Monthly Archives: August 2016

Notes Toward a Musical Autobiography: Volume XII, Letter G

Forgive me, music blogosphere, for I have sinned. It’s been three months since my last music blog, the continuing saga and silly self-challenge of listening to and writing about every single artist represented in my languishing cd collection. I got stuck in the F’s. There were a lot of them, first of all, two blog entries worth, and some of these F artists were my favorites. I got especially stuck on The Flaming Lips, brought those records into the car and listened to them over and over. Those guys even got their own blog entry, currently unpublished and unfinished; I hope to post it soon. So finally, several days ago, I arrived at the G spot in the collection and picked up with Peter Gabriel during a spontaneous father and son basement dance party. We do this, he and I, from time to time, have a dance party for two in the basement. There’s actually some dancing, but mostly he sits, listens to daddy’s music while playing video games on his tablet while I sit with him and listen and sip something. If we feel moved to get up and dance together, that’s what we do.  This week has been a good dancing week. Here’s what we’ve spun, not all of it together, over several evenings, actually, truth be told, over several weeks in this month of August, 2016:

Peter Gabriel, “So,” “Us,” and “Up.” Peter Gabriel left the Genesis band and released a number of brilliant solo records: “Peter Gabriel,” “Peter Gabriel,” “Peter Gabriel,” and “Peter Gabriel.” Of these four, my favorite, of course, was “Peter Gabriel,” the “Shock the Monkey” record, the album sometimes referred to as “Security,” but which nevertheless only says “Peter Gabriel” on the cover.  Later in his career, his album titles got significantly more sophisticated by two letters. I find this hilarious because his titles (or lack thereof) belie the sophistication and genius of these albums. Here’s an artist for which I could have been happy to spin almost every record. I started with “So,” 1986, because that was the year, 30 years ago, I got married, and subsequently experienced my first foray into adulthood and self-sufficiency, and because “Sledgehammer” became an anthem to mark out a year almost unlike any other song before it. Both Kate Bush and Laurie Anderson, two other heroes from this era, make appearances, and, generally speaking, there’s not a bad song on the album and the drumming is fantastic. I must have listened to this record a billion times. Everything is familiar and comfortable and still moving. “Us,” however, a different story. It was as if I was hearing it almost for the first time. The album’s hit, “Digging in the Dirt” and the sledgehammery “Steam,” I remembered, but everything else seemed brand new.  I tried to figure this out. Gabriel has not been known to crank out albums. “So” hit me in 1986 and I think I almost immediately bought every record before that one, but by the time “Us” hit the streets nearly 6 years later I had moved away from this kind of grandiose, lush, sophisticated and smart pop music into the depths of grunge.  At this time of interest in mostly aggressive rock music, I perhaps lost some of the tastebuds I once had for more nuanced songwriting. But listening to “Us” now, I feel I have rediscovered a beautiful lost gem and I am thankful to have recovered those tastebuds. “Up,” his most recent record of new original material is weird and wonderful and that first tune, appropriately called “Darkness,” is perhaps the most frightening and beautiful song I’ve ever heard.

Diamanda Galas, “The Singer.” Talk about frightening and beautiful. I don’t have a lot to say about Diamanda’s record because I did not listen to it a lot. I did not listen to it a lot because, for the most part, her records are difficult to listen to. Difficult listening. Classically trained on the piano and with a vocal range that is truly unearthly, coupled with her gothic style of dress and make up, Galas plays on this album what could only be described as spirituals from Hell. She covers tunes like “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “Balm in Gilead,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” in a way that makes them truly terrifying and disturbing. My one significant memory of this record is that, after a nighttime gig on the Oregon Coast and a decision to drive back home to Portland late at night, I played this record all the way home as loud as I could stand it because I knew it would keep me awake, afraid, and alive.

