Sunday, October 26, 2014

Music Nazi Lightens Up a Bit

Heil Jaybee!:

One of the most depressing things I ever witnessed took place some time in the nineties when a group of acquaintances - just a couple of years older than me - who were in the same bar as me, began singing along to a bunch of oldies.

“Oldies” being defined as pop music produced after our parent’s era but before the Beatles.

I always prided myself on looking ahead - keeping up with things, even if I was always a year or two behind. It sure beat being out of touch. The cost of which was to miss out on all of the brilliant music that was and is being made.

I’ll admit this meant I didn’t get to sing along much in bars, but at least I wasn’t being nostalgic, which I considered a mortal sin.

So anyway back to the bar. I was not yet forty and it’s possible they weren’t either. But here they were Declaring They Were Old. I found it pathetic.

They were giving up.

My Back Pages:

But I always did have a problematic relationship with pre-Beatles rock music. Frankly, I found it idiotic. It was too tame and the lyrics were stupid. And except in rare cases, it didn’t even have an electric guitar - a mortal sin in my book.

Having been born in 1957, I didn’t really notice music until 1963, when all the girls in my first grade class went crazy for the Beatles. I’d soon go crazy for them, too, and for all the other wonderful music of that era.

Of course, we had to deal with our parents telling us how lousy the music was. My reaction was to become protective of it, and if anything, criticize their music just as aggressively. Who could like music that was liked by older people? Those people only appeared in black and white movies and were dressed up all the time! How horrible!

I’d also try to justify rock music in the terms that mattered to adults. I was forever playing songs for my mom that I thought she’d like, just to prove that my music was just as good as hers. It rarely worked. The drums or the vocal would always get in the way.

So Much Older Then:

And it would only get worse as I hit my teens. I took myself and my music very seriously. Musicianship became more important than simple enjoyment. The more pretentious the music, the better.

So I saw the idea of liking oldies as a kind of betrayal. People only slightly older than me were abandoning “our” music and saying that what came before it was better. Wasn’t that what our parents were saying?

And for what? Doo wop and vocal groups, which didn’t feature an electric guitar? Stupid lyrics like womp bomp a lua (instead of poetry like doo wah diddy)? Simple music (unlike, oh, John Prine and Neil Young)?  Poor sound quality (unlike punk rock)? I was into Emerson, Lake and Palmer, while a friend became obsessed with the Beach Boys. Imagine!

My attitude was Stand Your Ground. Our Music Was the Greatest Music of All Time. I knew this even though I wasn’t around for 99% of the “All Time” I was referring to. I Just Knew! I mean, how could anything be better than the Beatles? It just wasn’t possible, and I resented anyone who would suggest otherwise. Still do, to be honest.

What I was missing - being a too self-conscious teen ager - was that the appeal of rock music was to embrace simplicity and enjoy the sheer sound of it. So what if adults didn’t like it? That was part of the fun! It was okay to like something that was loud, messy and silly. And you didn’t owe anyone an explanation for it.

I’d eventually relent somewhat and come to like Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry (notice the electric guitars) Elvis and the Everly Brothers, but I never quite shook the idea that this was music I would never fully embrace.
My music was here, and oldies were just a little bit over there.

So, on a list of genre's Jaybee likes - in descending order - you'd likely find vocal groups somewhere below Indian raga music and 17th century madrigals. (Mrs. Jaybee still had to drag me to see “Jersey Boys” this summer) So you can imaging where fifties girl groups show up.

Younger Than That Now:

But with my favorite music no longer threatened from all sides by parental disapproval and everyone's mysterious obsession - to this day - with not-so-good music, I no longer require an electric guitar as the price of admission.

And like Record Store Day before it, Amazon’s $5 mp3 sales can get me to overcome all manner of prejudices.

Plus, it can’t be nostalgia if you weren’t there in the first place, right?


The Chantels are a group of five young women who, despite the picture on the cover, very likely didn't play any instruments. But what they did do was provide the template for all girl groups (until the Runaways) to follow.

And despite it featuring most of the things I couldn't stand about the genre (mannered vocals, songs that all sound exactly alike etc.) this is really not bad.

Most of the songs are about how sorry the singer is for breaking her boyfriends heart, which, sadly, is more entertaining than listening to the heart-breakee's side of the story. But I think she's sincere.

That sincerity carries me through most of this collection. There is a simple sweetness to this music that I would have despised in my teens. Sweetness means so much more to me now.

And I no longer fear that it’s lobotomizing me. I’m lightening up. But I’ve still got a long way to go.

I don't see myself playing this a lot but when it's on, it does put a smile on my face. And that’s all I ask these days. B+

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Still Annoying After All These Years

Inspiring Comeback 1:
Reporter speaking to George Herbert Mallory: Why do you want to Climb Mount Everest?
Mallory: Because it’s there.

