Category Archives: Music — 1990s

The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 8: Sell Outs and Rave Ups

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

This is the final entry in the Spotify Chronicles…and it’s a long one — it even has an “epilogue” — but I think it’s interesting enough to justify it’s length. 

If you were listening to BBC Radio in, say, 1964, you’d never know there was a musical revolution underway. The staid, stuffy British Broadcasting Corporation offered listeners what they high-handedly judged was “good for them” (rather than what they may have “wanted.”) A slate of news, educational programs, children’s shows, classical music, and “light entertainment.” Pop music was considered the latter, and had to share the category with comedy programs, quiz shows, and variety shows. So, pop music got about six hours a week, and pop music records got still fewer (Musicians’ Union rules strictly limited “needle time” on broadcast radio). Many performers were invited to play “live in studio” (resulting in a glut of CD-era “Live At The BBC” collections put out by every major British band from back in the day). Everything was presented by very proper announcers reading from carefully prepared scripts — commercial-free. It was government-owned and funded by listeners paying a small annual licensing fee.

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Some entrepreneurial types decided to meet market demand by pumping out a steady diet of pop, rock, and soul records from ships moored in international waters, just over three miles off the British coast. These “pirate radio” stations lifted the entire format of American Top 40 radio — hip, freewheeling DJs, loud jingles, brash promos, and actual commercials (!) The signals weren’t always perfect (although on a good night they could reach over 12 million British listeners), and the rocking waves sometimes caused the records to skip, but pirate radio stations like Radio London and Radio Caroline exposed the Brits to all the latest American acts, and gave an important boost to up-and-coming British groups like the Yardbirds and the Who.

The British government passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, effectively shutting down the pirates. Luckily, the BBC had seen the light and re-organized their radio division, launching Radio 1 as an all-popular music format…and hiring many of the old pirate DJs. It wasn’t quite the same, though. The frisson and excitement associated with the pirates’ rebellious flaunting of authority was missing. 

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Which brings me to the Who. In 1967, after a few years of being a reliable singles act in Britain, the Who was finally gaining an American audience, after noteworthy performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in June and a literally explosive appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September. At a transitional time when albums were starting to eclipse singles as the preferred form of rock expression, the band went back into the studio that autumn to complete their third LP (begun in piecemeal fashion through that spring and summer), knowing it would have to outclass their first two if they were to continue their climb to the top. These recording sessions coincided with the snuffing out of the pirate radio stations. The Who decided to make an album in their honor to thank them for all they had done (the Who were favorites of the pirate DJs, and got played a lot).

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Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967

The result was my all-time favorite album by the Who — The Who Sell Out, released in the waning days of 1967, and a pop-art masterpiece. The album’s concept was that it would replicate a pirate radio station broadcast — right down to the jingles, promos, and commercials. (The initial intention was to actually sell advertising space between songs.) 

The material that chief songwriter Pete Townshend came up with for this set is melancholy and yearning, eschewing the band’s usual heavy sound. Drummer Keith Moon’s typical wild-man flailing is kept on a short leash. The love songs “I Can’t Reach You” and “Our Love Was” have moments of ethereal beauty, and showcase the Who’s underrated harmony-singing skills. The delicate “Sunrise” is just Towshend and a 12-string acoustic. In fact, Townshend’s thin, fragile voice gets more leading roles on Sell Out than any other Who album. Even when usual lead vocalist Roger Daltrey appears with his more powerful “rock” voice, he’s alternating or singing in unison with Townshend, as on the organ-driven “Relax” and the irresistibly melodic duet “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” about a girl with a certain skill that raises more than just eyebrows. Two songs, “Tattoo” and “Odorono,” are perfectly conceived little short stories, with dramatic arcs and sympathetic characters. “Tattoo” is a coming-of-age tale about two teen brothers getting their first ink, and “Odorono” is, well…read on.

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The iconic Sell Out album cover. No one bothered to warm up the refrigerated beans — Roger Daltrey came down with pneumonia

Bassist John Entwistle contributes another macabre fantasy character vignette, “Silas Stingy” (similar to his earlier “Boris the Spider” and “Whiskey Man”). The album closes with “Rael,” a sketchy condensement of a much longer “rock opera” about a dystopian conflict between the Communist Chinese and Israel in the distant future of 1999. The long-form rock narrative/musical story format was something Towshend had been tinkering with since the nine-minute “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” on their previous album. (As for the under-six minute “Rael,” Townshend lamented “No one will ever know what it means, it’s been squeezed up too tightly to make sense.”) Some musical themes from “Rael” would be recycled for their next album, Tommy (1969), where the rock opera concept achieved its full fruition.

There are two exceptions to the overall gentleness displayed on Sell Out. The opening track “Armenia City in the Sky,” was written by Townshend protege Speedy Keen (later of cult favorite Thunderclap Newman) and performed by the Who as a trippy, dissonant, thumping wall of sound and echoes. Then there’s the album’s centerpiece, “I Can See For Miles,” in which all the trademark moves of the Who — full-cry volume, Daltery’s menacing snarl, Entwistle’s bass guitar rumblings, Towshend’s windmill guitar-thrashing, and Moon’s cataclysmic, cannon-fire drumming — are on conspicuous display in a proto-metal howl of betrayal and recrimination. (Townshend’s bragging in an interview that “I Can See For Miles” was the “loudest, rawest, dirtiest” song ever recorded goaded Paul McCartney into writing “Helter Skelter.” Check and mate.)

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Interspersed between these songs are all the trappings of a pirate radio broadcast. The promos and jingles are the real deal, from actual Radio London broadcasts. When the idea of selling commercial space on the album quickly fell through, the Who concocted and performed original ads. They vary in length and style. Some are fragments lasting a few seconds (including spots for Rotosound guitar strings, the Charles Atlas workout program, and the Who’s favorite after-hours hangout, the Speakeasy Club). Some, such as “Heinz Baked Beans” and “Medac” (promoting a pimple cream) are catchy, minute-long novelty songs. And one was a full-length, heartbreaking tale of ambition and rejection, set to one of Towenshend’s most beautiful, lilting melodies…all to advertise the underarm deodorant, Odorono.

The Who Sell Out is often regarded as one of the first “concept” albums. But for whatever reason, the Who opted to only use the “pirate radio broadcast” concept through the first half of the album. Side two, with the exception of Entwistle’s “Medac” song/commercial, has no ads or jingles. This was rectified with an excellent 1995 CD reissue where the idea was finally carried through to the end of the album by adding some more Radio London jingles, repeating some slight variations of side one ads, using some outtake ads the Who recorded but didn’t use for the album, and digging up some radio ads they recorded earlier that year intended for actual broadcast. When I speak of Sell Out as my favorite Who album, it’s really this CD reissue I’m thinking of, where the concept runs to the finish.

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The Yardbirds fascinated me as soon as I heard of them. Here was a band that provided a launching pad for three of the greatest British guitarists ever — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. They weren’t in the band all at the same time, of course. The universe couldn’t handle that degree of awesomeness without tearing itself asunder. (Beck and Page did overlap for a few brief months.) Clapton left early, and Page came late, leaving Beck in the lead guitarist slot through most of what could be considered the Yardbirds’ “classic” period.

R-4237397-1447215065-2562.jpegThe Yardbirds discography was a mess for a long time, their relatively small output licensed over and over again for a parade of cheap reissues. My first Yardbirds CD was one of these “budget label” compilations. Part of Pair Records’ “Best of British Rock” series, the cover had a photo of the Beck-era band, with Clapton very clumsily pasted into the image so it looked like he and Beck were in the band together. Nowadays, the band’s digital-era discography has been squared away considerably. All of their pre-“Roger the Engineer” (see below) output can fit easily on two discs.

If there’s a downside to listening to the Yardbirds, it’s that every pre-“Roger” Yardbirds recording currently available is of dubious audio quality. It’s partly due to lack of access to the original masters, as a variety of companies have claims over various recordings, and it’s said that EMI is still refusing to turn over certain master tapes to compilers due to an unpaid studio bill from 1965 (that may be nothing more than an “urban rock legend” at this point). And it’s partly (maybe mostly) due to the recordings being made in a hurry and on the cheap in the first place.

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 7: The King, Queen, and a Prince

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020.

Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.

