The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
In the Home Stretch
With just a few days remaining in the year, Book Challenge 2009 is winding down. It took more discipline than you can imagine, but I have managed to build up a comfortable lead in books finished versus books acquired. My advantage is safe enough that I asked for several books for Christmas, plus I can enjoy the post-holiday sales. More incredibly, my goal of reading 100 books this year is also within reach. I have fallen behind in blogging about each book, however, so let's get caught up...

Blame It on the Rain: How the Weather Has Changed History by Laura Lee - This book describes more than 50 historical events impacted by meteorological incidents from biblical times (the story of Noah's ark is probably based on a real flood) to the present (global warming, of course). An amusing recurring chapter title is "Gee, It's Cold in Russia," which describes failed invasions of Russia by Charles XII in 1708, Napoleon in 1812, and Hitler in 1941, as well as the extension of the Crimean War in 1854. The tone is light and often humorous since the book is an entertaining survey rather than a history textbook. It is not comprehensive, but each chapter provides ample background info. Anyone with a casual interest in world history should enjoy Blame It on the Rain.

Christmas Sucks: What to Do When Fruitcake, Family, and Finding the Perfect Gift Make You Miserable by Joanne Kimes - I couldn't resist this book based on the title -- in fact, my mom put a copy in my Christmas stocking, not knowing that I already had it -- but it wasn't as funny as it could have been. For one thing, Kimes takes countless, unnecessary shots at men. There's plenty of humorous potential in holiday stress without conjuring a "lazy husband on the couch" stereotype. My wife enjoyed this book more than I did, although she agreed that the male-bashing was a bit much. As a humorist, Kimes is only so-so. I could have written a similar book (sans advice) better myself. And I sure as hell would have proofread it better, too.

Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front by Francis MacDonnell - This book is predominantly about Nazi espionage, or at least the fear of it. Concerns were rather overblown (in part because the Germans had a bit of success in that arena during World War I), though the author recounts some amusing tales of bungling spies who were caught by the FBI. He also discusses how Franklin Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, and others used spy fears to their political advantage. The fear of Nazi spies in the United States precipitated the "Red Scare" and Cold War paranoia of the following decades (I couldn't help noticing that even 70 years ago, people were ignorantly conflating fascism and communism/socialism just as many conservatives do today*). This book may not interest casual readers, but as a longtime student of World War II, I enjoyed reading about a topic that is barely discussed in most history books.

Turning Points in Rock and Roll by Hank Bordowitz - This is a different rock history book. Instead of weaving everything together in one big mess, Bordowitz selects 20 moments in rock history and describes a thread extending from each. For example, he starts one chapter with the founding of Crawdaddy! magazine as a jumping off point to write about rock magazines and criticism. Although I'm pretty well versed in rock history, I learned a lot from this book about people like Les Paul and Dick Clark. Bordowitz backs up his work with ample source information, something often missing in rock and roll books. Turning Points in Rock and Roll is far from exhaustive, but I'd recommend it to all but the most obsessive rock and roll fans for its fresh perspective.

Current tally: 98 books finished, 86 books acquired

* While I sincerely doubt that Barack Obama is either a socialist or a fascist, I know for certain that he cannot be both.

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Friday, November 06, 2009
Squeezing Oil From Planet Rock
Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising by Luke Sullivan - When I started writing copy, I bought a stack of books about writing and advertising. I suppose nothing reveals what a slacker I am more than admitting that it took me almost half a decade to get around to reading this one (and I haven't touched most of the others, either). Hey, Whipple is an introduction to the world of advertising from the perspective of a "creative" at an agency. Sullivan not only provides examples of great advertising, but he also offers many helpful tips for those attempting to produce such ads. This book won't make you an advertising genius, but it will set you on the right path -- and give you a few laughs, too. Note: I read the second edition; the third edition came out last year and includes new chapters about "new media" and direct-response TV.

Extreme Conditions: Big Oil and the Transformation of Alaska by John Strohmeyer - This book describes the impact of the oil industry on Alaska's government, Natives, environment, and even newspapers as they ride the waves of boom-and-bust from the 1950s to the 1990s. Strohmeyer writes this history in a journalistic style, though he skews a bit to the left in favor of the environment and the citizenry over the oil corporations. Several later chapters describe the Exxon Valdez oil spill and its aftermath, which was recent news when this book was published in 1993. This book has restored my pride in being a Chicagoan because corruption here is nothing compared to Alaska's. Considering the rogue's gallery that has led the state so poorly over the past half-century, the title of Sarah Palin's new memoir, Going Rogue, is incredibly ironic (though she was a mere Wasilla city councilperson when this book came out). Overall, Extreme Conditions is a reasonable, readable recounting of the changes that oil drilling and oil money brought to Alaska.

Life on Planet Rock: From Guns N' Roses to Nirvana, a Backstage Journey through Rock's Most Debauched Decade by Lonn Friend - Although I had never even heard of RIP magazine before (I was never into heavy metal enough to read the magazines), I enjoyed this memoir by its former editor. Friend's anecdotes are often funny and sometimes quite touching; despite their angry, bad-ass reputations, many masters of metal are actually decent guys. Most chapters are about a particular band and Friend's relationship with them. This makes Life on Planet Rock a little jumpy chronologically but otherwise works well. I found the chapter about the frustrations of working as an A&R man for Arista Records very revealing. It made me wonder how much great music we've all missed due to the capricious nature of the music industry. One weakness of Life on Planet Rock is the way Friend dances awkwardly around the edges of his marital problems, as if he couldn't decide whether it belonged in the book. Although his earlier personal life is entertaining and illustrative, it becomes a distraction from the narrative during the RIP years and beyond. As a memoir, this book is less thorough but more engaging and fun to read than David Konow's more historical Bang Your Head. Friend tells some great tales, and anyone who loves or at least grew up with this music should enjoy Life on Planet Rock.

Current tally: 85 books finished, 73 books acquired

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009
The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's: A Secret History of Jewish Punk
First, I must apologize to author Steven Lee Beeber: When I saw that you were signing in August at The Book Cellar (the first time I'd heard of the book), I knew I'd want a copy. As an author myself, I know successful signing events are critical to a writer's mental health. I was free that night, and the bookstore is only a 10-minute walk from home. And yet, I did not drag my lazy butt out of the house that evening (I purchased a signed copy there a few days later). So I'm sorry, and I hope all went well (it probably did -- Suzy T. hosts great signings). If I had attended, I probably would have pestered you with stupid questions about the Dictators like, "What is a two tub man?"

Now that I got that out of the way... I love this book! I've been a fan of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground for 25 years (my first live concert was Reed at the UIC Pavilion in 1986), and the Dictators are one of my favorite recent discoveries, so I was excited to read about them. Plus Beeber tells much more about Blue Oyster Cult (another longtime favorite) in this book about punk than David Konow does in his book about heavy metal. I've never considered myself much of a punk rock fan, but maybe I've been in denial (probably because by the time I came of age in the 1980s, "punk" meant hardcore like Black Flag, early Husker Du, and the Dead Kennedys).

Beeber essentially credits New York Jews with creating and defining the punk movement. Reed is sometimes known as the godfather of punk (an ironically Christian label considering how many Jews it's been assigned to), and the Ramones (at least half Jewish) are arguably the best known American punk band. Beeber also profiles other Jewish New York punkers like the Dictators (5/6 Jewish), Richard Hell, Chris Stein of Blondie, Helen Wheels, et al. Hilly Kristal (owner of the legendary club CBGB's) and most of the first wave of rock critics (including Lenny Kaye and Richard Meltzer) were Jews, too. This book is about more than artists and their music, though. The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's also describes post-World War II New York Jewishness -- a real education for me, having been raised as a Chicago (area) Catholic.

