Category Archives: On Music

Loud love: Thoughts on Cobain, aging and a top 10 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 6, 2019)

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In my 2007 review of A.J. Schnack’s documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son, I wrote:

It’s virtually impossible to live here in Seattle and not be constantly reminded of Kurt Cobain’s profound impact on the music world. Every April, around the anniversary of his suicide, wreaths of flowers and hand taped notes begin to cover a lone bench in a tiny park sandwiched between the lakefront mansions I pass on my way to work every morning. Inevitably, I will see small gatherings of young people with multi-colored hair and torn jeans holding silent vigil around this makeshift shrine, located a block or two from the home where he took his life.

This past Friday marked the 25th anniversary of Cobain’s passing. It’s funny how your perception of time recalibrates as you get older. My memory of attending a spontaneous memorial at the Seattle Center along with thousands of others on the day the news broke in April 1994 makes it seem like relatively “recent” history to me. However, when I stop to consider I was 38 then-and that I’ve just turned 63 (not to mention that Cobain has been dead nearly as many years he was alive) …25 years is a generation ago. Even on a good day, Time is cruel. From my piece on Kerri O’Kane’s 2008 documentary, The Gits:

In the fall of 1992, I moved to Seattle with no particular action plan, and stumbled into a job hosting the Monday-Friday morning drive show on KCMU (now KEXP), a mostly volunteer, low-wattage, listener supported FM station broadcasting from the UW campus with the hopeful slogan: “Where the music matters.” I remember joking to my friends that my career was going in reverse order, because after 18 years of commercial radio experience, here I was at age 36, finally getting my first part-time college radio gig. I loved it.

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to cue up whatever I felt like playing, as opposed to kowtowing to the rigid, market-tested “safe song” play lists at the Top 40, Oldies and A/C formats I had worked with previously. A little Yellowman, Fugazi, Cypress Hill, Liz Phair, maybe a bit o’ Mudhoney with your Danish? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set with an oldie like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to take you up to your first coffee break? Sure, why not? I was happier than a pig in shit.

What I didn’t realize until several years following my 7-month stint there, is that KCMU was semi-legendary in college/alt-underground circles; not only was it literally the first station in the country to “break” Nirvana but counted members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam among former DJ staff. I was just a music geek, enthusiastically exploring somebody else’s incredibly cool record collection, whilst taking my listeners along for the ride; in the meantime, I obliviously became a peripheral participant in Seattle’s early 90’s “scene”.

Reminds me of a funny story. Within a few weeks of moving to Seattle, I went to see Cameron Crowe’s Singles, which had just recently opened. If you’re familiar with the film, you are of course aware that it is a romantic comedy about a group of (wait for it) young singles living in Seattle, incorporating the city’s contemporaneous music milieu as a backdrop.

At one random point during the film’s opening sequence (a flash-cut montage of various Seattle neighborhoods and landmarks) the audience literally exploded into cheers and applause. I felt sheepish…I didn’t “get” it. What did I miss, I wondered?

Years later, I happened to watch the film again on cable…and that’s when I caught it. Only then I noticed that during that montage, there’s a momentary shot of a movie marquee. It was the Neptune, the very theater I’d been in when the audience freaked out. I suppose that my point is…sometimes, you can’t see the forest for the Screaming Trees.

In retrospect, I feel blessed to have moved to Seattle at that point in time, as the city was the nexus for a paradigm shift in rock. As Hua Hsu wrote in The New Yorker this week:

The success of Nirvana and other Seattle bands, including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, changed the music industry. The breakout rise of “Nevermind” suggested that so-called alternative bands and niches could be commercially viable—not just as steady, low-risk earners but as the proverbial next big thing. Major labels began showering loads of money on tiny, Nirvana-esque bands that played a similar kind of “grunge” rock. The “grunge gold rush,” as the journalist Steve Knopper termed it, created boom-or-bust trajectories for bands that might have once settled for modest regional fame. It was no longer hard to find alternative sounds; major labels were desperate to pitch everyone as the next Nirvana.

[…]

After his death, there were articles and nightly-news segments about Cobain’s nihilism, and what his choice suggested about the younger generation. Mostly, I remember listening to “Nevermind” over and over—not as a search for clues (for that, you’d listen to Nirvana’s last studio album, “In Utero,” and its many references to despair and illness), but as a reminder of how unlikely his trajectory had been. It was the first time I’d wondered how you could work both inside and outside the system—whether you could be critical of, say, the corporations underwriting your art while making art that aspired for worlds beyond those realities.

There’s a sort of bittersweet aftermath to this story. “Nevermind” has since been absorbed into the rock canon. Just as kids a couple of years younger and older than me at school had wildly different opinions about whether Cobain was a saint or a sellout, every generation has their own version of the Nirvana legend. Nowadays, Cobain has become a fashionable reference point for musicians across genres, from pop to hip-hop, who want their music to seem brooding and emotional. Dr. Dre and Jay-Z today express admiration for the cultural rebellion that Cobain represented, describing his music as powerful enough to have briefly “stopped” hip-hop’s ascendancy.

Maybe that’s the paradox of alternative culture that’s always been true, only it was our turn to realize it: pop culture is born anew each time an outlaw is discovered. Your pose lives on, even if the seeds of your own rebellion are forgotten.

Saint or sell-out, I don’t care…it’s the music that matters. Nirvana was but one fraction of the “Seattle Sound”, and I think a lot of it has held up rather well. With that in mind, I’ve selected my top 10 grunge-era songs by Seattle-based bands. In alphabetical order…

“Come As You Are” (Nirvana) – Yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is iconic, and a fantastic song, but this has always been the most compelling track from Nevermind for me. I find the band’s “MTV Unplugged” performance of the song particularly haunting.

“Hunger Strike” (Temple of the Dog) – Sadly, the history of Seattle’s grunge scene is full of heartbreak and shooting stars. Such was the impetus for this “one-off” supergroup, formed by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell as a tribute to Andrew Wood. Wood, lead singer of early Seattle grunge outfits Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone (the latter band featuring future Pearl Jam members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament) OD’d on heroin in 1990. Cornell recruited Gossard, Ament, their Pearl Jam bandmate Mike McReady, plus Soundgarden/future Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron. Eddie Vedder added vocals on some tracks, including this gem. Vedder and Cornell singing together is beyond sublime.

“Jeremy” (Pearl Jam) – Still one of the most powerful and moving songs of the era.

“Loud Love” (Soundgarden) – The late Chris Cornell had one of “those” voices; a force of nature. There was a raw immediacy in the band’s early recordings, nicely encapsulated by this standout track (and single) from their 1989 sophomore album Louder Than Love.

“Man in the Box” (Alice In Chains) – While this ominous yet compelling dirge has become a classic rock staple, it still doesn’t sound quite “right” coming out of your car radio…as in “how in the fuck did they ever sneak this one into the Top 40?” All I can say is, whatever dark regions of the human soul this tune sprang from, I daren’t even go there to snap a quick picture. Weirdly enough, lead singer Layne Staley tragically died of a drug overdose on April 5th, the same date as Kurt Cobain (but a different year…in 2002).

“Nearly Lost You” (The Screaming Trees) – Another early grunge outfit (formed in the mid-80s) the Screaming Trees got their first major national exposure in 1992 when this catchy number was featured on the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s hit movie Singles.

“99 Girls” (Young Fresh Fellows) – OK, they are not super well-known outside of Seattle, but I have a soft spot for the album this cut is taken from, because it was the Fellows’ “latest” when I worked at KCMU in 1992, and my introduction to the band’s quirky goodness. Originally formed in the early 80s, they had a college radio hit with their tune “Amy Grant”, which was a parody of Contemporary Christian Music. Their “sound” is sort of a mix of garage and punky power pop, frequently with cheeky lyrics. This song is a bit of clever wordplay referring to a stretch of Highway 99 (AKA Aurora Avenue where it runs through Seattle city limits) that is infamous as a sex worker haunt.