Galactic Cowboys, Self-Titled. Grungy, grungy, grunge, grunge, grunge, except for the prog leanings, except for the lovely harmonies in the background vocals, and, generally speaking, a thing called melody, a thing jettisoned by many of the grunge bands of the era. In places, too much like Faith No More, in other places, too much like Bon Jovi. I saw these guys live once open for one of my grunge heroes, I forget now which, and I was impressed enough to snag their album. I’m sure I listened to it a bunch then. Listening now, it’s pleasantly familiar, but I haven’t spun this one in eons. Cheers. Did they ever make another record? I don’t know.

Gang of Four, “History of the 20th Century.” “Cheeseburger,” I think, is the one of the best post-punk new wave songs of the early eighties. It’s aggressive, funny, odd, rhythmically explosive, a brilliant commentary by an English pop band of American sterility, commercialism and cheapness. These guys were such an odd group–fine musicians, the guitar player clearly exceptional, but deciding, especially on earlier records, to eschew melody and rhythm in favor of angular, choppy, discordant, sometimes improvisatory riffing. By the time these guys get to the “Cheeseburger” album, the one called “Solid Gold,” they were still aggressive and weird and political but easy on the palate, groovy, danceable, and significantly more accomplished. Somehow, after the single “I Love A Man In A Uniform,” they had become pretty safe, more like other eighties new wave commercial pop bands, and kind of boring. This greatest hits compilation takes us up to that move. Recently, though, the band has reemerged and sound truly amazing and astonishingly contemporary. I only had one Gang of Four record as a kid and “Cheeseburger” was, to me, the best thing on the record–the rest not quite compelling enough to make me hard core. This disc I bought some years ago to replace my lost vinyl and to educate myself about the rest of the early catalogue.  I am now once again schooled by “The History of the 20th Century.”

Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On?” I did not come to this album until recently. I can’t remember what year exactly, within the last decade certainly, so, even though the tunes “What’s Going On?” and “Mercy Mercy” were firmly planted in my childhood radio brain, the experience of this record from start to finish is new. And it’s flipping amazing. It’s a chill festival, a love-fest of the highest degree, the ultimate expression of tastefulness and groovy musicianship and soulful uplift. Even as I find the more overtly religious overtones a bit off-putting, all is forgiven through the sheer meditative, trance-like, celebratory and loving vibe of the music and the lyrics and the singing.

Geggy Tah, “Sacred Cow.” My favorite record of 1996 and possibly one of my favorite albums from the decade. Wacky. Progressive. Inventive. Clever. Surprising. Melodic. Funny. Decidedly un-grunge. These are words that describe all the things that most often turn me on to a band these days and always. They’re all descriptors of Geggy Tah. The keyboardist of this band would go on to form the pop duo The Bird and the Bee with Inara George. I don’t know what happened to the other two guys. Geggy Tah only made three albums, this one and the last one five years later were both exceptional pop rock records worth repeated listenings. Close your eyes in the title track and tell me you don’t  see Kermit the Frog fronting an amazing and crazy pop band. Here’s a lyric that sticks from the title track, question and answer: “What side of the tracks are you on? Both sides–because the world is round.” A dear friend, no longer in my life, turned me on to this band. A bittersweet remembrance. Talk about carpool karaoke: here’s the video for the big hit.

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Bob Geldof, “Deep in the Heart of Nowhere.” As sad as I was to learn that The Boomtown Rats had broken up, I was a truly happy rock and roll camper when Geldof’s first solo record came out.  I’ve been super loyal to Bob over the years, have every single one of his solo records, and it’s been a mixed bag. He’s unpredictable. That can be a good thing, in fact, I’d argue that it’s almost always a good thing, but you have to be willing to go with the flow, to learn along with your favorite musicians as they experiment and try not the make the same record over and over. I loved this first solo record, and listening back to it now, I understand why. It was the most Boomtown Rat-like of any record Bob ever made. It’s thunderous and rocking, it’s hooky, it’s mostly sober and serious, but not without elements of fun.  I mean, compare “the whole world dies, so we die slowly” to “love you like a rocket on fire” and you get the picture. It was 1986, so along with Peter Gabriel’s “So,” this record was the soundtrack to my first year of marriage, my first year of being able to drink legally. I appreciate the lyric to “When I Was Young” now a thousand fold more than I did then, but still it was one of my favorite tunes on the record. It’s so bombastic and loud and anthemic.  Damn, the fun. guys have nothing on Bob Geldof, my hero; he continues to be an inspiration to me, this guy. He’s been dealt so many shitty cards in his life, but has done more than maybe any rock star on the planet to make the world a better place. He’s been knighted. I think he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If not, he should have been.