Inspiring Comeback 2:
Mrs. Jaybee: I thought you hated those guys. Why did you buy their CD?
Jaybee: It was record store day, and it was there.

And frankly, I think I come off smarter. All I had to do was take the train.

Violent Femmes

In the grand tradition of lead singers who sound like little brats (Perry Farrell, etc.), Gordon Gano is still annoying after all these years.

He led a band of smart alecks extraordinaire. You may recognize their most famous song - "Blister in the Sun" - which was used in a commercial I’ve thankfully forgotten. And they do get off some funny lines - I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record! - being the best one. 

But the musical attack is limited - just acoustic guitar, bass and drums. I’ve heard great albums done with less, but they usually brought something great to the table, whether it was melody, singing, band enthusiasm or words. Here, it’s mainly snark. And not quite enough to put it all  across.

So the main draw is the lyrics. But they’re asked to do too much. There is one semi-sincere moment, which is my favorite, but it doesn’t last. That one, plus the genuinely amusing ones, don’t add up to a great album. 

For people with a very very specific sense of humor.  B

When to play it: When you have company you hate.

When NOT to play it: When you’re really upset. 

Second Thoughts:

And yet, and yet. I listened to it again, and noticed that they do bang up against their limits pretty forcefully. And there is some rage behind the snarkiness. And some odd snippets of melody here and there. And that the words actually work pretty well with the music.

Something tells me I’ll be coming back to it next year.

Friday, October 17, 2014

For Art's Sake

When it comes to jazz, I say the smaller the better. (A convenient motto overall, I admit.) It’s just easier to follow that way. So I like small combos, and love solo piano.

Budd Powell, Thelonious Monk, Erroll Garner, Scott Joplin (or at least the person who plays his music),
and Keith Jarrett have all made wonderful records by just sitting down at their pianos and playing. (Okay, I lied about Errol Garner -he gets help -but you get the point.)

Art Tatum.jpg

And now I’ve got one by Art Tatum, who plays like a mofo. Of course, as impressive as virtuosity is, it won’t matter if the record sucks. So how is this one?

Quite nice, thank you. Tatum plays the standards, which until recently I couldn’t have cared less about. But he manages to play them straight enough to help a boob like me recognize them, and, by putting his own stamp on them, makes me like them like I never have before.

There's a generous 65 minutes of graceful, pretty and not at all intimidating music here. Just put it on first thing in the morning, and go do your... early morning stuff.

By the way, who's better? Tatum, Powell, Monk, Garner, Joplin, Jarrett or Tatum?

Well, let’s see. This is how I’d classify them:
Monk - With his utterly weird songs and playing, he’s by far the Most Fun.
Powell - Very, very impressive but I hear he doesn't always show up. But when he does The Snazziest.
Garner - The audience sounds very, uh, white. So that makes him The Crowdpleaser.
Joplin - Pretty and graceful, but kinda slow. He’s The Relaxer.
Jarrett - Your Sensitive Artiste friend from the 70s, who you keep hanging around with because, although he goes on a bit, he’s basically a good guy. And purty as hell when focused.

Each of the above artists have hit more homers, but Tatum combines technical skill, exquisite taste and expressiveness, which together give him the higher batting average.

Does that make him the best? How the hell should I know? Anyway, like I said, it doesn’t really matter how good the player is. It’s about how good the record is. (So why did I just put us through that little exercise, you ask? Just let it go, okay?)

All I know is that the piano is my second favorite instrument and Tatum is now my second favorite piano player. (Ah, so who’s the first? Powell, I think. But Monk sure is fun!)

With jazz, I'm never sure if I ever get to the bottom of the music, even when there's only one instrument playing. So it’s too soon to tell if this will be my absolute favorite piano record, but it will do just fine while I find out. So the grade is anticipatory - where I think I'll end up with it. Right now, it's a pleasure all the way through. A-

When to Play It: It’s perfect for first thing in the morning.
When Not to Play It: When your company is comprised of a bunch of clods.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Top One or Two Hundred All Time Whatevers

Act One of my One Act Play:

You: Happy 200th post Jaybee!

Me: Thanks!  Hey, wait a minute! That means I completely forgot about commemorating my 100th post. Why didn’t you remind me?

You, contrite: Sorry Jaybee!

Me, gracious as always: That’s okay.


Ooops! I Missed a Spot Post!

So what the hell happened to my #100 post? If I’m counting correctly, this is it. 

Nothing special, but theoretically appropriate in that it covers the year I was 15 years old. That’s supposedly when your brain gets permanently wired for the music you’re going to love all your life.

Not true for me though. In my case, it was when I was six (Beatles) and then again when I was twenty-one (punk).

So I really dropped the ball on that one.

Some Sound, Not Much Fury, Signifying Meh:

So, does 100 or 200 of anything have a special significance for me?

Well, my 100th album seems to be 4-Way Street, which is indicative of nothing except that it was in 1974, when I was starting to buy lots of records.

My 200th album was Warren Zevon, which I got right around the our nation’s 200th Anniversary. Ooooh! 

I was hoping for something poetic/resonant/thematic here, but will settle for this eerie yet boring coincidence.

So before I get distracted again, and forget that this is my #200 post, I thought I’d make up for my prior omission by doing something special. Something so ambitious, and yet so unstructured and drawn out as to - as Saddam Hussein once said - astound my friends and terrify my enemies. The Mother of All Lists, if you will.

We’re all fond of describing things as the Best/Worst (fill in the blank) Ever. Well, at least Comic Book Guy is. He can be a little too specific for me, so I’m leaving myself some wiggle room.

I was going to call this “The One Or Two Hundred All-time Coolest Happenings Ever” but the acronym for that is TOOTHACHE, so instead, let’s call it “The One or Two Hundred of the Greatest Things Ever: Songs, Records, Guitar Solos, Whatever. Not Albums, though, because I’m always talking about albums. Not people, either.”  (TOOTHOTGTE, etc.... seems pretty safe.)  

I’ll even include the odd non-music related thing, if indeed, such a thing exists.

My Head Exploded, But in a Good Way

One criteria for making the list is that the thing threatens to make your head explode, but in the nice way.  You know what I’m talking about. It’s like a form of good bumps, only it happens on your scalp. And you brain doesn’t splatter the sidewalk.

And when it happens several times in succession, as it did for me recently - twice(!) in public(!!) - you either react in an embarrassing manner (see below) or create a list like this.

Positive music experiences in public rarely happen to me. So when they do, I sit up and take notice. My hope is to just not get pissed off at what I’m hearing. Actually enjoying myself is a small miracle. These two occasions were that and much more.

The first time was at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. We walked in, got our hot chocolates, sat down and suddenly it was as though they were trying to chase out anyone under 50 years old. Usually, it’s the other way around. Anyway, they play Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” and bunch of other songs I keep on a CD labeled “Miserable”, which I burned after a very depressing election.

Perhaps because I’d been softened up the night before by watching the American Masters episode about Phil Ochs, one song after another hit some deep emotional button to the point that I had to get up and leave on the pretext of getting a crossword puzzle from the van. Crying in public is not cool when you’re in your fifties.

And then it happened again later that year at The Mermaid’s Inn in the East Village. This time things were poppier but no less powerful. I realized that there are some songs that weren’t just great. They were part of me.

So this will be my outlet - those songs, records, Moments that Just. Kill. Me.

Worst. Best of Lists. Ever.

I have no intention of reaching or limiting myself to 100 or 200. If I stretch it out enough I should finish by about post 300, which will be my excuse to continue this futile exercise that I’m only doing because, as Louie says, God is Dead and We’re Alone.

I make no claim that this will matter to you one bit. These are merely transcendent (to me) moments. They are what keep me alive. What makes my agnostic soul believe with all my heart.

By the way, the numbers are not rankings. They just help me keep count. Young people can blog up stuff like this at a moment’s notice. I just don't have the energy.  

And really, how wrong can I be?  Every day I see another stupid Best of article:
  • Rolling Stones albums that didn’t include Aftermath in the top 10.
  • A Top 5 Dylan list that didn’t include Blonde on Blonde or John Wesley Harding.
  • A Worst-to-Best REM list that had Out of Time as an almost-worst.
  • A Best Scorsese movie list that placed After Hours above The Departed. (Are You Freaking Kidding Me?)
  • And finally, an “Embarrassing Moments” list where what qualified were songs by rockers who momentarily drop their guard and show some real emotion.

So, as I say, how wrong can I be?

So here goes.

First Ten:

But why not start at the top I say?

Starting with the Chord of the F*cking Century (not exactly but so what?) moving on to characteristically energetic singing by John of a virtually one note melody. But that’s okay, the chord changes do all the work, shifting around as the song charges forward.

And then.

And then.

It Comes.

What may be the Greatest Moment In The History of Western Civilization: 

When Paul comes in to sing the first line of the bridge (When I’m home..), kicking it all up a notch immediately by virtue of his higher vocal range. But that’s not enough. The second line takes the melody even higher, and still higher, until “Baby you’re holding me tight, Tight!”, which as philosophical statement beats the hell out of any ism we’ve come up with so far.  

The Sixties had officially begun.

I will generally stay away from the Beatles for this list, but sometimes it’s like trying to stay away from breathing…

Not a complicated melody by any stretch, but the chord changes that accompany it are so dramatic they take your breath away. The lyrics are just vague enough to keep you wondering what the hell it’s about. And the strings are never overbearing, never cheesy. But a so-so vocal would have wasted it all. Instead Glen sings with such conviction and longing that I will fight anyone to the death who laughs.  I’ve demanded silence in shopping malls when it’s played there.  

