because that one is “too sad”). Just last week the boy asked if we could invite George Harrison to his birthday party. I couldn’t bring myself to explain exactly why that wasn’t going to happen.

The boy had had sushi before 2013, but this year it was firmly established as his favorite food, tekka maki (tuna rolls) specifically. His favorite place is Sushi Station, a small chain in the western suburbs of Chicago that offers self-service sushi on an endlessly scrolling conveyor belt, but he'll settle for Sakana, a pleasant little Saint Paul place that recently moved into a vacated KFC on Cleveland Avenue. He even requested sushi for his fourth birthday party. When we told him that some of the other kids might not care for raw fish, he suggested we order pizza and sushi. And so we did.

The Cat in the Hat's Learning Library
The death of Dr. Seuss paved the way for a lot of disheartening officially licensed knock-offs, from Danny DeVito pimping SUVs to Martin Short's shrieks of terrifying whimsy to Mike Myers disappearing under a death mask of face paint and latex. At least one good thing has come of the doctor posthumously passing the mantle. This engaging series of educational books employs the Cat in the Hat and Things One and Two to impart lessons on nature, anatomy, cartography, even rocket science. Author Trish Rabe makes marvelous use of the familiar Seussian meter for a rhyming, learning experience that's pretty much unmatched.  Sure, there are occasional clunky verses, but I'd like to see anyone describe the embryonic development of a bean seed in rhymed, grade-school-level vocabulary with perfect poetic grace. The boy loves to hear these books almost as much as I love to read them, and he can quote every scientific fact by heart. I'd say he even prefers them to the original Seuss books.

Things that eat other things (in theory)
It's a common little boy trait to be fascinated by carnivores, from sharks to dinosaurs to jungle cats to venus flytraps (the boy is nuts about a book on carnivorous plants we found at the library). Something about the intersection of power, fear and cool-looking teeth makes killer animals a source of endless excitement. But he'd prefer not to be reminded of the flesh-tearing, blood-dripping specifics of animals eating animals. He loves watching nature documentaries until the carnage begins. Then the nervous, high-pitched squealing starts and he buries his face in blankets until we fast forward or turn it off. There's probably some commentary here about the hypocrisy of human carnivorism but I don't want to make it a whole thing.

Fishtronaut and Lunar Jim
The boy's television tastes are nothing if not mercurial. He picks up all-encompassing obsessions that dissipate within a week and are never spoken of again. One week it's Busytown Mysteries, the next it's Bubbleguppies, the week after that old episodes of the Mr. Men show. Some of his friends have single-subject fixations that would drive me loony, so I'm glad he's inherited some eclecticism from my wife and I. Probably his longest-running favorites of the year were these two curious imports.

Fishtronaut is a Brazilian cartoon about a spacesuit-wearing fish who regularly visits the surface to help a little girl and a monkey solve environmental mysteries. Lunar Jim is Canadian stop-motion animation set at a research station on a distant moon populated with a variety of alien life. It's kind of like a pre-school Star Trek minus fighting and danger. I wouldn't call either show groundbreaking children's programming, but they're both gentle and clever and weird enough that I can find plenty to dig in them. The boy could definitely do worse.

Not Kevin and Micah
The boy is now at an age where he's cultivating actual friendships based on specific qualities and personalities of the kids around him. He has a few close friends who are very important to him. He also has a couple of enemies who are even more important. When we asked who he wanted to invite to his birthday party, he named one friend and followed immediately with "NOT Kevin and Micah." I don't know if a 3-year-old can really be classified as a bully, but these were the boys in his old class most likely to hit, kick and, in his words, "do bad things." These guys were a major source of stress for him in 2013. In any number of situations, the absence of Kevin and Micah* was more important to him than the presence of people he liked. We've recently moved him to a different school, but he still occasionally voices concern that Kevin and Micah are being mean to his old friends. Bad news, that Kevin and Micah.

*Names changed because I don't want to get into slandering pre-schoolers.

Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm
Alice and Martin Provensen would be in my hall of fame even if they'd never done anything but illustrate The Color Kittens. As it stands, they collaborated on dozens of classic kids' books, including this soft-spoken masterpiece. The inscription on our copy indicates that I got it as a sixth birthday gift from my aunt Char. I'd forgotten all about it until my mom passed it along to the boy and a thousand deep-seated memories came flooding back. It's a simple story, more an illustrated tour of the Provensen's hobby farm than an actual narrative, but it's so serenely straightforward and evocative. The final pages, where the Provensens quietly remember the animals who've died over the years, brings me near tears every time. The boy took to the book immediately. I couldn't be more delighted about that. It's the most reliable tool in my literary arsenal, the one book that will always get both of us to sit down and immerse ourselves for an enthralling half-hour or so.

Russian Tea House
It isn't just the half-block proximity to our house that makes it the boy's favorite restaurant. It isn't just the friendly in-house accordion player who gave the boy a now-treasured copy of his CD. It isn't just the piping hot pelmeni (meat dumplings) in chicken broth or the tangy, beet-heavy potato salad that the boy reliably devours with gusto. It isn't just the cup of Jelly Bellies the amiable owners always have waiting for him when we walk in the door. OK, that last one has a lot to do with it. But it's all of those things together.

David Bowie's "Memory of a Free Festival"
I've been singing the boy to sleep with my favorite David Bowie song since the day he was born. He still asks for it every time he lays down for a nap. I will never, ever tire of singing it to him.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Lou Reed tribute album: My best-case scenario

The Lou Reed tribute albums are coming. I know it, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I actually tend to like tribute albums. I'm fond of cover songs and watching artists put their own unique spins on other artists' work. Heck, I've even curated a lengthy playlist of existing Lou Reed cover songs on Grooveshark, and it gets fairly regular play. On the other hand, the post-mortem tribute album tends to be tacky and hacky, full of overly reverent renditions by artists who simply aren't suited to the songs they're covering.