Lisa Germano, “Lullaby for Liquid Pig.” Haunting, quiet, and weird, the hushed, shy, whispering voice front and center, hardly any drums, mostly synths, strings, guitars and bells and whistles, I got turned on to Lisa Germano through Neil Finn, I think, but a little research yields the fact that she’s been a session musician and/or collaborator with a bunch of famous people. I think this album, as cool as it is, was too much of a downer for me in 2003, so I didn’t listen to it much. Hearing it now, I’m glad I have it. It’s lovely and scary and a good companion for contemplation and solitude. A keeper, for sure. “Someday, someone is gonna need you, too.” What a great line.

Kevin Gilbert, “Thud.” Here’s a gem from 1995 that had nothing to do with the grunge movement. A masterpiece of pop craftsmanship married to a perfect mix of weirdness, Kevin Gilbert’s “Thud” is a beautiful, funny, smart, quirky, emotionally moving, expertly performed collection of songs. This guy co-wrote with Sheryl Crow on her groundbreaking “Tuesday Night Music Club” album, but this solo record shows a songwriter doing his own thing entirely–it was really a surprise to me about how many mainstream songwriters he worked with. He’s anything but a mainstream songwriter on this album. I guess, the true pros, guys and gals who make a living doing this music thing, have to be chameleon-like in their moves from genre to genre, from one stylistic extreme to another. At any rate, this is a beautiful record introduced to me by a beautiful friend of mine from this most positive and creatively inspired time in my life when everything was swimming along and profoundly interesting and exciting. Tragedy not too far away from any of us at any time, just as I got super excited about this guy, the year after the release of this brilliant record, his FIRST solo record, he died accidentally from autoerotic asphyxiation. Damn. On a side note, but not terribly tangential from the G spot, Bob Geldof insists that Michael Hutchinson of INXS did not commit suicide. Another brilliant and talented artist who went out the same strange way.  Happy I was not blessed with this particular kink.

Grandaddy, “The Sophtware Slump.” The first time I heard Grandaddy, I bought a record, the next record after this one, I believe, called “Sumday,” and I bought it as a result of spending some time at a listening station in a record store, listening to the first 30 or 60 seconds of each tune and deciding almost immediately that it was irresistible and that I must have it. It was a friend’s recommendation that initially got me to listen, but it was this record, the band’s second, most excellently titled album, whose praises he was singing. Outside of The Flaming Lips, this was some of the strangest and most intoxicating pop music at the top of the 21st century I had yet discovered. Part of the charm was, as it was with The Lips, the science-fiction bent absurdity of the lyrics and the strange production, but also, the disarming vocal style of the lead singer, Jason Lytle’s gentle coo, almost childlike, the inescapable hook of the melodies, the somewhat subtle because imbedded in humor environmental advocacy (see “Broken Household Appliance National Forest”), and the spacy, dreamlike enchantment of some of the band’s more psychedelic movements. I understand these guys have reunited to make a new record. I’m all in.

David Gray, “White Ladder.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know who turned me on to this guy. All I know is that this 1998 album found its way into my mitts in 2001 while my band Here Comes Everybody was on a fall tour down to Los Angeles and back to promote our newest cd, “Astronauts.” I don’t dislike this music. There’s something about it, emotionally evocative, lyrically lively, Dylanesque in its Englishness, folksy and yet suffused with modern electronic drum machine and synthesizer textures, that is beyond reproach. And yet, it’s also pedestrian. Straight forward. Commercial. I guess it fits that bill that Coldplay fulfilled: it’s sincere, groovy, sensitive, underplayed, straight forward to the extent that it seems radical somehow. Anyway. I liked it. I still like it, hearing it now for the first time in perhaps a decade. It’s a very nice record.

