I’ve had relationships compromised. With food, with my family, with sex, love and romance. But not music. Music has always been there for me when I needed it. Even in the silence, music is in my mind and I can make it up in my head. I can make it go anywhere I want to go. I am a dreamer and a composer and it is the wish to bring the sounds in my head to a format where others can listen is a driving force in my life.
I will try to make a list of my favorite album for the first 29 years of my life. I don’t want to get into the best music of 2008-onward but I don’t listen to much of it.
1978: The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Rock Drill
1979: Sparks, No. 1 In Heaven
1980: Queen, The Game or Prince, Dirty Mind
1981: The Tubes, The Completion Backwards Principle
1982: Sparks, Angst In My Pants
1983: Tom Waits, Swordfishtrombones or Madonna, self-titled
1984: Run-DMC, self-titled
1985: The Tubes, Love Bomb
1986: Prince, Parade
1987: The Dukes Of Stratosphear, Chips From The Chocolate Fireball
1988: Public Enemy, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
1989: Pixies, Doolittle
1990: Public Enemy, Fear Of A Black Planet
1991: De La Soul, De La Soul Is Dead or Pixies, Trompe le Monde
1992: AC/DC, Live
1993: Nirvana, In Utero or Stereolab, Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements, or Frank Zappa, The Yellow Shark
1994: Soundgarden, Superunknown, or Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral
1995: Tricky, Maxinquaye or Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
1996: Cibo Matto, Viva La Woman
1997: Björk, Homogenic
1998: OutKast, Aquemini
1999: Os Mutantes, Everything Is Possible: The Best Of Os Mutantes
2000: Radiohead, Kid A
2001: Daft Punk, Discovery or N.E.R.D, In Search Of…
If there is a Heaven, William Onyeabor and Jaki Liebezeit are there together in jamming in an interstellar way that would blow our minds if we could only hear it. Jaki beating the drums and William on a variety of analog synths. It’s an image that makes me want to believe.
Over the last week, music lost both Onyeabor and Liebezeit to old age and illness. Onyeabor, a Nigerian mystery man who self-released eight albums in the ’70s-’80s before abandoning music after a conversion to Christianity, was a forward-thinking synth lover who combined the contemporary African pop music of his time with international dance and techno pop, almost like a Nigerian Kraftwerk. Liebezeit, a German drummer, was most famous for his time in the Krautrock group Can, but also played with Depeche Mode and studied various African forms of rhythm in his youth. One would think these two might have got along musically.
One of the first covers my band learned was Can’s “Vitamin C”. TVH’s first drummer got the rest of us into Can, and Jaki was a major part of why that group was so successful. We probably played “Vitamin C” for the first two years we did shows. Can is like the Velvet Underground in that they were more influential to people who went on to start their own bands.
William Onyeabor was an enigma, purposely. His backstory is unknown and what he did after abandoning music is largely unknown. Did he study music production in Germany? Did he study film production in Russia? Did he have an investor? Was he a successful businessman? Did he become a priest after his music career? He was a mystery even in his home country. Only in the hipster discovery of African pop music in the last fifteen years has his music been discovered. So be kind to hipsters because sometimes they do good things.
Some people may be sad that these two men have passed on but I choose not to see it that way. It is of course unfortunate for their families and friends, but both men definitely lived full, long lives (Jaki passed age 78, William age 70) and their work touched many people all over the world. Not a moment wasted in life, what else can you ask for?
I’ve been trying hard to keep from needing you. . .
Reality is shattered. Absurdistan is a term popularized in Eastern Europe back in the late 60’s and 70’s. Now here we are.
I’ve been trying hard to keep from needing you but from the start my heart just rolled and flowed. . .
The gallows humorist in me keeps saying “last day. . . last day in free country.” It’s not a totally free country. An almost free country. It’s less free for others. I understand. But everybody is going to feel this one. No matter who you are, you will feel something terrible in the next four years.
“But Obama is a Muslim. He’s hiding it. Why won’t he salute the flag?”
