Album of the Year 2013

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why, Dancing about architecture on January 8th, 2014 by bill

Guess who?

It was one year ago today that David Bowie broke a long silence with the release of “Where Are We Now.” Which makes this as good a time as any to ask… well, where are we now?

It’s 2014 now, in case you haven’t gotten the memo. I suppose this happens to everyone with the passage of time, but the numbers attached to the years we’re living in seem more and more surreal to me. I can remember when the arrival of 1976 was a big deal. Then 1984, then 1999…9/11 seems like a relatively recent event to me, but all these are now receding into the distant past.

There are only two responses to this. One is to panic, and the other is to focus on the present moment and forget all about the numbers.

Which brings us back to Bowie, because the moment has arrived for me to name my album of the year for 2013. I am giving it to David for The Next Day, as there was little doubt I would, though I had to at least go through the charade of considering others.
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Ain’t nobody perfect

Posted in Dancing about architecture on November 26th, 2013 by bill

Last night my stepdaughter made me watch Kanye West’s recent video for “Bound 2,” hoping to get me to reconsider my stated fondness for the man and his music. She didn’t quite succeed, because I know Kanye is crazy and nothing that he does really surprises me, but I must admit that the four minutes we spent watching this video were very long minutes — and not just because the internet connection kept hanging up.

“Bound 2” is an exercise in bad taste on a truly monumental scale, one most of us could never conceive of, much less carry out. It is so wrong on so many levels that one scarcely knows where to begin. See for yourself:

Is Yeezy, as the Brits say, taking the piss here? Or is this the beginning of his final, apocalyptic descent into true madness, one that will end with him…I don’t know…setting off a small thermonuclear device at the next VMAs, killing himself, the Kardashians, Taylor Swift, and hopefully Katy Perry? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

It was 50 years ago today…

Posted in Something about the Beatles on November 22nd, 2013 by bill

…Nov. 22, 1963…that the Beatles’ second album, With the Beatles, was released.

I seem to remember that some other important historic event happened on that day as well. I can’t think of what it was just now.

R.I.P. Lou Reed

Posted in Dancing about architecture on October 27th, 2013 by bill

Not a man to be trifled with.

We knew this day would come. In fact, given Lou’s history, the fact that he persisted into the 21st century at all must be considered a minor miracle. Still — a world with Lou Reed in it was a more interesting world, and one we shall not see again.

Lou will not be forgotten, of course. I haven’t sat down and done the hard math on this, but I would guesstimate that of the 100 greatest songs ever written, Lou is responsible for about a dozen. If he had been hit by a bus (or ODed) after The Velvet Underground and Nico came out in 1967, he still would have had a profound impact on rock’n’roll history. As it is his influence is incalculable. So, to hell with calculations. Let’s look back instead at the immortal words of Dr. Thompson, always a comfort at times like these:

[He] was one of God’s own prototypes — a high-powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production. He was too weird to live and too rare to die — and as far as I’m concerned, that’s just about all that needs to be said about him right now….

He will not be missed — except perhaps in Fat City, where every light in town went dim when we heard he’d finally cashed his check.

Mr. Moonlight, I presume

Posted in Dancing about architecture on October 14th, 2013 by bill

Bit of a surreal experience this weekend: I caught the Napa, CA stop on Peter Murphy’s “Mr. Moonlight” tour, where he is playing Bauhaus songs without the assistance of any other members of Bauhaus.

I had strong reservations about this whole concept, but in the end the chance to see Mr. M belting out the classics was just too much to resist. The venue was the charming but somewhat seedy Uptown Theatre, and the crowd was a diehard core of 65 or so hardy souls, mostly us geezers, but with a handful of younger folks scattered in.

The beginning of the show was not auspicious; “King Volcano” and “Kingdom’s Coming,” two quieter numbers, were marred by technical problems, with Murphy gesticulating irritably to offstage figures. The band members appeared to have an average age of about 19, and the guitar player was brand new, having just learned the repertoire. He had a good haircut, but I did not envy him trying to fill Daniel Ash’s shoes. (Truly, the shoes that no man would want to wear.)
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From T. Rex to Helter Skelter

Posted in Dancing about architecture on September 30th, 2013 by bill

Today would have been Marc Bolan’s 66th birthday, and coincidentally I’ve been reading Tony Visconti, The Autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy. Bolan doesn’t come off especially well in this book; stardom seems to have gone to his head, turning him into a raving prima donna who made unreasonable demands, paid his band a pittance, and generally made life miserable for those around him.