Anyone interested in punk, particularly the New York scene, must read The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB's. I think Beeber makes a convincing argument for Jews being critical to the rise of punk, but even readers who disagree with that premise will learn a lot about many influential performers and the background that informed their work. In Chapter 1, Beeber notes that another book could be written about Jewish influence in heavy metal (heeby metal?) including KISS, Twisted Sister, Geddy Lee of Rush, Scott Ian of Anthrax, and, of course, the aforementioned Blue Oyster Cult. Mr. Beeber, I would love for you to write that book. If you do, I promise I'll attend your book signing!

Current tally: 82 books finished, 69 books acquired

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Friday, September 25, 2009
A Tale of Two Critics
Two of my favorite pop culture critics are Chuck Klosterman and Joe Queenan. I read books from both this month.

Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas by Chuck Klosterman - This is a collection of essays divided into three categories: Things That Are True, Things That Might Be True, and Something That Isn't True At All. The first section consists of previously published articles covering music, movies, and sports. The middle section contains opinion pieces that appeared mostly in Spin and Esquire. The last part is a short story, perhaps a "feeler" to see how the public would receive Klosterman's then-forthcoming debut novel (the paperback edition includes an excerpt from Downtown Owl). I don't always share Klosterman's opinions and taste -- heck, the guy's favorite band is KISS -- but I enjoy his writing immensely. He even makes basketball sound interesting, and I hate basketball. My only complaint about IV is the publisher's decision to include extra material in the paperback edition. This is a big f-you to everyone who paid more for the hardcover edition. Out of spite, I sat in a Borders this week and read all the new essays, which are mostly in the Things That Might Be True section. As much as I like Klosterman, I'm not going to buy the same book twice. Note: I wouldn't expect anyone to actually buy the now-obsolete hardcover edition, but I included it below anyway.

Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan's America by Joe Queenan - As a longtime cultural snob, Queenan decides to immerse himself in the worst our country has to offer for an entire year. He goes to Broadway shows like Cats. He listens to Michael Bolton and Kenny G. He reads books by Joan Collins and V.C. Andrews. He watches movies starring Adam Sandler and Demi Moore. He dines at Sizzler and the Olive Garden. He visits Las Vegas and Branson. And of course, he skewers them all with the mischievous, sarcastic wit I've come to expect from Queenan. But suddenly, he starts to like all this crap. Instead of recoiling, he begins seeking out and reveling in the pop cultural junk of the masses. Although these are easy targets, Queenan's wicked critiques are hilarious. As a book, however, Red Lobster isn't great. The plot is weak and predictable. The copyright page reveals that several chapters were originally magazine articles, which explains the book's patched-together construction. And in the end, it's a lot of snark without much insight about what makes something bad or good.

This month I've been trying to clean up DJWriter World Headquarters. About 90% of the books I've read and reviewed this year are still in my office, as well as stacks from the past several years (books that I reviewed as well as books that I meant to review). It has reached the point where I can barely fit between the piles, and one of the cats is always knocking them down. Perhaps the best way to sum up these two books is to say that I enjoyed reading both, but Chuck Klosterman IV is going on a bookshelf while Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon is going in a box for my next visit to an used book store.

Current tally: 73 books finished, 65 books acquired

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Thursday, August 27, 2009
Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry
This topic has become near and dear to my heart over the past three years. Thanks to the magic of BitTorrent and, I've built a ridiculous collection of live music recordings. (How many? Thousands. At least five. Compulsive collectors should not be allowed Internet access.)

This book by Clinton Heylin is a fascinating look at the bootleg* industry (it also touches on free tape trading, which is analogous to today's BitTorrent community). The author focuses on rock and roll bootlegs, both studio and live recordings. The first section of the book, my favorite, tells about the vinyl bootleggers of the 1970s and 1980s. There are some hilarious stories, and Heylin reproduces some of the classic cover art. The second section covers the early CD era up to 1994. Much of this section is devoted to copyright law issues, and when things get complicated the narrative drags a bit. In the brief third section, artists such as Lenny Kaye and Graham Nash talk about the importance of bootleggers preserving performances.

This is a great book because no other author has addressed the rock bootleg industry in such depth. It does have some weaknesses, though. Each chapter begins with a 15 cm2 photo of a bootleg cover, but all of the other bootleg covers are restricted to the margins. Those photos are a disappointingly minuscule 4 cm2. I also would have preferred more bootleg stories instead of the lengthy distinctions about copyright law. Finally, be aware that this is by no means a guide to bootleg recordings. Only a few significant releases are discussed with any detail. All the same, anyone interested in rock and roll history should find plenty worth reading in Bootleg.

Note: I read the hardcover edition of the first book below. Although the second has a different title, it is merely an updated edition of the first. Without reading it, I assume Heylin blames stronger copyright laws and online file sharing for the "fall" of the industry.

Current tally: 66 books finished, 61 books acquired

* Note that true "bootleg" records and CDs contain material that has not been commercially released through official channels. Bootlegs are not the same as "pirate" recordings, which are merely counterfeit copies of official releases.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009
Rock 'N' Roll X 4
I guess July is the month for themed reading. First it was three books about Lance Armstrong. This week I finished four books about rock 'n' roll.

Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: How a Wild Rock 'N' Roll Life Led to a Serious Golf Addiction by Alice Cooper with Keith and Kent Zimmerman - Since I'm taking my brother to an Alice Cooper concert next month for his birthday (he'd love this book except he hates reading), I figured it was a good time to learn more about the legendary performer. Despite having little interest in golf, I thoroughly enjoyed this autobiography (ditto for my wife; she stayed up all night reading it). Cooper describes a familiar career trajectory: get famous, get addicted (alcohol in his case), get clean, relapse, get clean again. Interspersed throughout the mostly chronological story is a 12-step program, the steps of golf addiction. Although Cooper started golfing earlier, it wasn't until after his second stint in rehab that he became fanatical, often playing 36 holes a day. The touring lifestyle involves a lot of waiting around, and golf fills that time better than drinking. Fortunately, this book isn't just about golf or recovery. Cooper spins tales about his life, music, touring, and famous friends. He writes about meeting Elvis, hanging out with Groucho Marx, and writing an album with longtime Elton John collaborator Bernie Taupin. I just wish the book was longer. Anyone with an interest in golf or 1970s rock 'n' roll should enjoy Alice Cooper, Golf Monster.

Rock Star Babylon: Outrageous Rumors, Legends, and Raucous True Tales of Rock and Roll Icons by Jon Holmes - This English book was originally titled Status Quo and the Kangaroo, but since that band is a forgotten one-hit wonder in the States ("Pictures of Matchstick Men"!), the American publisher chose a more general title. Unfortunately for American readers, the book is still very British, packed with pop culture references that few outside the UK will recognize. Holmes also features too many semi-obscure British stars, although the better stories transcend that unfamiliarity. Those caveats aside, Rock Star Babylon is an entertaining collection of rock and roll mythology. Some of the stories are true, some might be true, and others are surely false. The classics are all here: Led Zeppelin and the shark, Keith Richards getting his blood replaced, and of course, the singer getting his stomach pumped (here about Marc Almond of Soft Cell (remember "Tainted Love"?) but also told about countless others). Holmes is an outrageous writer, which is good and bad -- he's hilarious when he's ripping on a band you hate, offensive when he's similarly sniping at your favorites. Sometimes he plays loose with the facts, but he never claims that anything in the book is true anyway. Rock Star Babylon recounts dozens of amusing, sometimes disgusting tales of debauchery, excess, and bad behavior. A few stories are duds, but there are enough others to make it worthwhile. By the way, if you suspect that the band Faith No More has ever stayed at your hotel, bring your own hair dryer!

Bandalism: The Rock Group Survival Guide by Julian Ridgway - I often discuss what I'm reading with one of the servers at the restaurant down the street (hi Lindsay!), and she seemed a bit perplexed about this one because I'm not in a band or planning to start one. But Bandalism appeals beyond the narrow audience of aspiring rockers. Ridgway takes prospective bands step by step from formation to rehearsal to record deal to first album to touring to second album... and that's about it because the rest of a band's career is just a matter of repeating the recording-touring cycle. Although this is another British book with some obscure band references, it isn't as bafflingly foreign as Rock Star Babylon above. Anyone interested in rock music and the interpersonal dynamics of band members should find it as instructive and funny as I did.