“Second Skin” (The Gits) – One of the Seattle scene’s greatest tragedies was the loss of this band’s dynamic and talented lead singer Mia Zapata, who was raped and murdered in 1993 at the age of 27 (thanks to the advent of DNA technology, her killer was eventually arrested, convicted and jailed 10 years later). This song was released as a single in 1991.

“Touch Me I’m Sick” (Mudhoney) – I love the amplifier buzz in the intro. Says it all.

“Tribe” (Gruntruck) – This band, which featured members of seminal Seattle grunge outfit Skin Yard leans closer to hard rock, but sometimes…I just wanna fly my freak flag.

Man of 1,000 dances: R.I.P. Hal Blaine

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 16, 2019)

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I nearly had a Curb Your Enthusiasm moment at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival. I attended a screening of The Wrecking Crew, a music documentary profiling a group of legendary studio session players. This guy sitting right next to me began talking back to the screen halfway through. The house was packed, so I couldn’t move to another seat. I almost shushed him but thought better of it (you never know how someone is going to react these days). Lights came up, and my chatty neighbor turned out to be… Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine, who was there to do a Q & A after the screening.

I only share that memory now because Hal Blaine passed away this week at the age of 90.

In a scene from a 1995 documentary about Brian Wilson called I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, his daughter Carnie talks about a period of her childhood where she recalls being startled awake every single morning by the iconic “bum-ba-bum-BOOM, bum-ba-bum-BOOM…” drum intro to The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” blasting from her dad’s stereo system. Apparently, Brian was obsessed at the time with trying to suss how producer Phil Spector was able to achieve that distinctive “wall of sound” on his records.

Carnie may or may not have been aware that technically, the man disturbing her rest was Hal Blaine. In a 2015 Guardian article, Blaine confessed that his drum intro was a fluke:

I was like a racehorse straining at the gate. But [Phil Spector] wouldn’t let me play until we started recording, because he wanted it to be fresh. That famous drum intro was an accident. I was supposed to play the snare on the second beat as well as the fourth, but I dropped a stick. Being the faker I was in those days, I left the mistake in and it became: “Bum-ba-bum-BOOM!” And soon everyone wanted that beat. If you listen to me in Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”, I’m playing the “Be My Baby” beat, just very softly.

Yes, Blaine also played with Sinatra. His services were also requested for the Pet Sounds sessions by the Phil Spector-obsessed Wilson. In fact, from the late 50s through the mid-70s, Blaine did sessions with Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Petula Clark, Mamas and the Papas, The Grass Roots, and countless others. Not to mention myriad TV themes and movie soundtracks.

Blaine was a member of the “Wrecking Crew”, a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the “sound” that defined classic Top 40 pop from the late 50s through the 70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.

Blaine may have been the most recorded drummer in pop music history. Remember that one time at band camp, when I almost told him to shut up? I remember him telling the audience that he was then in the midst of compiling his discography; he said at that time he’d been able to annotate “only” about 5,000 sessions (some estimates top the 10,000 mark!).

That’s quite a legacy. Condensing a “top 10” list from such a wondrous catalog is likely a fool’s errand-but that hasn’t stopped me in the past. So here you go, in alphabetical order:

“Any World (That I’m Welcome To)” (Steely Dan) – One of the better songs on Steely Dan’s 1975 album Katy Lied, “Any World” is essentially a musical daydream featuring compelling chord changes and wistful lyrics about quiet resignation and wishful thinking (“If I had my way, I would move to another lifetime/Quit my job, ride the train through the misty nighttime…”) You know – a typical excursion into Donald Fagen and Walter Becker’s willfully enigmatic and ever-droll universe (“Any world that I’m welcome to/Is better than the one I come from.”). The famously picky duo only used Blaine for this cut.

“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” (The Fifth Dimension) – James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot’s groundbreaking 1967 musical Hair was such a pop culture phenomenon at the time that it yielded huge hit singles for several artists who were not associated with any of its stage productions; namely Oliver (“Good Morning, Starshine”), Three Dog Night (“Easy to Be Hard”), and this epic two-song medley, which was covered by The Fifth Dimension. Bones Howe produced it, and The Wrecking Crew provided primary backing. The complex instrumental arrangement is by Bill Holman. Released as a single in 1969, it was not only a chart-topper, but picked up two Grammys.

“A Taste of Honey” (Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass) – Man, I heard this song a lot when I was a kid. Whipped Cream and Other Delights was a staple of my parents’ LP collection; I recall having a particular…fascination for the album cover (I’m pretty sure I stared a hole in it). Written by Bobby Scott and Ric Marlow in 1960, the song was covered by quite a few artists (including The Beatles), but Herb Alpert’s #1 1965 instrumental version is pretty definitive. Blaine holds it down tight with that bass drum!

“Be My Baby” (The Ronettes) – Just like Ronnie say. Produced (bigly) by Phil Spector, with Blaine’s unmissable “mistake” kicking things off quite nicely, thank you very much.

“Cecilia” (Simon & Garfunkel) – Featured on the duo’s outstanding 1970 swan song album Bridge Over Troubled Water, this jaunty Caribbean-flavored number was one of several cuts that hinted at Paul Simon’s burgeoning interest and future forays into world music. The song is very percussion-oriented, which makes it a good showcase for Blaine. Simon adds additional percussion on xylophone (although the overall effect gives the number a steel drum vibe very reminiscent of Bobby Bloom’s 1970 hit “Montego Bay”).

“Drummer Man” (Nancy Sinatra) – Blaine famously played on Nancy’s biggest hit “These Boots Were Made for Walkin” (1966), but this lesser-known cut from her 1999 album How Does it Feel? gives Blaine lots of room to stretch and really strut his stuff.

“Galveston” (Glen Campbell) – In a touching memoriam to Glen Campbell that Blaine posted on his Facebook page in 2017, he wrote “Everything that Glen recorded, with the Crew or with other musicians, were all hits. As for personal favorites, Glen always had a special place in his heart for the great song “Galveston”, and I guess we all did.” I will happily second that emotion. Blaine and the Crew are all in fine form on this beautifully crafted Jimmy Webb composition, which says all it needs to say in 2:41. Pop perfection.

“Kicks” (Paul Revere & the Raiders) – This single (which peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts in 1966) was produced by Terry Melcher and written by the Brill Building hit-making team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “On Broadway”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”). Solid drumming from Blaine, a memorable guitar riff, and a great growly (almost punky) lead vocal from Mark Lindsay.

“That’s Life” (Frank Sinatra) – When you’ve loved and lost like Frank…well, you know how the song goes: “Ridin’ high in April/Shot down in May…” Released in 1966 as the B-side to “The September of My Years” the song was written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon and produced by Jimmy Bowen (it went to #1 on the Easy Listening chart). Blaine, Glen Campbell and several other Wrecking Crew “regulars” are featured on the cut. The bluesy Hammond organ flourishes were played by Michael Melvoin. “My, my!”

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (The Beach Boys) – A great opener for a damn near perfect song cycle (if it weren’t for that loopy throwaway cut “Sloop John B” that has always ruined the otherwise consistently transporting mood of Pet Sounds for me…mumble grumble). Co-written by Brian Wilson, Tony Asher, and Mike Love, it features an expansive production by Wilson and a transcendent vocal arrangement with lovely harmonies. The Wrecking Crew are in full force on this cut, with Blaine holding it steady.