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pauses during his campaign speech to hug the American flag Saturday, June 11, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
We hug flags now. We’re a flag-hugging country. We are broken-brained and mental. Bi-polar and driven to the breaking point. I’ve been trying hard to keep from needing you but from the start, my heart just rolled and flowed, I’ve seen where it goes. . .
Corporations have more rights than humans. The unborn have more rights than the already born. If a fetus could form a corporation, it would be the most protected entity in modern business. One day the robots will have enough sentience and they’ll have more rights then us too. One day we’ll elect a robot President. . . if it’s not a female robot.
You are not alone, though you may feel alone at times. I’ve been trying hard to keep from needing you but from the start, my heart just rolled and flowed. I’ve seen where it goes. Still somehow my love for you grows.” I’m impressed with those words. “I’ve been trying hard to keep from needing you. . . I don’t want to need you but I think I do. I don’t want to need you because if I admit that I need you then I’m giving into you and I know you can’t give yourself to me. You can’t have me need you and neither can I because if I need you then I can’t function without you. I know I can’t. Because I need you.
The woman who wrote this song was Judee Sill who died in the late ’70s. She put out a few albums that are stellar, and her version of this song is on her first self-titled album. I’ve listened to both her and the Turtles’ version of this song hundreds of times over a weekend. I feel like Brian Wilson sitting in a dark room listening to the intro to “Be My Baby” over and over. I tried to figure out WHY. . . why did this song grip me so much? I listened to the song until I figured it out. I let the song love me. Because you can’t love me and be with me. Because I’ve been trying hard to keep from needing you.
I think that sometimes a song sums up a feeling that we can’t sum ourselves. It encapsulates all the strange emotions we have and the shifting tides. My soul is on fire as we live in uncertain times. Everybody is going to feel it. Last day in an almost-free country. Life can be so nice.
So on my heels I’ll grow wings, gonna ride silver strings but I’ll see you in my holiest dreams. . .
The other race or the other whatever from the face of the planet all together
And we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah, we all shine on
I’m afraid of Americans
I’m afraid of the world
I’m afraid I can’t help it
Hey you know something people
I’m not black but there’s whole lotsa times I wish I could say I’m not white
Get up, stand up
Stand up for your right
Get up, stand up
Don’t give up the fight
Because of their half-baked mistakes
We get ice cream, no cake
All lies, no truth
Is it fair to kill the youth?
This is not America
Pardon me, brother, while you stand in your glory
I know you won’t mind if I tell the whole story
Pardon me, brother, I know we’ve come a long, long way
But let us not be so satisfied for tomorrow can be an
An even brighter day
Spotify, you win. I have downloaded you to my laptop and have decided to help you kill what’s left of the music business. Lady Gaga released her new album “Joanne” this week. The first single “Perfect Illusion” has been played on Spotify a whopping 38 million times. This will net Lady Gaga an estimated $154.77. Why? Because of the lopsided deal the record industry made with Spotify. So somebody is getting rich, but not the artists.
Another example. The rapper Nelly owes the IRS $2.4 million and some jokester wrote an article saying it would take 287 million streams of his hit “Hot In Herre” for him to repay the IRS. It would actually cost less if people went to iTunes and bought his song again but we’re just highlighting the ridiculous pay structure at hand.
Taylor Swift moved her tracks off Spotify. Prince only had one song on Spotify, as does King Crimson and Tool. Garth Brooks is the best selling American artist of the last 25 years and none of his music is on Spotify. The only Neil Young albums you can find are the shitty Geffen Records ones from the 80’s that were so bad David Geffen sued him.
So since Spotify exists essentially as exposure and a loss-leader, I’ll take the time do a series on artists and songs that have fewer than 1,000 streams. Give underheard music the Mike Farmer bump, whatever that’s worth. If this helps you find something cool to listen to, wonderful.