As I add my little autobiographical notes, try not to get chronological whiplash as I wildly veer back and forth between modern-day, my college years, my middle school years, and pre-school…

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were the best American band of the last four decades. Fight me.

Notice I didn’t say “greatest.” They had no interest creating moments of “sweeping grandeur” or delivering Major Statements. I didn’t say “innovative,” either. Several bands can probably top them on that. No, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers simply settled for being the best, especially when you consider the length of their career. (Yes, best vs. greatest is a distinction I make in my own mind, but I think you know what I mean.)

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They were always getting left out of the conversation because they made it look too easy. Whenever there would be debates about “best bands,” and people would be throwing around their R.E.M.s and Radioheads, it would always be up to me to say, “What about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers?” There was always a short pause, then a lot of nodding and people murmuring “ohhh, yeah…” They were never #1 on anyone’s list, and often forgotten about…but no one could deny the goods they brought to the table, year in and year out.

Petty’s first two albums without the Heartbreakers — Full Moon Fever (1989) and Wildflowers (1994) also generated tons of favorites. In fact, the casual listener might be more familiar with Petty’s solo work than his Heartbreakers stuff. “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and several other radio staples all came from his solo work. Wildflowers is probably one of my top ten albums of all time (I haven’t ranked them in quite awhile), and Petty was working on an expanded, deluxe, remastered re-issue at the time of his death. (It finally came out on October 16th of this year.)

I’m convinced any doubters would be turned into Petty fans if they took the time to sit through Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream, perhaps the greatest (now I will say “greatest”) rock documentary ever if you have anything approaching an attention span. Behind his laidback demeanor and crooked grin, Petty ran the Heartbreaks like a benevolent dictator, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Always collaborative, always respectful…but undoubtedly always in charge. He had a steely resolve and a stubborn streak, but was one of the most principled and generous people in the rock & roll pantheon. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell was the “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers — underrated and overlooked, never getting his due as one of the best guitarists of the modern era. Keyboardist Benmont Tench was valued for his keen wit, his unerring taste, and reliable bullshit detector, not to mention his formidable, classically-trained musicianship. 

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To my (incredibly over-biased) ears, even their lowest moments never dipped too far below their high bar. Yes, the loose concept album The Last DJ (2002) didn’t really coalesce all that well, Mojo (2010) suffered from bloat, and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987) — the lowest of their not-that-low — sounded exhausted even in its title…but that’s about it. Three clunkers in forty years. I’ll take it. (OK, four clunkers — Petty’s third and final solo album, 2006’s Highway Companion, didn’t quite do it for me.)

Anyway, Tom Petty is really the founder of our little feast here. His death in October of 2017 spurred me to sign up to Spotify and begin laboring over my in-tribute playlist. He is one of the few artists to earn “100 song” status, and it’s still the playlist I’m proudest of — the perfect blend of major hits, deep album cuts, live tracks, obscurities, and side-project stuff. 

huge_avatarAs much as I hate the trite term, seeing Tom Petty in concert was on my “bucket list.” I somehow kept missing him. I’d seen the Stones (twice). I’d seen Dylan (twice). I’d seen the Who (still with Entwistle). I’d seen McCartney. Petty was the only empty spot on my trophy shelf. The closest I came was when the woman I was dating in 2006 got us tickets, but we broke up before the concert. She ended up going with her ex-husband. So it goes.

For his 40th Anniversary Tour, I was gifted tickets by my wife Shannon’s family as an early birthday present. Just in time, too. Petty had been hinting this would be the last time he toured on this scale. The show was going to be at Sacramento’s brand-new Golden 1 Center, and was scheduled for August 25, 2017 — then was cancelled at the literal last minute. My in-laws were already on their way up from the Bay Area to join us when we got the alert on our phone — “As Tom Petty heals from laryngitis and bronchitis, he has been advised to take additional days off before performing.” My in-laws had to settle for dinner and a movie.

The show was re-scheduled for September 1. The in-laws made the trek east into the Sacramento Valley once more. This time, they were plunged into a pit of hellfire. I was afraid the respiratory-challenged Petty would cancel again — the air was soupy and almost unbreathable. Raging wildfires are now a seasonal event here in California, and we had a lively one going up in Butte County not too far away. The temperature hovered around 100 as the sun set, visible as a fiercely-glowing coal on the western horizon through layers of gray ash. Several people milling around the exterior of the Golden 1 Arena were actually wearing masks — an unusual and almost comical sight…at the time.

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The Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

Settling into my arena seat with a beer in hand, the conditions outside were forgotten. The opening act was a group of young Petty proteges from L.A., the Shelters. The sound was horrendous, but those kids were clearly having a blast being a rock & roll band, leaping around the stage and striking poses for the still-filling arena. 

Once they wrapped up and cleared the stage, it wasn’t more than a few minutes before the house lights dimmed. (That’s what I love about attending concerts with an audience that skews, shall we say, older. They always start on time, because everyone wants to be in bed by ten-thirty.) Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone came out to huge applause. He settled himself onto the drum stool, and gave his bass drum a few tentative kicks. I could feel the reverberation in my breastbone. Oh, this was going to be loud. The the rest of the Heartbreakers wandered onto the stage, putting down water bottles and picking up instruments. Then, in an instant, the house lights dropped altogether, the stage was awash in green and blue lights, and the Man Himself was before us — heavily bearded and in shades, blasting out the opening chords to “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from their 1976 debut album.

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Onstage at the Golden 1 — September 1, 2017

It was definitely a “greatest hits” type set, and fully half the songs were from his solo albums, a testament to their overall popularity. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” closed with an appropriately psychedelic extended freak-out, and Mojo’s “I Should Have Known It” pulsed with new life, re-interpreted as a Clapton-style blues guitar showcase for Mike Campbell. The sound was still a little muddy (basketball arenas are not concert halls), but the power and authority of the performance was towering. I emerged into the dark, smoky air deliriously happy, the encore “American Girl” still ringing in my ears. I looked forward to seeing Petty again someday in what he said would be his new concert incarnation — smaller, more intimate venues, stripped-down, Deep Cuts.

Petty played four more shows after Sacramento — the KAABOO Festival in Del Mar, then three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Then he died on October 2, 2017 from a cardiac arrest triggered by an overdose of pain medication. The night I saw him, he was likely in agony the whole time from a fractured hip, but soldiered on and played a great show. He kept quiet about the hip injury in order to finish the tour and keep his band and his road crew employed.

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(Pointless aside — according to my research, it is more stylistically correct to keep the article “the” before a band name lowercase unless it starts the sentence. It’s “the Beatles,” not “The Beatles,” despite what 9 out of 10 websites and even many professional writers go with. So I’ve been sticking to that rule. Unless the band name follows an ampersand. I don’t care what’s stylistically correct, “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers” just looks wrong to my tiny mind. It’ll be “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” here.)

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 6: Radiohead Revisited (A Reassessment in Nine Movements)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

A patched-together overview of some of my Spotify artists’ playlists in roughly alphabetical order…

It was some time around the tail-end of the holidays, 1995. We (that is myself, WH, and our mutual friend Allen) were on one of our many record shopping excursions in Sacramento. Our route always began out in suburbia with Tower Records on Watt Avenue, then we worked our way into the city center by way of The Beat on J Street, and we usually ended up on K Street in the heart of downtown. Like many hearts of many downtowns, Sacramento’s K Street has faced the usual challenges of street crime and homelessness. It may have been at its lowest point on that cold, gray day as ‘95 changed over to ‘96. Someone in an army overcoat was loudly telling sinners to repent on the corner of 7th and K, and the scent of fortified wine and urine was in the air as we walked by huddled, sleeping figures, and slipped through the seedy doorway of 708 K Street. A former saloon, the address still boasted a flophouse hotel on its upper floors.

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The old K Street Records building as it appeared in 2011. It now has a new facade as part of the K Street renovation project.

But its ground floor was home to K Street Records, one of the most gloriously disorganized and haphazard retail establishments I have ever had the pleasure to peruse. Stacks of vinyl lined the walls with no rhyme or reason, and even the supposedly alphabetized bins of CDs were a crapshoot. To make up for it, a very friendly mottle-coated cat offered an almost deafening purr in exchange for an ear-scratch, which may have been the best deal in the place. Nick Cave was playing on the store’s sound system that day.