VH1's 100 Greatest Albums edited by Jacob Hoye - Halfway through the year, I'm still finding books that I started long ago and never finished. This book contains a ranking of the greatest rock/pop/soul albums and describes what makes them so. Each album gets one to three mildly informative pages, most including a photo of the cover. One can quibble with the choices, but they were selected by 700 music industry people deemed worthy by VH1 so that's what you get. While that approach prevents any real stinkers from showing up, it also makes for a rather predictable and unadventurous list. The book's greatest flaw, however (the reason I didn't finish it sooner), is that it goes from #1 to #100. Without the suspense of wondering which will be the best, it's all downhill after the first few pages. I'm almost certain that VH1 broadcast this as a countdown, so why change it in book form? All in all, this book is just okay, a broad list with little depth.

Current tally: 61 books finished, 58 books acquired

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Finishing June with a Bang
Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal by David Konow - With the exception of Guns N' Roses, I was never a big fan of 1980s heavy metal. I loved AC/DC in the fifth grade when Back In Black came out, and Blue Oyster Cult (B.O.C.) is still one of my favorite bands, but I didn't listen to contemporary metal in high school despite (or maybe because of) its immense popularity. Nevertheless, when Ratt's "Round and Round" comes on the radio, I know every damn word thanks to MTV.

Especially in the "rise" part of the book, Konow makes questionable decisions about what is or isn't metal. Why include several pages about Boston and Queen? I don't know anyone who considers them heavy metal (at least there's some argument about Rush, though the author ignores that band). B.O.C. gets only a few brief mentions. I was particularly annoyed when Konow said Rob Halford had to shop in gay stores for his leather wardrobe in 1978 like it was a big deal. B.O.C.'s Eric Bloom was doing that at least five years earlier, and he wasn't even gay (which I think makes Bloom even more dedicated to his onstage look).

For the most part, Konow's idea of heavy metal is American, guitar-dominated, popular hard-rock music from the 1980s (a.k.a. "hair bands"). He writes a lot about Los Angeles bands from Van Halen to Motley Crue to Warrant. Metallica has a major presence. Slayer is the only speed/thrash metal band to get much coverage, and death metal is ignored. Konow also includes some East Coast bands like Bon Jovi, Skid Row, and Twisted Sister. Def Leppard is just about the only non-American band post-1980 that's covered thoroughly.

Although I wasn't a fan of most of the aforementioned bands, I knew enough about them from living through the 1980s to be interested in reading about them. Once one gets over his or her favorite band getting short-changed, this book is very entertaining. It is full of interesting nuggets about the signing, recording, touring, and lifestyles of metal bands, although some readers may be disappointed that little is written about the music itself. Some parts are hilarious, like how so many bands hated being parodied in This Is Spinal Tap and how Kip Winger blames Beavis and Butt-head for his band's decline. I wish Konow had adhered more closely to chronological order; sometimes it gets confusing. For fans of the bands covered in detail, this may be a five-star book, but I'd give it three for all the bands that are missing.

The Rock Bible: Unholy Scripture for Fans & Bands by Henry Owings - I bought this immediately after finishing Bang Your Head and read it in only a few hours (could have been faster, but I read it aloud to my wife). I could not have picked a better companion piece for Bang Your Head! The Rock Bible mocks all the narcisistic excesses of rock music, and almost every entry brought to mind a band from the 1980s L.A. metal scene. My only problem with this book is the list price. Sixteen bucks is a lot to ask for such a slim volume (I got it on sale for less, of course). Any fan of rock music will laugh often while perusing this book.

Unsolved Mysteries of American History by Paul Aron - The author takes a scholarly approach to answering such questions as Did Leif Ericsson discover America?, What happened to the lost colony of Roanoke?, Why did Lee order Pickett's charge?, Why did Truman drop the bomb?, Who killed JFK?, and What did Reagan know about Iran-Contra? First he sets the scene and describes what happened. Then, instead of merely giving the reader what he thinks are the correct answers, he presents the findings of historians and others over the years. If one answer rises above the others, he says so, but he is also willing to admit where there is no definitive answer. Aron provides a short bibliography after every question with comments about each book. The curious reader (perhaps one who doesn't have as many unread books as I do) can use this book as a starting point to explore these topics in greater depth.

On Sunday, I went to The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square to celebrate their fifth anniversary. Naturally, I had to buy some books to support this great local business. Congratulations to Suzy T, and my apologies for whatever impact my New Years resolution has had on the store's profits this year.

Current tally: 53 books finished, 48 books acquired

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Friday, May 15, 2009
Keeping My Head Above Water
On Mother's Day, my aunt asked how my book challenge was going. "I'm up by five," I proudly announced. Well, on the way home I stopped at Borders and they were having a big clearance sale... and suddenly I was in the hole again. Fortunately, I was close to finishing several books, so now I'm breaking even just a few days later.

Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times by Geoff Nunberg - The title may sound like a Bush-bashing book, but it's not. Going Nucular is a collection of articles and commentaries about words and grammar, especially how meanings have evolved and certain words have gained or lost favor. I bought this at Powell's in June 2007, started reading it a few months later, and then set it aside for over a year. I rediscovered it two-thirds finished a month ago. I mention all this because it illustrates my problem with this book. While I enjoyed most of the essays, I couldn't read many in a row. Even making a concerted effort, I could only get through five or six in one sitting. Yet in small doses, it's an interesting book for anyone who is into words, linguistics, etymology, media, or writing. If you're the kind of person who plays "dictionary roulette" (I can't be the only one), you'll enjoy Nunberg's book.

History's Worst Decisions and the People Who Made Them by Stephen Weir - This book, which is titled Encyclopedia Idiotica in the U.S., is a good idea weakly executed. The book briefly examines 50 fateful decisions throughout history, ranging from Adam & Eve to the December 2004 tsunami. As a U.K. book, its choices are biased toward British history. Weir also divines the motivations of the bad deciders, classifying them among the Seven Deadly Sins or the three Cardinal Virtues, but this adds little to the book. I bought the illustrated edition ($9.99 at Barnes & Noble), which is indeed a lovely printing. Weir's writing, however, is another matter entirely. First, his tone is inconsistent. Early entries include funny, sarcastic remarks (my wife asked if this was the same author as in Who Hates Whom), but he doesn't keep them up with any regularity. Worse, his sentence structure is atrocious. Run-ons and lengthy fragments abound, which makes History's Worst Decisions annoying and difficult to read aloud. To top it off, Amazon reviewers note some obvious errors. Being poorly written, factually suspect, and only sporadically funny, this disappointing book isn't worth your time.

Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life by John Sellers - I'm a little surprised that I bought this since I'm not much for "indie rock" -- I like many bands that fit the description, but as a category, it's far too broad to have much meaning (ditto for "alternative"). What sold me is the first half of the book. Like me, Sellers was born in 1970, so we experienced many of the same fads and music growing up. His reminiscences about the early days of MTV are hilarious. The book is entertaining until he gets into "indie rock." Then he writes about bands that don't interest me (the Smiths/Morrissey, Joy Division/New Order, Pavement, Guided By Voices). I had to work to plow through those chapters, encouraged by the occasional reference to something I cared about. The appendices are amusing: A is a collection of lists, B is a goofy formula for determining how good a band is, and C is a list of "judgements" rendered on current bands. Bottom line: if you were born when I was, you'll probably like the beginning of the book, but the rest of the book might bore you if you're not into Sellers' favorite bands, especially Guided By Voices.

