Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume IV, Letter C

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Welcome to Volume IV of my crazy project of listening to a single compact disc from start to finish from each musical artist represented in my neglected cd collection and then writing about it in a blog post. Wow, that was a mouthful.  The B section was bountiful; it took two volumes of blog and many moons to complete.  Now Summer is upon us and I can feel time opening up for more listening. I predict that I will be through the C section before the end of this current month of July in the year of our dog, 2015. We begin with

Cake, “Comfort Eagle.” This record is so damn catchy.  I listened to it once with utter joy and then, maybe a full week later, the tunes still swirling around in my brain after only one listen, I had to listen to it again.  Cake, they are a wonder.  How could a singer with such a lack of stylistic flare, such a deadpan delivery, be so stunningly memorable?  Partly, it’s the delivery coupled with the lyrics and of course the melodies, which are sometimes more spoken than sung, nevertheless, infectious and difficult to abandon.  I’ll just give you a few lines.  “Swim in your kidney–kidney-shaped pool.”  The greatest misleading lyric turn since David Byrne’s, “Do I smell? I smell home-cooking,” from “Cities.” “You are an Austrian nobleman, and you’re commissioning a symphony in C.” Of course I am! “I am an opera singer.” Of course you are!  And perhaps the most famous Cake line ever: “I want a girl with a short skirt and a lo——–ng jacket.” Of course you do, and so do I!  And finally, more profound and about as seriously as Cake ever takes itself: “We are building a religion.”  This album brought me through, perhaps, the darkest period of my adult life. 2001. Thank you, Cake.

Camper Van Beethoven, “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.” Oh my god, it’s been a long time since I heard this record, the only record from CVB in my collection.  I could, without listening first, recall by memory the first two tunes, at least in part, by their lyric hooks.  “Eye of Fatima,” I could have hummed a bit of, and “O Death” I could have hummed in its entirety, but other than that, I could not have sung or remembered another single track. I tried to guess the album’s release date.  I thought 1989 and I was off by only one year.  But I could have purchased the record in ’89, as I associated it with living in the basement of my in-laws for a year while my wife and I got our feet on the ground financially.  So, not bad.  Music and memory. That’s part of what this whole project is about.  I’m surprised I only have one record from this group, because, as I listen I rock and I am immensely happy. This is a record that needs to go back into rotation, I think.  This one needs to be sucked up by the mighty iTunes program so that it can be carried around and shared between all the devices.  It’s that good.  And it’s a nice springboard, I think, into the 90’s.  Its lost most of the aspects I would associate with what I like to call the 80’s stink.  A cool, rocking, kind of progressive record. Rock band with fiddle. And David Lowry’s snotty but lucid drawl. Dig it.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, “Trout Mask Replica.”  I haven’t started listening yet.  I’m afraid.  I suspect that the only reason I have this record is that I have been since the early 80’s a Frank Zappa fan, and Zappa was a collaborator of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, and Zappa produced this album in 1969, so if nothing else, it represented for me a sweet little piece of Zappa history.  Also, more credibility piled on once I learned that another one of my 80’s rock heroes, Andy Partridge from XTC, was also a fan and heavily influenced by the Beefheart.  Okay. So I bought this record(cd) long ago, the album cover sporting a portrait of a dude who appears to have a fish for a head and is wearing some kind of pointy top hat.  Why am I afraid?  I know it’s an important record, and undoubtedly I bought it because I was informed that it was an important record, and I know I can’t remember anything about it off the top of my head, and I know it will be weird, and I’m afraid that I will not like it. Here goes.

Holy shit. It’s weird all right.  But awesome.  I can’t look away.  It’s like a train wreck in the very best possible sense. Perhaps the weirdest record in my collection. But listening now, after a bourbon, I can hear the influence on Andy Partridge’s angular guitar playing, and the guy from Gang of Four.  That’s what happened.  That’s why this is so remarkable.  And the words, holy crap, the words are “magical” indeed.  And as chaotic as the music sometimes is, it is surprisingly listenable–unlike other groups I love (The Flaming Lips) in their most experimental moments.

The Cardigans, “First Band on the Moon.”  What a perfect pop record.  There’s not a clunker on the thing.  This band exudes charm.  I’m in love with Nina Persson all over again.  And these are the best worst-sounding drums I’ve ever heard, boxy, compressed, like toys, but nevertheless awesome.  And their cover of “Iron Man” is one of the greatest recorded covers ever.  It is as unlikely and beautiful as is GWAR’s version of a Pet Shop Boys tune in the Onion’s AV Room.  It’s 1996, but timeless.  I don’t have very many specific memories associated with the record because I think it’s one that I kept listening to consistently over the next 19 years.