Even more stock was available down in the basement, but I don’t recall ever going down there. It may have been closed to the public entirely at that point. Local legend states the basement of K Street Records was haunted by the spirit of a lady (“Gertrude,” I’m told) in a Victorian dress who could be a tad hostile. The establishment is also semi-famous for being on the cover of DJ Shadow’s breakthrough sample-fest Endtroducing…, a photograph taken not long after this day’s visit. One has to assume a lot of the vintage vinyl that comprised the Davis native’s debut album came from K Street. 

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DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… album cover, 1996

We didn’t find anything at K Street Records, so we moved on down the block to another Tower Records. The K Street Tower Records was the venerable chain’s third Sacramento location (after the Watt Avenue and Broadway stores, both dating from the ‘60s), which opened in 1973. The entryway was decorated with a massive, funky, very ‘73 mural.

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Former entrance to the K Street Tower Records, c. 2011, where the Holy Bee was drafted into the Britpop Wars back in ’95. The foyer floor still believes it’s the 1950s and “Burt’s Shoes” is the proper occupant.

We weren’t there long before WH waved me over. “Come here.”

I did so.

“Hold out your hand.”

I did so.

He dropped two brand-new, shrink-wrapped CDs into my open palm.

“Buy these today. Thank me tomorrow.”

That’s how I came to buy Oasis’ 1994 debut Definitely Maybe and their new release (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. And WH was right. I had no regrets. Oasis rocketed to the top of My Favorite Bands list before Definitely Maybe was halfway over. (My other purchase from that day, Southern Culture on the Skids’ Dirt Track Date, ended up getting sold off within a few months.)

Oasis’ formula was simple: Build a song solely around its best parts — the big riff and the catchy chorus — and repeat them as loud as you can. It’s really not much different from AC/DC’s approach, but Oasis added just a splash of Beatles/Kinks melodicism. I derived immeasurable joy out of those first two Oasis albums. My white Dodge Colt (with the black left front fender) soon boasted an Oasis sticker in the back window. They were all I wanted to listen to in the first few months of ‘96 (well, them and Tom Waits, and the Pogues — see below — but I was never able to find a good Pogues sticker for the car).

[Sacramento’s K Street has been undergoing renovation and renewal for several years now, aided by the development of the adjacent Golden 1 Center basketball arena. The old K Street Records building now houses the stationary bike gym All City Riders. The Tower Records mural has been painstakingly restored, and the space is now occupied by Solomon’s Deli, named after Tower Records founder Russ Solomon. Unfortunately, the pandemic shut-down has hit K Street businesses pretty hard.]

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Tower Records K Street reborn as Solomon’s Delicatessen, 2018.

The “Britpop Wars” broke out around this time. It was Oasis (simple, working-class) versus Blur (nuanced, middle-class). It was the noisy pub versus the quiet university common room, and each band’s fanbase was very opinionated. Naturally, I was in the Oasis camp, and had many spirited debates at the local coffee shop with the snobbish and pretentious Blur crowd. In retrospect, Oasis and Blur weren’t really all that different. 

The true polar opposite to Oasis — musically, philosophically — is Radiohead. 

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Radiohead — more fun than a barrel of monkeys

I am dedicating the next portion of these Chronicles to a band that will probably not be getting a playlist. For a little over fifteen years now, I have declared Radiohead to be absolutely, without a doubt, the most overrated band in popular music history. But it’s been awhile since I voluntarily listened to them. Now it’s time to see if I need to eat my words. I have announced to certain members of the Idle Time collective, who never fail to quiver like jelly and sigh in ecstasy whenever Radiohead’s name is mentioned, that I would use some of my quarantine time this past summer to clear my mind of prejudices and preconceived notions, and listen to each and every album in the Radiohead catalog as if I’m hearing them for the first time (which, in the case of their last two albums, is literally true). 

Here we go.

Pablo Honey (1993) 

Radiohead.pablohoney.albumartRadiohead’s debut album is the one most likely to be dismissed as sub-par (especially by the band themselves). I thought it was pretty good, although the oppressive sulkiness of the lyrics precludes me from saying I “enjoyed” it. The production team of Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade were chosen for their work with the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. and it shows. The quiet/loud/quiet dynamic of the Pixies (also used by Nirvana to great effect) and guitar crunch of Dinosaur Jr. are the dominant modes of Pablo Honey. The band were still clearly wearing their early influences on their sleeve. In addition to the aforementioned acts, there is a very healthy dose of early U2 all over the place, particularly in Thom Yorke’s Bono-channeling vocal gymnastics.

Ironically, as later releases would downplay the dominance of the six-stringed instrument, Pablo Honey may be one of the best “guitar albums” of the 1990s. Clear, ringing chords and arpeggios reminiscent of the Smiths or XTC are neatly interwoven with the fuzzed-out distortion of grunge — causing the album to be (unfairly, in my opinion) lumped in with the many other grunge knock-offs in the post-Nirvana world of 1992-93. (Remember, early Radiohead weren’t copying Nirvana, they were copying the bands Nirvana copied. There’s a difference.) What sets Pablo Honey apart from the more pedestrian knock-offs were the little sonic surprises that littered the first half, such as the stately piano that wanders into the last few seconds of “Creep,” the massive hit single that made the band instant stars and MTV darlings, and the song the band has worn like a millstone around their necks ever since.

Pablo Honey’s music itself is often quite sprightly, even though the lyrics wallow in alienation and self-pity, always warning the perpetrators of their torment that some kind of personal or spiritual retribution is coming. At times they sound like Material Issue’s depressed, vindictive British cousins. The album does suffer from second-half fatigue. (Certainly not the only album guilty of this — many artists and their production teams beginning in the CD era felt it was best to front-load albums with the strongest stuff to keep short attention spans from punching the skip button too early.) As the album winds down, it gives us a run of mid-tempo odes to self-loathing that blend into each other with little to distinguish them. The closer, “Blow Out,” has a nice, hushed urgency, and reminds me a little of Television. Overall verdict: A solid, but at times gloomy and derivative, debut with a great guitar sound that elevates it slightly above its post-grunge peers. 

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 4: “Heroes” and Rumours

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

Continuing a COVID-quaratined, too-much-free-time glance through just a few of my Spotify playlists, in roughly alphabetical order…

To re-iterate, a lot of this is adapted and expanded from material originally posted on the Idle Time messaging app in March/April. The Holy Bee is a proud recycler. That’s why when some artists are under review (eg. Fleetwood Mac), the focus is on a single song — it’s a holdover from our lengthy “Billboard Hot 100” discussions.

I have probably taken more abuse from the Idle Time guys for liking the Black Crowes than for any other reason. (Although just as I’m typing this, WH messaged me that he may never forgive me for putting “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News on our collaborative Best of the 80s playlist, which evidently represents a new low for my group contributions. WH has always been deeply suspicious of fun and joy.)

I’ve always admired and respected David Bowie more than I actually enjoyed listening to him. Something about his mannered vocals, his multiple irony-drenched personas, and cool detachment left me a little put off. He’s another one of those artists that everyone in my peer group loves, and I just don’t “get.” He’s obviously very gifted, eager to experiment, never bound by convention, but…I don’t seem to feel that special resonance that so many revel in. Camp theatricality was never my preferred mode of artistic expression. I gravitated toward the earnest straightforwarndess of Springsteen and Petty, or the evocative wordplay of Dylan.

I have been reading Rob Sheffield’s book-length fan letter On Bowie, and it brought things into a little more focus. What self-conscious adolescent hasn’t experimented with looks and personas, discarding them as soon as a new one springs to mind? Who hasn’t covered their desire to belong with a mask of cool detachment? Bowie was a voice for any kid who struggled with their identity, their sexuality, or the hurt of being an alienated outsider of any stripe. And maybe that’s why his material never resonated with me. Any teenager or young adult will have their moments (or months or years) of feeling rejected and unwanted, and I certainly did. But I was never cut to the core by any of it. My issues were few and I was always comfortable in my own skin. So Bowie was not speaking to me on that frequency.