 

Another year for me and you: 10 essential albums of 1969

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 2, 2019)

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Well, this is it. 2019-last chance to celebrate a “50th anniversary” from the 60s (did I just detect a mass sigh of relief from all the Generation X and Millennial readers out there?).

2019 also marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock…so you eye-rolling hipsters best batten down the hatches and prepare for a surge of tie-tied, acid-fried, and dewy-eyed peace love ‘n’ dope c’mon people now smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now dirty filthy hippies wallowing in the mud nostalgia…MAN.

In my 2009 review of the Ang Lee film Taking Woodstock, I wrote:

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah, I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life.

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really “there”, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration.

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

Now it’s been 10 years since I wrote that piece regarding Woodstock’s 40th anniversary, so I’ve had some additional time to smoke a couple of bowls and further reflect on what my point was. After careful consideration, I believe it was: “You had to BE there, man!”

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

Anyhoo, going on the assumption that the next best thing to “being there” would be immersing yourself in the music of the era, I thought I’d mosey over to my record closet-where I hope to pluck some dusty jewels for your consideration. To wit-my picks for the top 10 most essential albums of 1969. As usual, my list is alphabetical-not ranking order.

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Abbey Road – The Beatles

Let it Be (1970) may have officially been the Beatles’ “final” studio album, but as it was recorded several months before the band’s penultimate 1969 release, it is Abbey Road that truly represents John, Paul, George and Ringo’s swan song as creative collaborators.

Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?

After a momentary lapse of reason to allow gifted but increasingly manic enfant terrible Phil Spector to (infamously) botch production for Let it Be, the Fabs wisely brought George Martin back on board. Martin, the band, and recording engineers Geoff Emerick, Phil McDonald and Alan Parsons are at the top of their game here (if you decide to pack it in, you might as well go out on top).

Choice cuts: “Come Together”, “Something”, “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “Because” (my god, those harmonies), “You Never Give Me Your Money”, “Sun King”, and (of course) the remainder of that magnificent Side 2 “suite”.

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Chicago Transit Authority – Chicago

While I’m not fond of their schmaltzy (if chart-topping) descent into “adult contemporary” territory from the 80s onward, there is no denying the groundbreaking nature of Chicago’s incredible first three double albums, beginning with this 1969 gem. The formula established here, which would continue through Chicago II and Chicago III (or what I like to call their “Roman Numeral Period”) was (for its time) a bold fusion of hard rock, blues, soul, jazz, and Latin styles, fueled by the late Terry Kath’s fiery guitar and accentuated by a tight horn section (and I’m not normally a big fan of horn sections).

Choice cuts: “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, “Beginnings”, “Questions 67 and 68”, “Poem 58” (great Kath solo) and a cover of Steve Winwood’s “I’m a Man”.

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Crosby, Still, & Nash – Crosby, Stills and Nash

One of rock’s most enduring “supergroups” sort of fell together (as the story goes) after an informal jam at a house party in 1968. The trio may have never agreed as to who’s house this seminal event occurred at (it vacillates between Joni Mitchell’s and Cass Elliot’s place), but millions of fans have since concurred that something truly sublime and greater than the sum of its parts occurs when David Crosby (originally from The Byrds), Stephen Stills (The Buffalo Springfield) and Graham Nash (The Hollies) sing three-part harmonies (occasionally joined by Neil Young…when they’re not all fighting). Their flawless debut LP has stood the test of time.

Choice cuts: All of them!

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Five Leaves Left – Nick Drake

Look in the dictionary under “melancholy” and you’ll likely find a picture of Nick Drake.

When the day is done, when the night is cold
Some get by but some get old
Just to show life’s not made of gold
When the night is cold

When the night is cold, I like to cozy up with a good pair of headphones, a cup of chamomile, and a Nick Drake album. Yes, his music was melancholy (and likely to blame for inspiring “emo”) but it was also beautiful; spare, haunting, unforgettable. He died much too young. If you’ve never had the pleasure, this debut is a fine place to start.

Choice cuts: “Time Has Told Me”, “Three Hours”, “River Man”, “Day Is Done”, “The Thoughts of Mary Jane”, “Fruit Tree”, and “Man in a Shed”.

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Hot Buttered Soul – Isaac Hayes

Singer-songwriter-musician-producer-arranger extraordinaire Isaac Hayes’ second album is, in a word, epic. Containing only 4 songs, it blew a lot of minds and set a new bar for soul music.

Before recording sessions commenced, Hayes demanded, and received full creative control from Stax Records (who I’d speculate were chagrined that there were no potential singles to mine from 4 tracks…at least not without extensive editing). I suspect Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye were paying close attention, as they would make a similar push for creative independence with execs at Motown several years later.

Choice cuts: Hayes’ impeccably produced cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By” is a 12-minute master class in song arranging and may very well be the inception of the “slow jam” that artists like Barry White would later build their entire careers on.

But the truly groundbreaking cut here is Hayes’ 18-minute deconstruction of Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. He takes Webb’s 2-minute pop song and turns it into a cinematic tone poem, with a 9-minute spoken word preface that adds poignant backstory to the protagonist’s already heartbreaking narrative.

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In the Court of the Crimson King – King Crimson

It’s safe to say there was nothing else that sounded quite like this seminal prog-rock masterpiece in 1969.

Led by avant-garde guitarist/producer Robert Fripp, the group featured vocalist/bassist Greg Lake (who would later hook up with Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer to form you-know-who), keyboardist/woodwind/sax player Ian McDonald (later of Foreigner), percussionist Michael Giles, and lyricist Peter Sinfield (also cryptically credited for “illumination”…their dealer, maybe?).

Many iterations of the band have followed over the years (with Fripp as the mainstay), but this remains my favorite conglomeration of personnel. Lake (with his cathedral pipes) was their finest vocalist.

Choice cuts: Pretty much all of them…from  the startling  proto-metal/jazz fusion opener “21st Century Schizoid Man” to the dreamy “I Talk to the Wind”,  the melancholic cautionary tale “Epitaph”, ethereally beautiful “Moonchild”, to the album’s appropriately magisterial closer “In The Court of the Crimson King.”

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Led Zeppelin II – Led Zeppelin

Despite legions of loyal fans (the author of this post among them) and the countless musicians they have inspired and influenced over the past 50 years, there’s just something about these seminal English rockers what really pisses off snooty music critics.

As an out and proud middlebrow, I’ll call this a “classic” without reservation. It was tough choosing this or their very strong debut album, which was also released in 1969. I could have cheated and just counted them both as one choice (which would have made my list “go to eleven”) but I’ve got principles (stop snickering).

Led Zeppelin’s unique blend of Delta blues, English folk, heavy metal riffing and (on subsequent albums, beginning with Led Zeppelin III) Eastern music has been oft-imitated but seldom matched… inviting us to tune in, buckle up, and ride a sonic roller coaster that takes you (as Jimmy Page described it) “from the whisper…to the thunder”.

Choice cuts: “Whole Lotta Love”, “What is and What Never Should Be”, “Thank You”, “Heartbreaker”, “Livin’ Lovin’ Maid” and “Ramble On” (best “wanderlust” song ever).

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The Stooges – The Stooges

Well it’s 1969 okay
All across the USA
It’s another year for me and you
Another year with nothing to do

Last year I was 21
I didn’t have a lot of fun
And now I’m gonna be 22
I say oh my and a boo hoo

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? True story.

The peace ‘n’ love ethos was still lingering when Iggy and the Stooges stormed straight outta Detroit with their aggressive proto-punk sound, undoubtedly scaring the shit out of a lot of hippies.

While this debut album didn’t exactly go storming up the charts upon initial release, it is now acknowledged as a profound influence on punk’s first wave (the Sex Pistols paid homage on Never Mind the Bollocks with their sneering cover of “No Fun”).

Choice cuts: “1969”, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “No Fun”, and “Real Cool Time”.

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Then Play On – Fleetwood Mac

I’ve got nothing personal against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham; they are obviously very talented folks in their own write, but…as far as I’m concerned, Fleetwood Mac “Classic” died the day they joined up with Christine McVie and stalwart founding members Mick Fleetwood and John McVie. This 1969 release is my favorite Mac album.

Guitarist and lead vocalist Peter Green would depart the band following this release (briefly rejoining later for a few live dates), but it features some of his finest work. The bulk of the songs for this outing were written by Green and newly acquired guitarist/vocalist Danny Kirwin (a gifted player and songwriter who would stay on board until some unfortunate personal issues forced him out in 1972). Very bluesy; those who prefer the more pop-oriented Buckingham-Nicks iteration may not find much to relate to.

Choice cuts: “Coming Your Way”, “Closing My Eyes”, “Underway”, “Although the Sun is Shining”, “My Dream” (gorgeous Kirwin instrumental),“Before the Beginning” and the classic “Oh Well”.

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Tommy – The Who

There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those precise arrangements, but I’m always up for spinning all four sides. Not only one of 1969’s finest offerings, but one of the best rock albums of all time.

Choice cuts: “1921”, “Amazing Journey”, “Acid Queen”, “Pinball Wizard”, “Tommy Can You Hear Me?”, “I’m Free”, and “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

Bonus tracks!

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10 more 1969 releases worth a spin:

Beck-Ola – Jeff Beck
Blind Faith – Blind Faith
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere – Neil Young & Crazyhorse
It’s a Beautiful Day – It’s a Beautiful Day
Kick Out the Jams – The MC5
Santana – Santana
Stand Up – Jethro Tull
Stand! – Sly & the Family Stone
Tons of Sobs – Free
Trout Mask Replica – Captain Beefheart

Put me in, coach: A top 10 mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 2, 2019)

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Did you know “snack stadiums” were a thing? I just learned that. I’m sure they’ve been a thing since asparagus and fig “snack coliseums” were all the rage in Rome, but I wouldn’t know, as I don’t follow football. Or basketball. Or baseball, soccer, hockey, boxing, bowling, racing, tennis, polo, curling, or shuffleboard. I have nothing against anyone who does-I’m just not a sports guy. However, I do look forward to Super Bowl Sundays for one reason: a “private screening” at the mid-afternoon matinee of my choice.

That said…while I don’t know much about sports, I can still hum a few bars. So I’ve curated my “top 10” favorite songs about my least-favorite pastime. In alphabetical order:

“Basketball Jones” (Cheech & Chong) – While this 1973 Top 40 hit by the premiere stoner comedy duo has taken on a life of its own, some of us are old enough (ahem) to remember the original “smooth groove” song that it parodies… “Love Jones” by Brighter Side of Darkness (which makes it even funnier). “Cheech” Marin took on the persona of one “Tyrone Shoelaces” for lead vocals. An all-star backing track lineup includes George Harrison (!), Carole King, Tom Scott, Billy Preston, Nicky Hopkins, and Ronnie Spector.

“Centerfield” (John Fogerty) – After kicking off with a riff suspiciously close to Richie Valens’ “La Bamba”, the former Creedence Clearwater Revival front man is “a-roundin’ third, and headed for home” with this popular 1985 song (actually released as a “B” side).

“Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor) – This rousing theme song for Rocky III was co-written by band members Frankie Sullivan and Jim Peterik (former lead vocalist for The Ides of March). A #1 hit that has become everyone and your grandma’s favorite workout anthem.

“Gonna Fly Now” (Bill Conti) – That distinctive opening brass salvo from the theme originally composed for Rocky in 1976 has become the trademark for a movie franchise now 43 years in the running (2018’s Creed II was the 8th installment, if you’re counting).

“Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)” (Warren Zevon) – The late singer-songwriter’s droll paean to the joys of high sticking. “What else can a farm boy from Canada do?”

 “Take the Skinheads Bowling” (Camper Van Beethoven) – Some people say that bowling alleys got big lanes. Now you! (“Got big lanes. Got big lanes.”). Two and a half minutes of pure genius. Lead singer David Lowery later formed Cracker (“Teen Angst”).

“Tell the Coach” (The Bus Boys) – I always felt this unique and talented L.A. band should have been a bigger deal, but the music business is nothing if not fickle. Here’s a great tongue-in-cheek song from their 1980 debut album, Minimum Wage Rock and Roll.

“Tour de France” (Kraftwerk) – The German electro-pop pioneers leave you breathless.

“We Are the Champions” (Queen) – You may have heard this at one or two sporting events. Originally on their 1977 News of the World album, it’s Queen’s ultimate anthem.

“When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease” (Roy Harper) – Despite his huge catalog, folk-rock troubadour Roy Harper remains one of England’s best-guarded musical secrets, even after 50+ years in the business. The talented singer-songwriter has had an acknowledged influence on a number of higher-profile artists, including Kate Bush, Pete Townshend, Ian Anderson, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (Page and Plant even name-checked him in their homage song “Hats Off to Roy Harper”). This wistful and enigmatic tune from his 1974 album HQ is one of my faves. All I can tell you is-cricket is involved.

Making ends meet: A top 10 mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 12, 2019)

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As we enter the 3rd week of the “partial” government shutdown, we’re hearing more and more stories of how it’s affecting thousands of federal employees and contractors who are either on forced furloughs, or who are being asked to continue working…without pay. 

This has not only thrown a spotlight on how many of the folks who help keep the country running smoothly are barely scraping by as it is, but it has opened a broader dialogue on how many Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, period. The stats are not too rosy:

[from US News & World Report]

In fact, living paycheck to paycheck – meaning there’s not a cash cushion to cover the bills if the income stops for a while – is a common condition in America. In the 12th richest nation in the world by per capita GDP, nearly 8 in 10 U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2017 study  by CareerBuilder, a human capital management firm. And the trend crosses over income groups: more than half of minimum wage workers said they needed to hold down two jobs to make ends meet, while one in 10 workers earning $100,000 or more yearly say they live paycheck to paycheck.

And if there’s an emergency? A large number of Americans don’t have an accessible stash of money to cover a substantial health care expense or car repair, studies show. The Federal Reserve Board in 2017 found that 44 percent of American households surveyed could not cover a $400 emergency expense.

Oy vay.

With that cheery thought in mind (and in consideration of the adage “misery loves company”) I’ve curated a playlist of songs that appropriately…commiserate. Erm, enjoy?

 (In alphabetical order…)

“Blue Collar” – Bachman-Turner Overdrive

“Five O’clock World” – The Vogues

“Hole to Hide In” – Foghat

Manic Monday” – The Bangles

“9 to 5” – Dolly Parton

 “Pieces of a Man” – Gil Scott-Heron

“She Works Hard for the Money” – Donna Summer

“Wichita Lineman” – Glen Campbell

“Working Class Hero” – John Lennon 

“Work to Do” – The Isley Brothers 

In the lap of the gods: Bohemian Rhapsody (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2018)

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One of my favorite scenes in the BBC-TV series I Claudius takes place in a library, where aspiring historian Claudius encounters two scholars whom he admires. When Claudius diplomatically says they are the “two greatest” historians, it gets awkward fast:

(excerpted from the teleplay by Jack Pulman)

Pollio: Well, there can’t be two greatest. That’s just shilly-shallying, apart from being an abuse of the Roman tongue. So, you will have to choose. Which one of us would you rather read?