That got me thinking idly about who I'd put on my personal dream tribute to Lou Reed, which as usual led to me thinking obsessively about it, which led to me writing it all down and foisting it on you. I know full well that there's no way anyone would ever be able to pull together a lineup this expansive, but that's why I call it a dream. This is my money-is-no-object list. The only real requirement is being alive at the time of writing. (I know a few of the groups I included are on hiatus, but it's not unheard of for bands to reunite for a good cause.)

I selected artists who either had a connection to Lou or who I just think would sound great. Most importantly, I picked artists who I thought were specifically suited to each song. I didn't include all of my favorite Lou Reed songs. As much as I love, say, "Like a Possum" or "Street Hassle," I couldn't imagine anyone doing a cover of either that would trump any of the songs that made the cut. I did include some songs that aren't among my favorites, either because they're especially significant in the Lou Reed canon ("Perfect Day") or because I thought of a way to cover them that I felt was especially kick-ass ("What Becomes a Legend Most"). Like I said, I've put way too much thought into this.

For those who are already wondering why they've read this far, I'll plug in the list of songs and artists. (I've arranged this as a double-CD, because I came up in the '90s and that's how we rolled.) Those who aren't bored or annoyed after that can keep on reading for my reasoning behind each pick. Just keep in mind that this album will never exist, though lord knows I'm dying to hear it.

Something Flickered for a Minute: A Tribute to Lou Reed
Disc 1
1.      Romeo Had Juliette – Patti Smith
2.      Rock & Roll – Prince
3.      Sally Can't Dance – Of Montreal
4.      Caroline Says Part II & Part I – Cat Power
5.      Who Am I? – David Bowie
6.      Perfect Day – Blind Boys of Alabama
7.      Don't Talk to Me About Work – Mo Tucker
8.      Waves of Fear – Antony & Metallica
9.      Men of Good Fortune  - Merle Haggard
10.  Doin' the Things That We Want To – Fear
11.  Paranoia Key of E – The Hold Steady
12.  Walk on the Wild Side – Outkast, Goodie Mob and RZA
13.  What Becomes a Legend Most? – Sutton Foster
14.  My Name is Mok – Iggy Pop
15.  Sister Ray – Janelle Monae
16.  Magic and Loss – John Cale

Disc 2
1.      All Tomorrow's Parties – Björk
2.      Why Can't I Be Good? – Eels
3.      Stupid Man – Mark Mallman
4.      How Do You Speak to an Angel? – Joanna Newsom
5.      Wild Child – Jonathan Richman
6.      How Do You Think It Feels? – Beck
7.      NYC Man – They Might Be Giants
8.      Lady Godiva's Operation – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
9.      I'm Waiting for the Man – Gorillaz
10.  The Chooser and the Chosen One – Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders and Tony Smith featuring Ornette Coleman
11.  The Original Wrapper – Beastie Boys feat. Biz Markie
12.  Women – Shane MacGowan
13.  Sword of Damocles – TV On The Radio
14.  Teach the Gifted Children – Victoria Williams
15.  Sweet Jane – Bruce Springsteen
16.  I Love You – Laurie Anderson

Something Flickered for a Minute: A Tribute to Lou Reed

Romeo Had Juliette – Patti Smith
Any Lou Reed tribute has to lead off with the opening track from New York, my pick for the peak of Lou's lyrical career. Likewise, any Lou Reed tribute requires the participation of fellow New York rock poet Patti Smith. They were friends and cohorts who lived their art the way few people have the talent or privilege to. I can think of plenty of people who could sing "Romeo Had Juliette" and nail it, but I don't believe there's anyone who could embody and understand Lou's bittersweet story of love and squalor in the pre-Giuliani Big Apple better than Patti.

Rock & Roll – Prince
If there's one human alive who can sell the story of Jeannie and her life-saving discovery of rock & roll as well as Lou himself, it's Prince. He could take it the funk route, but I'd rather hear him in full-on jam mode with his rocked-out 3rdEyeGirl backing band. I can't imagine a better embodiment of the transformative power of rock music than hearing this song fade out behind a blistering Prince guitar solo.

Sally Can't Dance – Of Montreal
Maybe Kevin Barnes would exist without Lou Reed, but I doubt he'd be quite the same Kevin Barnes. They exude such a similar combination of sleaze, sexuality and intellect that Of Montreal has to be included here. "Sally Can't Dance" also incorporates a campy sheen that plays directly to Barnes' strengths. The guy was born to sneer "She danced with Picasso's illegitimate mistress and wore Kenneth Lane jewelry."

Caroline Says II & I – Cat Power
The two sides of Chan Marshall mesh nicely with the two sides of Caroline (well, to the extent that anything related to Berlin happens "nicely"). Transpose parts one and two and the songs make a perfect medley, moving from the haunting whisper of early Cat Power to her bolder, more boisterous current sound. I don't think anything would be lost by switching the songs' order – Caroline's tale is a pretty bleak one no matter the sequence.

Lou and Bowie are forever intertwined in the public perception, so it might make sense to pair the latter up with one of the former's best-known songs. Twenty or even ten years ago I'd have thought the same thing, but this soft-spoken, self-explorative cut from The Raven could scarcely be a better fit for Bowie's current sensibilities. This cover wouldn't feel out of place on Bowie's excellent The Next Day. Both that album and this song find renowned artists taking a long, not always uplifting, look at their lives and what they'll mean to the world.

Perfect Day – Blind Boys of Alabama
To be honest, I'm kinda sick of "Perfect Day." Ever since it was used so brilliantly in Trainspotting, its cultural presence has been slowly swelling, until now it's arguably eclipsed "Walk on the Wild Side" as Lou's signature song for casual appreciators. (I saw at least one headline announcing the death of "Perfect Day Singer Lou Reed.") It's cropping up in new commercials every few months and getting covered by all sorts of folks who I'd rather hadn't. Still, it would be unforgivable to exclude it here. Of course it's still a beautiful, brilliant song at heart. It just needs some experienced hands to steer it in the right direction. There are few musical hands more weathered than the Blind Boys of Alabama's. The venerable haunted-gospel group backed Lou on one of The Raven's best tracks, and I reckon they'd know how to steal the soul of "Perfect Day" back from the Susan Boyles of the world.