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David Bowie first made a big national splash in the UK on a 1972 episode of Top of the Pops, performing “Starman.” Sheffield goes on to note all the young and impressionable kids watching that day: “Every future legend in the British Isles was tuned in. Morrissey was watching. So was Johnny Marr. Siouxsie was watching. Robert Smith was watching. Duran Duran were watching. So were Echo and the Bunnymen. Dave Gahan…Bauhaus. Jarvis Cocker. Jesus, Mary, and their Chain…”

To a name, all of them artists I am either lukewarm on, or really don’t much like at all. That’s what Bowie’s legacy has been to me.

But what of the music itself? What better time than during a pandemic-enforced, in-home exile to give Bowie’s catalog a re-listen? Wait here.

[Three days later.]

OK, done. I decided not to start at the very beginning, but jumped right in at what Sheffield considers his peak run — 1975’s Young Americans through 1980’s Scary Monsters, and then circled back to his earlier material.

I have mixed feelings about Young Americans. David Sanborn’s attention-hog of a saxophone is all over this pastiche of “Philly soul.” (Both Springsteen and Bowie are guilty of being waaay too in love with the saxophone, which I have an unshakeable prejudice against, at least on songs recorded by white dudes after 1963. What’s a way to make an otherwise good song sound totally stupid and corny? Throw on a big, dumb ol’ sax solo.) The cover of “Across the Universe” makes me cringe — Bowie spends the whole tuneless song sounding as if he’s got something unpleasant caught in his throat. When the album does coalesce, it showcases two of my all-time favorite Bowie songs — the excellent title track, and the equally-excellent  #1 single “Fame” (a collaboration with John Lennon, who must have at least tacitly endorsed Bowie’s “Across the Universe.”). Then there’s “Fascination.” Something about “Fascination” made me prick up my ears, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, then I realized it was a re-working of Stevie Wonder’s “Supersition.” Bowie is a musical magpie, taking shiny bits and pieces from other sources, and adapting them into his own vision.

I found myself enjoying almost every track on Station To Station, which is frequently described as the transitional album between the glam/soul style of his early 70s work to the Krautrock and electronica-influenced “Berlin Trilogy” of the late 70s, when the cocaine-addled Bowie fled the L.A. scene to get his head together in the austere German capital.

The Berlin Trilogy (Low and “Heroes,” both 1977, and 1979’s Lodger) represents Bowie at his most sonically experimental (for now). All three albums utilized the same core rhythm section, which never failed to play with urgency and a peculiar, visceral crunch. Brian Eno provided his trademark spacey keyboard texturing. On the first two albums, there is a clear divide between side one — all propulsion, energy, and mini-hooks — and side two, a sequence of ambient soundscapes with minimal vocals.

If you’re like me, and even the words “ambient soundscape” inspire an inner eye roll, at least it can be said that Berlin Trilogy’s ambient soundscapes are probably the best of that particular style you’re going to hear. There are nice world music flourishes, and the momentum never wanders off into ethereal noodling.

Lodger doesn’t adhere to that format quite as much, and I feel it’s the weakest of the trilogy overall. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), recorded back in London and New York, ups the ante on the world music flavor and the artiness of the “art rock,” and coats it with a commercial sheen that foreshadows the next album. 

I extended my initial listening one album past Scary Monsters to 1983’s Let’s Dance, where Bowie’s shifting personas finally coalesce into their final form — the confident, hit-making, MTV-friendly pop star in the natty suit and loosened tie. Produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic, Let’s Dance was made to sound great on the radio, and spin off multiple singles. There were the inevitable cries of “sell out” from the type of unpleasant person who likes to cry “sell out,” but this may have been Bowie’s master stroke. And there was nowhere to go but down. 

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At this point, I backtracked to the start of Bowie’s career. His actual debut album, 1967’s David Bowie was considered such a colossal embarrassment by all parties involved that he named his 1969 follow-up…David Bowie, as if to erase the existence of the previous version. The second incarnation of David Bowie, an acoustic-textured blend of hippie folk sounds and wordy prog-rock lyrics, was re-released in 1972 and re-named after its title track (and far and away its best song): Space Oddity. 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World is more of the same, with an overall darker tone, more electric guitar, and a heavier emphasis on the bass end. (Nirvana did a terrific cover version of the title song.)

Hunky Dory (1971) trades acoustic guitar for jaunty piano as its primary instrument, and showcases an entirely new cabaret-pop style that gave Bowie (“Space Oddity” aside) his first clutch of truly memorable statements — “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life On Mars?,” among others.

Then came his “glam rock” trilogy: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), and Diamond Dogs (1974), which made Bowie a global superstar. (1973’s Pin-Ups was an all-covers album, and interesting in its own way.) Ziggy is a true concept album, with a loose narrative based around the messianic title character. The two follow-ups abandon a cohesive narrative, and are instead a series of observational sketches seen through the eyes of a Ziggyesque “alien outsider” character. (Ziggy himself “died” onstage each night during Bowie’s ‘73 shows, and was retired at the end of the tour.) Each album rocked a little harder than the one before. The sound of Ziggy was still essentially the bottom-heavy folk-rock of Sold The World, cut through with Mick Ronson’s stinging lead guitar, but by Dogs the sound was full-on hard rock. 

I saved the long decline (and bittersweet comeback) for last. Bowie himself pretty much disavowed all his ‘80s material after Let’s Dance. He threw in the towel on solo work and formed a four-piece, no-frills hard rock band called Tin Machine in 1989, which seemed like a great idea…if only they’d had any decent songs. They disbanded after only three years and two pretty bad albums. His solo work in the ‘90s and early ‘00s was even more experimental than in his prime, fully embracing industrial, drum-and-bass, and electronica, but it was often unfocused and unmemorable. A heart attack in 2004 sent him into retirement…

…or so it was thought. In 2013, he put out the recorded-in-secret The Next Day with no promotion or fanfare whatsoever. Re-purposing the cover art of “Heroes,” Bowie sounds jolted alive, and presents us with a cohesive, coherent art-rock album that could easily stand alongside his classics, and includes “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” his best song in thirty years. Its 2016 follow-up, Blackstar, carries the burden of being the album written and recorded as Bowie was fading away from cancer. He died two days after its release, and naturally, all of his fans cherish this as his final gift to them.

And here’s where I make the blasphemous confession that will forever bar me from true Bowie fandom: I don’t like Blackstar all that much. 

I enjoyed my deep dive into the Bowie discography, and I think I made a pretty good playlist, but the experience didn’t move the needle very much on how I feel about him. Admiration and respect, always, but it’s not passionate love. We can just be friends.

Anything that needs saying about the Byrds, well…I already said it, at my usual length, here and here.

When Johnny Cash re-emerged in the ‘90s thanks to his work with producer Rick Rubin, everyone was retroactively horrified that his record company of 25 years, Columbia, heartlessly dropped the legend in the mid-1980s. Having listened to his early ‘80s output, however, I can only wonder what took them so long. I still love Cash, but navigating his post-Folsom Prison, pre-Rubin discography was a Sisephyan task of getting through an album full of unfunny novelty songs, ponderous spoken-word narrations, turgid gospel, and quasi-misogynist my-woman-is-my-property “love” songs. Then doing it all over again with the next album. Then you find a nugget like “Far Side Banks of the Jordan” on 1977’s little-remembered The Last Gunfighter Ballad, and it feels worth all the trouble.

The Clash…I don’t listen to them nearly as often as I should. Every time I choose to put them on, I’m always glad I did. I bought MMDG’s old Toyota Corolla off him in 2007. He had covered the rear window and bumper with stickers. Tastefully monochromatic, mind you, not garish, and aligned with geometric precision, but it was a very guy-in-his-20s look, and I was by then in my (very) early 30s. So I scraped them all off — except the Clash, which retained pride of place in the back left of the rear window for as long as I had the car. 

The Last Gang In Town purports to be the Clash’s “definitive biography,” but the last ⅔ of the book is author Marcus Gray needing a bucket to carry the amount of butt-hurt he exhibits because the Clash turned out not to be actual committed socialist revolutionaries after all, but just a great rock band.

Creedence…I do not need all nine minutes of “Susie Q.” Luckily, the radio-edit version is available. I do not need a single second of their eleven-minute version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine…”

[The next day.]

OK, I caved and put “Grapevine” on the list. They build a pretty hypnotic groove.

Bob Dylan…he released a seventeen-minute song early during this quarantine…there was a snippet of Idle Time chatter about it on the IM app…

BC: …which features the lyrics “rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul.”

WH: He’s still got it.

Once you get into the Beatles, it’s a pretty short hop to getting into the Byrds, and from there, an even shorter hop to Dylan. 

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 1: The Institute of Idle Time (A Re-Introduction)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds listening to Spotify…so some of it is a little venomous (talking to my fellow Idle Timers brings out my feisty side) and a little more rambling than usual (imagine!), but keep in mind, chunks of the following are literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions…

And, for the first time in Holy Bee of Ephesus history, this piece has a co-author. My friend and Idle Time collaborator for almost twenty years, MMDG, will be weighing in with his recollections. (In our written shorthand, we always refer to each other to this day by initials, like some kind of music-nerd Cosa Nostra…I’ve changed my actual initials to “HBE” here for clarity purposes.)

If you were to dig back into this website’s early history, say 2007-2010, you’d find me mentioning the Institute of Idle Time quite a bit. Since they’ve made a bit of a resurgence in my day-to-day life (due to the sheltering-in-place), and are an important part of the chronicles to come, I thought I’d re-introduce them. 

Idle Time Logo invert-01I co-founded the Institute of Idle Time in early 2002 with two people — WH and MMDG — who were my co-workers at the time. (Actually, I’ve known WH since I was 20 — almost literally a kid.) It was a jokey name for what we did in our spare moments away from being rookie middle-school teachers, which was talk about music, argue passionately about music (we have very different tastes), and make ranked and themed lists of music. 

Once we abandoned our Pitchfork-style decimal-based rating system, the Idle Time ranking process became a drawn-out and brutal ritual of MMDG’s invention we call Rock & Roll Roulette. The basics are simple, but the nuances and subtleties amount to sustained psychological warfare. Depending on the number of albums or songs we’re working through, it can take days, weeks, or months. It can be done in person (where it is the most fun, especially over several beers) or online (thanks to shared spreadsheets and polling apps).

We used to compile songs into individual mixes (or entire series of mixes) to share with just each other via burned CD-Rs. Then we started collaborating on group mixes for public consumption, and gave away CDs of our lists to anyone who was interested (they made great stocking stuffers and wedding gifts). Beginning in 2003, the CDs got elaborate — glossy covers and extensive liner notes (“blurbs” in IT-speak). We truly became a collective at that point.

Let’s hear from MMDG:

“Adrift on the wide-open internet waters was a bounty of images, mp3s, and treasure-map signposts towards albums, singles, and recordings that we never knew existed. It was a grand time to be a pirate. HBE had his Your Music Sucks series, which seemed to specifically target my indifference towards bands like Son Volt and Supergrass. I adopted The Promise Ring’s “Make Me a Mixtape” as a battlecry for any number of mix-CDs. We mail-ordered labels and booklets in bulk.

It was WH’s What I Heard compilation that gave real direction to our operation. Following his lead, we shared our favorite albums with one another just prior to winter break in 2002. Initially, these discs included songs from 2000 and 2001. That was before the project took on radioactive parameters and, screeching with mathematical fury, threatened to destroy Tokyo to the hundredth decimal point.

idle-time-002We went from friends, happy to find common ground in something like 02’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (HBE: I actually didn’t like it all that much past the first two songs, I think I was still playing nice), to bitter rivals, arguing vehemently over whether or not 03’s Hail to the Thief belonged on a year-end celebration of the best music. (HBE: It didn’t.) We were doing one list, one compilation, and affixing one name to the glossy inkjet-printed booklet: The Institute of Idle Time’s Top 20 Records of the Year. I even had the audacity (or foresight) to stick a little ® on there, even though I shamelessly stole the Jack White artwork from someone on the internet.

The cute pseudonyms were born in the 2003 CD booklet too. I think subconsciously all this rampant piracy made us a little nervous. How were we to know that not even a decade later intellectual property rights would hardly mean a damn and the world wide web would turn into a playground of digital socialism? So we hid cleverly behind the impervious anonymity of our own actual initials, confident that this would foil any FBI plot to root out felonious file-sharers and make an example of them. We had our own paper-and-staple usernames way before any online avatars came into being.”

The Institute drifted out of workplace lunch breaks and into our social lives. IT06Membership expanded and became fluid — different members have come and gone over the years (including myself, as we’ll see), but it always seems to hover around ten. 

At a certain point, several years in, a healthy portion of the group was made up of a handful of former students from our first year or two of teaching (we were only decade and change older than them, and they were the frequent, sometimes puzzled, recipients of those early CD-Rs).

This was the Idle Time Junior Division…still thought of that way even though they’re all now in their thirties. For those keeping track, the three original members are referred to as the Elder Idlers. The Elder Idlers plus the longest-standing member of the Junior Division (known by the moniker RF, who joined as an enthusiastic mascot while still in high school) are known as the Core Four.

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The Core Four looking like sad pandas, posing in front of our favorite record store that went out of business in December 2006

What self-respecting music junkie of a certain age can resist a lavish CD box set? We designed a pretty elaborate one (limited-edition, of course) for our fifth anniversary in 2007. An unprecedented two discs of the collectively-chosen “best of 2007” (featuring Spoon, Arcade Fire, the Shins, LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, and many, many more), and including four more discs, each individually curated by a member of the Institute. (Mine sadly included a Velvet Revolver track, but I stand by everything else.)

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You don’t still have your copy?

The cover art of the box was intended to be a parody of the Hives’ The Black and White Album (see below), a timeless reference and sure never to date itself at all.

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Our version was a little off. We did what we could with the matching outfits. I normally keep my jowly double-chin covered with at least a goatee if not a full beard, but I took one for the team and shaved down to just a skeevy-looking mustache to replicate the cleft-chin glory of Hives bassist Dr. Matt Destruction.

I tried to capture his intense stare, looking straight ahead as fiercely as I could. Of course, I should have been staring straight at the camera lens…which was slightly to my right. Oh, well.

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I had to walk around looking like that for two weeks until my goatee grew back.

We self-published a few zines, and our magnum opus — a big, glossy book called Decades: A Tribute to Our 400 Favorite Albums of the Last 50 Years, which gave rise to the Roulette process. Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 24: The Final Countdown

“We have a tendency to want the other person to be a finished product, while giving ourselves the grace to evolve…” — T.D. Jakes.

This is it. The decade, and my interest in the popular music it was currently producing, were both circling the drain. I was about to be a husband and father (in that order, barely.) I had stopped listening to the radio entirely back in early ‘96 (had a CD changer in the car, remember?) MTV was a wasteland by 1997. I had my niche artists that I chose to listen to, and had parted ways with the music currently on the charts…but they were in the cultural air and kind of unavoidable.

So here’s the last batch…mostly unconnected to any specific reminiscences…and a little epilogue…and now I’m thinking of things I forgot over the past 23 entries, and it’s too late to add…oh, God, “Come To My Window” was huge, and nowhere to be found…and “Liar” by the Rollins Band…and why did I pick “Creep” instead of “Waterfalls”?…Oh shit, this whole thing sucks…

#257. “Love Sick” — Bob Dylan

In response to the bombshell she just dropped that early-November night, I did what any panicked unready father would do…I insisted we drive right to the store and buy two more pregnancy tests. Positive. Positive. In the scary days that followed, she decided she would keep the baby and raise it with or without my help. Despite all evidence to the contrary (some of which you have read about), the Holy Bee had a sense of honor. I decided to “do the right thing,” in old-timey 1950s vernacular, and marry the baby-mama.

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Posing with Dylan’s guitar, Hard Rock Cafe, November 1997. My interest in caftan-like cabana wear was clearly growing. My hair was falling out in clumps at this point. The strain wasn’t noticeable in my face, was it?

We told our respective parents of the situation and the decisions we had come to…(except her Religious Dad, who was kept in the dark for a few more months about the reason for the nuptials)…the wedding was set for early January…a certain amount of haste was needed for obvious reasons…I found an apartment for us…just down the block from good ol’ First Run Video, actually…still in business but definitely dying…now entirely ran by the former assistant manager from whom I had only very recently stopped buying Vicodin tablets at ten dollars a pop…Religious Dad would not allow cohabitation before the marriage…I would live there by myself for about two months (Religious Dad did help with the rent)…

I don’t know if it’s coincidence but it’s also around this time that my formerly unruly hair became a lot easier to manage…I was pleasantly surprised at first…where it used to have to be beaten into submission with a blow dryer and a lot of patience, it would now submit meekly to a quick toweling…it seemed wispy…thinner…then I saw some home movies taken around Christmas that briefly showed me from the back and I almost choked on my eggnog…there was a definite patch of empty real estate on the crown of my head…tiny at first but it would grow to the size of a monk’s tonsure by the new century…

We went to see the Rolling Stones on their Bridges To Babylon tour…left early due to the harmful effects the smoky air may be having on the unborn child…

#258. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” — The Verve

#259. “Monkey Wrench” — Foo Fighters

The Future Ex-Wife and I tied the (temporary) knot in Nevada City in January of 1998. It was a pretty nice wedding, actually. I was particularly proud of the sharp-looking tuxes I had picked out for myself and my best man, WH. The religious in-laws raised the subject of having a “dry” reception and were practically laughed out of the room. There would be no compromises on this issue. Frozen margaritas all around!

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Wedding Day, although Allen seems to be the center of attention, flanked by the Holy Bee and a very Tony Soprano-ish WH

#260. “Miss Misery” — Elliott Smith

#261. “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It” — Will Smith

#262. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” – Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott

#263. “Sex And Candy” — Marcy Playground

#264. “Karma Police” — Radiohead

I really liked our apartment…it had a lofted master bedroom accessible by a narrow spiral staircase, which I had decorated with blue and white Christmas lights…then it was pointed out navigating a spiral staircase potentially several times a night to use the bathroom while pregnant may be a problem…we switched to a more practical unit in the same complex after a month or two…

Religious Dad was finally told of the reason for the wedding (because he certainly knew how to count, and would know the difference between nine months and six months)…he basically shrugged and said something akin to “she’s your problem now”…

Caspar and Audrey came to the wedding reception (late as usual)…and visited the apartment a few weeks later…that was the last time I ever saw either of them…

7cee75f3adec14e28d41ba4601c3b0b4#265. “Smack My Bitch Up” — Prodigy

The fellas in Prodigy insisted they meant the title ironically, and that the song was actually an indictment of obnoxious, overbearing intensity. I almost believed them. But it deeply offended Future Ex-Wife’s staunch feminist sensibilities. (She had only recently stopped writing it as “womyn.”) The Fat of the Land — despite its critical accolades — was a banned album in our new joint household. (When she found out her much-admired older brother owned it, she burst into tears. I don’t know if he got rid of it, or just told her he got rid of it.)

#266. “History Repeating” — Propellorheads

The Sutter Theater was located in the “downtown” area of Yuba City, which being a town and certainly not a “city,” was a just a few blocks. At one end was the Sutter Theater. At the other end was the Underground record store. It was about a ten-minute walk. On a typical Tuesday or Wednesday night at the theater, business was pretty slow and staff was minimal, usually just a manager and another employee. More often than not, it was WH and me. We were already on manager’s salaries ($350 a week for the Holy Bee; more for WH who was now actually Head Manager), so the company didn’t have to shell out for an hourly employee who may cost more than the movies made that night.

With little to do when the movies were actually running, we sat in the office chatting, doing college homework, or reading music magazines. If the music mags tipped us off about something interesting, we could walk down to the Underground on our dinner break, acquire our album, and have it spinning on the office CD player in under thirty minutes. Such was the case with the Propellorheads’ forgotten techno classic Decksanddrumsandrockandroll, which is still a favorite album of mine to this day.

#267. “Closing Time” — Semisonic

To get to Java Retreat and the Underground, you exited the Sutter, turned right, and walked a few blocks. To get to two of the grungiest dive bars in the north valley, you turned left and walked ten feet. The Spur was a classic barfly bar, and its barstools certainly supported the Holy Bee’s ass on more than one occasion. Its next-door neighbor, the Town Pump, attracted a slightly younger and more dangerous crowd. If we ever had a problem with a loud, obnoxious trucker-hatted drunk wandering into the theater (which was often), nine times out of ten, they came from the Pump.

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#268. “The Way” — Fastball

Saw these guys in their pre-one-hit-wonder days back in ‘97, opening for Matthew Sweet at the long-gone El Dorado Saloon in Sacramento. I pegged this song as the stand-out of their set.

#269. “Iris” — Goo Goo Dolls

#270. “Flagpole Sitta” — Harvey Danger

scn_0001#271. “Ray Of Light” — Madonna

My son Cade Carson was born on June 21, 1998 (at Fremont Hospital on Plumas Street, within sight of the theater.) It also happened to be Father’s Day (gifts displayed at left, along with a rapidly-expanding double chin). His delivery was paid for by Medi-Cal, the California health insurance for extremely poor folks, which we most definitely were. I told people “Carson” was an aesthetic choice, having a nice alliterative ring with “Cade.” But it was totally, 100% after Johnny Carson, one of my childhood idols. (Did I mention I was a weird child?) I would actually have done “Cade Letterman” or “Cade Newhart” if I thought I could get away with it. (There’s a slight chance he’s sitting in his dorm room in Denver reading this right now. Dude, I wouldn’t really have done “Cade Letterman”…but if you want to change it to that…I’m OK with it.) Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 23: I Hope You Had The Time Of Your Life

#224. “Killing Me Softly” — The Fugees

#225. “Who Will Save Your Soul” — Jewel

#226. “Criminal” — Fiona Apple

#227. “Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)” — Los Del Rio

Summer ‘96! (as should be obvious from the songs above)

I floated lazily around most days on buoyant pool chair…I customized the drink holder in the styrofoam independence_day_movieposterchair arm to be able to handle a 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor…Beck’s Odelay played on repeat from speakers perched in my bedroom window…When the sun started dipping, I would wash the chlorine off, put on my managerial shirt and tie, and head for the theater…

The State looked like it might finally turn a profit by opening The Nutty Professor and Independence Day back to back…we had lines around the block…and a total lack of parking which reminded us why the place had to shut down in the first place…Frosted-Tip Douche was fired for stealing from the register…Rodger had long since quit and moved to a nearby town…Smokey quit to chase her dream of dealing blackjack in Vegas…

Caspar and Audrey returned from Colorado…they had left at the start of the previous summer impulsively with no plan…they spent the first couple of months literally homeless…living in their car and a tent in a campground…they came back to California and moved back into the exact same apartment complex we had lived in before (not the same unit)…Future Ex-Wife and I made up a social foursome with them…Caspar took a job washing and folding clothes at LaundryTime…

s-l400I was usually in charge of changing the marquee at the theater…nothing like being perched on a teetering ladder which was in turn perched on the edge of a building to get you over your fear of heights…My specialty, though, was “build and tear”…movie prints arrived on six to eight individual reels of about 2000 feet each (Braveheart had ten), in battered, Depression-era cans, and had to be “built” up — spliced together into one massive piece of film about the diameter of a tractor tire, which would rest on a platter system that would feed into the projector…(sit still dammit, this is like the parts in Moby Dick that talk about whaling technicalities…I actually liked those parts)…movies that had finished their run had to be “torn” back down into their component reels to be shipped out…the whole process could take a couple of hours at least, depending on how many movies we were turning over, and had to be done after the last showing on Thursday night…so most Thursdays I was at the theater all alone from midnight until two or three in the morning…

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Typical pre-digital platter & projection system. Our projection booth was never that clean.

Of course the State Theater was rumored to be haunted…and of course I did hear footsteps and a few mysterious knocks on the projection booth door when no one was there… I took to wearing my Discman (90s alert!) when doing build & tear…I had an elaborate back-and-forth system of turning on and off all the lights so I was never walking through total darkness on my way out…I took to calling out “good night!” as I locked up, to get on their good side…despite knowing on an intellectual level it was all nonsense, I lived in abject fear of looking up from the auditorium floor and seeing a horrid pale face peering out the projection booth window, which allegedly happened to a late-working employee one build and tear night back in the 70s…

Film prints were in the process of switching from a celluloid base to a longer-lasting polyester 11dc959a2bb7ae2ec88881867e97755cbase…we got some of the older kind, some of the newer…if the projector jammed on a celluloid print, the lamp would just burn a hole through it (remember that?)…the print would break, the fail-safe lever would drop, stopping the system, and it was a mere few minutes’ work to splice it together and get it going again…if it jammed on a polyester print, it would not break, and often pull thousands of feet of film off the platter right onto the floor…movie cancelled…customers pissed…

But it’s all digital now, so none of the above is anything anymore…I’m old…call me Ishmael…

Speaking of old…the World Wide Web was now a thing…at least for me…I plunged in after many, ahead of some… I began paying twenty-five bucks a month for dial-up service in July…

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Pebble Beach, Summer ’96

#228. “El Scorcho” — Weezer

#229. “Santa Monica” — Everclear

At the start of August, Future Ex-Wife moved down to Monterey to attend Monterey Peninsula College. We decided to take a stab the long-distance thing, knowing it was probably futile. I listened to Weezer’s Pinkerton a lot on the three-hour drive I made several times that fall. (I found out later that Rodger was also making that three-hour drive several times that fall. I don’t know what he listened to. Probably something much cooler.) Santa Monica is pretty far from Monterey, but it was the theme song of the separation.

#230. “Everyday Is A Winding Road” — Sheryl Crow

I started the university not long after she left. I stayed living at home, and began life as a commuter, making the hour-long trip up and the hour-long trip back every day (at first — I soon learned not to schedule classes on every day of the week.) My major was Mass Communications. But after years of slacking around community college and not doing much, I had no discipline, and my mind was in Monterey. I did poorly.

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One night in October, Future Ex-Wife came home to visit her family…she came to see me at the theater when I was up in the booth…she told me the long-distance thing was too difficult…we should split up…but would I please continue to visit her as a friend?…it was a quick, clean break…her dad was waiting outside with the engine running the whole time… Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 22: A Girl Like You Is A Bullet With Butterfly Wings

We join our story already in progress…

#203. “Ironic” — Alanis Morissette

Everyone knows rain on your wedding day is not really ironic. Nor is your ex-boyfriend unexpectedly showing up at your reception. Both can end up a damn mess, though. Luckily, I don’t think I could have dragged down that visibly grim scenario any further. The fact that her thrown-together reception was being held in her parents’ small backyard with everyone awkwardly holding paper plates indicates the situation was already pretty fucked. I also lucked out in that the groom was somewhat dim-witted and didn’t really grasp what was happening. Emily took me aside before anything could truly escalate. I’ve never seen an unhappier bride, and I don’t think it had much to do with me showing up.

“Were you ever going to tell me?” I asked.

“It all happened so fast. The Air Force is sending him to England at the end of the month. He begged me to marry him and go with him. I just…” she trailed off.

“OK. Congratulations.” I may have choked on the words a little, but I turned on my heel and headed for the door.

#204. “Tomorrow” — Silverchair

The next day, I didn’t feel as bad as I thought I would. I actually felt kind of OK, like I was released. (Little did I know…)

#205. “One Of Us” — Joan Osborne

There is no “God,” as has been demonstrated time and time and time again, so the premise of this song is invalid. (To be fair, there’s no such thing as a talking walrus spouting “goo goo g’joob,” either, and that doesn’t stop me from enjoying that song, so let’s call it a push. And I must say Osborne is a hell of a vocalist.)

empire_records_poster#206. “A Girl Like You” — Edwyn Collins

Empire Records was a horrible flop of a fake-indie movie, its desperate bid to court the 90s youth market was nakedly transparent, and the whole thing came off like a bunch of hair-gelled, empty studio suits in their thirties trying to guess what “the kids” were into these days. The only thing the movie did right was assemble a notable soundtrack, highlighted by this pulsating, vibraphone-drenched neo-soul nugget by Edwyn Collins, who was little known outside of the U.K.

Not that something as small as Empire Records would play in the Yuba City multiplex anyway. (The funkier downtown Sutter Theater would sometimes get those lesser-known films, but not in this case.) The soundtrack was available locally, and had gained some cachet. I last saw Girl Whose Name I Forgot when I hauled myself, clothes dripping, out of that hot tub earlier in the year. That fall, I ran into her one more time at Java Retreat. Empire Records was the topic of conversation. She had the soundtrack on cassette in her car. I asked if I could borrow it to make a copy. She handed it over. I did not ask for her number, but gave her mine. She clearly would rather live without that cassette than call me. That Empire Records soundtrack moved from glove compartment to glove compartment as I changed cars over the years, on the off chance I would see her at the coffee shop again. I didn’t. I probably still have that cassette somewhere.

#207. “Only Happy When It Rains” — Garbagegarbage-535021_600_666

I don’t know what the official harbinger of autumn was before pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks, but a return of cooler weather is always a cause for celebration in California’s blistering northern valley.

#208. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” — Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan fulfilled all of his massive prog-rock ambitions with Smashing Pumpkins’ third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double-disc behemoth chock-full of angst, despair, ennui, joy, and nostalgia. Good ideas and bad ideas, fragments and epics, with a rich vein of meandering instrumentals. “Quietly noisy relaxed intensity,” to quote Edward Albee. And I can’t even say it’s a great album. All I can say is that we probably won’t see its like again.

#209. “Free As A Bird” — The Beatles

I had been living back at home with the parents since May, and I was kind of stuck. All my friends’ apartments were already full-up with roommates. My folks’ phone number hadn’t changed since we moved to the area back in 1989, so Emily had it, and one day in November, she called.

“I thought you were in England with your husband,” I said.

“He went ahead of me to get the housing situation settled. I’m going after Thanksgiving. Come over and watch The Beatles Anthology with me.”

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The epic, multi-part documentary on my favorite band (and her third or fourth favorite band) made its TV debut on ABC on November 19, 1995, along with the video premiere of the first “new” Beatles song in 25 years. Paul, George, and Ringo overdubbed their parts onto an old demo tape of John’s to create “Free As A Bird.” It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t the Beatles. It sounded more like ELO, thanks to being (over)produced by Jeff Lynne.

So we sat down on the floor and watched The Beatles Anthology on the TV in her mostly-empty old bedroom at her parents’ house. A week later, she was 5000 miles away.

She said I should come visit them in England, and couldn’t understand why I would never do that in a million years.

#210. “Champagne Supernova” — Oasis

I turned 21 on December 3, 1995. Legal drinking age, but for some reason, pictures from mymatts21stbday01 family birthday dinner depict me innocently sipping on a Sprite, just like I had been doing since I was seven. Drinking in front of the family still felt wrong, I guess. (Oh, how that would change, and very soon.) Later, I celebrated with my friends…by going to see Toy Story. I didn’t set foot in a bar until a few weeks later, in Nevada City…

One of my favorite memories is when a few of us drove into the Sierra Nevada foothills to the Nevada City Victorian Christmas Stroll…held for a few days in December…a nighttime street festival with vendors, performers, carolers…everything festively lit…freezing cold air, often snow on the ground…open fires…hot, mulled wine…bars and bookstores…that night we had a big dinner in a small Italian place…afterwards, Allen (who had also just turned 21) and I nervously went into a bar for the first time in our lives…shyly approached the bartender… “Uhh…what’s a good Christmas drink?”…we were condescendingly presented with grasshoppers…complete with straws, which Allen found particularly insulting… “Give the little boys straws…” The best part may have been the ride home…heater blasting cozily…at a crawl through heavy fog…getting lost twice even though all we had to do was follow the same highway we had used to arrive…I heard the Pogues and Tom Waits (beyond his vocal cameo on Primus’ “Tommy the Cat”) for the first time on Allen’s car stereo…we did the Stroll again once or twice in later years…but it was never quite as perfect as that first time…

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Nevada City Victorian Christmas Stroll

#211. “Give Me One Reason” — Tracy Chapman

I had taken community college as far as it could go. I was called into the counselor’s office towards the end of fall semester and was told that by this point I had qualified for an associate’s degree, which I hadn’t planned on. I was just taking classes that would be transferable to a state university someday. Someday was here. I enrolled at California State University Chico for next fall, meaning no school for me from mid-December all the way to late August of next year.

Other changes were afoot…WH and Allen had been assistant managers at the Sutter Theater in Yuba City since time out of mind…the theater’s parent company decided to re-open the older, bigger sister theater, the State, across the river in Marysville…it had been shuttered for over a year…an assistant manager would be needed there…WH hooked me up with the job…

I gave my two weeks’ notice at the video store the day after my 21st birthday…one of the other new hires for the theater staff was Future Ex-Wife… Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 21: Take A Bow

OK, it’s time to put a button on this whole thing and shove it out to pasture. I’ll be researching a massive blogging project through much of 2017 (it probably won’t see the light of day until very late in the year), and I can’t have this series hanging over my head anymore.