 Livy: Oh come Pollio, that’s not fair.

 Pollio: Nonsense. The lad’s obviously intelligent. So, speak up, boy. Which of us would you rather read?

 Claudius: Well, it d-d-depends, sir.

 Pollio: Ah, intelligent, but cowardly.

 Claudius: No. I mean, it depends on what I’m reading for. For b-beauty of language I would read L-Livy, and for interpretation of fact I would read P-P-Pollio.

 Livy: [indignantly] Now you please neither of us and that’s always a mistake!

Now, I like to fancy myself a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll historian. I’m not claiming to be a “scholar”, mind you…but I’m cognizant enough to conclude that for beauty of language, I would read Lester Bangs, and for interpretation of fact…I would read Richard Meltzer.

I am also a film critic (allegedly). So when I settle down to review a rock ‘n’ roll biopic like Bryan Singer’s long-anticipated Bohemian Rhapsody, I start to feel a little schizoid. My mission as a film critic is to appraise a film based on its cinematic merits; e.g. how well is it directed, written, and acted? Does it have a cohesive narrative? Do I care about the characters? How about the cinematography, and the editing? Are you not entertained?

However, my inner rock ‘n’ roll historian also rears its head, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it’s only a movie, thereby releasing the kraken of pedantic angst. So I’ll endeavor to tread lightly…otherwise I’ll be at risk of pleasing neither of my two readers.

In the remote case you are unaware, the film dramatizes the story of Queen, one of the most successful rock acts of all time. The film’s title is taken from one of their most recognizable songs, guaranteed to be playing soon on your local classic rock FM station (tune in-it will play within an hour or so, or it will be sampled in a station sweeper mandated by law to include “Money” by Pink Floyd and “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin).

You are likely aware that there has been a kerfuffle or two regarding this film. Sacha Baron Cohen was originally cast as lead singer Freddie Mercury but walked out over creative differences with producers. Credited director Singer was booted off the project by the studio while it was still in production (he was replaced by uncredited Dexter Fletcher). Then there was social media outcry in wake of the teaser trailer, which some members of the LBGTQ community felt “straight-washed” Mercury’s sexual orientation.

Talk about performance pressure.

The film opens with a Scorsese-style tracking shot following Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) as he energetically works his way from backstage to enter the mainstage at London’s Wembley Stadium where an excited throng of humanity awaits. It’s July of 1985, and Queen is about to deliver their now-legendary performance as part of Bob Geldof’s massive Live-Aid benefit concert to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims.

Adhering to the Golden Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll Biopics, this is but a framing device-and a cue to abruptly cut away from this moment of triumph to embark on a 2-hour flashback showing How We Got Here (spoiler alert-the time loop eventually reconnects with 1985).

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay proceeds from there in a fairly standard by-the-numbers fashion, beginning in early ‘70s London, which is when and where baggage handler, rock superfan and later-to-be-christened “Freddie Mercury” (née Farrokh Bulsara) joins his favorite band Smile after their bassist/lead vocalist quits. With Farrokh, new bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzelo), guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) now in place, Smile is all set to morph into the classic Queen lineup.

Theirs was not an overnight success; it wasn’t until 1973 that they found themselves in a position to record their first proper album. The film depicts the band scrambling to find their voice in these first forays in the recording studio; working out the basic rudiments of what would eventually become the band’s signature formula of proggy neo-classical melodies meets heavy metal riffing, topped off by intricate harmony vocal arrangements.

The band’s 1974 sophomore album Queen II and its follow-up Sheer Heart Attack (same year!) were actually more significant in terms of sales and career-building, but the filmmakers curiously skip over this crucial transition period of substantive creative progression and jump into the sessions for 1975’s international hit A Night at the Opera.

It’s in these scenes, where the band becomes ensconced in the studios that the film really came alive for me; then again, I’m a sucker for fly-on-the-wall peeks at creative process.

Unfortunately, the film falls flat whenever it takes soap-opera excursions into Freddie Mercury’s personal life. I don’t fault the actors; Lucy Boynton and Aaron McCusker each give it their best shot as Mercury’s longtime girlfriend Mary Austin and male lover Jim Hutton, respectively and Malek’s completely committed portrayal never falters (although I was initially distracted by his uncanny resemblance to Mick Jagger early in the film).

In case you were wondering, they do address his sexuality (as well as the AIDS that took him from us; although they inexplicably alter the timeline as to when he was diagnosed).

To millions of fans, Queen “was” Freddie Mercury; and indeed, he was the embodiment of a Rock Star-a flamboyant, dynamic, iconoclastic front man with fabulous pipes and charisma to spare. I get that. Yet Mercury was one-quarter of a unit where the others brought their own monster musicianship, angelic harmonies and songwriting skills to the table.

When I was a 17-year-old longhair stoner rocking out to “Liar”, “Modern Times Rock and Roll” and “Keep Yourself Alive” while dancing around my room wearing comically over-sized Koss headphones, I don’t recall giving one infinitesimal fuck whether the singer was gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual or asexual. I just dug the music.

Bottom line, if you go in expecting a Freddie Mercury biopic replete with all the juicy details of his love life and recreations of his legendary bacchanals, you will be disappointed. If you go in expecting a Queen biopic that neatly distills the essence of the band and its music, and you’re not overly bothered by fudging on the facts for the sake of some dramatic license, I think you will come out of the theater with Bic lighter held aloft.

# # #

Special note: The showing of Bohemian Rhapsody that I attended was presented in a format hitherto unknown to me called “Screen X”. While I did balk at the $18 price tag (for a goddam matinee?!) I figured it was my duty to check out this newfangled technology.

Screen X requires a three-screen configuration. The center is your standard movie screen image, matted the same as any theater, cable or home video presentation. Additional footage is projected on the left and right wall panels immediately adjacent. This affords what is billed as a “270-degree” field of view (what am I…a fuckin’ owl?).

These side images are composed, filmed, and edited at the same time as the standard theatrical material; the intended effect is to fill your peripheral vision. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, only “selected scenes” were given the full effect (mostly used for the live concert scenes).

It’s being compared to IMAX, but I found it reminiscent of Cinerama (I’m showing my age). Truth be told, it didn’t enhance my movie experience. I found it distracting. Meh. Now, if they could figure a way to add quadrophonic sound…

My 2019 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee picks

By Dennis Hartley

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 15 nominees for 2019, which  must be weeded down to 5 for the next induction.  Once again, I will dutifully fulfill my mission as an alleged pop culture critic and argue for my 5 picks (while hopefully not enraging fans of the remaining 10). Just remember kids…it’s only rock ‘n’ roll. Relax.

The Hall’s nominees are:  Def Leppard, Devo, Janet Jackson, John Prine, Kraftwerk, LL Cool J, MC5, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Roxy Music, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Stevie Nicks, The Cure, The Zombies (who I already endorsed last year) and Todd Rundgren. So here’s who I feel should be in the clique…and why:

Devo – Yes, that  retro-futurist band with two Bobs and two sets of brothers who made vaguely unsettling videos you could dance to…they must be inducted immediately. They emerged straight outta Akron in 1973, and they were…different.  It took them a spell to find an audience, as they initially leaned more toward arch performance art than conventional musicality. Yet they turned out to be quite musical; and with benefit of hindsight, unarguably visionary.

Best 3 albums:  Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (1978),  Freedom of Choice (1980), and New Traditionalists (1981).