Mo retired from music for the second time more than a decade ago and shows no inclination toward picking it up again. But if anything is going to get her back in a studio, if not behind a drum kit, it's a tribute to Lou Reed. This track from Legendary Hearts is right in line with the choppy rhythms and blue collar themes of her criminally underrated solo albums. Mo's weirdly evocative monotone yap would mesh marvelously with this playful paean to creative ennui.

Waves of Fear – Antony & Metallica
I'm pretty sure that for the last decade or so Antony just traveled everywhere as a piece of Lou's luggage. He's guested on all sorts of live Lou performances and contributed eerie, countertenor interpretations of a number of Lou's classic songs. In keeping with his vocal stylings, most of those are slow and somber numbers like "Perfect Day" and "Candy Says." I'd like to see what Antony could do with something as rough and muscular as "Waves of Fear." Metallica, of course, is inextricably linked to Lou Reed due to Lulu. They'd be ideal for infusing even more metal into what's already one of the heaviest slabs of rock in the Lou Reed canon.  Keep the towering guitars and throat-grabbing drumbeats of the original in place and I think you'd have an ethereal delight.

Men of Good Fortune  - Merle Haggard
This bitter screed from the have-not protagonist of Berlin could translate pretty easily into a stripped-down country ballad. It's not the type of thing you want in the hands of an amateur, though, so I'm giving it to one of the most inveterate veterans in the country game. Waylon Jennings would be my first pick, as I think his voice matches these lyrics incredibly well, but he was discourteous enough to die. So Merle it is!

Given Lou's standing as a godfather of punk rock, this album has to feature at least one good hardcore track. I feel a little bad not working in someone from the New York scene, but Lee Ving's raging cover of "Hoochie Coochie Man" in the marvelous rock show movie Get Crazy (co-starring, not coincidentally, Lou Reed) convinces me that he's just the guy to trash up Lou's stirring salute to Martin Scorcese, Sam Shepard and the other film and theater artists who made him smile and think.

Paranoia Key of E – The Hold Steady 
Craig Finn covering Lou Reed just sounds right, doesn't it? This sleazily literate account of infidelity and finger-pointing from Ecstasy should be right in his wheelhouse.

Walk on the Wild Side – Outkast, Goodie Mob and RZA
As probably Lou's best known song, this one demands a unique treatment. I think it has to be hip-hop, not just because the rhyme scheme lends itself to that form, but also to wash out the taste of that awful Marky Mark treatment. RZA strikes me as just the right producer to chop up the original Transformer mix and coat that famous bass line with grime. With RZA at the controls, it would make sense to put the Wu-Tang Clan on MC duties. I probably would do just that if Ol' Dirty Bastard was alive, but imagine Andre 3000 and Cee-Lo trading verses about Warhol's Factory crew? (Plus Big Boi, Cool Breeze and the other Dirty Southers, of course.) I'm not entirely sure how to handle the "colored girls" on the chorus, but I imagine these guys could swing something intriguing.

What Becomes a Legend Most? – Sutton Foster
I can't imagine much more dreadful than seeing Lou Reed's body of work turned into one of those posthumous stage musicals the folks on Broadway love to crank out. That said, Lou did dig a good musical, as evidenced by his Time Rocker collaboration with Robert Wilson and his contributions to two different Kurt Weill tributes. I think this semi-sequel to the Velvets' "New Age" cries out to be reborn as a show tune. It's got a Norma Desmond-esque faded star, a singalong chorus and plenty of showy flourishes. I'm not up on my Broadway stars, so maybe there are song-and-dance folks who could handle this better than Sutton Foster. I'm giving it to her anyway because I really miss Bunheads.

My Name is Mok – Iggy Pop
Lou's '70s glam persona positioned him somewhere between the slick shimmer of David Bowie and the feral ferocity of Iggy Pop. Let's embrace the latter and let Iggy snarl his way through this kick-ass obscurity. This was originally the theme song of a sexy, dog-faced, Mick Jagger-inspired super villain in an animated headache called Rock & Rule. That movie also featured the briefest snippet of an Iggy Pop song, so there's your tie-in if for some reason you need one.

Sister Ray – Janelle Monae
It struck me recently that "Sister Ray" would sound amazing with its original instrumentation and a genuine R&B singer on vocals – think Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett. Unfortunately, two of those guys are dead and I'm dubious about Ben at 75 being willing or able to sustain his youthful energy for a 17-minute lyrical orgy of sex and violence. That brings us to the current Funkiest Being on Earth, Janelle Monae. Janelle could slaughter "Sister Ray." There's no question that she could keep the electricity flowing for the duration. I would expect this track to be the highlight of this tribute album. It actually upsets me that I'm not listening to Janelle croon about Cecil and his new piece right this second.

Magic and Loss – John Cale
Lou's most overt exploration of the meaning of death is also one of his greatest artistic achievements. Not only was John Cale Lou's longest-tenured collaborator, he's also exactly the right kind of performer to do this song justice. Set to a gentle piano arrangement, his broken-hearted baritone and gentle Welsh accent would make a beautiful evocation of Lou's passing through fire.


I swear I'm not giving this to Björk just because I know how great Lou's lyrics sound coming from a strong-voiced woman with a European accent. But sure, the Nico factor is in play here. Beyond that, imagine the orchestration and sheer power Björk would invest in this. If she could re-access the towering eccentricity of the Post era, this could be a classic.

Mark Oliver Everett is another artist whose existence seems unlikely without Lou Reed. His witty cynicism and engrossing explorations of how death reflects life are right in concert with Lou's defining themes. Also, he knows how to rock. He'd be able to mine all the self-deprecatory cleverness from this inexplicably obscure gem, Lou's contribution to Wim Wenders' Far Away, So Close soundtrack.

Stupid Man – Mark Mallman
The least-known name on this list, Minnesotan art-glam icon Mark Mallman deserves to be way more famous. I have to believe that the aching intensity he'd bring to the piano-driven opener from The Bells would help prove that to the world.