And I get it.

Okay, I know. I keep harping on this song. And even if you’ve heard it,  you like the Bangles version. But you’re wrong. The Bs do a fine job of emulating middle-period Beatles with that speeded up guitar solo that serves to remind you of the speeded up piano solo of “In My Life”. It is “excellent”!

But “excellent” just isn’t good enough for this list.

Listen to Big Star’s version. You could mistake it for a merely great pop song until, oh, about thirty seconds in where you get the Chord of the F*cking Decade. (The 70s that is.) This will be followed by Alex Chilton’s completely unhinged guitar solo. Not technically brilliant, mind you. Just a few random strums, but completely un-self-consciously off the wall and purely emotional - unfiltered by “taste” or “intellect”.  

Alex Chilton also sings it in a higher(!) key than the Bangles. He of "The Letter" fame! So he’s playing for bigger stakes than the Bs dare to, even with their sly lesbian angle. Alex is singing an autumnal song like an adolescent, convincingly!

Then he finishes it all off with an ever more seriously disturbed solo that doesn’t quite end when when song does.

And for that moment we see him. The artist Naked.

4. Dancing Queen

“Muriel’s Wedding” brought me dangerously close to getting sick of this song.  But I recovered.  Glitzy, over produced, utterly commercial.  And stunningly beautiful.  The part of the chorus beginning with “You can dance” rivals the bridge in "A Hard Day’s Night" in sheer joy.

5. Walk Away Renee

Before I owned this record, coming upon it on the radio meant that whatever else was going on had to stop. I’m so glad it wasn’t playing in Labor and Delivery when my kids were born.   

Now that I have the record, I do notice that the background singing isn’t as good as it could be and the sound could be a lot cleaner.  And yet, I’m sure that if a version existed that addressed those problems, I wouldn’t love it nearly as much as I do the original.  

And the words!  It would have been nice to know them - the singer isn’t trying very hard to enunciate.  But now that I know what they are, I realize the song is more effective without me knowing.  An overwhelming emotion that can’t be expressed in mere words. They come close, though.

And the melody!  Was it simply handed down from heaven to Michael Brown? The strings certainly were.

As much as I love rock and roll, I’d be the first to admit it’s very simple music and the musicians are not always up to even that. And yet, here we are in 1964 with Rod Argent playing a bitchin’ electric piano solo. And how about that pretty nifty melody in the verse, which suddenly switches to virtually a single note during the chorus, but there’s that harmony that works it and works it and works it. Along with the time shifts, key changes, and the breathless tempo.

Okay, maybe not transcendent, but thrilling.

7. The Kid’s Are All Right

It’s a disgrace that the first time I heard this 1966 song was the little snippet at the beginning of that song on Quadraphenia in 1973. Thanks a lot FM and AM radio! HUGE fail.  

Anyway, when I finally caught up with it, I realized that Pete Townsend wasn’t a genius because he could do a rock opera. It was because he could write such a perfect pop song, which by the way, isn’t so because of the melody or the playing, even if  the harmonies and Roger Daltrey’s vocal are perfect. It’s because of the lyrics.  
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song that better captures the insecurities, the camaraderie, the pain and the joy of being a teenager. The title, I think, is a f*ck you to adults who thought every teenager was a hoodlum. Pete always had their back. It’s “My Generation” again, only this time much sweeter.

Of working class themed songs, “Summertime Blues” is the funny one. FOMM however is the keeper. It’s just so damned intense. Maybe the most intense rock song ever.  

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the tempo is frantic.The key changes go higher and higher and the harmonies keep up with it. And great guitar riffs.

And the story: A working class guy who sounds like he’s right on the edge. When he promises to lose his head, you hope it’s in a good way. He bitches about his job, but for once, doesn’t take it out on his girlfriend, who he can’t wait to go out with.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad version of this song. Even Buffy St. Marie (sort of) kicks ass with it. But I’ll give the edge to Joni Mitchell’s.

Like some of  her other songs,  its theme is  trite,  in theory anyway. But she fills them with such evocative words and perfectly matching melodies that you’re too stunned to notice.

I know you don’t know this one. That’s why I put it here! I have nothing to say about it that you can’t hear yourself. We can all be forgiven for not realizing how much soul Edgar Winter has, but not after hearing this.

To Be Continued:

I’ll stop to take a breath now.

I’ll give the rest to you in bunches, or individually, as the mood, logic or alcohol dictates.

These songs are at such a level of perfection that you’re forced to stop whatever you’re doing and just let yourself be carried along with them. 

I think it's what we mean when we say God.