Current tally: 40 books finished, 40 books acquired

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Friday, April 10, 2009
A Solid Week of Reading
The Walrus Was Ringo: 101 Beatles Myths Debunked - I went through a heavy Beatles phase about 20 years (not coincidentally on the heels of a Charles Manson phase). Back then, I bought and read at least a dozen books about them. Although I still like their music, I'm not the Beatle-ologist I used to be. But while I was looking for something else at Half Price Books, this book by Alan Clayson and Spencer Leigh caught my eye.

I enjoyed the way this book reawakened brain cells last accessed years ago, but it's not a good book. Most of it is trivial or esoteric, and I disagree with some of the authors' debunkings. For example, they contend that John Lennon was not a pacifist. Aside from an admittedly unconfirmed allegation that he gave money to the IRA, their argument is based on several incidents where Lennon got into fights. But that just proves he was a mean drunk, not that he supported war or violence as a solution. I hardly think punching some guy at a party in 1963 makes Lennon a non-pacifist any more than it makes him a pugilist. There's a lot of crap like that in this book. Many debunkings are merely conjecture and opinion. I expected some eye-opening revelations, but I found little that I didn't remember from somewhere in the deep recesses of my teenage mind. This book does have a lot of info about the early years in Liverpool, but I was never particularly interested in the details of the band's origins. There is little about the music (less than 20%), which is ultimately the most important thing about the Beatles. Also, I found it ironic that their selected bibliography criticizes books that lack indices since this book doesn't have one, either.

One Knee Equals Two Feet (And Everything Else You Need to Know About Football) - I wasn't sure whether I'd like this 1986 John Madden book, but when I saw the chapter titled "Why Payton Is The Best," I figured I couldn't go wrong. Actually, I know the players of the 1970s and 1980s much better than I know the current NFL, so this book was a lot of fun to read. My favorite chapters are the meat of the book where Madden names his favorite players at each position and explains what made them great. There are many good anecdotes, too. This is easily the best book out of the four here, and it only cost me $1!

Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Throughout the Ages - This book is a disappointment. I've read several similar books, and Stupid History repeats many stories I've seen before. Author Leland Gregory employs too many corny puns, and some of this "stupid history" is just random "fun facts" with little or no historical value (isn't there enough real history to fill a book?). Even worse, there are mistakes. For example, Gregory asserts that Eugene Debs is the only person ever to run for president while in prison. But Leonard Peltier ran for president in 2004. The book is copyright 2007, so the author should have known. Amazon reviewers cite other errors, as well. I wouldn't recommend it and I definitely wouldn't trust it.

50 Ways to Build Muscle Fast: The Ultimate Guide to Building Bigger Muscles - I started reading this late last year and came back to it this week. I put it down because I didn't agree with some of author Dave Tuttle's suggestions, but in retrospect, I was being a bit hard on him. Aside from the typical volume training/isolated body parts silliness and a bit too much rah-rah about supplements (Tuttle's specialty), there are some good ideas here. There isn't a lot of new info, but it is useful as a quick refresher about a variety of training concepts. The end of the book is primarily motivational, which never hurts. All in all, there's nothing "ultimate" about this guide, but it's worth reading if it's cheap (as my copy was).

Current tally: 31 books finished, 26 books acquired

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Sunday, March 15, 2009
Two More Books
Earlier this month, I found myself reading seven books at once. With my attention divided, it was hard to finish any of them. I finally got my act together and completed a couple in the past few days:

Oil: A Concise Guide to the Most Important Product on Earth by Matthew Yeomans - Lately, I've been buying oil books as if they were water books. This one is a very good introduction, but I already knew much of the material from reading a lot of articles on AlterNet (btw, Yeomans has a similarly liberal perspective). Oh well, the subtitle warns that it's concise, so I had no reason to expect depth. If you haven't read much about petroleum, you'll get a lot out of Oil. If you've already read books like The End of Oil (a thicker volume in my to-read pile) or Beyond Oil, however, it's probably not worth your time.

Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973 by Robert Christgau - When I aspired to be a rock critic, I read Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs. That was freshman year of college, two decades ago (damn, I'm old). By the time I was halfway through Christgau's book, I remembered why I hadn't read a book of rock criticism since: I like it in small doses. The shorter works here are the best, especially the negative reviews. Unfortunately, the longer material sometimes founders under the weight of the critic's self-importance and overwrought prose. Christgau is one of the legends of the genre, though, and I ultimately enjoyed the book mostly because I know and like the music of that era. Note: this is the "expanded edition" of the original book with an extra 20 pages of material.

Current tally: 21 books finished, 18 books acquired

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Friday, April 18, 2008
Two Musicians
Two lines of lyrics come to mind today:

I woke up this mornin' and none of the news was good
--"Jerusalem" by Steve Earle

Seems everyone I know is gettin' cancer every year
--"Puttin' People On The Moon" by Drive-By Truckers
I got up at 7 AM and saw the second most viewed story on the Chicago Tribune's Web site: E Street Band member Danny Federici dies at 58. Federici wasn't the most famous member of the band, but he was one of the first to work with Springsteen -- they started playing together before I was born. I haven't kept up with the band since I saw them at U.S. Cellular Field in 2003, but I learned from the obituary that Federici had been fighting melanoma for three years.

While reading e-mail, I learned that another talented musician, guitarist Chris Gaffney, died yesterday of liver cancer at age 57. My familiarity with this relatively obscure Californian stems mainly from his playing with Dave Alvin, the former Blaster who is one of my favorite songwriters. I knew Gaffney was sick because I had read about the "Help Gaff" site soliciting donations for his costly treatment, but I had no idea the end was so near.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008
A Challenge to W. Axl Rose
If the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing aren't enough inspiration, maybe this will help:

PLANO, Texas (March 26, 2008) – Tired of a world in which Americans idolize wannabe singers and musicals about high schoolers pass as rock ‘n roll music, Dr Pepper is encouraging (ok, begging) Axl Rose to finally release his 17-year-in-the-making belabored masterpiece, Chinese Democracy, in 2008. In an unprecedented show of solidarity with Axl, everyone in America, except estranged GNR guitarists Slash and Buckethead, will receive a free can of Dr Pepper if the album ships some time -- anytime! -- in 2008. Dr Pepper supports Axl, and fully understands that sometimes you have to make it through the jungle before you get it right.
This marketing campaign is brilliant. No unreleased album has suffered such a long and twisted history as Chinese Democracy. Axl has hired and fired countless sidemen, thrown several tantrums, and remixed the whole mess a dozen times. I remember following this saga online ten years ago when the disc was already "long awaited." Since then, Guns N' Roses has done multiple tours supporting this legendary non-release. I'm surely not the first writer to quip that Axl is waiting until there actually is democracy in China.

Would I buy Chinese Democracy? My interest in GnR has been waning for so long that I probably wouldn't bother anymore. Besides, disappointment is almost guaranteed after 17 years of hype and anticipation. Even Appetite for Destruction, a genuine classic, may have collapsed under the weight of so many mixing sessions and band roster changes.

If I had a can of Dr Pepper for every supposed Chinese Democracy release date I've heard, I'd... well, I guess I'd really have to pee. Will Dr Pepper's challenge finally get Axl to stop remixing and start pressing CDs? You can follow all the exciting inaction on the Chinese Democracy When? blog.

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Thursday, March 06, 2008
Road House Blues
I saw the movie Road House many years ago. To be honest, I only remember two things about it:
  1. It starred Patrick Swayze.
  2. It featured a young, talented, blind guitarist named Jeff Healey.

Last night, my brother mentioned that Swayze is suffering from pancreatic cancer. While his doctor states that he is "responding well to treatment thus far," the odds are against him. The American Cancer Society says that only 23% of pancreatic cancer patients survive more than a year.