OK, I'll admit I like the cheesiness of pairing an artist known for her harp-playing with a song about an angel. But my main reason for giving this defiantly wordy, self-satirizing song to Joanna is her penchant for multisyllabic lyrical verbosity. I'd love to hear her distinctive warble deliver a line like "What do you do with your pragmatic passions / With your classically neurotic style / What do you do with your vague self-comprehension / What can you say when they lie?"

Wild Child – Jonathan Richman
Legend has it that Richman was a Velvet Underground fanatic right from the start, going back to the band's infamous club gigs. The early Modern Lovers sound would seem to bear out that influence. He'd be great tapping into the amphetamine-fueled craziness of this raucous run-through of Lou's rogue's gallery.

It wouldn't have occurred to me that Beck's a big Lou Reed fan, but it makes sense. I couldn't decide whether to let him pull off one of his insane rave-ups or keep him in mournful Sea Change mode (the latter being my personal Beck preference). Here's a song that allows him to indulge both sides, a phenomenal, bitter slow-burner from Berlin.

NYC Man – They Might Be Giants
While far too many people dismiss TMBG as a novelty act, those in the know understand that the two Johns are brilliant songsmiths with real versatility. Rather than hand them one of Lou's more out-there numbers, I'd love to see them sink their teeth into this heartfelt exploration of manhood and the city that they and Lou all loved so dearly.

Lady Godiva's Operation – Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers
I'll admit I'm toeing the novelty line here, but I genuinely think the Velvets' deeply creepy duet would sound amazing as a haunted bluegrass tune. You can decide for yourself whether she'd be game for tackling a nightmare story of surgery gone wrong, but there's no denying that when Dolly goes dark she can be spooky as hell. Putting her on the John Cale parts and her old "Islands in the Stream" mate Kenny on the intentionally discordant Lou lines would be amusing on the first listen and increasingly unsettling with every subsequent spin.

The Gorillaz/Lou Reed collaboration "Some Kind of Nature" was a neat surprise, a smooth melding of sensibilities that somehow made both acts sound even hipper. "I'm Waiting for the Man" is another Lou song that's been covered to death, but I think Gorillaz dark-but-bouncy electronic sensibilities could shine a new light on things. A breathy Damon Albarn vocal is never a bad thing either.

The Chooser and the Chosen One – Mike Rathke, Fernando Saunders and Tony Smith featuring Ornette Coleman
Lou's band members were the unsung heroes of his recent output, although they weren't unsung by Lou himself. His always made sure to give them their props during live gigs, even including a solo song by bassist Fernando Saunders on the Animal Serenade CD. Saunders, guitarist Mike Rathke and drummer Tony Smith backed Lou for the better part of two decades, so it seems only fitting to give them their due with a cover of this instrumental deep cut from Rock & Roll Heart. Free jazz legend Ornette Coleman collaborated with Lou a number of times, so let's put him on sax and see how weird we can get with it.

The Original Wrapper – Beastie Boys feat. Biz Markie
One of the most widely derided songs Lou ever recorded, this deeply odd ode to hip-hop takes a lot of flak for its dorky rhymes and curiously waffle-centric imagery. Y'know who else likes rapping about non-sequiturs and food? Yes, yes, Weird Al, but y'know who else? The Beastie Boys, that's who. What's more, they're fellow New York icons with roots in punk rock. Get longtime Beastie collaborator Biz Markie to sit in for the dearly departed MCA and we might just have a reassessment of Lou's hip-hop prowess.

Women – Shane MacGowan
This isn't one of the best songs in Lou's repertoire – its goofy satire of masculinity borders on annoying – but Shane MacGowan's whiskey-strangled slur would breathe new, sleazy life into it. It'd be worth it just to hear him rasp out "I... love... WOMEN!" as the music swells.

Sword of Damocles – TV On The Radio
As far as I know TV On The Radio has no direct connection to Lou Reed, but they're a band who can do no wrong in my book. Their powerful, flawlessly produced sound manages to be both expansive and introspective, which makes them an ideal fit for this sad, sweeping rumination on the inevitability of death.

Teach the Gifted Children – Victoria Williams
Lou's fondness for Victoria Williams always warmed my heart. Stylistically they're miles apart, but they complemented each other surprisingly well. Lou's rendition of "Tarbelly and Featherfoot" is one of the peaks of Sweet Relief, the benefit covers album that brought Victoria to the attention of the alt-rock world in the early '90s, and he contributed guitar and backing vocals to her "Crazy Mary" on a number of live appearances. Victoria opened for Lou the one time I saw him play live, and she just about stole the show, her sweetness and light playing as a welcome contrast to Lou's grumpy stoicism. Of all the songs in Lou's catalog, the hopeful, gospel-tinged "Teach the Gifted Children" sounds most like it could've been written by Victoria Williams. I'm not sure where Victoria's battle with MS stands – the dearth of new music over the last decade makes me fear it's not going well – but if she was up to singing it, think she'd nail this one with trademark steely sweet folkitude.

Sweet Jane – Bruce Springsteen
I'm almost tempted to have Bruce do "Street Hassle" just for the novelty of him reprising his cameo on the original recording, but when it comes down to it I can't think of another performer better suited to mine the joy and sheer rockingness out of this song. It's been over-covered and redefined so many times over (as lovely as that Cowboy Junkies version is, it bugs me that it's  eclipsed the original for a lot of people (also that the Junkies get too much credit for their "re-imagining," as they're pretty closely covering a live arrangement from late-period Velvet Underground concerts)), it would be beautiful to hear Springsteen belt it back to its former glory. It makes a perfect almost-closing track to be capped off by a sweet little coda.

I Love You – Laurie Anderson
Tell me you wouldn't cry. Heck, I'm tearing up just thinking about it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Some loss to even things out: Goodbye, Lou Reed

Magic and Loss and me.
From the start, my relationship with Lou Reed was linked to death. I bought my first Lou Reed album on March 2, 1994. It was something of an impulse buy. I spotted Lou Reed Live in the $3 cassette bin at my local Pamida discount store, and I happened to know that March 2 was Lou Reed’s birthday thanks to my obsessive re-reading of my high school library’s copy of The Encyclopedia of Rock. That was serendipitous enough to merit a purchase. I knew “Walk on the Wild Side” from oldies radio, and my pal Nathan had recently introduced me to The Velvet Underground and Nico, so it didn’t seem like much of a gamble.

