Thursday, September 24, 2009
Gem Music Video of the Week # 90: Youth and Intellect
Song: I Don’t Wanna Grow Up by Tom Waits
(Songwriter: Tom Waits)
September 24, 2009
A fourth Gem via album recommendations is in the books, this one from good friend, Pat Shea. Pat aimed high, for the top of my list actually (see Gem # 58). I was hoping someone could steer me in the right direction regarding what Tom Waits brings to the table. Mr. Shea did so with an enthusiasm that could only come from someone who feels strongly about the subject. He even sent me a cd: “Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years” (thanks again, Pat). It turns out Pat’s been a big fan of Tom Waits for some time now.
Tom Waits: I’m going out on a limb here, Pat, and try to summarize his music. Let’s see, well for starters, Waits is diverse; that is he is all over the map with the range of musical genres he covers. Nothing enlightening there, other than for novices like me who have only recently dabbled. The subject matter of his songs is all over the map as well, including lyrics with a ‘squirm factor’ about them. What I’ve come to see mostly in his music, however, is a youthful spirit: Waits pens songs as if he were still a kid… a kid with a boat load of intellect.
Waits and those of like mind, tend to buck trends. There is certainly some cockiness there, but it’s more a level of intelligence that gets bored with normalcy, orderliness and predictability: They already have all that stuff pretty much figured out. Chaos, dichotomy, paradox, and randomness (to use a favorite term of nephew, Joe)… now your talking! Guitar and drums?...how about ukulele, harpsichord and tuba? The Beatles and the Stones?.... how about Zappa and Devo (and mix in some jazz, cabaret and vaudeville while your at it)? ‘M*A*S*H*’ and ‘Letterman’? …how about ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ and ‘Fernwood Tonight’ (not to mention the affiliated ‘Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’)? ‘Rocky’ and ‘Titanic’? ….how about ‘Eraserhead’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’? The ‘X-Men’? ….how about ‘Howard the Duck’? John Grisham? How about Kurt Vonnegut.
Elements of the same high-intellect-character trait revealed in Tom Waits, through his music, can be found in several friends and family members: Along with Pat, that short list includes Mac and Dale. My initiation into this alternate view of life, however, was particularly potent through my longtime friendship with Phil. I must elaborate.
During the first half of my second decade of life, an average summer week could have easily consisted of the following activities:
Monday: Leggos with John; puzzles (in the 'puzzle room') with Joe and Fred
Tuesday: Pickup baseball with everyone; model building with Joe and Fred (including the old Hobby Shop monster models like Creature from the Black Lagoon, Wolfman, the Mummy, and Phantom of the Opera)
Wednesday: Hike down the tracks with Bruce and our dogs; trek downtown to purchase baseball cards and Wacky Packs and to exchange rolls of coins with the bank and local stores (to open and scan for wheat pennies and silver dimes for our collections)
Thursday: Blazing bike trails with Jeff through the woods and designing (then jumping) bike ramps.
Friday: Street hockey with everyone; baseball card trading with John, Fred, Bruce and Joe
Saturday: Monopoly with Fred, Phil and Joe; Chess with Bruce
Sunday: Water balloon fights with everyone; Kick the Can with everyone
This was pretty exciting stuff, but standard fare for a boy growing up in a great neighborhood, which would have sufficed. But thank goodness for Phil, who made my weekly agenda far more unique and intriguing than what it would have been otherwise. Phil was always keen on adding a twist, like recording bizarre ideas (how I wish we still had the recording of us impersonating ‘Kukla, Fran and Ollie’ with the caveat that they were in their 90s), making ice cream, or envisioning truly outrageous and hilarious scenarios. To this day I laugh when thinking about them. A skit of ‘Charlie on the MTA’ for our parents was beyond the beyond. Playing with my plastic animals was a journey into character development (and even Phil had to admit those plastic animals had a truly aesthetic quality about them). And the standard fare, including Monopoly, pickup football and croquet, evolved in ways their creators would never have imagined possible. When a cranky old neighbor (in the ‘castle’ across the street from our home) purchased a giant spotlight to keep an eye on us at night if we trespassed, Phil put together a song and dance routine. My imagination grew by leaps and bounds in those days, and I have to give Phil much of the credit.
Listening to ‘Beautiful Maladies’, I found myself traveling down that old familiar trail of life in the quick-thinking, high-intellect fast lane. The album keeps you off balance, on the edge of free fall with nothing to grab on to. But it is chock full of great tunes including ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’, ‘Shore Leave’ (sounds like a Robbie Robertson style song, or is it the other way around?), ‘Innocent When You Dream’, ‘Hang on St Christopher’, and ‘Downtown Train’. The song ‘
Singapore’, apparently about a pirate trek to the Far East, has Waits modifying his singing voice for what appears to be two distinct characters, and includes the following stanza where the two characters swap vocals, line to line:
“The captain is a one-armed dwarf
He’s throwing dice along the wharf
In the land of the blind
The one-eyed man is king,
….so take this ring”
Gem of the Week, ‘I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’, is a particularly poignant song on this album. The title is actually quite accurate for a Waits song title, as the lyrics conjure up thoughts of classic lyrics like ‘Hope I die before I get old’ and ‘May you stay forever young’. It also reminds me a bit of last week’s Gem theme about the Beatles and wisdom. When you think of wisdom, you think of growing up and overcoming your childhood insecurities. But songs like these argue otherwise, interpreting wisdom as what you gain by staying young. I believe the same goes for faith, as the most spiritual people I have ever known were all young at heart (particularly the priests and nuns who have managed to maintain a youthful air about them).
Ahh, the paradox of youth and wisdom: Just the way Pat, Phil, and Confucius would expect in anything worth its weight.
So Pat, thanks again. Listening to this album made me long for sitting around another campfire with you and the Canadian crowd, if only to see where the conversation would go. But for now, please put all our minds at ease and get back to deciphering black holes, totem polls, and
Dead Sea scrolls.
Below the Gem Video is a humorous conversation between Tom Waits and Iggy Pop.
Below that is another Waits video, ‘Downtown Train’.
Gem Video “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up’
Tom and Iggy (Coffe and Cigarettes): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6Mw6b1T50U
About the Video: Made-for-MTV like video (Tom Waits singing under a diner table)
Video Rating: 1
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Gem Music Video of the Week # 89: Wise Beyond Their Years
Song: Something by The Beatles
(Songwriter: George Harrison)
September 17, 2009
I’ve brought this up before (in the context of ‘luck’), but its worth revisiting: How was it that the Beatles became so successful? I mean, here were four guys who formed a band not unlike so many who had done it before and since. They were from lower-middle class families, each with a below average education from what I can gather, so right off the bat, it’s clear that an Ivy League degree (or anything even close) was not a prerequisite for generating Beatlemania.
John, Paul, George, and Ringo were not born with silver spoons in their mouths (more likely something akin to plastic). There was no regal British blood running through their veins.
Opportunity was not knocking at their doors.
As discussed for Gem # 49, tragedy may have played a factor in the bands success (both Lennon and McCartney lost their mothers at a young age, and the band lost a founding member, Stu Sutcliffe, in the early days). The times may have had something to do with it too, as the Beatles were part of a post-war generation with a chip on its shoulder, a need to prove to their parents who sacrificed so much that they had something of their own to show the world. Hard work cannot be overlooked, nor can talent. And yes, lady luck has to have played a role (again, Gem # 49).
But there was something more.
Last week Amy challenged me to connect with my Beatles roots for a Gem. She was right on. I had not really focused a Gem on this sensational band. Sure, they have been discussed throughout, and a few songs have appeared as Gems. And yet, I had not given the Fab Four their just dues. But what could I say about the Beatles that has not already been said by others? It seems their lives and music have already been covered ad nauseam. If there was any new angle, it was going to take some thought.
As it turned out, I had to go back to the beginning, recalling my first foray into a magical mystery tour that has had me caught in its wake for 35 years and counting. Strangely enough, this initial seed proved not to be the music itself. The initial seed was an album cover, more specifically the cover of the ‘Red Album’. And as I thought more about it, I realized this album cover was an inroad for me to understanding the reason for the Beatles success as well. I hope to explain below.
The ‘Red Album’, along with ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’, was the first real rock album to make its way into the Steeves’ household, thanks to Mom and Dad (and already recognized for the Mothers Day Gem, “Your Mother Should Know”). I would later get beyond the trap and allure of ‘Greatest Hits’ albums like the ‘Red Album’ (as discussed for Gem # 19) but as this album was a ground breaker, I have no complaints, only praise. It was my initiation into the Beatles early days, which greased the skids for all my subsequent rock album purchases, including most of the Beatles catalog. Songs like ‘Michelle’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Paperback Writer’ were the first songs I would play over and over again, lifting the needle up, backwards, and back down again. While listening, I would read the words, song dates, and credits. I would also stare at the album cover.
The cover of the album was pretty darn cool. On one side was a photo of the Beatles circa 1963 on the stairwell of EMI studios, looking over the balcony, down at the camera man, and on the flip side were the Beatles in the same pose (same positions, left to right: Ringo, Paul, George, John), on that same stairwell, near the end of their collaboration in 1969. As I would glance back and fourth, one photo to the next, it felt as if I were looking at eight people, not four. This was fascinating to me. The difference in their appearance, particularly John and George, but also Paul and Ringo, was striking.
Now, I’m not talking about age, hair growth, or the possible ravages of drug abuse per se. I’ve seen all of these as being much greater factors when looking at change in others. For example, the difference in Keith Richards is pretty dramatic when comparing a ’67 photo of him to a ’69 photo, which can be chalked up to all three of these factors (the good news for Keith: He’s barely aged since!). Comparing these two Red Album photos however, I saw much more that should be attributed to the changes in the Beatles appearance. And though I could not really nail it down at the time, what I was gaining an insight to were the faces of knowledge, experience and wisdom. This was to prove to be very enlightening to me. The changes in the Beatles were more in line with what you would expect to see in, say a grandparent when comparing their teen photos to their later years, particularly if that grandparent had been through much in the interim. For the Beatles, however, there were only six years separating these photos!
How could the Beatles have changed so much in so short a time? Yes, they had seen the world, and met with virtually all of the most famous people of their times. They had become wealthy beyond their wildest imaginations. But I believe what changed the Beatles the most during the group’s career came from within: It was their openness, the breadth of their willingness to share their hearts, minds and souls with the world through the music they made together. This more than anything was also why the Beatles were so successful. They did not hold back one iota, which is a very, very hard thing to do. Perhaps it was not so hard in the beginning, when they had ‘nothing to lose’, but as time went by it must have gotten much more difficult to maintain that openness. The Beatles did it for eight years, an amazing run. As George Harrison once stated, “They (fans) gave their money and they gave their screams, but the Beatles kind of gave their nervous systems”.
After absorbing this concept to some degree all those years ago while looking at and listening to the Red Album, it was so easy afterwards to connect with the rest of the Beatles music. It was all about filling the gap between those two pictures, and boy has it ever been fun: From the Dylan-esque White Album, to the psychedelic dream state of Sgt Pepper. From the willingness to cry for ‘Help’, to the spiritual depth and beauty of ‘Long, Long, Long’; from the melodic ‘Martha My Dear’, to the intensity of ‘Oh, Darling’; from the brutal honesty of letting the cameras role as the band broke up in front of our eyes during the film ‘Let it Be’; to their amazingly classy regrouping for ‘Abbey Road’ (side two after ‘Here Comes the Sun’ is simply put, one, long, magnificent, subconscious, goodbye); from the original album-oriented music of ‘Revolver’ to the singles that defined a generation: ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘All You Need is Love’. It certainly has been fun.
The Beatles were common ground for a family (Steeves) with very diverse musical interests. They were the one band you could find in all of our album/tape collections. This, I believe was the case in many other families. Come Together…. Yeah!
I could have picked any number of songs from the Beatles catalog to represent this week’s Gem, but I had to settle on something…. ‘Something’, yes that will do! That will do just fine.
Thanks, Amy. I needed that.
Gem Music Video: “Something” ** The four ladies in the film are Linda McCartney (Paul); Yoko Ono (John); Patti Boyd (George); and Maureen Cox (Ringo). **
“Don’t Let Me Down” on the rooftop of Apple Records
“Fool on the Hill”
Best Feedback: John
You always liked "Rain." I never quite felt the connection, but I remember you constantly singing that song under your breath.
Gave away all of my vinyl albums years ago, but I kept the first two albums I ever purchased--Beatles Red and Beatles Blue.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Gem Music Video of the Week # 88: This Machine Kills Fascists
Song: Where the Streets Have No Name by U2
September 10, 2009
Few historical events in a lifetime are so extraordinary that they induce instant recall when reflected on. Going back a generation or four, I’m willing to bet there’s a near unanimous ability for Americans of those bygone eras to nail down the time and place they were when they heard the news of
Pearl Harbor, VJ Day, and JFK’s assassination.
Eight years ago, September 11, 2001, most of us had our first encounter with an event of this magnitude. There was nothing even remotely comparable. It shattered our sense of reality. Life has not been quite the same since.
The days and weeks immediately following 9/11 were, to put it mildly, intense. Everyone seemed to be walking on eggshells. Little flags decorated most cars in a display of patriotism. Normally comedic talk show hosts were devoid of humor. Days seemed dreary and nights felt darker than before. Despite the efforts of
Hollywood types, musicians, and political leaders it appeared nothing could be done to help us recover from what happened. The country was in universal mourning and on the brink of despair.
At the same time, there was plenty of debate about how to respond to the attacks. I was driving down Rte 128 later that fateful month, when I spotted a pickup truck with a large handmade banner in the flatbed reading “Kill all Arabs!”. I looked over at the guy driving the car as I passed him by. He stared at me as if to say “you got a problem with that?”. It was a tough pill to swallow: I was on the same team as this guy?
The experience got me thinking: 9/11 was horrible in so many ways, but as happens with all crises, it brought out either the best or worst in us. What I really saw in that man was fear, and it was something I saw and heard from others in not so blatant ways over those weeks and months following the tragedy. I admit to some of it myself. But fear is a dangerous thing. It stems from ignorance and often leads to vengeance and hatred. Yes, there no doubt was a need for justice….but not hatred. That’s what those who aimed the planes and coordinated the attack had in them. To react in a similar manner would make us no better. ** Side note: I once heard it said that the term ‘hate crime’, used by media types is a misnomer. The suggested replacement: ‘ignorance crime’. I concur **
It’s difficult, but not impossible to rise above fear and hatred in such times. The
had done it before in its history. Since the repercussions of 9/11 still linger, I think it’s too soon to tell if we will do it again. The country is way too polarized today. Joe McCarthy-like finger pointing and mistrust is standard fodder on our airways. Hopefully, rational, well meaning, peace loving minds will ultimately prevail. USA
Healing and unity were a long time coming after the terrorist attacks in
New York and The first ray of light for me was a month later, when the ‘Concert for Washington D.C. ’ took place. Most of the acts were not quite ready for prime time yet, but The Who were. Their four-song set (one of Entwistle’s last shows) in front of the surviving NY Police and Fire Departments (taking up all of the first 20 or so rows) was exceptional. The New York crowd reaction was uplifting to those of us who watched on TV. Once again, the music prevailed. It seemed the healing had begun, but there was still a long way to go. Several more months passed, and expectation of a truly uniting moment passed with them. Madison Square Garden
This brings me to football.
First I need to rewind. After a one week hiatus immediately following 9/11, the NFL kicked its schedule back into forward motion. For New Englanders, the 2001 NFL season was to prove far from business as usual. The Patriots, with a history more bizarre than the Bad News Bears, were climbing the ladder of success, lead by an amazing coach who ran a team that insisted on being introduced…. as a team.
After a great regular season run and two action packed playoff games (including the unforgettable ‘Snow Bowl’ game against the Raiders and the Troy Brown-dominated AFC Championship game against the Steelers), the Pats found themselves in the unlikeliest of places: The Super Bowl, against the heavily favored St. Louis Rams (“The Greatest Show on Turf”). The Patriots surprised everyone, dominating most of the game. The final score was not a true barometer of the lopsided play, with the Pats winning on a last second field goal. Football’s ugly duckling reigned supreme! (much to the disgust of the powers-that-be). ‘Team’ and ‘Unity’ were the key themes in this story.
But what was almost as memorable as the game itself (perhaps more memorable for those who were not fans of the Rams or the Pats) was the half-time show. Most Super Bowl half-time shows up to that point were, for the most part, forgettable, over dramatized events.
Not this time.
With the names of the September 11 victims scrolling on a Twin Tower-like screen behind them, U2 performed ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ (this week’s Gem) with all the emotion and passion a band can bring to the stage. As the song reached its climax, the names listed on the screen collapsed in an eerie but powerful moment of flashback. The performance was intense, classy, and unifying. These 4 lads from
Ireland hit all the right notes, showing their respect, admiration and solidarity for the in 11 short minutes (which included a second song ‘Beautiful Day’). Strangely enough, an unlikely event (The Super Bowl) and an unlikely group (a band from another country), allowed us to emerge from darkness. At least that’s the way I felt. United States
There’s a great old photo of Woody Guthrie with a guitar slung over his shoulder on which are written the words: “This Machine Kills Fascists”…..that’s what U2 pulled off that day. At the very least, they made democracy a little stronger. “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a song U2 have played at virtually every one of their shows since they penned it. The song was written at the height of unrest in
Northern Ireland, and envisions a where street signs do not distinguish Catholic streets from Protestant ones. It’s a song that tries to break down prejudice-centric barriers between people. Love thy neighbor. Belfast
After the Super Bowl, Bob Kraft, the Pats owner, said to the crowd “We are all Patriots here”. One pundit rhetorically posed the question: “What if the Rams had won? Would their owner have stated ‘We are all Goats here’?”
I guess even the wonderfully warped American sense of humor started making a comeback around that time too.
The Gem Video link is of U2’s performance at the Super Bowl that year. The second url link is a ‘Thank You’ of sorts from the NY Police and Fire Departments to The Who at the Kennedy Center Honors last year (if you have not seen this, you have to wait to the end of the song to see what I mean).
Gem Video: U2: ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’
Rob Thomas (and guests) performing ‘Baba O’Riley’ at the Kennedy Center Honors last year. His performance of 'Baba O'Riley' is the fourth and last of the partial Who songs covered in tribute to The Who, all on this link (I could not find the isolated Thomas cover of 'Baba O'Riley). The 3rd tribute song was an earlier Gem.
Best Feedback: Dad
THANK GOD FOR PETER ANDRE STEEVES-PEACEMAKER !
Great write up Pete! Today we pay our respects to those that fell on 9/11. You are right, the world has changed since then.
And Pat (Steeves):
Pete - that was great. Thank you.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Gem Music Video of the Week # 87: The Strong Silent Type
Song: Bessie Smith by The Band
(Songwriter: Robbie Robertson)
September 3, 2009
What do Peter Quaife, Frank Sampedro, John Paul Jones, Robbie Krieger, John Entwistle, George Harrison, Garth Hudson, Maureen Tucker, Jaimoe Johanson, Elliot Easton, Peter Buck, Charlie Watts,
Ronnie Lane, Mickey Hart, and Bill Wyman all have in common?
Ronnie Lane, Mickey Hart, and Bill Wyman all have in common?
They are all members of famous bands who preferred to remain anonymous, in the shadows, as far from the spotlight as possible in some cases. Most of them would likely have been just as content playing in small clubs instead of large concert halls and arenas. They were/are the ‘quiet’ ones in their respective bands whose primary focus remained the music even as their bankroll and name recognition grew. Unlike their more (seemingly) talented and famous band mates, they were rarely media savvy enough to toss out a good sound bite, but when they did speak up it was usually insightful and to the point. Most important, those more famous band mates found these reserved partners invaluable to the success of their band.
I always loved looking into what made these musicians tick; just as much if not more so than the headliners. Often this was a great way to uncover some rarely known element of how the band became successful. It was also a good way to understand what motivated people who seemed less enamored by the glow of fame and fortune.