In a morbid coincidence, I had some news to share with my brother. This week I have been mourning the loss of Jeff Healey, who died of cancer on Sunday at the too-young age of 41. Healey lost his eyes to a cancer called retinoblastoma when he was eight months old. He thought that was the end of it, but in 2005 he learned that retinoblastoma causes a blood mutation that makes the victim susceptible to other forms of cancer. Last year, he had cancerous tissue removed from his legs and lungs, but the disease continued unabated.

Healey began playing guitar at age three and performed his first gigs at age six. He had a distinctive style, sitting with the guitar flat across his lap. His first album, See The Light by the Jeff Healey Band, was by far his most popular. The first single, "Confidence Man," was a great rocker, but the ballad "Angel Eyes" became his biggest hit, peaking at number five on the Billboard charts (incidentally, John Hiatt wrote both songs). He released several more blues/rock albums which had progressively less success in the U.S.

Early jazz was Healey's true passion. In the new millennium, he released a series of early jazz-style records, playing trumpet and acoustic guitar in Jeff Healey's Jazz Wizards. He also hosted jazz programs on Canadian radio featuring songs from his personal collection of more than 30,000 78 RPM records.

A new album returning to blues/rock is scheduled for release on April 22 in the U.S. For curious listeners, I recommend See The Light and/or The Very Best of the Jeff Healey Band (oddly, this UK import does not include "Angel Eyes" -- maybe it wasn't a hit there?).

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Friday, January 11, 2008
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead by Crystal Zevon
The title is brilliant. I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life And Times of Warren Zevon makes use of song titles from the beginning and end of Warren's career, effectively bracketing his life. At first blush, it appears to be a sleazy ex-wife tell-all, but Crystal wrote this book at Warren's request, and he told her to include "even the awful, ugly parts." There are plenty of those. For many years, Warren was a terrible alcoholic who would black out and abuse his wife. Even when sober, he could be very moody, and he was consistently unfaithful to the women he cared about.

The book is written in an engaging "oral history" format. Crystal interviewed 87 of Warren's friends, lovers, and associates. Her narrative weaves together their recollections with Warren's own diaries. The result is that the reader feels as if he is in a large room full of people reminiscing about Warren's life.

Warren was one of my favorite artists. I saw him in concert three times, and of course I have all of his albums. The book doesn't tell as much about his songs as I had hoped, but then, it is about his "life and times," not specifically his songwriting or recording. Although I found the 450-page book interesting, seeing all the warts tarnished his image somewhat in my mind. He often acted like a spoiled baby, especially during the drunken years, and it's hard to reconcile his lyrical depth with the shallowness of his behavior.

If you admire Warren Zevon for anything other than his songwriting or performing abilities, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead will tear apart that image. But if you're willing to acknowledge that it takes a flawed man to create such memorable work, the book is a fascinating insight into virtually every facet of his life.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008
Not Your Typical Promotional Puff Piece
In the run-up to the release of Brighter Than Creation's Dark, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers sat down with Chris Hassiotis of the Flagpole, the local weekly of Athens, GA. He had this to say about their label, New West Records:

What support have we gotten? At this point I don't feel they've done shit for us, really. To hear them talk, they took a band that was playing 50-seaters and have grown us to this great touring act, but I beg to differ. I feel like that's something we've done on our own very much, and we've drug them like a ball and chain around.
Ouch! Needless to say, the band will be looking for a new label once this album runs its course. According to Hood, New West has a "major label" attitude, which I wouldn't expect from a label with about 20 artists. I was disappointed to read this because I had a positive impression of New West, mainly because their roster looks a lot like my CD cabinet: Steve Earle, the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, the Drams, the Old 97's, Slobberbone, Warren Zevon...

Hood also intimated that the label was to blame for Isbell's departure because they held back his solo record for so long. In fact, everyone was so miserable in fall of 2006 that Hood and longtime partner-in-crime Mike Cooley discussed breaking up the band:
We sat there and drank and discussed it, and I said to Cooley, "Okay, if we break up, what'll I do? As much as I've swore I'd never have another band besides the Truckers, I'd probably put together another band. And hell, the first person I'd ask would be you. And hell, Brad [Morgan] plays in the band and is the perfect drummer for what I do and what you do. And damn, I really like playing with Shonna [Tucker, the bass player]…" We worked ourselves through it step by step that way. We took some time to decompress, fix a few things that were broken and start over, but, more or less, it's still this band. Because there's a lot that's really good about this band. So then it was just making it through the tour without killing each other.
Those are just a couple of highlights. The whole interview is worth reading, although New West might disagree.

UPDATE 01/11/2008 - It hasn't appeared on Flagpole's site yet, but Hood responded to the interview:
I'm afraid Chris caught me on a particularly bad day during a very stressful and heated time of bad relations between us and our label. While my rant reflected how I felt that day and some of my anger and frustration was from issues simmering for several years I would like to clarify a couple of points that were lost in my heated tirade.
Those points were that George Fontaine (who wasn't mentioned directly but apparently is affiliated with New West) and the Black Crowes' organization (he had spoken of the Truckers' miserable time opening for them) are all great people, and he didn't intend to slight them with anything he said. He added
This is a messy business and I never got into all of this to be a businessman. In the month since my interview, we have all attempted to move forward in good
faith and for the mutual good of both label and band and for the benefit of our new album, which I am fiercely proud of.
Let's hope New West will forgive him. From his work with Bettye LaVette, Hood knows well the potential for caprice and artist sabotage in the record industry.


Saturday, December 15, 2007
It Took Me 20 Years to Figure Out...
...that Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' "Runaway Trains" (1987) and Don Henley's "The Boys Of Summer" (1984) are remarkably similar. I guess that isn't too surprising considering that Heartbreaker Mike Campbell co-wrote and played on both songs. But even knowing that, I somehow never made the sonic connection.

This morning I was trying to remember "Runaway Trains" and started conflating it with the Henley song. It got to the point where I was interchanging the instrumental breaks in my head. After my epiphany, I played both of the records (yes, I still have them on vinyl) to make sure I wasn't imagining it. Then I went back to a book I read last year called Conversations With Tom Petty (I re-read the sections about both songs just to make sure I hadn't already read about the similarity and forgotten). In it, Petty says that Campbell offered him the music for "The Boys Of Summer" (Campbell writes music, not lyrics), but he didn't like the chorus and never got around to rewriting it. Of course, it was a huge hit with Henley's lyrics.

If you didn't figure it out for yourself 20 years ago, check it out. And if you like Petty, you'll enjoy the exhaustive Conversations book (unfortunately, the biggest Petty fan I know doesn't like to read!).


Tuesday, September 25, 2007
Meme: Bands I've Seen
I never do memes, but "Ex Week" has me in a nostalgic mood. Besides, I was intrigued by the bands I had in common with this blogger. I don't attend many concerts anymore, so this list probably reflects who I used to like better than who I like nowadays. At least I've been to enough concerts that I was able to leave out a few that I don't want to admit to anyone.

Here is how it works: copy this list; leave in the bands you've seen perform live; delete the ones you haven't, and add new ones that you have seen until you reach 25. An asterisk means the previous person had it on their list. Two asterisks means the last two people who did this before you had that band on their list.
1. Vigilantes of Love**
2. Peter Mulvey**
3. Soul Asylum*
4. Steppenwolf* (technically John Kay & Steppenwolf)
5. Warren Zevon
6. James McMurtry
7. George Clinton & the P-Funk All-Stars
8. Lou Reed
9. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers
10. George Thorogood & the Destroyers
11. Blue Oyster Cult
12. Rolling Stones
13. Bruce Springsteen
14. Who
15. Weird Al Yankovic
16. Eric Clapton
17. Bottle Rockets
18. Steve Miller Band
19. Bob Dylan
20. Jason Ringenberg
21. Semisonic
22. Georgia Satellites
23. John Fogerty
24. Replacements
25. Smashing Pumpkins


Saturday, July 28, 2007
Funny Thing About Rockwell
I've been thinking about the musician Rockwell's Wikipedia entry today.
Rockwell is the son of Motown founder and CEO Berry Gordy. To avoid charges of nepotism, Rockwell secured his record deal without his father's knowledge.
Okay, good for Rockwell. He did it on his own (it is rather amusing that he was signed by his dad's label without his dad knowing).
In 1984, Rockwell released his only hit single, "Somebody's Watching Me", featuring childhood friends Michael and Jermaine Jackson on guest vocals (notably in the chorus lyrics).
Whoa, wait a minute! Someone who didn't want nepotism to figure into his career recruited Michael Jackson to sing on his first single? Keep in mind that in 1984 Michael Jackson was easily the biggest star on the planet with the gazillion-selling Thriller album. He won eight Grammys that year (this was long before all the creepy stuff at Neverland Ranch). As I recall, Michael's participation on "Somebody's Watching Me" was what brought the song so much attention in the first place. I mean, people would have bought records of Michael burping the alphabet in those days.