When I got home that night I started upstairs for my usual new-album ritual of sprawling out on my parents’ bed and listening intently as the music unspooled on the little black boombox that was our family’s only stereo system at the time. This evening, though, my ascent was interrupted by an overheard snippet from the evening news: an as-yet unidentified teenager from my small town had been shot dead. Details were still hazy and no names of anyone involved had been released, so there wasn’t much for me to do but go listen to my Lou Reed tape and fret. My head was swimming as I slid the cassette into the “A” deck and pressed play. Was the kid who’d died one of my friends? How could someone my age possibly die? What was school going to be like the next day?

And then the opening guitar licks of “Vicious” kicked in and I was blessedly distracted by the surly bravado of Lou Reed’s voice and lyrics and the muscular churn of his glam-metal backing band. The songs on Lou Reed Live were a revelation, sardonic screeds filled with bile and bitterness that tapped into previously unexplored crannies of my still-gestating teenage psyche. It was grim stuff, by and large, but gleefully so. It was exactly what I needed to temper my fear with the semi-reassurance that this was such a weird, senseless, horrible world that the only way to face it was with a steely smirk.

As it turned out, I didn’t know the boy who’d died– it was an accidental shooting involving two kids a grade younger than me – but a lot of my friends did. Regardless of our relationship to him, that day marked a major milestone for my peers and me, a shattering of innocence and the illusion of safety. And it was another kind of milestone for me personally, the launching point of the most intense, involved and long-lasting relationship I’ve ever had with an artist.

I’ve written at length about what Lou Reed has meant to me, on this blog and elsewhere. I don’t think I need to rehash all of it now, but suffice it to say Lou Reed has been an influence on and an inspiration to just about everything I’ve done artistically in my life. Sometimes that influence has even spilled beyond the artistic arena. Most notably, Lou Reed has played a big role in helping me deal with death. I don’t know if there’s another songwriter with such a profound understanding of death and its impact on the living. It’s a topic Lou revisited many times throughout his career, especially in his latter years: the ambitious Andy Warhol tribute Songs for Drella, the wistful AIDS reaction of “Halloween Parade,” the fatalist acceptance of “Fly Into the Sun.” For me, he never got death more right than he did with Magic and Loss.

Magic and Loss is an extremely undervalued entry in Lou’s canon. It’s an album-length meditation on death, particularly the death of Lou’s friend, fabled songwriter Doc Pomus. The album masterfully explores mourning from all angles, from the anger of “Warrior King” to the painful dread of “Sword of Damocles” to the introspective acceptance of “Magic and Loss.” It’s both deeply personal and beautifully universal in its sentiments. Ever since I was a teenager, this album has been a vital part of my grieving process. Whenever someone I love dies, I make sure to set aside some time within the following days to sit by myself and listen to Magic and Loss. They’re all songs I know by heart, but every death transforms them into new entities. Lou’s lyrics reflect differently off of each person who passes, imbuing themselves with new meaning as I alter their shapes to fit the faces and ways of the people I miss most. I’ve cried along with Lou, raged along with him, laughed along with him. He’s always been there for me when I needed him most.

So now it’s finally time to break out Magic and Loss for the man who made it. I’ve been preparing myself for this for a long time, but I’ve always managed to half-convince myself that it wasn’t really going to happen, that Lou would somehow go on in perpetuity. At the least, I had hoped he’d live long enough to put out one more really good, really Lou album. Still, as frustrating as his work could be over the past decade or so, it makes me happy to know that Lou spent the last years of his life making his art on his own terms. He dug photography, so he put out a photography book and booked a bunch of gallery shows. He wanted to be represented on the legitimate stage, so he worked on a musical and adapted some of his classic albums for orchestral audiences. He was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, t’ai chi and Metallica, so he used his rare time in the recording studio to pay tribute to all of them. He basically closed out his artistic years doing an extended piece called “Lou Does Whatever the Hell Lou Feels Like Doing (Feat. Laurie Anderson).”

I suppose I oughtn’t feel too bad about the passing of an artist who spent so much of his youth on the edge yet still lived to be a septuagenarian with a prolific and celebrated oeuvre. But I do. Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up for the first time in a world without Lou Reed. That’s a world I don’t know how to deal with. But it’s the only world we have now, and I guess we have to make the most of it. Hundreds of tributes from artists of all stripes will roll in over the next few days. Some will be moving, some will be annoying, some will make me wonder why they bothered. Heck, I’m already cringing imagining the grotesque tribute the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ghouls will whip up for their next induction ceremony. For my part, I’ll do my best to focus on Lou’s own lessons about life and death, and to always keep the thesis statement of Magic and Loss close at mind:

When you pass through humble
When you pass through sickly
When you pass through
“I'm better than you all”
When you pass through
anger and self-deprecation
and have the strength to acknowledge it all
When the past makes you laugh
and you can savor the magic
that let you survive your own war
You find that that fire is passion
and there's a door up ahead not a wall
As you pass through fire, as you pass through fire
trying to remember its name
When you pass through fire licking at your lips
you cannot remain the same
And if the building's burning
move towards that door
but don't put the flames out
There's a bit of magic in everything
and then some loss to even things out

Goodbye, Lou. Thanks for all you gave me.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Gillian Welch’s “April the 14th Part 1”: The greatest rock song ever written

A while back I went to see Outer Minds play at Turf Club. Not only does the band specialize in the kind of dark, dangerous psychedelia that I thrive on, singer/organist Mary McKane and drummer Brian Costello are friends of mine from Columbia College Chicago.

The band’s Saint Paul gig was the first stop on a three-week tour of the West, undertaken the old-fashioned way, in a questionably reliable van (they’d already encountered their first automotive trouble driving from Chicago to Saint Paul). Chatting with Mary before the show, I mentioned how impressed I was with their commitment. She shrugged and said that between this, her writing and her other band, she was at least keeping herself from having to get a day job. I was instantly flooded with an admiration bordering on the profound.