Early on in my interest in the Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman intrigued me the most. I’m not all that sure why, although I have always rooted for the underdog. It was at least partly because the Stones had 5 members, as opposed to my first band of fascination, the Beatles, and Wyman held up that 5 spot pretty solidly. In other words, it was not a major drop off like other bands where the lesser knowns are virtually invisible. Wyman made himself fit without hamming it up for the camera. He was just a solid and loyal bass player who played a strong music role on stage and in the studio.
The other quiet member of the Stones was (is) Charlie Watts. Charlie was also dignified and the band loved him for his musicianship. I never forgot reading about when the Stones were reforming for their ‘Steel Wheels’ album. The article included an interview with Keith Richards who described pulling into the Rolling Stones studios in
on the first day of sessions and hearing Charlie’s familiar drum beat inside. He sat for a while and listened. A slow smile crept across his face as he looked at himself in the rear view mirror. Keith was back in his element, which could not have been possible without Charlie. Barbados
One musician who took this ‘quiet’ role to the extreme was The Band’s old sage, Garth Hudson (he was a few years older than the other members). Hudson was content parked behind his large Lowrey Organ at the rear of the stage (often well behind Richard Manuel on keyboards) where it would be hard to spot little more than the mop of hair on his head as he waved it along in rhythm to the music he so eloquently teased out of the keys. Like all the musicians listed above, however, Hudson spoke primarily through his instrument, which in his case reflected the mood and meaning of the Band’s songs as well as whomever was singing (The Band had 3 regular lead singers: Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm and occasionally, Robbie Robertson). He was like the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain, tossing out some brains here, some heart there, and a bit of courage on top.
Of the many anecdotes that impress me about The Band (some of which were discussed for Gem # 19) one in particular was how they stuck with Dylan during his mid-60’s experimental tours when he abandoned his folk roots and went electric. It took a while for this sound to come together and where once The Band enjoyed cheering crowds, now they were hearing jeers. Levon Helm could not take it and up and left for a time. The remaining four members, however, stuck it out. Of these four the one who impressed me the most was the elder statesman, Garth Hudson. He was polished and commanded respect in his own right, so he surely had other options. It must have taken quite a bit of insight for him to perceive where it all was going.
Recently, for the first time in a while, I listened to the masterful Bob Dylan/Band double album ‘The Basement Tapes’. ‘The Basement Tapes’ was an album released in 1975, a full eight years after many of the songs on it were recorded. The original intention was never to release these songs, but because so many of them had found their way on to bootleg tapes, the decision was finally made to do something official. The cover of the album had fun with the hidden-treasure aura that the songs had taken on over the years, showing the musicians in a basement (‘Big Pink’), playing music while surrounded by circus performers. The songs themselves were stripped down: A back-to-basics sound that defied the psychedelic period during which they were recorded.
Anyhow, as I listened I recalled how the songs rolled easily from one to the next: ‘Odd’s and Ends’, ‘Orange Juice Blues’, “Katie’s Been Gone’. And then, for the first time in a while, I found myself listening to ‘Bessie Smith’, this week’s Gem. I had forgotten how much I loved this song. The story line is classic Robertson, but what makes the song truly great is Garth Hudson’s performance on the organ midway through. It ties everything together: The lyrics; the mood; and the music.
The Band and Bob Dylan rarely if ever played music from this album in subsequent tours (Jeff, is this an exaggeration?... as I have no recollection when thinking back on the Dylan or Band shows I’ve witnessed). Perhaps the songs were meant for their ears alone. Perhaps Dylan’s intent was to emulate early
Americana music….pre-recording . Regardless, the music has taken on a level of mystique, and I always feel like a fly on the wall of Big Pink when I listen. Americana
Since there are no official videos or live performances I could find for this song, I tracked down a nice still-photo piece put together by a fan, who seems to capture the essence of the song in the photography: Backcountry roads, some scenes evoking memories of
Upper State ( Woodstock) . New York
Quiet folk: Sometimes they are the ones who say the most…. without saying anything.
Gem Video of the Week: Bessie Smith
Funny clip of Bill Wyman imitating Mick Jagger
Best Feedback: Steve
Did you hear that they are re-opening the Brian Jones case.