The Grays, “Ro Sham Bo.” Holy crap. One of the best power pop records ever. That’s a bold statement, I know. Maybe of the decade, at least. Here’s a super group formed, primarily, between Jon Brion and Jason Falkner, both of whom have incredible rock resumes as writers and producers. They only made one record, this masterpiece, released in 1994. My pet name for them would be The Heavy Beatles, and that name would go a long way to describing their music. Perfect melodies sung with rock and roll choirboy precision, complex arrangements, smart lyrics, great grooves, and crunchy, sometimes acoustic but always tuneful guitar playing. Not a single clunker on this record. And this music is timeless. It doesn’t date itself at all. Close your eyes, imagine inferior sound quality, and they’re a great 70’s band. Or imagine them sharing a stage with XTC in the 80’s. For me, released in the same year as Kevin Gilbert’s “Thud,” those two records were the antidote to grunge–with Seatle’s The Posies, which, I’m sorry to say, I won’t be getting to any time soon–even though they’ve been in regular rotation all through the F’s and the G’s. Back to this: “Ro Sham Bo”–an all-time favorite, desert island disc.

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Phew. This has been a long-ass entry.  I made a commitment to myself to get through the letter G in a single blog entry, and so, here it is. It’s been a good letter, the letter G. Almost everything I spun I found immensely enjoyable. And last but not least, another 90’s era super group in the world of INDY: Guided By Voices, “Do the Collapse” and “Isolation Drills.” I had been reading about the genius of this group and its lead singing mastermind Robert Pollard for years before I finally took the plunge and bought an album. I guess it was that I kept reading about their lo-fi aesthetics and that kept me away. I’ve never been a fan of shitty sounding records, no matter how great the songs were. There were exceptions, of course, like rock records that were made in the genre’s infancy, when studio gear was limited and super expensive, before the time of the marvel of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, records that couldn’t help sounding shitty. They are forgiven. As cheap as it has become for almost any joe to make a “good sounding recording” at home, it seemed almost stupid to me to purposefully create something that sounded bad. “Do the Collapse” was my first Guided by Voices records. Produced by Ric Ocasek from The Cars, it boasted crafty and short pop masterpieces and high fidelity stereo sound. Man, does it deliver. It’s a brilliant record. So brilliant I recently bought a vinyl version of it, just because. I don’t know what influence Ric Ocasek had on this music; it certainly doesn’t sound like a Car’s record. Or does it? Holy crap, it kind of does. It’s wackier, for sure, the lyrics more obscure and strange, the arrangements a little bit nuttier, but I can almost hear Benjamin Orr’s voice in Robert Pollard’s voice. Almost. Yes, I can. “Isolation Drills,” in many ways, feels like “Do The Collapse” part two; not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sonically, they’re similar. Great power pop rock songs in small little packages. Odd little turns and quirky, surrealistic lyrics. These two records are sort of inverse bookends, “Collapse” closed the 20th century and “Drills” opened up the 21st.  For me, both personally and historically, a happy ending followed by a tragic beginning. Perhaps that’s why I don’t know and love this second record as well as the first.

Here’s an interesting fact: Robert Pollard has 2,000 + songs registered to him through BMI. It appears that the dude simply breathes out this stuff. And while some of his songs are slight, clocking in sometimes under a minute, I can’t tell you that I’ve ever heard a bad one. I cannot say as much for myself, having written hundreds of songs since 2004 alone, a handful of which were truly successful. Pollard is an inspiration and a “guiding voice,” and with that stupid little pun, I bring the G section of the alphabet, the G spot, to a close!

Cheers !