Peter Hammill & The K Group, “Live At Rockpalast”. A televised concert from 1981. Peter Hammill is the singer from Van der Graaf Generator accompanied by a backing band. It’s a 93-minute double album, so you may not get into the whole thing on first listen. You’ll know by the first three or four songs whether it’s your thing or not. Hammill is a strident vocalist, sings as if he’s protesting at a city council meeting. The songs have a prog-ish vibe with a 1981 new wave timbre. Makes sense since Hammill wrote them, he also wrote all the VdGG songs. I really love “The Future Now”.
Don Muro, “As Long As I’ve Got You”. The A-side of a Record Store Day single in 2015, the song was recorded in 1974. A power-pop synth-driven DIY production. I assume Muro played or programmed everything on the track. He still occasionally records and runs his own label, Flannelgraph Records. I heard this song on an episode of The Best Show and fell in love with it immediately.
Off-Ox, “Best Best Western”. A new project from my long-time friend Aaron Tanner, he of Stationary Odyessy, Fracasos and many other So. Indiana-based projects. (Fun fact: Aaron’s record label Dyspepsidisc released several Mr. Neutron albums about fifteen years ago). Off-Ox is Tanner’s new band and “Best Best Western” is the A-side of their debut single. Melodic, distorted instrumental indie with cool synths on the B-side. Of course, that only makes sense if you’re listening to it on vinyl which I don’t expect you are.
I don’t know how to do a Spotify playlist and I’m not going to take the time on account of three songs/artists. Do some searching, you lazy bums.
Let’s get positive for a few minutes. Let’s talk about some things that make me happy. Things that are worth liking. Sunshine, lollipops and weirdness. The glory of love.
This cut off Lou Reed’s 1978 live album “Take No Prisoners”. The whole album he keeps interjecting asides, like he’s breaking the fourth wall on his own songs. It’s ridiculous. On “Walk On The Wild Side” the band plays for seventeen minutes and he barely covers the first third of the song. He does that on “Coney Island Baby” and it works better. The best part is the last few minutes when the band is surging to a climax and Lou sings so hard he’s unintelligible. Stallone-level elocution here. It’s beautiful.
We need to appreciate The Eric Andre Show while it’s still here. Four seasons of this show and it’s not only still on the air, it’s successful enough to merit a live nationwide tour. Eric Andre has a cult following of kids who want to “legalize ranch”, “bird up”, and “investigate 311”. The bread and butter of the show is the interviews with celebs, oblivious to what they are getting into end up in a psychological Gitmo TV production. If you’re lucky, you might get to see Kraft Punk, the cheese-helmeted suit-clad prankster.
Joanne The Scammer is my newest fave. Through Twitter and Superdeluxe, this character has become a cult figure. . . honestly, truly. Iconic. A messy bitch, problematic and proud of it. Combining shameless behavior with inspirational wisdom (“Only help women. Only scam men.”), Joanne is hilarious and reflects the unfairness of the world we live in. . . so get yours. You can be a beautiful Caucasian woman, too. Even if you are a black-latino male named Brendan. Especially such. Honestly. Truly.
Finally, we come to Scharpling and Wurster, the comedy duo behind “The Best Show”. This has been my favorite podcast of the last year or so. The Best Show was on WFMU from 2000 to 2013 then returned at the end of 2014 and has gotten stronger, with celebrity and musical guests, weird topics, host Tom Scharpling’s banter with callers both good and awful, and the chemistry he has with Jon Wurster who calls in as a variety of strange characters. I’ve included a clip of them together as a fine example, where Wurster calls as the obnoxious singer of a Nickelback-esque butt rock band touring corporate free festivals (“The Vanilla Coke Garden Party”, for one) doing a phone interview.
There’s four things I like. Four things you might also like. And I didn’t once mention wrestling.
I’m about nine hours into my Twitter break. It’s almost 9 in the morning. I’m going to try to go the whole of September without Twitter. Normally I would have checked it already. So far, so fine. In a pleasant enough mood. Hopefully this holds up. Listening to Yoko Ono, which I’ve never really done in depth.