This is a tad disappointing, but doesn’t bother me all that much; I long ago gave up on the idea that an artist had to be a nice person for you to enjoy their work. If you went through your records, books, and movies and starting weeding out everything that involved a disagreeable human being, I fear you’d be left with very little. And a lot of that would be crap. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s an inverse relationship between an artist’s likability and the quality of their work — Mr. David Bowie, fr’instance, is a complete mensch in Visconti’s portrayal — I just don’t think the two have much to do with each other.

And really I don’t know why we care so much. Maybe Lou Reed is a flaming asshole, or maybe he’s a gruff but lovable crank with no patience for the suffering of fools — what does it matter to me? I don’t have to hang out with the cat, I just have to play the records. They say Charlie Manson is evil, and I don’t doubt it for a minute, but does that mean I can’t find him entertaining?

Hmmm…well, I didn’t set out today to write a blog entry that mentioned Marc, David, Lou and Charlie, but now that I’ve done it, I have to say it feels pretty good. I feel like I’ve earned my cocktail, so over and out for now.

What’s Blowing My Mind, 2013 Edition (Part 8)

Posted in Dancing about architecture on September 26th, 2013 by bill

The Quine Tapes


How many times have I had this same experience? I become aware of some piece of Velvet Underground product of which I was previously unaware. Immediately I want it, but I resist, telling myself, “The VU stopped recording (x) years ago, there is no new thing under the sun, this is simply the nefarious forces of commerce attempting to extract more dollars from you.” Time passes, little by little my resolve weakens, finally I break down and get it, and immediately I have buyer’s remorse, sure that disappointment is to follow. Then I actually listen to the thing, and I am reminded: the VU were gods, their dross was other people’s gold, they could do no wrong, to think otherwise is the worst sort of heresy.

The Quine Tapes are live performances from 1969, almost all of them in San Francisco, recorded by future Voidoids guitarist and Lou Reed collaborator Robert Quine. Quine used an early portable cassette rig, so the sound quality is less than stellar. It helps to imagine that the Velvets are playing in town but you haven’t be able to get a ticket, and thus must stand outside the club in a light rain, angling your head to hear over the street sounds and traffic noise.

Ironically, many of the shows these tapes are drawn from were very sparsely attended. “There were a few nights,” says Quine in the liner notes, “when they started the first set with only four or five people in the club.” This has led me to a possible future business idea: Once time travel is invented, brokers can sell tickets to underattended shows by historic bands. I would pay good money to see the Velvets in S.F. in 1969, though of course I would prefer to be comped, in view of my having come up with the idea and all. (There are a few wrinkles to be worked out here, temporal paradoxes and butterfly effects and whatnot, but I leave all that up to the technicians; I’m an idea guy.)

Anyway, back to the music — the material here is drawn pretty equally from all the phases of the Velvets’ career, from “Sunday Morning,” “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man” to “Rock and Roll” and “New Age” (no “Sweet Jane,” interestingly; perhaps it had yet to be written at this juncture?). There are also songs that would not see the light of day until the release of VU many years later, and a few that never were officially recorded so far as I know (“Too Much,” “Over You,” “Follow the Leader,” and “Ride into the Sun”).

Of special note here are the versions of “Sister Ray,” of which there are three, totaling 80 minutes between them (though one technically is a medley with “Foggy Notion”). They are as different from each other as they are from the original — probably improvised around the basic structure depending on how much time was left in the show and that night’s drug mixture and quality — with the longest clocking in at 38 minutes, making for exciting but exhausting listening. One of these days I’m going to listen to all three back-to-back-to-back, but I want to make sure this is done under controlled, medically safe conditions. I’ll report back when it’s done.

Gone with the breeze

Posted in Dancing about architecture on August 2nd, 2013 by bill

Oddly enough, J.J. Cale sorta looks like a member of the Velvet Underground here.

I would be remiss if I failed to note the recent passing of the great J.J. Cale, of which I learned while walking through the Potawot Health Village with my beloved, who had just finished a shift in the dunk tank. (Long story.) I heard J.J.’s dulcet tones wafting through the afternoon air, a pleasant surprise; then some DJ chatter that was hard to make out, but included more than one mention of his name; then another Cale song; and suddenly it dawned on me, bastard must have died.

Sure enough, says his web site, “JJ Cale passed away at 8:00 pm on Friday July 26 at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, CA. The legendary singer/songwriter had suffered a heart attack.” Whenever a musician has a heart attack, I assume there’s a good chance it’s lifestyle-related; and one of J.J.’s most famous songs is, of course, “Cocaine.” But he always seemed like more of a weed type guy to me — mellow to the nth degree — so who knows and what does it matter, in the end? He made it to 74, which is not a bad run for a rock star.