 

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On Reading An Unpublished Novel I Finished 15 Years Ago

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The novel has been sitting in a box, both a real box on my desk and a virtual box on my hard drive. I miss it. I finished it some fifteen years ago, having labored over it throughout the preceding five or six years. I have fond memories of its composition and of the way I felt about its success on the page, bolstered by lots of voices from the past of folks who had read it, had good things to say about it, and encouraged me to get it out into the world. And finally, I feel a kind of sadness about the loss into obscurity of its subject matter, a subject matter I haven’t written about since then, but nevertheless a subject matter of monumental importance to my inner life and personality.

Why has it been so long inside the box? Well, the agent search yielded over and over again the kind of response that most good writers are quite used to seeing: “This is good; you’re a fine writer; here’s a list of laudatory adjectives to describe what we thought of your work; but it is not the right thing for us at this time. Some other agency will feel differently. Good luck to you!”  That’s not a bad kind of note to get. But it went on and on.  Until I had agents who wanted to take it on–for a fee. Or until I had agents who wanted to take it on, but  couldn’t tell me a damn single specific thing about why they loved it and thought they could sell it. Or until, (and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back), an agent loved it and asked for a series of quite lengthy and difficult revisions before she felt she could take it on. I complied. I complied because I thought the feedback was sound and the revisions would make a better novel. And I complied because I believed (don’t ask me why), that an agent asking for a revision would not do so unless they meant to take on the work.  Well, I was wrong about that. Ultimately, this particular agent passed on the novel. By now, I was shell-shocked. By then, I had been working on a new book. I shelved my little book about an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion (not really its true subject matter) and started in earnest on a new idea. 10 years later, still smarting from the agent search for the first novel, I skipped that trauma altogether and decided to self publish through iUniverse. Thus, the second novel I ever wrote, Monster Talkbecame my first published book. Then, I was on to the next idea, the idea that I am just now wrapping up, while my first novel continues to sit in its literal and virtual boxes.

Over the last several days I have liberated this work from its box on the desk and reread my first novel. What a strange experience. It’s probably been at least 13 years since I last read it from “cover to cover.” Some of it I didn’t remember writing, and as I was reading I was not sure where the novel would take me in the pages to come. That was a pleasant surprise, but odd, like looking at photographs of yourself doing things or being places that have totally fallen out of memory. Initially, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it, that it would seem green to me and unaccomplished, structurally incoherent. After all, I was 35 or 36 years old when I finished it, just a baby, and fresh out of writer’s school. But as I read, ultimately and happily I thought to myself, hey, this is pretty good. And it occurred to me, too, that its strangeness was in part because of the fact that the writer of this work was a different guy. We’ve already established that he was younger, yes, but there were other things that struck me about him. He was brave and brash. He was writing about things honestly that this older version of him would have difficulty articulating. His book was kind of dirty–but in the best possible way. Erotic might be a better word than dirty, but that would depend on the reader. But he was funny, too, and his sex scenes were funny. He could really write a beautiful sentence. And he captured, far better than I could capture now, 1980’s and 1990’s suburban life. Reading now the fictional work of a man who was alive then and living through it, the details are convincing and immediate. The internet was brand new in the 90’s and slow, non-existent in the 80’s. Email was just becoming a thing in the mid to late 90’s. People were still renting films from video stores. There were very few cell phones. Teachers were writing on chalkboards. Young people, when they wanted to go some place, walked to their destination. In this way, the novel felt like a kind of time capsule to me, and this writer captured what it was like to be a teenager in the 80’s, part of the true subject matter of the book, something I might have difficulty writing about now given that I am surrounded nine months out of the year by 21st century teens, whose lives, I suspect, are very different from their counterparts of 30-some years ago, but, who knows, might be in more danger of spontaneous human combustion then their predecessors!

So happily, I find suddenly and again that I have another work that is perhaps worthy of publication and I am psyched to try once again to find a good home for it. And to other writers who have older works languishing in drawers, boxes, and hard drives, I say, get those suckers out and reread. At the very least you’ll be surprised and you’ll learn some stuff about your past selves. And if you like what you find there, that work may just have another life to live.  Set that baby free.

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