Category Archives: Other Music Stuff

Keith the Magnificent (RIP)

ELP In Montreal

Believe it or not I had a post on an ELP album already scheduled for this week before the news broke, which I’m going to pull back for now. The loss of Keith Emerson last Friday is not only devastating to the prog world, but also tragic in how it happened. ELP were one of the first bands I ever really got into, before I knew anything about King Crimson or The Nice, or even that there was a genre such as progressive rock. I loved them as a kid (my Dad played their albums frequently) but eventually forgot about them, until one morning when I was 14, when my clock radio turned on right as the “From the Beginning” synth solo started, hitting me with some incredible nostalgia. Later that week I rented The Atlantic Years from the library and wandered around the city on my bike listening to it front to back, thrilled to finally hear “Karn Evil 9” in its entirely again, even though both discs were scratched as hell. In fact I would wager it was my Dad who scratched them up in the first place, I know that he’d rented it years ago and just tossed the bare CDs into the glove box. So some of that paper route money I’d earned eventually went towards ELP CDs, which thankfully get reissued so often that used copies were never far away.

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David Bowie, 47-06

helen green

It seems inappropriate to write about anything else today.  The above drawing (by the talented Helen Green) says it all, so many memorable looks, so many personas captured in one man.  Word spread around the office quick and I found out that a lot of people my age don’t know what songs he did.  “Name a couple”, one of them asked, but what do you name?  “Space Oddity”?  “Ziggy Stardust”?  “Heroes”?  “Ashes to Ashes”, “Fame”, “Let’s Dance”, “Changes”, “Queen Bitch”, “China Girl”, hell, what about “Under Pressure”?  All I could say is, “trust me, you’ve heard some of them”, and I should know; I’ve been a fan of both “Rebel Rebel” and “Golden Years” for a long time without knowing that they were Bowie songs, even though I owned several of his CDs.  There is no song, no album, no image, no era that defines David Bowie, and that’s what he will wind up being remembered for.  That was always his reputation – a “musical chameleon” who could adapt into anything, which was both a compliment and a criticism.  Certainly there were many who argued that Bowie never had a style of his own, instead choosing to follow popular trends in search of record sales.  There is definitely some truth to that, though I can’t imagine any other megastar artist at the peak of their popularity releasing two albums that were half instrumentals.  With Bowie you just never knew.  He was willing to try just about anything, and usually talented enough to pull it off.  No doubt there are plenty of career retrospectives being written as we speak and we know that they will be long.  He failed rather spectacularly in the beginning of his career, tanking single after single, eventually penning the brilliant “Space Oddity” and then catapulting to superstardom a few years later with his Ziggy Stardust persona and his excellent backing band, The Spiders From Mars.  And then he broke up the band and did a bunch of other stuff, scored about a dozen more hits along the way, and appeared in the movie Zoolander.  Among many other things.

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Stevie Wonder, and the joy of fatherhood

My apologies for the long wait between posts.  My internet has been out since Wednesday.  Between that and my place’s general lack of cell reception I’ve been essentially disconnected from everything, creating a strange sort of anxiety that I’m missing something, even though I’ve been with family nearly every day.  Every time I drive out my phone lights up, and it turns out not a whole lot happens from one day to the next.  As for why I didn’t just write this on Wednesday well, I figured I’d give the computer a rest.

Anyway, I had a special Thanksgiving post in mind, as this year it happened to fall on my son’s 1st birthday.  In some sense it’s passed too quickly, in another it feels like it’s been about fifteen years, but if nothing else it’s a chance to look back through the photo book and see his development month by month.  The first birthday is a special day for him of course, but it feels more significant for my wife and I, as it’s the one-year anniversary of us becoming parents, which is just this incredible life-changer, as all you parents out there know.  And of course it’s wonderful, despite all the personal time you lose and all the complexity every facet of previously simple tasks such as eating and driving start to take on.  All I can say is, if you don’t have kids, and you’re hosting some sort of gathering that includes new parents, excuse them if they’re late.  Because they probably will be.

As for him, he’s grown so much in a year.  We got these newborn photos taken and I’m glad we did, though he looks nothing like that now.  So good news if your newborn looks a little strange and wrinkly, as a lot of ’em do.  At that stage they are just lumps, so totally dependent on you for everything, which is beautiful in a way, especially as it makes each little development so much cooler.  For me the big one was him grabbing a rattle for the first time, finally realizing that these two hands that were constantly in front of his face were actually attached to him and that he could control them.  How cool is that?  Now he moves, he explores, he plays, and most importantly he responds to the world around him.  Thankfully for us he has impeccable balance for a toddler and has only conked his head on something once or twice.  Meanwhile I’m no better at the shit I do day to day than I was last year, though to be fair having a kid does hinder you a bit there.

When my wife was pregnant, we noticed that he seemed to react in a strange way to Stevie Wonder – it made him kick and move in a way that other music didn’t, to the point where my wife requested I stop listening to it around her.  Now I’m guessing this is probably just coincidence but I couldn’t help loving that anyway – both that my son had impeccable taste at the age of -1/4 and that Stevie Wonder was a musician so damn agreeable and loveable that even unborn babies loved him.  Even after he was born, the music of Stevie seemed to calm him, though to be fair a lot of stuff on the funk/R&B/soul axis did.  The Baby Einstein stuff didn’t seem to work at all, other than annoy the parents, though I admit they can be pleasant if you’re the one who wants to fall asleep.  Nowadays the thing that soothes him most is pulling out my arm hairs one-by-one, and he’s too heavy for me to hold him by the speaker for 15 minutes at a time like I used to.