So Mr. "I Can Get a Record Deal Without My Daddy" rode the coattails of Michael Jackson instead. And for that matter, Jermaine was married to Rockwell's half-sister, so he was still trading on family connections. So much for doing it on his own.


Friday, July 27, 2007
Tonight I had dinner at Rockwell's Neighborhood Grill. It's only a block away on Rockwell Street (hence the name) and their food is very good. A few years ago the Chicago Tribune declared their hamburger one of the top ten in Chicagoland, but I usually order the BBQ chicken sandwich. I wish they would update their menu more often (it has hardly changed since they opened three years ago), but I guess it's wise to stick with your strengths.

Anyway, I was eating a bowl of chicken tortilla soup and reading The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford when I noticed the song playing on the restaurant's satellite radio channel. It was "Somebody's Watching Me" by 1980s one-hit wonder Rockwell. That song has popped into my head hundreds if not thousands of times in the ten years since I started dating my wife -- she lived on Rockwell Street at the time.

And tonight I finally heard Rockwell in Rockwell's on Rockwell Street.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006
The Latest Spin on Chinese Democracy
It's a running joke with my brother to say, "I hear the new Guns N' Roses album is coming out," followed by uproarious laughter. We've been hearing about Chinese Democracy for how many years now? Six? Eight? And Axl Rose has had more guitarists than Spinal Tap had drummers, though at least Buckethead and the others escaped with their lives.

Well, Gunners, your long wait is over. Check out the special preview of Chinese Democracy in the latest issue of Spin magazine. Go ahead and read it now. I'll wait for you... (spoiler ahead)...

Interesting, eh? I hope you figured out before you got to the bottom that this isn't a real review. The funniest thing about it is that Axl is such a wacko that one can actually believe much of this satire. Hmm, maybe Axl would refer to the architect who designed his topiary garden. Maybe he would tell bassist Tommy Stinson to replicate the bass line from "Another Brick in the Wall." But Bob Ezrin and Phil Ramone as producers? Well, maybe sometime in the past decade. After all, it seems like everyone else has worked on this album, and Axl has fired several producers.

Oddly enough, I found out about this review on a Soul Asylum e-mail list. Someone was excited that Chinese Democracy was going to include "an embarrassing 'roots rock' duet with new buddy Dave Pirner titled 'You're Still Too Sweet Not to Be My Baby Anymore.'" Another list member noted that Soul Asylum and GNR toured together in Europe years ago. Then someone pointed out that it's an April Fool's Day joke. You would think fans of a band that did a song called "April Fool" on their best-selling album Grave Dancer's Union would catch on, but instead they argued that it just couldn't be a fake. More amazing to me was that no one was incensed that their favorite band's lead singer had become the butt of a joke. Incidentally, Soul Asylum has taken a GNR-like eight years to come out with a new album, due this summer. In the interim, their original bass player died, being replaced by -- oh, the irony -- GNR's Stinson.

In defense of those Soul Asylum fans, the review originally ran online without the obvious "Fast Facts" clue: "This version of Chinese Democracy only exists in an alternative reality ruled by the fools of April." And the original URL and date on the story didn't reflect April 1; apparently a date shift into the waning days of March was enough to give the review credibility in their eyes. But if the magazine's date doesn't naturally fall on the first, they're going to use whatever issue date is closest to April 1.

Another red flag is that this is Spin magazine. Anyone who has heard "Get in the Ring" from GNR's Use Your Illusion II knows that Axl hates that magazine. Why on earth would he give them exclusive access to his new album?

In related news (not April fool's), the Chinese won't be reading about Chinese Democracy in Rolling Stone -- government regulators are shutting down the magazine's Chinese edition after just one issue. The chief editor there hopes to get things ironed out soon. Maybe he'll get the magazine going before Axl puts out the album, which some sources say will be July 2006. My brother and I will believe it only when we see it.

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Friday, March 17, 2006
Bastard of the Day
Today's award goes to John Cougar Mellencamp. If I see that old fart with his band on a basketball court singing "Rockin' in the N-C-Double-A" one more time, I'll scream. Of course, this Hoosier has been on the downward slide for a long, long time. Even his best albums like Scarecrow contained their share of filler and pop garbage. Heck, "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." sounds inspired compared to trash like "Lonely Ol' Night." At least it was better than American Fool. I hate "Jack & Diane" with every fiber of my being -- except the fibers I reserve for hating "Hurts So Good."

One of the first times I can recall my future wife making fun of me was when we heard Mellencamp on the radio (circa 1997), and I said, "It's John Mellencamp, trying to stay relevant." She thought I was goofy to use a word like "relevant" to describe a performer (as if a woman who has memorized Slayer lyrics has any right to judge my rock criticism). But I was right, and even then he was losing the fight. Aside from dusting off the ol' guitar to play "Rain On The Scarecrow" at Farm Aid, this guy should have hung it up a decade ago.

But I have a special reason for directing my vitriol at Mellencamp now. He and his freaking NCAA basketball March Madness are on CBS, and some of my favorite shows aren't on this week because of it (I lucked out with the Olympics since I don't watch NBC). That makes CBS and the NCAA honorary bastards. I have always hated basketball, probably because it requires two things I don't have: height and coordination. I didn't watch the Fighting Illini in the Final Four last year. Even when Michael Jordan, arguably the best player ever (if you would argue, you're not from Chicago), was working his magic for the Bulls, I hardly paid attention to anything more than the last five minutes of a few playoff games. It's okay if they want to show this stuff on Saturdays and Sundays -- I don't watch TV on weekends anyway -- but don't waste prime time on some lousy first round college playoff game like Goober Tech versus Bumwipe State.

And to think, I have to put up with another two weeks of this.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006
Bastard of the Day
Way back in the early days of the DJWriter blog, I nominated Disney princess Hilary Duff's version of "My Generation" for "Worst Cover Song of 2004." It is with heavy heart that I inform you that the mouseheads are about to unleash an even more offensive assault on the ears of America. Today's Bastard of the Day is Walt Disney Records for conceiving and foisting upon us DEVO 2.0, aka DEV2.O .

Don't hate DEVO 2.0 because they are another prefabricated pop band. Don't hate them because they are a cover band. Hate them because they are desecrating the music of Akron, Ohio's finest band. Okay, that's not saying much, but just listen to this crap. And it just gets worse...

Read about the band. Lead singer Nicole (there are no last names in DEVO 2.0, which at least gives these kids a chance to lead normal lives as adults) cites as one of her musical influences Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas. The idea of a pre-adolescent girl singing "Whip It" with "my hump, my hump, my hump, my lovely lady lumps" going through her head is rather disturbing, don't you think?

I know this concept has been done before, notably by A*Teens. But Abba was pop schlock from day one. DEVO is deeper than that. Beneath the flower pot hats, there is good music with interesting lyrics. A Wikipedia entry confirms my worst fears:

The lyrics to the songs they perform are also heavily edited, to make them more "family friendly" and remove all of the innuendo typical of Devo songs. (In "Through Being Cool", for instance, the line "eliminate the ninnies and the twits" is changed to "eliminate the time you waste in cliques", and the innuendo-filled "Girl U Want" is completely re-written and sanitized as "Boy U Want"... The song "Beautiful World" remains mostly unchanged until the end, where the line "it's a beautiful world ... for you, but not for me" becomes "for you... I guess me too".)
Damn, that was the best line in "Beautiful World" (it was bad enough when that song was used in a Target commercial). This is the fluffiest of fluff, Hilary Duff with New Wave backing music. I noticed that they didn't record "Gut Feeling" -- I'd hate to think how they would rewrite the "slap your mammy" part of that song (probably "hug your mammy").

How did this come to be? Disney had to get permission from DEVO to use the name, right? Did DEVO completely sell out? To my surprise and disappointment, the answer is a huge YES. From

DEV2.0 is a strange, Corporate-Feudal experiment that attempts to bring the original DEVO music sensibility to children in the 5 to 8 year old demographic range. The band is composed of 5 talented kids ranging in age from 10 to 12 years old. They are able to play and sing. DEVO produced the music for them and Gerald Casale directed all of the videos for the DVD which was funded by Buena Vista Records, a division of the Disney Company. From The "Devo 2.0" CD is due March 17 via Disney Sound. A companion DVD will feature animated and live action videos for each of the tracks directed by Devo bassist and co-founder Gerry Casale.
When I first heard about DEVO 2.0, I never dreamed that DEVO had this much involvement. Now I'm not sure whether the Bastard of the Day should be Disney or DEVO! The only good thing ("everybody, it's a good thing") that can come out of this is a new interest in the original band's body of work.

What's next? A kid singing folk songs named "Bob Dillon?" A group of kids playing 1970s heavy metal called "Blue Oyster Club?" They could perform their biggest hit, a song about studying hard in science class called "Don't Fear the Beaker."

With Disney's marketing muscle behind it, we're sure to hear plenty about DEVO 2.0 in the next few months. "Through being cool," indeed.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006
The Doors
Last night was "Doors night" at our house. First we watched Oliver Stone's film, The Doors. Then we watched it again with Stone's commentary. After 4-1/2 hours of watching the band, I was surprised my wife was willing to go for the ultimate -- listening to all six of the Doors' studio albums back to back.

The movie should have been called Jim Morrison instead of The Doors. Clearly Stone was focused on Morrison, and the rest of the band doesn't get enough coverage to be worthy of mention. Most notably, there is no clue as to how Morrison and Ray Manzarek found and recruited Robby Krieger and John Densmore -- they are just suddenly rehearsing together. And for a movie supposedly about the Doors, it spends too much time on Morrison's poetry and too little on the music. One thing I love about the Doors, something crucial to their unique sound, is the interplay between Manzarek's organ and Krieger's guitar.

Maybe I missed it, but I was surprised that "Peace Frog" wasn't used in the movie. That song includes lyrics about the film's opening scene, where a young Morrison (played by Stone's son) sees the aftermath of a highway accident involving a truckload of Indians. It also takes a jab at New Haven, site of another incident in the movie.

Stone actually does pretty good commentaries for his movies, not the rambling, butt-kissing fluff one hears on a lot of commentary tracks. One quibble: Stone is a little foggy about the band's last two albums, Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman. It seemed to me that he combined them in his head. Most obviously he said "Roadhouse Blues" was on their last album, but it led off Morrison Hotel. Up to that point, his recollection of the band's discography was pretty accurate.

Of course, I had a refresher course last night, listening to some records I haven't heard in many years. I was a Doors fan in high school (mid-late 1980s). More accurately, I was a 1960s fan in high school. I still have a huge collection of music from 1966-1970, most of it on vinyl. My wife is impressed with my knowledge of the Doors and other music from that era, but I don't know if she really understands how into music I was at the time. My teenage years were spent in my bedroom with the door closed, the turntable spinning record after record for hours on end. That's where all my extra money went -- to buy more records. Some people look at my 800 vinyl LPs and say I wasted my money, but hey, at least I wasn't buying booze or drugs.

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Friday, December 09, 2005
Tribune's Pointless Editorial about R&R Hall of Fame
I was flabbergasted by Corey Franklin's guest editorial in the Chicago Tribune about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame titled "The fossilization of rock 'n' roll." His sole qualification is being "a physician at Stroger Hospital," and frankly, I don't know why the newspaper accepted this drivel for publication.

Franklin begins with a meaningless complaint from Def Jam founder Russell Simmons about hip-hop artists being ignored. Well, apparently neither Simmons nor Franklin could be bothered to look at the requirements for consideration:
Artists become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. Criteria include the influence and significance of the artist’s contributions to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll.
Hmm, so how many hip-hop artists made their first record at least 25 years ago? That would be 1981. Even Run-D.M.C., probably the first widely recognized rap artists, released their first album in 1983. Grandmaster Flash? 1982. Besides, Franklin later criticizes the Hall for inducting Miles Davis:
Miles may be a jazz immortal, but inducting him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is like putting Jim Thorpe in Cooperstown for playing a couple of years of baseball in the National League. Great player, wrong sport.
How would inducting a hip-hop artist be any different? There is some hip-hop that I enjoy, but I wouldn't really call it rock and roll. They should start their own museum. That leads to one of Franklin's better points, albeit a tired one dating back to the Hall's founding in 1983 -- that rock and roll is rooted is rebellion, and a Hall of Fame reeks of "establishment." The same could be said for the spirit of hip-hop.

Franklin briefly and weakly critiques the latest inductees: Black Sabbath, the Sex Pistols, Blondie, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Miles Davis. Davis was covered above. The others were all giants in their respective genres: heavy metal, punk, new wave and Southern rock. I will allow that they aren't on par with people like the Beatles, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis (it would be a small Hall if that were the requirement), but all were important in their time and influenced those who followed. Franklin pretty much writes them all off, so apparently they aren't his kind of rockers. He lacks either the background or maturity to recognize their value.

Franklin really loses credibility in his criticism of Lynyrd Skynyrd -- clearly he has no sense of the original band's influence and importance, maligning them as "definitely" members of the "Mullet Hall of Fame." If you can listen to "Free Bird" and forget that you've already heard it a million times, it really is one of the greatest guitar songs of all time. And I could name a dozen Skynyrd songs that are better than that one. (Another criticism from others is that the current Skynyrd has so few original members, but that's nonsense -- even the Stones are down to Mick, Keith and Charlie. The Stones weren't inducted for their latest work, but for their greatest work.)

While the best Franklin can come up with for future inductees are John Mellencamp, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Patti Smith, I'd like to weigh in once more for an overlooked rock and roll legend -- Link Wray. Anybody can sing some dirty words for controversy, but this is a guy who had an instrumental banned from the radio. If that doesn't capture the spirit of rock and roll, then what does?

I can't figure out why the Tribune published this uninformed editorial in the first place. It starts out whining about people who aren't even eligible not being inducted and proceeds to dismiss every inductee with little explanation. When it comes to music criticism, Dr. Franklin, I think you'd be better off tending to your patients.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005
RIP Link Wray 1929-2005
Rock and roll legend Link Wray died November 5 in Copenhagen. He's the most important guitarist you probably never heard of. His Los Angeles Times obituary (published yesterday) lists many of the most famous names in rock who were profoundly influenced by him. Pete Townshend once wrote, "He is the king; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and 'Rumble,' I would have never picked up a guitar." And Neil Young said, "If I could go back in time and see any band, it would be Link Wray and the Wraymen." Bob Dylan, who first saw Wray live in Duluth in 1958, opened his November 20 concert in London with "Rumble" in his honor.

The obituary tells the story of "Rumble," his biggest hit. To get the raw, distorted guitar sound, Wray used a pencil to punch holes in the speakers of his amplifier. In some places it was banned from the radio -- and it was an instrumental! That's some serious rock and roll that can threaten the Establishment without using any words.