The usual cliché of the rock star lifestyle is all trashed hotel rooms and feverish bursts of drugged-out inspiration, but I’ve always been more drawn to the grungy aesthetic of the barely-making-it band. That’s why I hold Gillian Welch’s “April the 14th Part 1” as the greatest song ever written about rock and roll. There are plenty of songs about wanting to be a rock icon, ranging from celebratory anthems of aspiration (Prince's "Baby I'm a Star," Dr. Hook's "Cover of the Rolling Stone") to cynical tales of caution (The Byrds' "So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star?", The Smiths' "Paint a Vulgar Picture"). With “April the 14th, though, Welch treads considerably more grounded ground.

She sets the stage with a snapshot of a young woman's brief encounter with a touring band: "I walked downtown on my telephone / Took a lazy turn through the red-eye zone / It was a five-band bill, a two-dollar show / Saw the van out front from Idaho." It's a placid scene so far, but the slow dirge of Welch's vocal and guitar lend an air of foreboding that only intensifies with the next lines: "And the girl passed out in the backseat trash / There was no way they'd make even half a tank of gas / They looked sick and stoned and strangely dressed / No one showed from the local press."

At this point, the musicians aren't just grim and hopeless figures, they come off almost like alien beings. Welch dispassionately discards all the usual touchstones of rock stardom. Fame is off the table – none of the papers can be bothered to cover the show. Money is even less of a motivator – unless the song takes place within half a tank's drive from the Idaho border, the band will be dipping into its own funds just to get home, let alone to the next tour stop. Even basic human comforts seem to be out of reach – they're visibly sickly and literally sleeping in their own filth.

It looks like a bad scene all around until Welch brings around the redemption with her verse-closing couplet: "But I watched them a while through the bottomland / And I wished I played in a rock and roll band."

That line is, to me, what makes “April the 14th Part 1” the greatest song about rock – and maybe even art in general – ever written.  There's a line my old pastor used to be quite fond of throwing at us youth group kids: "True love is not because of; true love is in spite of." I'm tempted to apply that here. You could argue that Welch is looking past all of the external ugliness of the band's situation and seeing the beauty of being a touring band. But even that makes it too easy. I think she's looking at the squalor and poverty and futility of this unnamed Idaho ensemble and falling in love because of all that.

The rest of the song is likewise packed with grim beauty, describing the mundane clean-up process after a show ("Threw the plastic cups into plastic bags / And the cooks cleaned the kitchen with the staggers and the jags") and cryptically referencing three tragedies that took place on the titular April 14th (the sinking of the Titanic, the Dust Bowl's Black Sunday and the Lincoln assassination). It's all bleak and poignant and just as enticing to me as it is to Welch.

It's easy to look at young Mick Jagger strutting and fretting on a massive stage or Billie Holiday crooning in a smoky basement jazz club and think, "That's what I want!" Those scenarios are pretty much the definition of sexy wish fulfillment. But to think the same thing while watching the opening band packing up their mic stands in front of an indifferent Wednesday night crowd at the neighborhood bar? That's a different impulse all together, and I think it has a lot to do with what makes artists make art.

Take this blog post, for instance. Who's going to read this? Maybe a couple dozen people who follow me on Facebook and Twitter. A lot of folks would say (and have said) there's no real reason to spend my time and mental energy writing something that's going to have such a miniscule reach. I suppose they'd be right, but I'm not writing this in hopes of reaching a huge audience. Sure, I'd be thrilled if this or any of my writings went viral and I became the toast of online artistic circles and got invited to write an op-ed column for Slate and saw myself pilloried on anti-arts message boards. But that's not why I do it. I do it because these ideas are in my head and I need to put them down in writing.

Not only do I need to do it, I love to do it. Most of my writing is done late at night, huddled in a chilly basement, racing to get something coherent written down before the accursed necessity of sleep becomes too overbearing to fight. It's not glamorous, it's not fun and there's seldom any kind of financial reward waiting at the end of my word count, but my god, do I look forward to putting on some records, hunching over my laptop and driving myself half-crazy obsessing over conjunctions. I won't go so far as to say the writing is its own reward – I always write in the hopes that somebody is going to read it eventually – but if I was only in it for the glory I'd have given up a long time ago.

That's the beauty of “April the 14th Part 1.” Better than anyone else I've heard, Gillian Welch captures the artistic drive to get out there and make something, to share your creation with whatever miniscule sliver of the world you can coerce into glancing at it. Even if the experience is awful and ugly, it's still your art and it's what you have to do. My hat is off to Mary and Brian and Gillian and all the other creators who can face up to the harsh realities of an artistic existence and say, "That's what I want!" The world needs more of that.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Make a little Warehouse in your soul

When I was 15 the Dead Milkmen played in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the closest city of any size to my parents’ rural homestead. My pal Nathan had gotten me into the Milkmen earlier that year, and we were both incredibly geared up to see the show. Unfortunately I wasn’t yet old enough to drive and Nathan couldn’t get parental permission, so we missed out on what undoubtedly would have been an incredible first concert-going experience. 

Even though I didn’t actually see it, that Dead Milkmen set did turn out to be a show that changed my life. See, the Milkmen had played at a club in downtown La Crosse called The Warehouse. I’d been vaguely aware that the place existed before then, but this was the first time I’d thought of it as somewhere I might actually go. A few months later I did just that. I suppose the stellar ‘90s punk lineup of Hagfish, Swingin’ Utters and Hoarse live at The Warehouse wasn’t technically my first show. I’d seen plenty of Christian acts before, attended some God-rock festivals, and even sampled a bit of the La Crosse alternative scene at the Brew Note coffee house. But going to The Warehouse felt different from all of that. This felt like a real show in a real club, the type of thing kids in New York or Seattle might do. Needless to say, I was stoked.