The semi-subconscious impetus to begin writing this look back at a rapidly fading decade, along with my emotions during that decade, and the music that provided the soundtrack, came in early 2009 when I was very single, very lonely, and wondering where it all went wrong. Now I’m very married, very happy, and this whole series is growing hair and mold in my mind

But I can’t abandon it entirely, because that’s not my style. I must see it through. There’s still 135 songs left on my Ultimate 1990s Playlist, along with half of the decade itself, and still a few interesting events to make note of. So we’re going to do a quick wrap-up of the list over a mere four more entries…where a lot of stuff…when it’s not directly connected to a song…will be in italics…with a lot of ellipses…all impressionistic…and space-saving…

If you want to jump in at the beginning (and bless your heart if you do), there’s Part 1. If you want to climb aboard late, Part 15 or Part 18 work as passable entry points.

#166. “Zombie” — The Cranberries

The Cranberries and their Irish-y Irishness were starting to get on everyone’s nerves around this time. Dolores O’Riordan’s wordless vocalizations on this song, akin to a howler monkey in estrus, gave a new meaning to the word “grating.”

December ‘94/January ‘95…

For Christmas, I got a multi-disc CD player and 33_23680a_lga massive speaker cabinet for my Bronco II…

I was dating a girl who was practically bristling with red flags, but she was my type (short & curvy, blonde, nice rack)…she had been kicked out of her mom’s apartment…she had been taken in by her friend’s family on the condition that she convert to Mormonism…she took to it zealously (except when she didn’t)…in addition to the Book of Mormon, she owned Madonna’s “Sex” book…she refused to listen to Tom Petty because she found him physically unattractive…she was a huge Ace Of Base fan…

#167. “The Sign” — Ace Of Base

#168. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” — Tom Pettyuswb19902766_640x480_01

“Turn the radio loud/I’m too alone to be proud” is maybe one of my favorite lyrical couplets ever. So much summed up in ten words. It’s a little like Hemingway.

#169. “Take A Bow” — Madonna

Red-Flag Girl was obsessed with Madonna…I must have heard this song a thousand times during the few weeks I was with her.

When I visited Red-Flag Girl at her friend’s house where she had taken up residence, I feared for my life…it was in one of the more squalid parts of Linda, the scuzzy little meth town that surrounded my community college…all parts of Linda were varying degrees of squalid…the house was more of a shack, squatting in a lot full of plastic bags, car parts, weeds, and dead, skeletal trees…it looked on the verge of being condemned…the roof sagged, the walls listed, the front porch was missing entirely, and access to the warped, peeling front door was provided by some cinder block steps…

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I never visited the kitchen or bathroom, thank goodness, so I never got to gauge to quality of the plumbing, but there was no heat…it was a particularly cold, wet winter…when I visited, we huddled around a tiny space heater in Red Flag Girl’s friend’s room, listening to the “Take A Bow” cassette single over and over…so yes, there was electricity (barely), because the friend’s morbidly-obese parents wouldn’t want to miss a moment of their favorite religious programming, at ear-splitting volume…Two Mormon missionaries were always around every time I was there, and one of them so clearly had the screaming hots for the friend that watching their interactions was by turns hilarious and uncomfortable…and being missionaries, they could not cross the threshold into her bedroom, so they stood shivering in the hall, sometimes for an hour or more…

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#170. “Come On” — The Jesus and Mary Chain

#171. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” — Elton John

Red-Flag Girl was a devout Mormon, at least until her sinful urges occasionally kicked in, and her two-job working mom inadvertently left us an apartment that was empty for hours on end, and an unlocked sliding glass door. Believe me, no one has more potential for illicit fun than a guilty, furtive Mormon. 

I went to some kind of Christmas banquet at the Linda LDS Church assembly hall with her and her friend, who had volunteered to serve beverages…I looked around for the coffee urn for ten minutes before it dawned on me that I would not find one…one of the organizers bringing the chafing dishes was late, having locked her keys in her car…she actually, legitimately, not-making-it-up blamed Satan… “Satan did not want our get-together to be successful this evening, but we beat him this time…”

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Proudly rocking the community college sweatshirt, Dec. 94

#172. “Run-Around” — Blues Traveler

I began to suspect I was getting the run-around myself, as Red-Flag Girl (lacking a driver’s license) only began calling when she needed sex, or a more traditional ride. The latter very quickly outnumbered the former. (“Run-Around” is also one of about two dozen songs around this time that made me think of Emily, who I was nowhere near over, despite me dating anyone who could fog a mirror at this point. I’ve actually only mentioned a small percentage of them here.)

#173. “Don’t Turn Around — Ace Of Base

The aforementioned Sinful Urges caused a crisis of conscience with Red-Flag Girl, who rededicated herself to her faith, and kicked me to the curb because, in her words, I “obviously had no love for the Church.” I can hear those exact words in my head to this day. I certainly couldn’t argue with her statement, and I resisted the temptation to point out that at times she breathlessly encouraged certain activities that were nowhere to be found in the Book of Mormon. Ultimately, I was relieved never to have to visit that filthy hovel ever again. (It’s since been torn down, or perhaps it finally just disintegrated into muck.)

I actually hung out with Red-Flag Girl once or twice about a year later…she had reconciled with her mom…she ditched Mormonism to become a Wiccan…she still has my Reservoir Dogs VHS…

#174. “You Gotta Be” — Des’ree

No, I don’t. Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 20: Where Did You Shop Last Night?

#151. “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” — R.E.M.

R.E.M had long been promising a full-on “electric rock” album, and when Monster finally arrived at the tail end of September 1994, it received decent reviews, but little love from longtime fans, who seemed to prefer the band’s more inward, introspective material.

The material they did in the ‘80s for indie label IRS is what’s cherished by most people really into the band, but I always found it hit-or-miss. The good stuff is really good, but there’s also stuff I found to be on the boring side. So no, I suppose I can’t be counted among the R.E.M. “true believers,” who manage to sit through Fables Of The Reconstruction without being tempted to hit the “skip” button at least once or twice. Despite my carping, however, I do believe that they are among the best American bands of the last three decades.

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It should come as no surprise that I thought Monster was the second-best thing they’ve ever done (1992’s moodier, acoustic Automatic For The People is a pretty unimpeachable #1). I loved that they dropped the self-serious tone (for the time being), I loved the loud, fuzzy electric guitars, and I loved that the “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” video (and subsequent Monster tour) featured bassist Mike Mills in a full-on Nashville Nudie suit. Underneath all the guitar wonk, I still think Monster is as solid a collection of songs you could hope to find in ‘94, or any other time. Give it another spin (if you didn’t sell it off years ago…)

#152. “Come Out And Play” — The Offspring

#153. “Self-Esteem” — The Offspring

offspringThere began to emerge a little gap between the stuff that spun on the communal 5-disc changer in the apartment’s living room, and the stuff I tended to reserve for private listening in my bedroom. The Offspring were definitely among the former. I liked some of their stuff, particularly the “Self-Esteem” single (as you might imagine, I was struggling in that area right around then), but this Southern California pop-punk quartet was always permanently stained in my mind due to their association with skate “culture.”

Yuba City was a fairly small town, but even fairly small towns can have problems with gang activity. Fortunately, I didn’t exactly move in circles that brought me into contact with real gangs very much. No, the closest thing to a “gang” that occasionally infiltrated by suburban white-bread/coffee shop milieu were…skateboarders, whom I reviled as over-aggressive, defiantly stupid, and extremely hygiene-challenged. (This was the case with Yuba City skaters, mind you. Down in SoCal or wherever, they might be pillars of the community.) When they weren’t paint-huffing or indulging in minor property damage, they were barging into coffee shops in their dumb fucking clown pants, engulfed in a cloud of body odor, and giving people dirty looks between ostentatious cursing and loud spits on the floor. (I don’t have a problem with cursing, but cursing to get attention is lame.) They were not kicked out because, like everyone, they knew someone who worked there.

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Oh yes, and they were generally terrible skaters. Never landed a move that I saw. They were walking, (inarticulately) talking scabs. Continue reading

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