Neko Case, “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.”  I caught on to Canadian singer songwriter Neko Case through The New Pornographers, hadn’t realized at first they were a kind of supergroup of stellar artists all in their own right.  This is the first Neko record I bought, and it’s as far from The New Pornographers as one could go, it seems to me. I don’t even know how to categorize this record.  Is it country? Is it folk? Is it the blues? The answer, perhaps, to all three of these questions would be yes.  The drums are huge, played with heavy brushes.  The reverbs on her voice are wide open. The lyrics are astounding and profound.  And that voice is absolutely to die for. This record is only 10 years old.  I was listening to this album when my boy was an infant. This is not necessarily a happy record, but I know how happy I was when I found it. A beautiful, quietly disturbing and comforting listen.

The tweeters in my JBLs both died tonight–in the middle of the Neko record.  Headphones, then.

The Chamber Strings, “Month of Sundays.” This is, I think, only the second pirated cd I’ve pulled off the shelf in two and a half letters of the alphabet.  I’m not happy about it.  Some years ago, after a friend of mine burned me a copy of this record, told me to check it out, and I did, I should have gone out immediately and bought a copy. I might still have to do that, not only because I’m generally against pirating music, but most importantly because this is a truly great record. I’d not heard of them at the time my friend passed this to me, years after its release in 2001.  Because of record label issues, bad distribution, and the singer songwriter Kevin Junior’s drug addiction and poor health, the band kind of fell apart and then into obscurity–but nevertheless developed a rabid cult following, of which I now consider myself a part.  It’s pop music, but it’s melodic, smart, lush, serious, loose, yet expertly performed.  It’s a pop record that really breathes, feels legitimately human.  It feels like a record made without computers of any kind.  Note to self: buy a real copy of this record.

Tracy Chapman, “Self Titled.” “Talking about a revolution. . .Finally, the tables are starting to turn.”  It’s kind of sad.  This tune is probably just as relevant now, if not more so, than it was in 1988.  But we didn’t really get, and we’re still waiting for the revolution she’s singing about. It’s in progress.  It’s gathering some momentum.  She was 27 years ahead of her time.  “Fast Car,” again, profound, smart, heartfelt, poignant.  What happened to Tracy Chapman? I totally lost track of her.

Cheap Trick, “In Color and in Black and White.” My god.  Here’s another band for which it might be extremely difficult for me to listen to only one album. It’s almost impossible for me to express what this crazy rock band means to me.  I saw them open up for Kiss in 1976 and I immediately loved them. And after listening to a 40 minute set, I already knew the tunes after a first listen and had already decided how much better than Kiss they were.  There’s no comparison. This was my first Cheap Trick record, their second album. That opening guitar riff.  Bun E Carlos’s explosive drum entrance. Robin Zander’s evocation,  “Hello there, ladies and gentlemen.  Hello there, ladies and gents. Are you ready to rock? Are you ready or not?” I’m a 50 year old guy, but listening to this record tonight with headphones on, I am as excited as a school boy.  They rocked. But they were melodic and funny, sometimes smart, quirky, adventurous, the Heavy American Beatles, and between that voice (the best power pop singer EVER?), those nerdy Nielsen antics with the hats and the picks and the 1001 guitars, those 12 string bass parts, and the pure, effortless, pulsating, literally smoking drums of Bun E., I’d almost go so far as to say that Cheap Trick was (IS!) the greatest power pop band American music has ever produced.  And they’re still going!  There was a dark period in the late 80’s and early 90’s, but after 1997’s self-titled “Cheap Trick,” they completely reestablished themselves as a continuously relevant force in rock and roll. I haven’t missed a record since. Okay.  Let’s do this one, too: Cheap Trick, “Self-titled” (1997). 

In case you were worried or curious, I found a pair of Boston Acoustic Satellite Speakers with a matching subwoofer.  Headphones no longer necessary.  These babies sound pretty good.