All I knew about the bands was that Hagfish’s latest CD had gotten a pretty good review in CMJ. In the limited sphere of the greater La Crosse, Wisconsin area, that established them as a must-see. It turned out to be a hell of a show, noisy and raucous and full of life. The music was like nothing I’d heard played live before. The musicians were like no one I’d seen live before. (One of the Swingin’ Utters guys had an honest-to-god giant, spiky mohawk! I’d only ever seen those in music magazines and comic books!) I was amazed to see a real-live mosh pit, just like the ones I’d read about in news stories about Woodstock ’93. It took me a while to work up the nerve, but eventually I dove in and took to thrashing about the dance floor. I couldn’t have been a pretty picture – a gawky, ghost-pale teenager in a sweat-soaked purple flannel and a knit stocking cap that kept falling over my eyes – but I was having a hell of a time.

I had a lot of hells of times at The Warehouse over the next several years, all without realizing what a rare thing I was experiencing. I didn’t realize at the time that an alcohol-free, all-ages club that booked national acts was hard to come by in any city, let alone one the size of La Crosse. For all I knew, it was the norm for misfit teens who lived near college towns to spend their evenings watching noise rock bands make music with power tools in a dusky nightclub. It wasn’t until I got to college that I learned most of my peers didn’t have that opportunity. I might have missed out on the Dead Milkmen, but the bands I did see could make for a hell of a mid ‘90s mix tape: Poster Children, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, Possum Dixon, Chemlab, Pegboy, NIL8, Savage Aural Hotbed, Sister Machine Gun, Helva, Puzzle Factory... I could go on for ages.

And it wasn’t just about the bigger name bands. The Warehouse also provided a place for local acts to cut their teeth in a more professional venue than their college buddy’s basement. Although I’m sure I’m looking back through rose-colored glasses, the La Crosse area had itself quite a thriving little scene at the time. The local bands I saw at The Warehouse loom just as large in my memory as their better known counterparts. USV, Spindle, The Baum Squad (formerly Spoon), Norm’s Headache, Space Bike, The Lush Workers – these bands were the first network of artists that I truly felt a part of. Hell, even my high school band Inflatable Grandpa, whose sound could charitably have been called sloppy nerd punk, landed a few Warehouse gigs. I still shiver when I recall the thrill of subjecting a small crowd to the sight of me barking my They Might Be Giants-aping lyrics from the stage of a club I knew and loved.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say The Warehouse played a vital role in making me the man I am today. I have friends who say the place probably saved their lives by giving them a refuge from alcohol and drugs at a very fragile point of their youth. Personally, I was a substance-free teen, mainly because it gave me one more reason to feel superior to my schoolmates (self-righteousness was my anti-drug). For me it was all about access to the music. Not even the bands themselves, necessarily, but the experience of seeing live music and being part of a scene. Even when the bands sucked – and there were plenty that sucked hard – I was still out at show, immersed in a culture that most of my peers wouldn’t have a chance to discover for another half-decade. I can’t even imagine how grim my high school and early college years would have been without it.

As I write this, The Warehouse is in dire straits for the umpteenth time in its 22-year history. Due to factors more detailed than I care to go into here, the place is in danger of being shut down and turned into condos if owner Steve Harm can’t raise a considerable sum to pay off the business’ debts by tomorrow night. There’s a Warehouse Rescue Campaign fundraising page posted at Indiegogo where you can chip in any amount to keep the music going. I’ve pitched in and I hope to hell more folks will too. Right now there’s a kid in West Salem or Bangor or Sparta or Winona or Galesville or Nodine who’s checking out an old SNFU concert video on YouTube and falling in love. I want that kid to have a place to live that dream. I want The Warehouse to be there to give another generation the invaluable education it gave me.

(See the tall guy in the white t-shirt standing by the stage at the 0:22 mark? That’d be me at 18.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pop culture corrections: Lions and kisses and Beatles (Oh my)

I’ve been bless-cursed with a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. I try not to let it get too obnoxious, but every now and then I just have to make people aware that, for instance, there are actually three full verses to the Cheers theme song and I know all the words to them. Usually, though, I keep it quiet because nobody likes a know it all. It’s a good policy in general, but there have been a few instances where I’ve chosen not to speak up and forever regretted holding my piece. Here’s my chance to get three particularly festering corrections off my chest.

The Cowardly Film Student
I took a film studies course my sophomore year of college that was overall pretty solid. The professor was knowledgeable if not particularly engaging and he showed us a good roster of classic cinema. During a lecture that touched on the importance of The Wizard of Oz, however, he repeatedly referred to Charles Laughton’s performance as The Cowardly Lion. The professor was, of course confusing Laughton with Bert Lahr, a similarly portly and unsubtle (I mean that in the best way) screen star of the 1930s. I almost yelled out a rebuke, but this was an auditorium class and I didn’t have the heart to make the guy look foolish in front of 100-plus undergrads.

Ignoring a Hole
That same sophomore year, I took a British Lit class with a professor who delighted in tweaking the parameters of the standard undergraduate literature syllabus. Thus, we watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus and I’m All Right Jack, read Salman Rushdie’s Shame and Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine and listened to Linton Kwesi Johnson and The Beatles.

I was pretty excited about that last part, as I’d fancied myself something of a Beatles scholar ever since I first read Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever in sixth grade. My excitement turned to dismay, however, when the professor spent a good portion of his lecture dissecting the lyrics to “Fixing a Hole.” For one thing, I’ve always considered that a rather mediocre Beatles song, and for another thing, the guy had the words wrong. He dedicated a fair bit of time to the clever nuance of the line “fixing a hole where the rain gets in / to stop my mind from wandering.” He was especially impressed by the double meaning of “to” – did it refer to Paul’s patching job or to the rain itself? In other words, was he trying to keep his mind focused or allow it to roam freely?

It would have made for a fine discussion point (and arguably a better song) except that the actual lyric is the much less ambiguous “and stops my mind from wandering,” not “to.” It was awfully hard not to call him out, but in the heat of the moment I doubted my own knowledge and didn’t want to risk making a dope of myself on a point of only 98% certainty.

The Kiss Not Taken
About 15 years ago I heard a DJ on an oldies radio station introduce J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers’ rendition of “Last Kiss,” saying something along the lines of “Here’s a bit of music trivia for you: nowhere in the song does J. Frank Wilson ever say the words “last kiss.’” I suppose he was technically correct, if you’re going on the notion that the final verse doesn’t count as part of the song. Otherwise, “I held her close / Kissed her our last kiss” is pretty evident. It still bothers me that I didn’t call the station immediately and demand that the DJ be fired.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Warren Zevon's "Hit Somebody" and the pure power of storytelling

Although I believe Warren Zevon to be the finest songwriter of his generation, and of most others, I wasn’t originally that keen on “Hit Somebody (The Hockey Song).” It’s the most flamboyant track from his undervalued 2002 album My Ride’s Here, a boisterous ballad co-written with Mitch Albom and featuring not only David Letterman’s house band but also Dave himself on backing vocals. Despite that pedigree, I found the song disappointing in my early listens. Its story of a triumphant underdog athlete felt hackneyed to me, more Albom than Zevon, and Letterman’s bellering on the chorus pushed the whole thing dangerously close to novelty territory.

Also, it was about hockey. As a basketball guy, I’m predisposed to resent hockey.

But that all changed a couple of years ago when I discovered an early live performance of “Hit Somebody” on the invaluable Internet Archive. It’s from a December, 2000 show at Philadelphia's mellifluously named Theatre of Living Arts prior to the release of My Ride’s Here. The entire set is a lot of fun, with Warren swapping banter with a fervorous, highly vocal crowd. That audience was instrumental in changing my opinion on “Hit Somebody.” Hearing them hear a brand new Warren Zevon song unfold for the first time is a joyous wonder that underlines the power of Warren’s storytelling. (The embedded player below includes the whole concert. Skip down to track #11 to follow along with "Hit Somebody." Then go back and listen to the whole thing, because it's all wonderful. Or just listen to the YouTube clip of the performance further down the page.)

There’s a lot of laughter as Warren tells of Buddy the goon’s rise to the NHL, as there should be. But it’s more than just a funny story. What’s remarkable about this rendition is how quickly and deeply the audience becomes invested in Buddy’s fortunes. At 5-plus minutes it isn’t an overly long song, so economy of words is of vital importance. Warren’s only accompaniment is himself on piano, which puts every one of those words in sharp focus for the whole room to digest.

That’s no problem for Warren Zevon. The man really had no peer when it came to quick, memorable character sketches (see also: “Mr. Bad Example,” “Boom-Boom Mancini,” “The French Inhaler” and many, many more) and Buddy ranks among his most indelible creations. (I don't want to give Mitch Albom short shrift - from what I've gathered, he was responsible for most of the lyrical content. Still, much of the strength of this particular telling lies in Zevon's presence and delivery. It's why I love this rendition much more than the album version.)

By the closing of the first verse, we know Buddy’s a burly Canadian farm kid turned hockey pro who dreams of scoring goals but reluctantly accepts his role as an enforcer. A lot of fiction writers, myself included, could easily spend several pages laying out that history. Warren and Albom do it in a few rhyming lines, and the Philadelphia crowd eats it up. When the scout from Calgary tells Buddy “We’ve always got room for a goon,” the cheers erupt immediately and the enthusiasm carries through to the chorus.

As the second verse chronicles Buddy’s storied but frustrating career as a role player, the audience grows audibly more invested in the story. It’s not often that a live recording can capture the sound of a room listening intently. Just like in the first verse, Warren and Albom land the story via universal but specific characterization. "The coach said, 'Buddy, just remember your role / The fast guys get paid. They shoot and they score / Protect them, Buddy. It's what you're here for'" - it's all unique to the song's situation, but who among us can't identify with the agony of watching someone else live out your own cherished dream?  By the time the second chorus rolls around most of the room is chiming in on the all-important “Hit somebody!” It’s important to remember that few, if any, of the audience members would have heard the song at this point. Granted, they've been briefed on the sing-along aspect, but I've been to plenty of shows where the attendees blatantly ignore such instructions. The way these folks warm to the audience participation is a testament to the power of Warren’s delivery.

It’s in the third verse that things get truly inspiring. “In his final season, on his final night / Buddy and a Finn goon were pegged for a fight,” Warren sings, and one exuberant listener starts screaming, “Yes! Yes!” The fan keeps up the cheer as Warren works to the slow reveal of “Suddenly Buddy had a shot… on goal,” at which point the crowd collectively gasps, then cheers. They’re hooked now, utterly invested in the moment of truth for this sketchily drawn pucksmith who didn’t exist five minutes earlier. The room goes silent again for a couple of lines (“20 years of waiting went into that shot”) until Warren pulls out the elating/deflating couplet of “the fans jumped up and the Finn jumped too / And cold-cocked Buddy on his follow-through.” There’s laughter at that line, sure, but it’s nervous laughter. Everyone wants Buddy to get his goal, but they also know they’re dealing with the sardonic SOB who wrote “Excitable Boy.” Albom or no Albom, there’s at least a 50-50 chance of Buddy blowing the shot and being carted off the ice with a spinal injury.

But those were different times. Late-period Zevon knew there was nothing wrong with a happy ending every now and again. Still, he doesn’t tip his hand – his delivery is passive, almost passionless as he murmurs, “The big man crumbled, but he felt all right / ‘Cause the last thing he saw was the flashing red light.” And that’s the release the crowd has been waiting for. The audience erupts in applause almost as if they’re watching the actual hockey game from the song. The rhythmic clapping begins immediately, propelling Warren into the final chorus. No one needs any prompting on the “Hit somebody!” this time around. Now it’s a motto to be shouted, a sort of “Semper fi” for a room full of strangers who have been through a lot together in the last five and a half minutes. That little farm boy they watched grow up has just scored the goal everyone told him he’d never get, and they’ll be damned if they’re not going to celebrate that achievement.

That, folks, is some grade-A storytelling, and it’s why Warren Zevon is one of the best there ever was.