Kraftwerk – In terms of innovation and lasting influence, this German “krautrock” outfit (founded 1970) holds the most import of my 5 selections. While not necessarily the first band to embrace electronica, they were among the first to seamlessly forge the technology with pop sensibilities. Eschewing  traditional guitar-bass-drum backup for synths, vocoders, and drum machines, Kraftwerk upped the ante with  self-consciously detached, metronomic vocals that caused many to snicker and dismiss the band as a novelty act.  They’re not laughing now, as Kraftwerk’s influences continue to flourish in rock, hip-hop and club music.

Best 3 albums:  Autobahn (1974), Trans-Europe Express (1977), and Computer World (1981).

MC5 – Granted, they may not be as musically innovative as others who are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but if you consider “attitude” a key component of rock and roll,  these Detroit-based rockers had it in spades. Call it what you will, proto-punk, garage, psych…they were loud, fast, and aggressive long before it was fashionable. In fact, they scared the living shit out of the mellow peace love and dope crowd at the time. Perhaps most notably, they were boldly outspoken and overtly political (which got them into a lot of trouble during the Nixon years), paving the way for activist bands like The Clash, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy, System of a Down, and Green Day. This is the fourth time they have been nominated…if there has ever been a time to kick out the jams, it’s NOW, motherfuckers!

Best 3 albums: Kick Out the Jams (1969), Back in the USA (1970), and High Time (1971).

Roxy Music – This English outfit (founded in 1970) had very strange optics for its time. They looked like a hastily assembled jam band comprised of space rockers, 50s greasers, hippie stoners, and goths, fronted by a stylishly continental 30s crooner. But the music they made together was magic. It also defied categorization and begged a question; do we file it under glam, prog, pop or art-rock? The answer is “yes”.  They were a huge influence on art punk and new wave, and even their earliest music still sounds freshly original. Let ’em in!

Best 3 albums: Roxy Music (1972), Siren (1975), and Avalon (1982).

Todd Rundgren – It’s shocking to me that the Hall has waited this long to nominate Rundgren, who’s been in the biz for over 50 years (and is still going strong).  He is a true rock and roll polymath; a ridiculously gifted singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist,  and record producer extraordinaire. He is also a music video and multimedia pioneer. Granted, his mouth gets him into trouble on occasion (he is from Philly you know), and he does have a rep for insufferable perfectionism in the studio-but the end product is consistently top shelf (including acclaimed albums by Badfinger, The New York Dolls, Meatloaf, The Tubes, Psychedelic Furs, and XTC). Whether he’s performing  pop, psych, metal, prog, R&B, power-pop, electronica or lounge, he does it with flair. A wizard and a true star.

Best 3 albums: Something/Anything? (1972), Todd (1974) and Faithful (1976).

When strangers were welcome here: A hopeful mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 5, 2018)

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I don’t know if you’ve been following the story about the Central American caravan, but once they reached Tijuana last week, the media seemed to lose interest (it’s not as captivating as the new royal baby, I suppose). Well, media outside of Fox, where pundits continue to gin up the nativist hysteria that kicked off with Trump’s remarks claiming that the women within the relatively small group of asylum seekers “are [being] raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before”. He has also Tweeted he won’t let them through.

While there’s certainly nothing new about the anti-immigrant rhetoric that Donald Trump has been spouting nearly all his adult life (much less as “our” president), there’s been something particularly sickening to me about the racist dog-piling atop this group of people. Sure, we don’t know all their personal histories, but they are still human beings:

[from the San Diego Union-Tribune]

The final remnants of the Central American caravan began to disappear in Tijuana Friday after the last group of asylum seekers entered the United States.

Volunteers and migrants who plan to stay in Mexico slowly dismantled tents and canopies, picked up trash, folded blankets and swept dirt from the ground they slept on since arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border Sunday.

As the last members of the caravan entered the U.S. – about 70 of a total of 228 – some said goodbye to loved ones. Those staying behind include people who need more legal help before crossing into the U.S. and those who have already been deported and have slim changes of asylum.

Mario Mejia, 34, of El Salvador, said farewell to his wife. The couple planned to claim asylum together, but lawyers told Mejia his case for asylum is weak.

Mejia was deported from the U.S. five times between 2010 and 2013 after getting caught crossing the border illegally in the Arizona desert.

“The last time I was deported I spent a year and a half in prison,” he said. “The judge told me if I tried again I’d serve twice as much.”

Apart from his deportations from the U.S., Mejia has been deported from Mexico eight times. He’s applied for asylum in both countries but has been denied.

Mejia left El Salvador when he was 14 after members of MS-13 threatened to kill him if he didn’t join their gang.

“It’s a hard life,” he said. “I’ve never had a stable place to live in.”

As his wife walked toward the San Ysidro border crossing Friday, Mejia told her to keep moving forward and promised to call her brothers, who live in the U.S., to make sure they take care of her.

Later, as he packed his belongings into a backpack and helped clean up the caravan’s makeshift tent city, he pondered his future. He said he plans to stay in Tijuana and hopes to find a job in construction until he makes enough money for a bus ticket to Mexicali, where he has friends and better job opportunities.

From there? “I don’t know,” he said.

And that’s just one of the stories. It breaks your heart (if you have one). Here’s the thing-that’s not just Mario’s story. Outside of Native Americans, it is all our stories; all Americans. None of us are really “from” here; if you start tracing your family’s genealogy, I’ll bet you don’t have to go back too many generations to find ancestors who were born on foreign soil. Some Americans have conveniently forgotten about that fact.

That’s why I think it’s time for some music therapy. I’ve chosen 10 songs that speak to the immigrant experience and serve to remind us of America’s multicultural foundation.

“Across the Borderline” – Freddy Fender

This song (co-written by John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and Jim Dickinson) has been covered many times, but this heartfelt version by the late Freddy Fender is the best. Fender’s version was used as part of the soundtrack for Tony Richardson’s 1982 film The Border.

“America” – Neil Diamond

Diamond’s anthemic paean to America’s multicultural heritage first appeared in the soundtrack for Richard Fleischer and Sidney J. Furie’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer (thankfully, Diamond’s stirring song has had a longer shelf life than the film, which left audiences and critics underwhelmed). Weirdly, it was included on a list of songs deemed as “lyrically questionable” and/or “inappropriate” for airplay in an internal memo issued by the brass at Clear Channel Communications in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Go figure.

“America” (movie soundtrack version) – West Side Story

This classic number from the stage musical and film West Side Story (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein) is both a celebration of Latin immigrant culture and a slyly subversive take down of nativist-driven ethnic stereotyping.

“Ave Que Emigra” – Gaby Morena

Speaking of exploding stereotypes-here’s a straightforward song explaining why cultural assimilation and cultural identity are not mutually exclusive. From a 2012 NPR review:

As a song that speaks of being an immigrant, [Gaby Moreno’s “Ave Que Emigra”] strikes the perfect emotional chords. So many songs on that topic are gaudy, one-dimensional woe-is-me tales. Moreno’s story of coming to America is filled with simple one-liners like “tired of running, during hunting season” (evocative of the grotesque reality Central Americans face today at home and in their journeys north). Her cheerful ranchera melody, with its sad undertone, paints a perfect portrait of the complex emotional state most of us immigrants inhabit: a deep sadness for having to leave mixed with the excitement of the adventure that lies ahead, plus the joy and relief of having “made it.”

No habla espanol? No problema! You can see the English translation of the lyrics here.