Alas, the LA Times' obituary for Wray peters out in the mid-1960s. In fact, Wray was just getting started. He returned to religion (his parents were preachers) and turned his home into a commune. Then he channneled his energies into crafting the greatest hippie Jesus freak music ever made. He had a recording studio in an old chicken coop called "Wray's Three Track Shack."

His 1971 album Link Wray is legendary among music collectors. Wray was able to stretch out as a guitarist, moving deftly from rock to blues, electric to acoustic. His lyrics were deeply moral but came across as heartfelt warnings more than preaching. And for the first time, he was the featured vocalist. He lost a lung to tuberculosis in the Army in 1953 and lacked range, but he had enthusiasm and intensity that suited the material perfectly. Put it on your Christmas list if you don't have it yet. (If you can't find it alone, it is included in the Wray's Three Track Shack and Guitar Preacher: The Polydor Years compilations.)

Wray found new success in the late 1970s when he paired up with retro crooner Robert Gordon for a pair of albums (most notably including Bruce Springsteen's "Fire"). He moved to Denmark and kept recording both live and in the studio. Numerous American bands touring Europe were privileged to have Wray join them onstage for a song or two. Cowpunk legend Jason Ringenberg wrote an eponymous tribute to Wray for his latest album, Empire Builders. In liner notes, he writes
I've known Link Wray for 20 years now and his enthusiasm and commitment to performance never cease to amaze me... In my opinion, he possesses THE soul of the rock and roll guitar. One of my main long-range career goals is to still be able to rock lke he does when I am 70 something.
Wray really did rock right until the end. He finished a lengthy US tour four months ago at age 76.

Tonight Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra played "Rumble" during one of David Letterman's commercial breaks, showing once again why they are undeniably the greatest band on television. I wonder how many viewers noticed and how many recognized this as a farewell tribute to a guitar legend.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005
Don't Stop The Heavin'
Here is my two-word review of Chicago's first World Series in more than four decades: Don't care.

I was born a Cubs fan. While I'm not one of those people whose favorite teams are the Cubs and whoever is playing the White Sox, South Side baseball means nothing to me. Whatever tiny bit of appeal it had disappeared when the wrecking ball brought down the old Comiskey Park. That place had some character, sort of like a gritty, seedy, rotting version of Wrigley Field. The new ballpark is devoid of character; even Bruce Springsteen couldn't give it any spirit (especially from my vantage point in the upper deck). The park's nickname since a corporate sponsor took over, "the Cell," just makes me think of prison, not a place I want to go (though I once visited Stateville in Joliet on a college field trip, coincidentally during the last season the Sox played at the old Comiskey).

But even worse than the generic, soulless venue is the team's latest choice of music. "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey? Yuck. Journey was one of my parents' favorite bands in the early 1980s. My parents generally had decent taste in music, but I couldn't stand Journey then and I can't stand them now. And to think that I was criticizing the Cubs for still using Van Halen's "Jump"--the Journey song is even older! How about "Don't Stop The Bleedin'?" If Steve Perry got cut onstage, that's what I would have said. Not that I would have been anywhere near a stage with Journey on it. I'm just kidding; I don't really wish any ill will on Perry personally, although I would quickly change my mind if he showed up at my house to perform an extended version of "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'"--even my dad faded that song out halfway through the interminable "na-nas" when he recorded the LP onto a cassette tape.

There is only one thing at all redeeming about the White Sox choosing this song. While most of us associate Journey with San Francisco ("my city by the Bay"), "Don't Stop Believin'" was written by Perry, Neal Schon, and Chicago native Jonathan Cain. Despite this connection with Chicago, however, the song still sucks. Thanks a lot, MTV.

UPDATE 10/21/2005 - Famous Chicago radio guy and Sox fan Steve Dahl agrees. But at least it isn't disco!

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Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Corgan: Wrigley Music Reeks
A Cubs fan asked former Pumpkin Smasher Billy Corgan about the music they play at Wrigley Field. I haven't been to the ballpark in several years, but I can't believe they are still playing Van Halen's "Jump." They've been doing that for what, two decades now? That song just reminds me of the awful collapse of 1984, when the Cubs were up 2-0 in the NLCS and lost three in a row to the Padres. It's like an anthem for crushed hopes. Even worse, the last few times I went there it seemed like the highlight of the afternoon for many fans was "Y.M.C.A.," which is even older and cheesier. Corgan had a good suggestion:
How about playing songs by Chicago artists? Every city I go to plays songs by their local artists. The theme song for the Boston Red Sox is `Dirty Water', a song by the '60's group The Standells about the River Charles (and other sundry goings-on). It is absolutely criminal how bad the music is that is played at Wrigley Field. Discounting myself from this idea, how about nine innings worth of Chicago blues, Cheap Trick, Styx, etc. Instead we get passe hits and out-of-touch classics.
Okay, maybe nine innings of Styx isn't such a great idea, but there is plenty of Chicago music that could be played. On the other hand, I never went to a baseball game in lieu of listening to the radio anyway. They should dump the canned music entirely and let the organist go wild. Did you know that the Cubs were the first team in major-league baseball to have an organist back in 1941? The Cubs are also the only team that still plays introductions on the organ when players come to the plate. The best reason to see a game at Wrigley is for the nostalgia (though many inexplicably go there just to get drunk on high-priced, low-quality beer). The organ is nostalgic. The canned tunes are garbage.

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Monday, September 12, 2005
Rolling Stones 1994
My brother went to see the Rolling Stones on Saturday at the same place on almost the same day of the year that I saw them eleven years ago. I was going through a bunch of old papers and computer files (more on that later) when I came across a set list from that show. I don't remember it vividly, but I went with friends from work, and it was less than two weeks after I moved to the city. From the reviews of Saturday's show, it sounds like they did a lot of the same songs except that songs from the new album took the place of the Voodoo Lounge songs. For what it's worth, I thought the concert was expensive then, but my brother paid even more, $100/ticket for the cheapest seats. But heck, they're the Stones, and everybody should see them once. They're not bad for a bunch of old dudes.

Rolling Stones at Soldier Field, September 12, 1994

Not Fade Away
Tumblin' Dice
You Got Me Rockin'
Rocks Off
Sparks Will Fly
(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
Beast Of Burden
Wild Horses
All Down The Line
I Go Wild
Miss You
Honky Tonk Women
Love Is Strong
Monkey Man
Street Fightin' Man
Start Me Up
It's Only Rock & Roll
Brown Sugar
Jumpin' Jack Flash


Saturday, June 18, 2005
R.I.P. Karl Mueller
I found out today that Soul Asylum bass player Karl Mueller died Friday morning at home in Minneapolis at age 41. He was diagnosed with throat cancer last year, endured chemotherapy, and went into remission. He was well enough to join his bandmates at a benefit concert held in his honor last October (which featured the reunion of Husker Du's Bob Mould and Grant Hart), but he was in and out of the hospital this year.

Most people remember the band for their hit "Runaway Train" or perhaps for playing at President Clinton's inaugural ball. I have been a fan since I heard the album Hang Time some 17 years ago. They were always a great live band; I have seen them in concert more times than any other artist. Even as their fame waned over the past few years, Soul Asylum managed to come down to Chicago for a gig or two every year. The future of the band, which was searching for a label to put out their next album, is now uncertain.

Karl was the quiet member of the band, but he was a steady bass player. He also must have had a good sense of humor. When Soul Asylum created Clam Dip And Other Delights as a parody of Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream And Other Delights shortly after signing with Alpert's A&M Records, Karl was the one who appeared on the record sleeve covered with clam dip.

My thoughts go out to Karl's wife and his bandmates, Dave Pirner and Dan Murphy, who played with him for nearly a quarter of a century.

UPDATE 06/19/2005: In recent years, Karl donated many Soul Asylum souvenirs to the Minnesota Historical Society. See them here.

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