Only after his death did I learn that his real name was not “Jean-Jacques,” as I had erroneously been informed, but “John Weldon Cale.” He used “J.J.” to avoid being confused with the other John Cale, the Welshman who played in the Velvet Underground, but apparently some people still mixed them up. The Welsh John Cale went so far as to write a song called “Autobiography” in which he states, “Never wrote a song called ‘Cocaine’ / Never wrote a song called ‘After Midnight.’ ” (He did once write a song called “The Man Who Couldn’t Afford to Orgy”; but that is neither here nor there.)

And that’s about the extent of what I have to say on the topic. J.J. was a man of few words who preferred to let his music do the talking; so why not take a few minutes today to put your feet up, smoke ’em if you got ’em, and listen to a few of his tunes? I’m partial to “The Same Old Blues,” but really, it’s hard to go wrong.

Yeezus Is Just Alright with Me

Posted in Dancing about architecture on July 18th, 2013 by bill

I know exactly what my grandfather would have thought of Kanye West’s new album. “That’s not music,” he would have said, and turned it off as soon as humanly possible.

I envy that sort of clarity, because I myself have no idea what to make of Yeezus, as bizarre a document of the workings of the human mind as you’re likely to encounter here in the late-mid-early 21st century. Kanye is one of the most divisive faultlines running through today’s culture, and I am generally pro rather than anti; I respect him because I feel like he’s trying to express himself truly and honestly — however freakish the results may be. But with Yeezus he has taken a turn into uncharted territory.

Kanye is on top of the world right now. He’s rich and famous. He can do whatever he wants. And what he wants, apparently, is to make an album that’s equal parts NWA, Devo, Throbbing Gristle, and Public Enemy (with a little Jackson 5 thrown in for good measure), package it in an empty jewel case, “design” a white T-shirt that sells for $120, get Kim Kardashian pregnant, name the baby girl “North West,” and…well, who knows what else?

Excess is Kanye’s idiom, though in some ways Yeezus seems like a reaction to the sprawling excessiveness of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: minimal packaging, just 10 tracks, clocking in at an economical 40 minutes. But this is not exactly an acoustic folk album we’re talking about here. Yeezus is noisy, caustic, confrontational, and completely uncompromising. (Just the title for starters — not to mention that the song titles include “New Slaves,” “Black Skinhead,” and “I Am a God.”) It it so far over the top that it short-circuits my critical faculties, and so as seems to be the pattern with Kanye, I find myself casting about for authoritative-sounding opinions that I can glom onto.

Fortunately, no less an authority than Lou Reed, who apparently listened to Yeezus while recuperating from his liver transplant, recently weighed in with a review on The Talkhouse. Lou is a fan:

The guy really, really, really is talented. He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.

His praise comes with a few qualifications, but is pretty effusive in the end:

It works. It works because it’s beautiful — you either like it or you don’t — there’s no reason why it’s beautiful. I don’t know any musician who sits down and thinks about this. He feels it, and either it moves you too, or it doesn’t, and that’s that. You can analyze it all you want.

Well said, Mr. Reed. What can I add to that, really? No more time for analysis today — things to do, places to go, people to see. Read Lou’s whole review, or read this piece on The Atlantic; then have a listen and tell me what you think.

Out of the Bag

Posted in Dancing about architecture on July 1st, 2013 by bill

So you may be wondering, what do I think of the new Pixies song (“Bagboy”), their first in 8 years and only their third since 1991? I’m glad you asked, because honestly I have mixed feelings.

Taken strictly on its own terms, I think it’s a pretty cool tune. It has a nice groove, some satisfyingly crunchy guitars, and a catchy refrain. And Black Francis sounds pissed off, which is always when he’s at his best.

However…anything that bears the Pixies name has a heavy burden to carry, and I’m not sure that “Bagboy” is up to it. I’m not even sure that it’s right to call anything the Pixies without Kim Deal, who recently departed the band and is replaced here by a synthesized bassline and an unnamed female backing vocalist (I suspect it may be Violet Clark, Francis’ wife and Grand Duchy bandmate).

Francis’ vocal is the only thing particularly Pixieish here; the drums are generic and Joey Santiago’s scorching lead is not much in evidence. I suppose you could call this “Pixies Mk. II”; I kind of wish they had called it something else, but I’m going to try not to be a hater. Here, you can make up your own mind: