Monday, February 13, 2012

In Honor of the Grammys

Not really, actually. It's just a coincidence that I wanted to do a music post this week. I was driving around listening to the radio the other day -- I think it was WFMU -- and heard some good stuff that surprised me, and it reminded me of some other good stuff that I had weirdly always dismissed but had just recently found myself liking. And since the Grammys are about nothing if not ignoring and dismissing good music, it seemed like a worthwhile tie-in.

So yeah, I was driving around, scanning through the preset stations on my incredibly crappy car's even crappier stereo, when this came on:

Now I had heard this song lots of times, of course. I listened to a ton of "oldies" radio as a kid, because that's what my mom always had on the car stereo. But somehow I never really registered the, I don't know, vehemence, of way this guy, Levi Stubbs, sings this. I somehow did not remember the Four Tops having this much soul.  Silly me. (There's going to be a lot of that in this post.)

Also, you don't totally get it in that live clip, but hearing the studio version through my car's speakers, I was struck by the robustness, the fatness, of the orchestration behind them. I've heard a bunch of times that a lot of Motown songs were produced in a way that basically optimized them for car stereo speakers. The consequence being that they sound perfect in a car, which is where the producers figured most people were going to hear them in those days, whereas they actually sound kind of crappy through a much more expensive high-end stereo. There must be something to this, because this song sounded great.

A short time after it was over -- maybe immediately after, which is the beauty of WFMU -- this came on:

When it first started, I didn't even recognize it as a Bob Dylan song, which is kind of something, because I'm a pretty big Bob Dylan fan. Not a going-through-his-trash kind of big fan, necessarily, but the kind of big fan who at least knows the name of the guy who went through his trash.  At the very least, I thought I knew all of his good songs.  But this, obviously, is a good song, and I didn't know it.

The thing that really gets me is that I got most of my early exposure to Dylan by playing my dad's old records when I was a kid/teenager.  And my dad definitely has this record, which I remember specifically because I played it -- once.  I must have been going through a period in which I was obsessed with a different era of Dylan, most likely the mid-60s electric rock stuff that's still my favorite. Because all I remember is that I put it on, listened to maybe one side, though more likely just a song or two, and was like, "This sucks."  And then didn't revise that opinion again for something approaching 20 years.  So, oops.  One annoying consequence of that chain of events is that I don't even have the record on vinyl -- and I've got my share of minor and kind of shitty Dylan records. (Like, I dunno, Knocked Out Loaded, the totally excellent Brownsville Girl notwithstanding.)

What I'm saying is, if anybody wants to give me a copy of New Morning, I'd take it.

A much less youthful error in judgment, I was thinking the other night, involves Fugazi. These guys have never done it for me, which has always been vaguely embarrassing, because you hate to be the wimp who doesn't like punk rock or whatever.  I'm honestly not even sure if I was adequately differentiating between them and other punk, or hardcore, or whatever they are. (Are Fugazi hardcore? God, this is making me feel lame.) I just knew they were kind of shouty and I wasn't into it. Well, long story short, I fell down a Youtube hole the other day and am, if not a hundred percent rehabilitated, then at least feeling a lot more open-minded.

I think what I had been missing, to my discredit, was the percentage of their sound that comes from reggae -- the jumpy rhythms that make them kind of danceable in ways that don't involve punching people in the face. (Not that Fugazi would condone such violence, of course.) Their danceability is on infectious display here:

I think if I could be one guy in Fugazi it'd have to be the guy who could dance like that ... even if he was also sort of responsible for emo.  I'd want to borrow Ian's guitar, though.

Last on my list of weirdly overlooked stuff is Husker Du, another band that I also got obsessed with on Youtube the other night, and that I have no real excuse for not being into before. I like the Replacements, who were from the same time and place and engaged in similar substance abuse and let it affect them similarly. And a bunch of years ago a friend gave me a burned CD of "New Day Rising," probably their best-known record. I don't know what to say; something about it just put me off.  I think it was actually Bob Mould's guitar tone. That might sound a little crazy, but if anybody's guitar tone can be polarizing, it's Bob Mould's.  And I like loud guitars, too. This just, at the time, seemed to cross too far into abrasive territory.

So, maybe I've changed or maybe I just wasn't listening very well then, but what I missed, in Husker Du's case, were the strong melodies behind all that blaring and scraping. This isn't their song, but it's too good not to link (and I went with the audio-only clip because of sound quality) :

They have lots of great songs that they wrote, too, obviously. Let's just call that homework, for all of us.

So there you have them, my lapses in taste, laid to rest at long last. Everybody's got blind spots, though, and that's what brings me to these last two clips. Both came to me, in a sense, by way of a book I read recently called Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan. It's a compilation of essays and magazine stories by a guy who writes for GQ, the Paris Review, and basically, lately, wherever the hell he wants. As a writer I'm pretty jealous of him, because he's really good.

Anyway, he's got a piece about Axl Rose that is certainly the best thing I've read about him. (It's here, though the longer unabridged version in the book is well worth seeking out.) I was talking to somebody the other day who liked the story a lot but was still unconvinced about Guns N' Roses -- he's basically Axl's age, and I gather that a contemporary, and one who was making music at the same time on top of that, probably viewed Axl differently than my goofy idol-worshipping adolescent self did. Which is fine. But a point that Sullivan makes, and one that I realize I agree with, is that, considering the era and the scene that GnR came up through, and who a lot of their contemporaries were ... they were really quite punk in a way.  I don't want to take it too far.  They were no Husker Du, or Replacements, even if Axl did later manage to steal the latter band's bassist for one of the depressing GnR cover bands he wound up touring with. But I do subscribe to the idea that they represented some transition between, say, Motley Crue and Nirvana. (Kurt Cobain would have hated that sentence, but then he was no fun anyway -- and whatever you want to say about Axl, at least he never married Courtney Love.)

Regardless, Axl in those days was just transfixing to watch. So if you just think of him at this point as a fat weird paranoid Alien-with-a-facelift-looking dude, maybe just check this out. Give it a chance, because things really start to get nuts a little past the five-minute mark:

Anyway, I think it's great, and if that doesn't convince you then probably nothing will.

I don't have much of a segue for this next one -- I've now stayed up too late dorking out about this stuff, considering that my daughter is like a malfunctioning alarm clock that goes off on time but also goes off at random other times too. But the Sullivan book also has a story about Bunny Wailer, one of the original members of the Wailers, Bob Marley's band. It, again, is really good -- maybe infuriatingly so if you write for a living. (I have a sense of how the other blues musicians felt after Robert Johnson sold his soul for guitar skills.)

Anyway, anyway.  If you're like me, you probably listened to the Bob Marley greatest-hits record, Legend, more times than was healthy during a relatively narrow period around the end of high school or beginning of college. It's basically impossible, if you've done that, to appreciate his music afresh.  I've basically ruined him for myself, as I did Jimi Hendrix, during the same period. (Somehow Dylan made it through my solitary obsessiveness unscathed, thank God.)

But then there are clips like this:

Just so much coolness.

Long story short, I'm going to really focus, and as soon as I can sing like Levi Stubbs, dance like Guy Picciotto and wear a pair of sunglasses like Peter Tosh, I shall launch a late-in-life second career and rule the world. Please join me. It'll be great.

Friday, February 3, 2012

When Can I Go Into the Supermarket and Buy What I Need With My Good Looks?

Flipping through the CB2 catalog, shaking my head in dismay that they sell designer record shelves now, I realized I also own the headphones in their display tableau.

"It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again."