Friday, January 27, 2012
Song: Worried About You
Album: Tattoo You
Released: August, 1981
Compiling this week’s Stepping Stone turned out to be an assembly line of thought in and of itself. In an attempt to bring it all together, I decided to divide these sub-stepping stones (grains of sand?) into three main sections: The Compact Disc; The Vinyl Record; and The Cassette. All refer to one album, the 1981 classic, Tattoo You.
The Compact Disc (aka: Yesterday’s Papers)
Before getting started on The Compact Disc, the fact of the matter is there could have been another section broken out here: The iPod. But this trademark term does not quite fit, and besides, it would be more in line with my brother, Pat’s story, not mine. Let me explain.
This past summer, Pat and his wife Ruth hosted one of their signature classy family gatherings (overcoming our attempt to turn it into a frat party). Near the end of the affair, as the crowd was thinning, Pat walked up to me with a box full of compact discs. A quick scan of the discs reconfirmed my long-standing observation that Pat has a very diverse taste in music (also affirmed in Pat’s choice of songs when taking the stage to perform karaoke, which as many of us know, he is very, very good at).
I thought Pat was simply going to pour through his collection with me and that we would discuss music a bit, perhaps play a disc or two. But then, in his usual generous way, Pat asked me to take whatever I wanted, seeing as for quite some time he had graduated on to the iPod and these discs were gathering dust in a dark corner of his cellar.
Now many young (and older) folks wouldn’t be caught dead with such antiquated medium these days. But me? Well, I still can’t be reached by cell phone, and at last measurement my tv remains almost as deep as it is wide, so this rummaging through yesterday’s papers was something I had no problem with (though I did exercise restraint, realizing I also had a number of rarely played orphan discs at home). And after poking through this box of misfit toys, I picked out a few which, over the ensuing weeks, would see the light of day once again.
Later that evening, heading home, the Joe Jackson and Clash discs (among others) temporarily made their way into my glove compartment. There was one disc however, Tattoo You, that did not even make it out of Pat’s driveway before being popped into the player. And, as I suspected, the fresh listening unleashed a series of fond memories and a few new insights.
My initial reflections were music related. Tattoo You is an album of dichotomy: It Rocks on side 1 and Rolls on side 2 (caution: the word “side”, as used here, is only relevant for those of us who remember vinyl). When writing the Gem Videos several years back, I discussed the album Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits (# 62: “Style and Substance”), which also has contrasting music between the 2 sides. Listening again to Tattoo You brought me back to this novel approach of organizing songs on an album.
Though I had not listened to Tatoo You in some time, there are a few songs from it that have never escaped my consciousness: Start Me Up and Waiting on a Friend (Gem # 41) are hits, and both are likely to be staples on classic rock radio for as long as these stations are around (and Start Me Up has been the opening song of Stones concerts for many-a tour). To a lesser degree, the same can be said for Little T&A and Hang Fire. The bulk of these songs are on side 1 and it was indeed refreshing to hear them all in their original context.
Yet it was the opening salvo on side 2, the roll side, which really got my mind wandering. Worried About You, this week’s Stepping Stone, opens up with the line “Sometimes I wonder why you do these things to me”: A verse (and song) that, at face value, is a straight-up love-lost song, but has also been interpreted as the early stages of a deepening rift between Jagger and Richards. In my head though, the word “Sometimes” skipped, or more accurately, was hyphenated to “S’times”. It was automatic. Every time I replayed, this skip would occur in my head. Why?
Several weeks later, after my memory kicked back in, I went to my own cellar corner….which in turn brought more thoughts back into focus.
The Vinyl Record (aka: The Needle and the Damage Done)
I never really thought much about it before, but in hindsight, it really has been great to have friends who are also musicians. Since sand-box days, I’ve had two musical savants to hang out with: Pete and Phil. Pete plays the drums, and Phil plays just about everything else. They both have done their fair share of entertaining, be it in clubs, parades, weddings, or jams in a basement. The moments I’ve been there to witness have always been uplifting.
There is at least one other perk to having musician buddies: They know their stuff when it comes to stereo equipment, be it woofers, cartridges, amplifiers, or cable lines. And though I have not taken advantage of this knowledge as often as I could have over the years, there was one key moment that comes to mind when that expertise came in very handy.
That moment started coming back to me when I pulled my old Tattoo You album out of an old Garelick Farms milk crate in my cellar several months ago. The skip drew me down, and the album brought me back; back to the moment in the winter of 1981 when I bought it. It was the one album purchase that coincided with the investment of my first (and only) high-quality stereo system.
Back in the day, a good stereo system was one of the most important pieces of property that a college student could own. It was usually the first thing in the car on the way off to school, though I was lacking in this vital dorm room cornerstone during my freshman year in North Adams. Thanks to a fair amount of savings that first summer home though (landscaping), I was soon able to do a little shopping.I made my way over to (I believe) Tweeter etc. in Framingham one day during winter break to buy a stereo system. But I was not going anywhere without enlisting Pete’s assistance. The most important piece of equipment, in my mind, was the turntable. On the way over, Pete instructed me on the differences between a direct-drive turntable and a belt-drive turntable, emphasizing that the direct-drive was more durable and, though a bit more expensive, definitely a better deal.
When we arrived at the stereo store, we were approached by a familiar face. The sales clerk was a fellow Franklin High School student who had graduated several years ahead of us. It became apparent to us pretty quickly, however, that he was not looking out for my better interests: He was looking to sell me the belt-drive turntable, and was making a darn good pitch. Without Pete there, I could easily have had the wool pulled over my eyes. The exchange went something like this:
Pete: “Can you show us the direct-drive turntables?”
Fellow FHS graduate looking to scam me: “you don’t want that. Let’s show you this one”
Pete: “We want to look at the direct drive turntables”
Fellow FHS graduate looking to scam me: “this one over here is our best seller”
Pete: “The direct drive”
Fellow FHS graduate looking to scam me: “Did you know that belt drives ….”
Pete: “Direct drive”
On it went. Now, one of Pete’s greatest traits is that he’s always been able to call someone’s bluff. Over the next 10 minutes, this clerk tried all the tricks of the trade: He would have put a used car salesman to shame. Pete was buying none of it.
We walked out of there with a great deal.
That turntable was one of the best purchases I ever made. It was likely my own fault that my Tattoo You album skipped at the beginning Worried About You. The slip of a needle out of your hand and down onto vinyl after the ease bar has been lowered, and the damage is done. And yet, those skips on those albums had an endearing quality as well: The skips personalized them. And years later one of those skips would stir up a memory of a good friend, Pete, going to bat for me.
Looking at the album more: The image-doctored tattooed faces of Jagger (front) and Richards (back) reminded me of another album from the same year: Face Dances by the Who, which also showcased image-doctored faces of band members. What was with that? (By the way, has anyone ever seen the tattooed images of Watts, Wyman and Woods, which were not included with the album? I remembered these images, and tried tracking them on Google to no avail). It was nice to recall all of this, yet, there was something else stirring, something deeper. I couldn’t quite grab it.
Then it hit me earlier this week. How could I forget?
The Cassette (aka: Magical Mystery Tour)
Start Me Up, the hit song off Tattoo You, starts with a bang. Three chords. Most of us know them by heart. One week-long stretch I would hear that 3 chord sequence over and over again.
This section of the story is also founded on a generous spirit: My good friend Bob, who invited Nancy, Mac and I, along with a number of other good friends, to his wedding in Holland in 1990. Bob’s generosity spilled over that week, and was personified in a rental van he had secured for us.
Along with the main event, Nancy and I had gotten engaged at the beginning of that week, so there was much rejoicing with everyone. Celebration was in the air, and a lot of it was done in that packed van. Paris. Brussels. Breda. Kinderdijk. Amsterdam. A magical mystery tour that packed a year’s worth of good times into a very short, intense period of time.
Speaking of packed, packing for this trip was a challenge. There would be weeks more of touring Europe for Nancy and I after the wedding. We had to pack tight, and we put all of our stuff in two backpacks. I had little room for accessories (including the ring), but I did have a side compartment with just enough room to slip in a cassette. With probably very little thought, I squeezed in Tattoo You (likely the only tape in my car while packing) and pretty much forgot about it for the next few days as we made our way to Paris.
Does anyone remember the hilarious What is Love skits on SNL with Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan? ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0vM0VnpR_w ). This is what comes to mind when I think of the music scene in Paris in the early 90’s. It was tough to swallow for die-hard rockers like myself and Mac. Bob, who lived there at the time (still does), had a local friend, Victor, who joined us on the magical mystery tour that week. Victor was an American expatriate who had fully immersed himself in the Paris music scene. This alone was not the problem. The biggest issue was that Victor had a briefcase full of these tapes. For several days we were stuck listening to that crap on our journey from one side of the city to the other.
This could, and would not go on much longer.
I took over the wheel on our journey east. The radio had little to offer, but Mac and I were intent on eliminating the offense. We put up with the radio, trying to find anything that had a remote pulse to it. Victor protested, but we were slowly gaining the upper hand. Then I remembered the tape.
Tattoo You was played repeatedly from that moment on. It got to be very funny. Victor would protest and hand us a tape. We would pretend to put it in, but instead reinsert Tattoo You. We would turn it way up as the three first chords of Start Me Up kicked in. We did this over and over again. The strange thing about it is that it never got old. I think I speak for everyone who was in that van when I say this. Even Victor was sold after a while. This album grew on us. It became the theme music of the week. After a while, no other music existed.
Worried About You is a fantastic song. It was the only song that existed for me this week as I prepared this write up. The Rolling Stones make a total goof of it in their official video release (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MMgPbt9jhw), but even this can’t erase the quality of this song. The Stones were indeed hitting a stretch of internal strife at this time, one that would carry on through the 80’s and beyond. At this stage, though, the growing rift had little effect. Mick Jagger is at his studio best. He switches back and forth from falsetto to something entirely heavier as the song progresses.
One other thing I picked up on was how Jagger’s vocals seem to emerge right out of the guitar at the end of the guitar break (which was played, by the way, by session man Wayne Perkins). In fact, it sounds like the vocals are part of the guitar break, close to the end, just faded way in the back ground. Is it just my imagination or can you hear them on occasion if you turn the music way up? They finally escape out at the end (“Yeah, I’m a hard working man. When did I ever do wrong”)
Another great part is the jaunty bass guitar as the song hits the home stretch.
In closing a big thanks to Pat, Pete and Bob. These are all giving stories. What better way to connect the dots?
I’ve got blisters on my fingers.
Until next week.
Friday, January 20, 2012
Song: Rocks Off
Album: Exile on Maine Street
Released: May, 1972
Spotlight on: Bill Wyman
As was the case for many who grew up in the 70’s, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was required reading for me in middle school. The story of Ponyboy, his brothers, and the rest of a gang of “greasers” caught my imagination. On reflection, some of my interest was a bit hard to decipher. For example, the similarity in the naming of two of the main characters, Dally and Darry, was clever to me, which I now believe had the effect of the storyline seeming more real. I was also interested in the age range of the gang and how the oldest, toughest guy (Dally) was strongly (and ultimately tragically) affected by the youngest and most fragile (Johnny).
Of most interest to me, however, was the variety in the gang’s personalities: It seemed like every character trait I could think of was personified by one or another. And each of these characters brought something powerful to the collective whole. I eventually gained firsthand knowledge of this experience in the three motley crews of which I have since been a part of in Franklin, Ottawa, and North Adams (the short-lived “TH#1” crowd that I discussed several years ago in my Gem Videos).
Group dynamics is also a reason why I’ve read a number of books about bands. I find it fascinating how, not just skills, but personalities, can shape music. As with The Outsiders, when I first read a book about the Stones back in high school, I was intrigued by the range of personalities. If the band was just Mick Jagger types or Keith Richards types, I would not have picked up the book in the first place. The reason: The Stones would never have been as good as they turned out to be. Other personalities were needed to produce such a depth and breadth of music. When you add it all up, the Stones have had this range of personalities in spades.
Thinking back on my earliest reading on the Stones I recall there was one band member, Bill Wyman, who was seldom mentioned. He was on all the album covers as an equal member, and in all the group photos, but there was ne’er any information about him. Oh, there was the occasional off-handed remark or anecdote, but unlike the others, nothing sustained. This only got me more interested in what Wyman brought to the table, and in hindsight, I believe this may have been what first got me interested in listening closer to the bass guitar. The forgotten man and his forgotten instrument were not going to pass me by without further investigation.
Wyman’s role has since been better documented, but not much. Bill Wyman was a quiet, passive, and to some degree indifferent presence in the Stones circles. Yet, these traits have over time, been found to be a defining factor in the band’s success. Passivity can have a powerful effect on others. It pushes them to impress even more.
Bill Wyman is more of what you would call your traditional backbeat style bass player than, say, John Entwistle (then again, compared to the Ox, everyone is traditional). But he does have his standout moments. One that comes to mind is the “vrooming” bass lines at the end of Paint it Black. Also, the rolling-down-a-hill bass lines at the end of 19th Nervous Breakdown. Yet another is this week’s Stepping Stone: Rocks Off.
Rocks Off opens the Rolling Stones greatest album with a bang. My favorite parts of the song are the horn/bass refrains which happen ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lNP-x94-SE ) first at the 1:14 (horns) and 1:24 (bass) marks; then again at the 1:58 (horns) and 2:08 (bass) marks; and finally the lengthy refrain to close the song. I always pictured this as a great conga line opportunity for the Stones on stage (Jagger and guitars in front; horns in the middle; and Wyman and his bass guitar bringing up the rear as the refrain closes with those 7 bass notes). Open confession: I’ve often performed air bass guitar in this imaginary conga line while cranking this tune on the stereo.
Other great features of Rocks Off include:
Ø The opening lyrics where the protagonist switches from first to second person as he tries to interpret what others on the streets think of him (“What’s the matter with the boy”)
Ø The echo-chamber bridge (“Feel so hypnotized. Can’t describe the scene”)
Ø The anticipation the band creates at the end of the bridge just before the line “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me” (2:34)
Ø The inaudible background lyrics throughout
Ø The great line “Kick me like you kicked before. I can’t even feel the pain no more”.
In closing on this Bill Wyman appreciation, here is a great video of Bill being Mick (Jagger):
Friday, January 13, 2012
Song: It’s Only Rock’n’Roll (But I Like It)
Album: It’s Only Rock’n’Roll
Released: October, 1974
1. a feeling or consciousness of one's powers or of reliance on one's circumstances
2. the quality or state of being certain: “They had every confidence of success”
A long-time USGS colleague of mine, Paul, is the son of a preacher man. And for the most part he’s done his pulpit Pappy proud: Faith focused; a Ph.D. in groundwater hydrology; very hard worker; lovely family; conscientious; author of countless scientific publications. Simply put he’s one of the good guys. Yes, there's plenty of merit there.
Yet there is one thing the good reverend likely struggles to connect to his son’s many qualities: Paul is a big time Rolling Stones fan.
Paul and I talk often about the Stones, trying to keep abreast on the latest news around the band by tapping into one another’s sources. Most recently for example, we’ve pontificated on Keith Richards’ 2010 book, “Life”, and the fallout from Keith’s unbridled and harsh critique of several others in the Stones inner circle.
Inevitably, though, the conversation will sway to the band’s past, including Paul’s favorite Stones topic: The 1970 live album “Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!”. It’s clear he believes this to be the Stones at their boisterous best. The album is loaded with the atmosphere around the band at that time, which plays out in a number of ways including; song selection; the live interpretation of such; and crowd participation (“paint it black you devils”). If there’s a take-home message, it’s that you are listening to an event that does not lack in confidence.
Confidence is one thing this lot (The Stones and their fans) has never been short of. Now, as Paul’s Dad could likely attest in sermon, confidence is not necessarily a virtuous trait. I mean, you can be absolutely confident about something and at the same time be absolutely wrong. Then again, you can be absolutely right….or somewhere in between. Regardless, confidence is all encompassing at a Stones show. Who needs toastmasters and self-esteem seminars when the Rolling Stones role through town every 3 or 4 years.
The Stones have released a plethora of studio songs throughout their history that over brim with a sense of confidence. For me the top of that list would have to be It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It). Why do I find this song to be so confident? Much of it has to do with what grabbed me in the first place: The coda. Rock musicians typically struggle to close a song and so often settle on just getting out alive. The Stones go the opposite route here: They do it in style.
There are 2 riffs introduced during the home stretch of It’s Only Rock’n’Roll and the attached video ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOMTnLHDWRA ) bears this out if you want to follow along with my time stamps. The first new riff comes in at the 4:04 mark. The second at the 4:26 mark. The Stones flirt with both of these riffs earlier in the song, but each only becomes fluid at these 2 junctures near the end. Either of these riffs could have been saved for some other song on some future album. This is where confidence (bordering on hubris?) comes to play: Few bands would let so much go in such seemingly willing fashion at such an inconsequential stage of a song. Impressive.
There are other great moments in this song as well, most of which come into play beyond the half way point, including:
Ø The backing vocals “Yes I do” at several points, with an (as I interpret) exaggerated Cockney accent on the “do”.
Ø The short guitar lick before the bridge, just after “I said, can’t you see that this old boy has been a lonely” (2:24). Great bands introduce a bridge with mood shifting guitar notes.
Ø The 3 minute mark starts off a series of an all-ensemble “I know, it’s only rock and roll but I like it”. The 2nd chant is followed by a “Woooo”. This may be David Bowie (who was one of the many Brits to sing along here). The 3rd chant is followed by Jagger’s “oooh yeah”. Both utterances would be heard by the Stones from fans at their shows for many years to come during this section of the song: A bit of spontaneity paving the path for future good times.
Ø Mick Jagger exhaling “I like it” a series of times starting at 3:29. I can’t recall anyone else ever singing like this. Then, a slow re-intro of the guitar at Jagger’s 5th repeat of “I like it” followed by a slow build up of the backing vocals (“only rock’n’roll but I”) starting at the 6th repeat.
What a fun song. Lot of swagger (Jagger swagger?).
Finally, though the video link above should be used to follow along with the time stamps (it’s the official studio version), there was a one-off video that came out just after the release of It’s Only Rock’n’Roll (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wC5dL-mOok ). This video is also a testament to the confidence of the Rolling Stones: Like many of their videos, they have no problem spoofing on themselves here (and getting a kick out of it in the process). The Stones also get a big kick out of watching Charlie disappear under a mound of soap suds.
Friday, January 6, 2012
Song: Street Fighting Man
Album: Beggars Banquet
Released: December, 1968
Osmosis: This is the best word I can come up with to describe the way Rolling Stones music has permeated my playlist over the years. It’s is a bit different from my experience with other musicians. There's been no defining moment with the Stones. Nope. No master stroke by the Glimmer Twins for me. It's been mostly a gradual progression, a series of Stepping Stones, which may make it all rather interesting to write about.
Since I don't expect the thoughts to come in chronological order, though, I will likely be bouncing around quite a bit from week to week.
So, here’s a Stepping Stone somewhere along the path…..
I recall a weekend off-campus party my sophomore year up in North Adams, Massachusetts back in the winter of 1982. The rental options off campus left much to be desired, and this place was no exception: Dark, dingy rooms with crumbling drywall exposing wire and planks. But what did I care? A full house, a keg in the corner and fantastic music blasting on the powerful stereo system: What more could you ask for on a Saturday nite?
One of the hosts of the party, a guy named Craig, was a wealth of knowledge when it came to music. Over the prior year or so that I knew him, he had made several album suggestions to me that already had lasting impact (even to this day).
There were a number of intriguing posters on the living room wall, mostly of musicians and bands, but one poster stood out. It was a graphic art poster which showcased five figures huddled around a cliff-edge campfire on a moonlit nite. In terms of a time period, it had a Neanderthal look to it. I made a comment to Craig about the poster. He suggested I take a closer look at the faces of those five figures.
It took a few moments, but the reality finally hit me. This was an exceptional poster depicting the Rolling Stones: Keith, Mick, Bill, Charlie and Ronnie, in another time.
I’ve never seen that poster before or since, so why has it stayed with me? I think it’s because when the Stones are at their best, they sound primitive. The poster made that connection.
Of all the primitive sounding music the Stones have made over the years, they really only put it all together once from beginning to end: That would be their 7th studio album, Beggars Banquet.
Beggars Banquet was released at a very tumultuous time in the history of western culture. Paris, Chicago, Baltimore and other cities were all burning and rioting in the summer of 1968, and the Stones were not immune from the chaos. In fact, one may argue they were reluctant players near the core of it all. Note Altamont just one year later.
Perhaps with all this action/reaction in the streets, it was fitting then that the Stones relied on basic primal instinct in the studio. Despite the simplicity, however, the album proved to be a breakthrough for them in terms of consistent quality: Over the next 5 years the band would release, arguably their best music. And it all started with Beggars Banquet.
Street Fighting Man is a very nice sample of the Stones sound during this period (http://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=qUO8ScYVeDo) and it’s the signature time-period piece on the Beggars Banquet album. The Stones have always been defined as an apolitical band, yet, as I hear it, the key phrase “what can a poor boy do, except to sing for a rock and roll band” is an anti-violence statement. In a more subjugated society, violence may be unavoidable, but the Stones seem to be saying that in “sleepy London town” or any other modern society, there is no place for it. Hear hear.
What I like most about this song are the moments where the air seems to get sucked out of the room. The best of these moments comes at the 1 min 47 seconds point in the song (the time can be tracked in the YouTube video link above), just after Mick demands “get down”. This is where I picture that campfire scene best.
I also love the variety of instruments used in the song, including the sitar (Brian Jones), tamboura (also Brian Jones) and shehani (session man Dave Mason). It’s all acoustic. The only thing that sounds remotely electric in the entire song is the bass guitar.
Finally, there’s a great line in the song that captures the imagination:
“Hey! said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I'll kill the king, I'll rail at all his servants”
A flashback perhaps to medieval times when violence may have been much less avoidable? Not bad boys. Not bad at all.
All this talk of caveman posters and early music would not be complete without the attached scene from Ringo Starr’s infamous movie “Caveman”, which hypothesizes how cavemen discovered music. It’s hilarious, and the best part is near the end, and how they get an older caveman to blurt out a few primal screams (Mick Jagger style): http://www.youtube.com/watch?
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Happy New Years everyone. This is my new Blog site. Four years ago I launched what turned out to be a 100 week "Gem Video" series via email, showcasing a song a week and (with varying degrees of succes) tracking a video that would do it honors. Accompanying the music video were personal insights and memories, stewed together earlier that week as I honed my talking points while thinking about the upcoming "Gem".Since the series ended two years ago, I've occasionally been poked and prodded by a number of you to start it up again. After much thought, I've concluded that though I can't repeat the Gem concept verbatim, I may have an idea on how to follow up.The Gem Video series covered a broad range of musicians. This time around I could zero in on the ones I know best, possibly allowing me to get a bit deeper into the songs. The sacrifice will likely be the videos, as I plan on digging deep into the catalogs of these musicians so it is unlikely there will be a video for everything. It's amazing what's out there, though, even if it's just some still-shot video a fan may have put together.There are a handful of bands/musicians whom I believe I am well versed in, including The Who, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Kinks and a few others. The idea would be to remain focused on one band/musician for an extended period of time (a year?) and flesh out as much as I can in the process, while trying to recall what had me enjoy the band/album/song in the first place. It's mostly a process of rediscovery, but I do hope to make a few new discoveries as well.But who could I start out with? I think this part falls together pretty nicely, as the Rolling Stones (and I) celebrate 50 years in 2012. Starting off with the Rolling Stones is a bit risky. While most musicians I follow have a clear intellectual and moral compass, the Stones are much more visceral. I hope to bring some of this visceral element to light. My goal is not to glorify the Stones but to simply try and recognize how brilliantly bands can gel and how a collective whole can be head and shoulders beyond the sum of its parts. Scorsese gave it a try. Now it's my turn.I can't guarantee this series will be weekly, but I will give it a go. If reviewing the Stones over the course of the year does not leave me torn and frayed, I'll move on to othersExpect the first installment later this week.