“Buffalo Soldier” – Bob Marley & the Wailers

Sadly, not all migrants arrived on America’s shores of their own volition; and such is the unfortunate legacy of the transatlantic slave trade that flourished from the 16th to the 18th centuries. As Malcolm X once bluntly put it, “[African Americans] didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the Rock was landed on us.” Bob Marley entitled this song as reference to the nickname for the black U.S. Calvary regiments that fought in the post-Civil War Indian conflicts. Marley’s lyrics seem to mirror Malcom X’s pointed observation above:

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you’re coming from
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me
Who the heck do I think I am

 I’m just a Buffalo Soldier
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Said he was fighting on arrival
Fighting for survival

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” – Arlo Guthrie

Woody Guthrie originally penned this “ripped from the headlines” protest piece as a poem in the wake of a 1948 California plane crash (the music was composed some years later by Martin Hoffman, and first popularized as a song by Pete Seegar). Among the 32 passengers who died were 28 migrant farm workers who were in the process of being deported back to Mexico. Guthrie noticed that most press and radio reports at the time identified the 4 crew members by name, while dehumanizing the workers by referring to them en masse as “deportees” (plus ca change…). His son Arlo’s version is very moving.

“The Immigrant”– Neil Sedaka

Reflecting  back on his 1975 song, Neil Sedaka shared this tidbit in a 2013 Facebook post:

I wrote [“The Immigrant”] for my friend John Lennon during his immigration battles in the 1970s. I’ll never forget when I called to tell him about it. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he said, “Normally people only call me when they want something. It’s very seldom people call you to give you something. It’s beautiful.”

I concur with John. It’s Sedaka’s most beautifully crafted tune, musically and lyrically.

“Immigration Blues” – Chris Rea

In 2005, prolific U.K. singer-songwriter Chris Rea released a massive 11-CD box set album with 137 tracks called Blue Guitars (I believe that sets some sort of record). The collection is literally a journey through blues history, with original songs “done in the style of…[insert your preferred blues sub-genre here]” from African origins to contemporary iterations. This track is from “Album 10: Latin Blues”. The title says it all.

“Immigration Man” – David Crosby & Graham Nash

After an unpleasant experience in the early 70s getting hassled by a U.S. Customs agent, U.K.-born Graham Nash (who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1978) didn’t get mad, he got even by immortalizing his tormentor in a song. The tune is one of the highlights of the 1972 studio album he recorded with David Crosby, simply titled Crosby and Nash. I love that line where he describes his immigration form as “big enough to keep me warm.”

“Thousands are Sailing”– The Pogues

An ode to the Irish migrant wave that came in the wake of the Great Famine of the mid-1800s.

’68 was ’68: 10 essential rock albums

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 14, 2018)

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For some reason, whenever someone refers to the 1960s as “a turbulent decade”, I always think of one year in particular. If I may co-opt the meteorological “F-Scale” as a metaphor, while most years of that decade were stormy, 1968 was the only one to hit F-5.

As Jon Meacham wrote in a Time article from January of this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

So obviously, I am not alone in this “F-5” assessment. In fact, you may have already had it up to “here” with the 50th anniversary retrospectives, and are rolling your eyes and considering bailing on this very piece (all I am saying, is-give my piece a chance…man).

No, I’ll leave historical perspective to the historians and humbly stay “in my place” as the (alleged) pop culture maven around these here parts. I’ll be keeping it real at 33 and a 3rd.

I’ll start at 45 RPM. If you were to use Billboard’s top 10 hits of 1968 as a barometer, you might not catch wind of that sociopolitical “turbulence”. Countin’ them down like Casey Kasem: #10 was “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells, #9 “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel, #8 “The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly” theme by Hugo Montenegro, #7 “This Guy’s in Love with You” by Herb Alpert, #6 “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream, #5 “People Got to Be Free” by The Rascals, #4 (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding, #3 “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro, #2 “Love is Blue” by Paul Mauriat, and the #1 song of 1968 was (drum roll please) “Hey Jude” by The Beatles.

So that is a fairly eclectic mix of soul, R&B, rock, easy listening and solid MOR on that list. With the exception of The Rascals’ plea for love ‘n’ peace and the droll social satire of “Mrs. Robinson”, nothing much deeper than I love you, I miss you, the sky is blue, so let’s tighten it up now. Then again, Top 40 radio has never been a gauge of who was bringing the message to the people…but rather who is taking the most money to the bank.

Meanwhile, in 1968 the genre broadly referred to as “rock ‘n’ roll” was progressing by leaps and bounds. You could say it was “splintering”. Sub-genres were propagating; folk-rock, blues-rock, progressive rock, country rock, hard rock. And in the wake of the success of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (an album which notably yielded no singles) many artists were beginning to rethink the definition of an “album”. Maybe an LP didn’t have to be a 12” collection of radio-friendly “45s” with a hole in the middle; perhaps you could view the album as a whole, with a unifying theme as its center.

This was moving too fast for AM radio, which required a steady supply of easy-to-digest 3 minute songs to buffer myriad spot breaks (OK, “Hey Jude” was over 7 minutes-but The Beatles were the exception to many rules). Yet, there was something interesting happening over on the FM dial. The “underground” format, which sprouted somewhat organically in late 1967 on stations like WOR-FM and WNEW-FM in New York City, had caught on nationally by 1968, providing a perfect platform for “deep” album cuts.

But hey, (in the immortal words of Marty DiBirgi) enough of my yakkin’. Here are my picks for the top 10 rock albums of 1968 (listed alphabetically by LP title…not by rank).

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Astral Weeks – Van Morrison

From the late great Lester Bangs’ astounding 3700 word essay regarding this album:

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend. It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim. It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie. Maybe what it boiled down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.

Erm, what Lester said about the dichotomy of good art. Indeed, gone was the Van who was “…making love in the green grass/behind the stadium” with his “Brown-Eyed Girl” a year earlier. In his second studio album, Van was evolving, eschewing pop formulas and dipping deep into that Celtic soul that would become his stock-in-trade on later LPs like Veedon Fleece. Choice cuts: “Astral Weeks”, “Cyprus Avenue”, and “Madame George”.

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The Beatles (White Album) – The Beatles

From its decidedly anti-commercial, minimalist cover art, to the sprawling, 30-song set within, the Fabs at once surpassed and deconstructed everything that had previously defined them musically with this double album. With the benefit of hindsight, you could say this was really 4 solo albums rolled into one, as many of the sessions were actually assembled sans a Beatle or two (or even three). There were even a few guest musicians brought in by individual band members to sweeten some of the tunes to their own liking.

The resultant juxtaposition of scattered eclecticism was almost scary. As groundbreaking as the previous year’s Sgt. Pepper may have been,  nothing prepared unsuspecting fans for the proto-thrash of “Helter Skelter”, the faux-country novelty of “Rocky Racoon”, the reggae/ska-flavor of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, the absurdist “Wild Honey Pie”, the bluegrass-flavored “Don’t Pass Me By”, or the avant-garde mindfuck of “Revolution 9.”

Still, there are many diamonds in the rough; from rockers like “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “Glass Onion” and “Birthday”, to beautiful ballads like “Cry Baby Cry”, “I Will”, “Julia”, “Blackbird”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, and “Long, Long, Long.” Other highlights include John’s “Dear Prudence” and George’s epic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

If you listen carefully, you can still glean direct influences from this album in modern rock. For example, I can hear future echoes of Kurt Cobain in Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Aside from the “loud soft loud” flux of the arrangement, note how John intones “Mother Superior jump the gun” until it almost becomes hypnotic; repeating a lyrical phrase was one of Cobain’s songwriting tics (“No I don’t have a gun…). Spooky!

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Beggar’s Banquet – The Rolling Stones

Released a month after the Beatles White Album hit record stores, this set demonstrated that the Stones’ half-hearted flirtation with psychedelia on the previous year’s Their Satanic Majesties Request had been just that…a flirtation (and frankly, a Sgt. Pepper knock-off).