In a pleasant mood. Listening to Yoko Ono. Not mutually exclusive.
If you find something that speaks to you, then go to it because that is a positive force that is speaking to you in the music. Have you ever been jolted out of your routine? Did it invigorate you? Did you want to go back and investigate it? Or did you want to go back and feel that jolt again and seek it out further?
I had a preconception that much of John and Yoko’s work was self-indulgent. Two Virgins, for example. My bandmate Rafe made me listen to it while we were in his car one time. Probably the only time that particular album has been listened to at a Wendy’s drive-thru. But he then played me “Mrs. Lennon”.
I didn’t know the lyrics immediately on first listen. What I knew and what resonated with me was the sorrow. It wasn’t shrill, indulgent or up it’s own ass. It’s a song and a sentiment that spoke out PAIN in dark neon letters. I felt it in my bones.
It was a long wait in the drive-thru.
What is that like to be a conduit for other people’s rage? To be a convenient excuse or scapegoat? “You broke up the Beatles! You can’t even sing! What is that ugly screaming all about?” What is it like to turn it around on people and have them ignore you anyway? When it isn’t convenient for them. Because it wasn’t about knowing the real truth. Because the Beatles would have broken up anyway and they were breaking up before she and John Lennon started dating. As if the breakup could have prevented Ringo Starr from making all those shitty solo albums.
“Mrs. Lennon” was my starting point into Yoko Ono’s universe. She is eighty years old and one would have to figure she won’t be around forever so let’s actually love the woman now. Let’s not just be nice to her because her husband was killed. Because when she’s gone, she’ll be gone and that’s when the thinkpieces come out talking about how she was underrated all along.
If anyone ever had haters, it was Yoko Ono. They said what she did was not music. It was more than that, honestly. It was a connection to the primordial. A link to the biological minutiae that makes us, aka the DNA. And not everybody wants to have their DNA rattled like that. But they need it sometimes.
Brian Wilson came to Bowling Green for a show a few days ago and I got to see him. He was on his “Pet Sounds” 50th Anniversary tour, with Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin as special guests. It was a strange show, considering the setting and the audience. Watching the show at SkyPAC with thousands of older folks who seemed to want to have a nice, normal time enjoying classic Beach Boys songs. If it had been in a small club in front of a crowd packed with hipsters my age and younger, I wouldn’t think it was so strange. But the niceness of the venue and the oldness of the crowd and the content of the music, especially the “Pet Sounds” music combined for an intense but interesting show.
First thing you realize when held up next to the classic Beach Boys hits is how “Pet Sounds” is such a moody collection of emotionally intense songs. It’s not a happy album at all. Brian Wilson produced that album when he was twenty-four, which is a pretty good age to have an existential breakdown about your life. So maybe “Pet Sounds” is the musical equivalent of that breakdown except it sounds beautiful and universal. And then you hear that same guy at the age of seventy-four singing “God Only Knows” and you start thinking.
I got choked up at “God Only Knows”. My life, how it has changed. How I have changed. To hear the old man sing the song that he wrote when he was a young, young man. He wrote it and had his brother sing it but his brother has passed on. And Brian can’t sing anymore. Or he can but his range is limited. By age and drugs and life. My God.
Brian Wilson, this poor s.o.b. is a 74-year-old drug-damaged schizophrenic. And he’s the ticket seller for this 50th anniversary tour. Why don’t we just leave the guy alone? He has to sell the tickets and be there in person for the show. That concert did more for Bowling Green than it did for Brian. And it was pretty weird.
I also cried at the last song of the night, “Love And Mercy”. Choked up again. Because that’s what it is all about. Love and mercy is what we need tonight. Every night. Forever. He’s right. We really do need Brian more than he needs us.
A VIP experience was available. No thanks. Never meet your idols. Nothing like posing for an awkward photo with an anxious old man. What are you gonna tell him? “Thank you. . . for everything.” Anything I’d want to say would be way too personal for someone who I don’t know and doesn’t know me. I’d want to hug him. Can you imagine how his eyes would bulge if a stranger just grabbed and hugged him. Forget it. Leave him alone.
Quick, what’s the greatest rock album of all time?
Nope, it’s not Sgt. Pepper’s. Or Pet Sounds. Nope. Or Blonde By Blonde. Nice try, though.
Don’t trust anyone who tells you emphatically what the best album of all time is. How do they know? Maybe it’s the best album as ranked by a like-minded group of writers and musicians in the same peer group who all grew up with the same music which is why you end up with a bunch of fifty-year old albums like the ones above in the top spot (hi, Rolling Stone).
I’m sure if you ask the right group of people, they’ll tell you that David Bowie’s fucking Tin Machine made the best al-
Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention released “Freak Out!” fifty years ago this summer.
I think about how well regarded “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys is now. Brian Wilson is fondly remembered as a brilliant songwriter and producer. He gets to live his winter years being venerated as a genius, a Kennedy Center honoree, touring for adoring fans. After decades of disrepair and mental torment, Brian Wilson is the victor.
“Freak Out!” was released the same year as “Pet Sounds”. Zappa would make records with various lineups under the name “Mothers of Invention” until 1975, and continued a solo career up until his passing in 1993. There hasn’t been a revival of Zappa music at least since 1995 when Rykodisc released CDs of every Zappa and Mothers album (over 60). Rykodisc released several approved compliations of his music, and found long-lost treasures like the soundtrack to 200 Motels, which had been out of print over 25 years and the never-released “Lather”.
Unfortunately, Frank isn’t here to celebrate with us. He passed away from prostate cancer in 1993. Three of the five Mothers on the cover of “Freak Out!” are dead and a fourth is in prison. You don’t know want to know why.
It’s a double-album, which was unheard of at the time. The only other artist to do it at that time was Bob Dylan who was at the apex of Bob Dylan God-hood. It took a lot of nerve for Frank to insist on this for his very first album but perhaps he thought it would be his “only” album so why not get the most out of it.
The sound of the album is indicative of 1960s California rock, complete with session musicians. Unlike “Pet Sounds”, the Mothers actually play their instruments on “Freak Out!” even when joined by orchestral accompaniment. The horns are replaced by the grating of kazoos. Either to save money or because it sounds appropriate. The first song is a garage rocker with anti-LBJ Great Society sentiment and bile to match in the lyrics. It’s dirty punk before punk is a thing. Zappa is barely singing, mostly sneering his lyrics. Ray Collins is carrying most of the melody vocally. Ray does such a great job as a singer and as a straight man to Frank’s wiseguy on the side.
“I Aint Got No Heart” is a vicious anti-love love song. Ray handles the lead and Frank lays back and harmonizes instead. They don’t play it for laughs which gives the song its’ power. There’s a hallucinatory cut right at the end that you don’t expect. “Who Are The Brain Police?” is when things turn for the strange. More hallucinatory cuts and a main tune that disturbs. This song is why distorted fuzz bass was invented. Also the song is asking you who are the fucking brain police.
“Motherly Love” is a song about how good the Mothers of Invention are at sex. “Wowie Zowie” is a nonsense with a nice marimba part that’s designed to make children happy even though there’s a line that says “I don’t even care if your dad’s [a cop]”.
The first disc on “Freak Out!” is a cynical take on 60’s culture and pop music skewed and bent totally out of shape with lyrics that reflect the band’s daily reality as a nighttime entertainment on the Los Angeles club circuit. “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” is the culmination of the bar-band musician’s nightmare and he completes that sentence with “and so am I, so am I”.
Disc two is where “Freak Out!” separates itself from any other album before or after it. “Trouble Every Day” is the last conventional song, a lengthy talking protest blues written by Frank after the Watts riot in ’65. It is unfortunately still timely today.
“Hey you know something people? I’m not black but there’s a whole lotsa times I wish I could say I’m not white!”
You know we got to sit around at home
And watch this thing begin
But I bet there won’t be many live
To see it really end
‘Cause the fire in the street
Ain’t like the fire in the heart
And in the eyes of all these people
Don’t you know that this could start
On any street in any town
In any state if any clown
Decides that now’s the time to fight
For some ideal he thinks is right
And if a million more agree
There ain’t no Great Society
As it applies to you and me
Our country isn’t free
From there, the album devolves or evolves into experimental music. First with the bizarre “Help I’m A Rock” which uses those hallucinatory cuts from “Who Are The Brain Police” to connect its’ parts. Smash cuts of gibberish over a one-note beat into multi-level stoned doo-wop about Kansas and swimming pools, all with the sinister refrain “it can’t happen here”. In between, Frank complains about being a rock: “Wow, man, it’s a drag being a rock. I wish I was anything but a rock. Heck, I’d even like to be a policeman.”
The final track on “Freak Out!” is “Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet”. It’s about twelve minutes long and is the sound of a room full of acid freaks banging on a bunch of rented percussion equipment. The only people not on acid during the recording were Frank (notoriously straight his whole life) and the recording engineer. The “song” is an edited but unfinished rhythm track (because the label would not let Frank spend more money to finish it) and sounds like a trip, either good or bad. Through the acid mist, there’s the mocking voice of Frank Zappa cutting in to say “America is wonderful! Wonderful wonderful wonderful! It really makes it!” before the track speeds up into absurdity and flies away forever.
A lot of bands tried to copy “Sgt. Pepper’s” after it came out but many more tried to copy “Freak Out!” right down to its’ end-of-album freak-out. Some albums become important retroactively but “Freak Out!” had an impact that was felt immediately. Every band had to try to do their own version of that album.
Frank didn’t know if he would ever get a shot like that again. He was twenty-five, which was old for rock ‘n roll at the time. The Mothers were not an attractive band but what they had were attitude and commitment to an ideal. They also had the chops to go against just about any other band but what did any of that mean career-wise? They were still struggling on the club circuit. If you only get one chance you want to make it the best you can and not save your better material for better circumstances. You have three days to make this album. The band is practically starving. Well-rehearsed but starving. What do you do?
You swing for the fucking fences? That’s what you do.
Frank made over sixty albums in his lifetime. Some of them are pretty good (“One Size Fits All”, “Joe’s Garage”), some of them are the dirt worst ever released (hi, “Thing-Fish”) but NONE of them would exist without the artistic success that was “Freak Out!” which is worth it all on its’ own.
We could really use Frank Zappa right now but we lost him twenty-three years ago.
When a major news event breaks, I sometimes wonder what Frank would have had to say. After 9/11, or Hurricane Katrina or even now with the UK and its’ Brexit news. Frank died at the young age of fifty-two in ’93. It’s possible he could still be here if not for the cancer.
A new movie called “Eat That Question” compiles interview footage from Zappa’s entire career, from years before his ’60s fame until months before his death. He was an intelligent guy, outspoken and unafraid to state his opinion when asked. He fought for the First Amendment, the rights of creative people, and pushed the envelope in his own music. He fought governments, record companies, public views of what’s acceptable.
The world is a better place because Frank Zappa was in it. Frank Zappa stood for freedom and actually applied it instead of paying lip service to the idea of freedom. I would like it if somebody could do that now. Is it too hard now? To stand up for what you believe in wholeheartedly? To not compromise in your integrity or your art? To say what you want to say without fear of backlash? If it is then we’ll need another person to come along and show the way again. They needn’t have to compose music as incredible as “Peaches En Regalia” but it couldn’t hurt.
I want to see “Eat This Question” and am waiting for a screening somewhere near me. The nearest so far are in Indianapolis and Atlanta. I’m holding out for a Louisville or Nashville screening. I want to see this in a theatre. I want to see this with other people who want to see this. I want to take my best friends to see this and say “Here. Here is the guy I wanted to be when I grew up.”