Chicago, “Chicago Transit Authority.” This record was way before my time.  I was 5 years old.  But my oldest brother, 12 years my senior, had this album on reel to reel.  Yeah, he had a reel to reel tape deck. And between my brother and A.M. radio, I would have heard much of this famous record as a child. I thank the Almighty Almighty my siblings were avid music listeners.  If they had not been, there’s no telling whether or not I would have ever caught the bug that has shaped so much of my life. At any rate, only a decade or so ago, these first few Chicago records were remastered and rereleased on compact disc.  I felt that these records, at least the first two, were too important not to have a home in the collection.  So here I am, 45 years later, grooving on this music, miraculous in a way, that a band with such progressive leanings could land so many hit songs.  “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Listen to that jazzy opening.  Could a thing like this ever hope to be a hit on pop radio in this dark day and age? On the flipside, though, musicians got away with all kinds of shit in the 60’s and 70’s.  How about a 6:47 tune called “Free Form Guitar” which consists of nothing but, you guessed it, free form guitar?

Toni Childs, “Union.” 1988.  The first and last Toni Childs record I ever bought.  It’s groovy.  80s stink on the production. More spiritually minded, perhaps, than a lot of 80s fare. Cool musical ideas.  A strange, singing voice, an old soul voice. I’m not sure why I bought this record, initially, because it’s unlike a lot of things I dig. I often have found myself buying music, especially as I became an adult, that I thought somehow would diversify my musical experience, broaden my horizons.  Toni Childs was also a very beautiful woman to this 24 year old young man and that could have had something to do with it. There are cool moments on this record, though. I know I gave it some deep listening towards the end of that decade.  First time I’ve listened to it, perhaps, since then.

The Church, “Starfish.” Man, I don’t know, I’m four songs in, and even after the hit, which is a pretty darn good song, “Under the Milky Way,” I’m about ready to pack it in. Not a very adventurous band. Brooding. Lush, but predictable and dull.  Makes me want to gaze at my shoes.  I’ll hang in there. I understand the appeal, I think, but at the same time, I understand why this  record did not have staying power with me.

Billy Cobham, “Power Play.”  It’s 1986. I had not moved completely through my prog-rock jazz-fusion phase. I am probably not yet through it. However, this record strikes me now as an especially dumb entry in the genre, as it attempts, using synthesizers and drum machines (drum machines, my god, on a Billy Cobham album), to make itself “contemporary.”  And as prog-jazz-fusion goes, it’s not that prog-jazz-fushiony. There are moments, though, as there are on records like this, especially for musicians, when one is simply blown away by the precision and skill. When it’s good, it’s really good. Otherwise, it’s background music played by some of the best musicians in the world.

Cockeyed Ghost, “Ludlow, 6:18.” Perhaps the only group or artist thus far with which I have a personal acquaintance. I know this guy. I’m not sure how we connected, but he did a house concert at our place during one of his many extensive tours and he hosted us in Los Angeles in a club on one of only two tours my band ever made–down to LA and back, once in 1999 and again in 2001.  I think we played with Cockeyed Ghost in ’99.  I don’t even remember the name of the club.  At any rate, I have a few of this band’s records, and because they’re not “local,” they ended up in the general collection.  A good, solid rock band.  A singer who tries sometimes too hard to be Brian Wilson fronting Cheap Trick.  Good songs, though.  Some intricate moves.  Some angry-about-the-record-industry lyrics–always a big hit.  Crazy key changes.  A moving song about a girlfriend-that-could-have-been who committed suicide.  Heavy. Overall, though, a good rocking vibe.  I’m glad I know this songwriter.  I’m glad his music is in the world.

Coldplay, “A Rush of Blood to the Head.” I really wanted to listen to “Parachutes,” the debut record, but alas, it was a pirate, and worse, I couldn’t find it.  That’s a record that ripped my heart out for some reason and I have super fond memories of it, even though I haven’t listened to it in ages.  Never bought a real copy of it, either.  So I choose this, the next best thing, I suppose, before Coldplay got all arena rock on our asses.  Not a fan of the evolution of this band, but loved the first two records. Let me see if this one holds up. Oh yeah.  This guy is such a great terrible singer.  That was part of the charm, I think. I pictured him as a grizzly guy with a big beard and was kind of disappointed to learn he was so clean cut and cute.  This record rocks more than the first, is less intimate, but some of these tunes are gems.  And I know what it was about them that struck me. At this time in my life, they seemed to be speaking straight at me, to me directly, personally.  That second tune, “In My Place,” is a prime example. In 2001, 02, 03, I was lost, I was lost, I was scared, tired and under prepared. Absolutely. And then there was “Warning Sign.” And the truth is–I miss you.  Holy crap.  I think I recently saw a friend of mine place this song against a collage of pictures of his deceased wife, a cancer victim, a friend of mine from ages ago and a super huge influence on my life, and I didn’t know she was sick.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think I’ve remembered this incorrectly.  It was a different Coldplay song my friend used in the video collage of our mutual friend, but nevertheless, this is maybe the tune I heard.

Paula Cole, “This Fire.” I’m not sure what to say about this record.  Is it good?  Yes. Musically and compositionally interesting, sophisticated.  It sounds good. It’s a little too much like a Tori Amos record. Interesting, disturbing vocal inflections; she seems sometimes to be barking–otherwise, she sings beautifully.  A hit, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone.” You all know that one.  A good record, and yet, one that did not withstand the test of time for me. The best songs are the first three or four and then it’s all kind of down hill.

The Colonoscopy. Not a record, not a band, but what I actually had to do this week while working my way through the C section.  I’m 50.  It’s what you gotta do.  Everything they say about having a colonoscopy is true.  The day of preparation sucks, the procedure itself is a piece of cake, a walk in the park, a day in the sun. Except for the fear. In my case, unwarranted. Everything looked good–so they tell me.

Shawn Colvin, “A Few Small Repairs.” This record holds up for me as well as most other female singer songwriter records over the last twenty years.  Except for anything St. Vincent has done.  My god, when will I ever reach the letter S?! After all this while (it was released in 1996), “A Few Small Repairs” still sounds fresh, vibrant, timely, contemporary, and groovy. That’s a pretty great voice. And these are pretty great words.  And these musicians, especially this drummer, are pretty astounding. I’ve followed her over the years, but not a single one of her records is as successful to my ears. “Sonny Came Home.” Dynamite opening track. I gotta say though, that as the record moves along, it gets progressively less interesting.

Concrete Blonde, “Bloodletting.” 1990 BMG record club binge shopping brought me familiarity with Concrete Blonde. I choose this record from two of the band’s records in my collection, neither of which I can recall a single specific thing about. Until “Bloodletting” starts spinning. It all comes back.  Bombastic and bluesy rock tinged with a kind of gothic metal merengue. A good record. Most all of the records I bought during my BMG music club months bring back memories of poverty and living in my parents-in-law’s house for a year and nevertheless feeling stupidly happy.

Alice Cooper, “Welcome to my Nightmare.” My first venture as a young man in the late 70’s into what would become known (later) as shock rock.  Kiss didn’t count.  Spitting blood didn’t count–not compared to the nightmare world of Alice Cooper. As a pre-teen, I started with the record he made with Elton John’s collaborator Bernie Taupin, “From the Inside,” saw that concert, and then worked my way backwards.  “Welcome to my Nightmare,” along with “Goes to Hell,” would have been one of my first acquisitions in the back catalogue. The title track is epic.  There’s a kind of dorkiness about the way it’s sung, I thought, but the elaborate arrangement and the dense instrumentation takes the tune to really far out places.  Vincent Price’s appearance on “Black Widow” is delicious, and the segue from the previous track, “Devil’s Food,” is exquisite.  “Some Folks” provides the evidence that Cooper had a healthy sense of humor to go along with his morbid interests.  “Only Women Bleed,” a beautiful, powerful, disturbing song, but lyrically speaking, is about the most unlikely hit single in the universe. But the second half of this record–almost every track after “The Department of Youth,” that whole  Steven sequence, is some of the creepiest rock music EVER up to this point in my early rock history. How is it that Alice Cooper became a conservative who loves to golf? I can’t get over that. I’m glad he’s still alive though.  He almost didn’t make it.  My discovery of him at that Bernie Taupin period was the culmination of his rehabilitation, hence, a record about a group of residents in an insane asylum. A brilliant record in its own right.  But I gotta add (obviously Alice had quite a hold on my early teens) that, even though it’s not the record I chose to listen to tonight, that “Flush  the Fashion” in 1980 became my absolute favorite Cooper record ever.

At nearly 3500 words, 3500 words that very few human beings will ever read, I realize what’s still to come in the letter C and  I understand that this letter, too, just like B, will need two volumes.  But I’m excited, because what’s coming up next is an artist that had a profound impact on my personal life, my musical life, my emotional life, my aesthetic orientation, the whole ball of wax, and who continues to blow my mind.  I’ll need some space for him. Like the Beatles and The Boomtown Rats and Cheap Trick, he’s an artist for which picking just one album will be a gargantuan challenge.  I’ve got 25 Elvis Costello albums to choose from, so far in the alphabet, the largest collection of records from a single artist. So wish me luck, and for now, let’s bring this episode to a close.

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