However, any suspicions that the band had been floundering were quashed once the needle dropped on Side 1, Cut 1: “Please allow me to introduce myself/I’m a man of wealth and taste…” With that meticulously constructed invocation known as “Sympathy for the Devil”, the Stones finally became “the Stones”. They had arrived, with a strong, distinctive set that includes the spunky, anthemic “Street Fighting Man”, hard rocking “Stray Cat Blues”, and a fair amount of rootsy, acoustic-based country blues like “Prodigal Son”, “No Expectations”, and “Salt of the Earth”. One of their finest efforts.

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Bookends – Simon & Garfunkel

Even Simon & Garfunkel took a cue from Sgt. Pepper, taking their stab at a “concept” album (a song cycle about birth/life/death) with this 1968 release. Clocking in at a breezy 30 minutes, this set contains some of Paul Simon’s most enduring compositions.

Interestingly, Simon was said to have been suffering from writer’s block at the time-but you wouldn’t know it, with the likes of “Save the Life of My Child”, “America” (his best road song), “Punky’s Dilemma”, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”, “At the Zoo”, and of course the bonafide classic “Mrs. Robinson” (recorded in 1967 for The Graduate soundtrack).

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Electric Ladyland – The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Double albums from rock bands were still considered a novelty in 1968; you could count all previous on one hand (namely, Freak Out! by The Mothers of Invention and Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in 1966, and Donovan’s A Gift from a Flower to a Garden in 1967), yet the year saw double-LP sets from two significant acts: The Beatles (see above) and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. This was Jimi’s final studio album with the Experience; while it was his most commercially successful effort, it was also his most experimental.

It’s been said that Jimi drove band mates and studio engineers nuts with his perfectionism on this project, especially with endless lead vocal takes (he was famously insecure about his voice-and of course he needn’t have been, silly man!). A majority of the cuts could be classified as “psychedelic blues-rock”, yet there are interesting side trips along the course of its four sides.

“(Have You Ever Been) To Electric Ladyland” is a soulful, 2-minute Curtis Mayfield-style kick-off belying unexpected turns to follow, from the lead kazoo solo on “Crosstown Traffic”, a powerful 15-minute slow blues rendition of “Voodoo Chile”, the epic 13-minute psychedelic tone poem “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be)”, the now-classic cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, and of course, to the most scorching, heaviest “Hendrixian” song of them all, “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”.

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In Search of the Lost Chord – The Moody Blues

So how did the Moody Blues follow up their pioneering 1967 “symphonic rock” opus, Days of Future Passed? Well, they followed it up with an even more solid masterpiece. As the title implies, this is a concept album about quests; quests for knowledge, for meaning, for truth (you know-nothing too heavy). Just in case you don’t understand that you are embarking on a musical journey, the band opens the album with a song called (wait for it) “Departure”. And…you’re off (with or without chemical additives-your call). An outstanding LP, impeccably produced and sonically dynamic (headphones!). Choice cuts: “Ride My Seesaw”, “House of Four Doors”, “Legend of a Mind”, and “The Actor”.

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The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society – The Kinks

Ray Davies fully realized a perfect musical evocation of pure distilled “Englishness” with this album. It is a suite, of sorts, weaving a portrait of a sleepy English hamlet; replete with its local flavor, rendered chiefly via stories centering on its eccentric inhabitants. You can almost smell the tea and biscuits. Pete Townshend summed it up best when he said of this collection, “For me, Village Green Preservation Society was Ray’s masterwork. It’s his Sgt. Pepper, it’s what makes him the definitive pop poet laureate.” Amen. Choice cuts: “The Village Green Preservation Society”, “Picture Book”, “Johnny Thunder”, “Village Green”, “Starstruck”, and “People Take Pictures of Each Other”.

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S.F. Sorrow – The Pretty Things

Contrary to popular belief, The Who’s Tommy was technically not the first “rock opera”, because the UK band The Pretty Things beat them by a year with this concept album. The band’s lead singer Phil May wrote a short story that eventually morphed into this project. Not unlike Howard the Duck, the angst-ridden protagonist here (a Sebastian F. Sorrow) is trapped in a world he never made. It’s actually a pretty gloomy tale (presaging Pink Floyd’s The Wall), but the music is excellent (the tunes stand on their own). Choice cuts: “S.F. Sorrow is Born”, “My Time”, “Private Sorrow”, “Trust”, and “Loneliest Person”.

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Waiting for the Sun – The Doors

After releasing a flawless debut (The Doors) and a more hit-and-miss sophomore effort (Strange Days) the previous year, the pressure was on for the Doors to prove they could deliver on that promise to “break on through to the other side”. And deliver they did. Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robbie Kreiger and John Densmore stretched out a little more than previous on this release, which yielded a hit single (“Hello, I Love You”) gave birth to Morrison’s “lizard king” persona (“Not To Touch the Earth”) and put forth an ominous clarion call for revolution (“Five to One”). Other choice cuts: “Love Street”, “Summer’s Almost Gone”, “The Unknown Soldier”, “Spanish Caravan”, “Yes, the River Knows”.

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We’re only in it for the Money – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention

Leave it to that sly musical provocateur Frank Zappa to gleefully mock the peace love and dope ethos of the “summer of love”, while his fans were essentially still in its thrall:

Walked past the wig store

Danced at the Fillmore

I’m completely stoned

I’m hippy and I’m trippy

I’m a gypsy on my own

I’ll stay a week and get the crabs

And take a bus back home

I’m really just a phony

But forgive me—‘cuz I’m stoned.

Importantly, that is what differentiates this album from the previous 9; while the lineage of nearly all can be traced in one way or the other back to Sgt. Pepper, Zappa is openly ridiculing the concept of Sgt. Pepper. This is a concept album expressly constructed to parody concept albums (while they were still in their infancy). I mean, who DOES that?!

Choice cuts: “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” (source of the excerpted lyrics), “Absolutely Free”, “Flower Punk”, “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black”, and “The Idiot Bastard Son.”

Tell me why: A therapeutic mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 17, 2018)

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In a 2016 piece about the mass shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, I wrote:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness. And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

Well, that didn’t take. Which reminds me-remember what happened a year ago this month? Here’s a quick refresher (from the Washington Times-February 15th, 2017):

Congress on Wednesday approved the first gun rights bill of the new Republican-controlled Washington, voting to erase an Obama administration regulation that would have forced Social Security to scour its lists and report some of its beneficiaries to the firearms no-buy list.

The Senate approved the bill on a 57-43 vote. The House cleared the legislation earlier this month.

If President Trump signs the bill into law as expected, it will expunge a last-minute change by the Obama administration designed to add more mental health records to the national background check system that is meant to keep criminals and unstable people from obtaining weapons.

In case you missed it, President Trump did, in fact, sign the bill into law. As expected.

So how did that work out for us? Remember Vegas? Watched any news…this week?

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

Something else “they” say…music soothes the savage beast. Not that this 10-song playlist that I have assembled will necessarily assuage the grief, provide the answers that we seek, or shed any new light on the subject-but sometimes, when words fail, music speaks.

As the late great Harry Chapin tells his audience in the clip I’ve included below: “Here’s a song that I could probably talk about for two weeks. But I’m not going to burden you, and hopefully the story and the words will tell it the way it should be.” What Harry said.

“Family Snapshot” – Peter Gabriel

“Friend of Mine” – Jonathan & Stephen Cohen (Columbine survivors)

“Guns Guns Guns” – The Guess Who

“I Don’t Like Mondays” – The Boomtown Rats

“Jeremy” – Pearl Jam

“Melt the Guns” – XTC

“Psycho Killer” – The Talking Heads

“Saturday Night Special” – Lynyrd Skynyrd

“Sniper” – Harry Chapin

“Ticking” – Elton John