Anyway, the point of all this is that Stevie Wonder really is a special musician, which I’ve been thinking about a lot since I’ve been listening to his music so much this year.  I can’t think of another so universally loved, but then again so few have had a run of albums like that.  I haven’t heard much he’s done since Songs in the Key of Life, but the run from Music of My Mind to that, plus some key singles beforehand, cement his legacy so firmly that it doesn’t matter what else he decided to do.  Some parallels to Michael Jackson there, though thankfully Stevie kept away from most of the weirdness.  He still feels like a sacred figure to some degree – he’s in an Apple commercial that’s been playing over football games now and there’s still something breathtaking about him, somehow he’s still got that voice, and I can’t help but be transfixed by him even as he’s shilling Apple products.  Though what product exactly seems to escape me, as it’s so weirdly non-specific, in fact I don’t recall a single Apple product in the entire ad, but whatever.  It’s their ad money.

Well, that’s all I have to say about that.  We’ll be back to your regularly scheduled Critter Jams next week!

R.I.P. Bob Casale of DEVO

casale2

When I was a kid, Devo’s Greatest Hits was my favorite CD.  Both my parents had a copy and I can remember always asking them to play it while I bounced around the living room.  It was bright and catchy and funny – I thought it was kid’s music then.  Two thoughts I can clearly remember – one, hearing the original “Satisfaction” on the radio and telling my Mom “they copied Devo!”, and two, confusion upon hearing that “Whip It” was the hit that everyone knew – I could never figure out why it was that song instead of another.  I remember poring through the CD booklet, looking at the funny-sounding titles of albums that I would probably never hear – titles like “Duty Now for the Future”, “Oh, No! It’s Devo!”, and “Q: Are We Not Men?  A: We Are Devo!”.  I remember that there was only one song from an album called Shout! and wondered if it was some kind of hidden masterpiece.  I didn’t think I’d ever find out – to me Devo were something from the past, a band my parents knew, that you may see on VH1’s “classic video hour” or in Spin magazine for some reason.

Fast forward about a decade; I just started going to college in Green Bay.  I had gotten into Devo in a big way; after a record store clerk convinced me to buy Q: Are We Not Men? (maybe the best recommendation I ever got from one), I was totally obsessed.  I remember hearing my roommate sing to himself, “Is it on?  Is it off?  Re-ply!” – I got him hooked too.  I bought the DVD and loved it – who knew they were so dark?  So how astonishing was it a couple years later I would find out that they were going to be playing right here in Green Bay?

This was long before there was any inkling that they’d be recording new material.  They looked like the aging rockers we all knew they were; Mark sported a head of wiry gray hair and both the Casales looked rather paunchy (Bob1 on the other hand didn’t look like he aged at all).  I really did not know what to expect, but to put it mildly they killed it.  I was not really keen on Devo’s original replacement for Alan Myers but here we had Josh Freese who did really well. As I recall every song besides “That’s Good” was from their first four albums, and if you know Devo’s history you know that this is good thing.  You think of Devo as a synth-heavy band but here you had a bass player, a drummer, and two guitarists to go with just one synthesizer.  Maybe in a studio context they sound mechanical, but here they really rocked, and with energy to spare.  I remember running around the couch at the age of 10 to the sounds of “Gates of Steel” and “Gut Feeling” – no way I’d have believed you if you’d had told me I’d get to actually see them play a decade later.

Devo is a band that’s endured.  They’re remembered as being an 80’s band even though most of their best work came in the 70’s; 1981’s New Traditionalists is probably the last album of theirs that I thought was really good.  It turns out that Shout! wasn’t a hidden gem at all – there are some decent tunes on it, but now it just sounds like a band that really wanted to get out of its contract.  The next two Devo albums were Total Devo and Smooth Noodle Maps – those were actually worse, and are so obscure that even the fans didn’t know they existed.  They were so terminally uncool at that point that even the two volumes of Hardcore Devo went ignored, even though they contained some of the most creative and incredible music that band ever put out.  As they put it on the live album Now It Can Be Told, “It takes COURAGE to be a Devo fan these days!  There’s people out there that just don’t think Devo is COOL anymore!”  And yet people kept discovering them; maybe their big hit “Whip It” is synonymous with VH1 junk like I Love the 80’s, but the fans still remembered how good they used to be.  Ten years after their last recording, their music was still in commercials (stripped of all the irony), they were getting covered regularly, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s name was everywhere.  When I bought Q: Are We Not Men? it seemed like Devo was actually cool again.  The show I went to was packed.  When they announced a new album in 2010, it was big news.  Not bad for a one-hit wonder.

There’s a lot to say about Devo’s subversiveness – they had wrote catchy songs and wore wacky costumes, but they had a real message, and famously were not afraid to piss people off.  They were not a novelty band, but clearly reveled in being treated like one.  You could dislike them, but you couldn’t forget about them. From a musical point of view they were astounding – they made the complicated look simple, and despite the dozens of covers out there nobody could play quite like them.  Their influence is all over the place today; not just with synthpop revivalists, but also among progressive bands like Cardiacs and Chrome Hoof.  Hell you still hear people talk about how mindblowing it was to see these guys do “Satisfaction” on SNL back in 1978.  Losing two members of the band in an eight month span has been rough; both were reminders that they were truly a one-of-a-kind act.  Rest in peace, Bob.  We’ll miss you.