Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Um, sorry I haven't been around.

Yeah, my hard drive went looking for butter and marmalade on Sunday, and so I've ben scrambling to get back up. Borrowed an outboard HD a friend so graciously loaned, but I've gotta get paid from my last freelance job before I can replace the drive that crapped out. Boo hoo. No library of music, no bookmarked sites, plus the not-so-fun specter of calling a bunch of data-retrieval places for bids on the drive in a MacBook that I bought 20 months ago.

Maybe I should post a picture of a wormy, rotten apple to voice my discontent. Oh, and the dead hard drive was the 160-gigabyte one made by Seagate. Assclowns.

No. Wait. I'm the assclown.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Holy mackerel, a burned-out writer!


I'm still still phoning it in from the land of genera Culex as this week crawls to a close, and too damned skeeter-bit to dig into anything novel, or write that in-depth post about the transcendent songwriting genius of Sport Murphy. Which I will do, sometime.

This hasn't been a typical year; in years past I've been a lot more cognizant of new music and new bands. These days, because I no longer seem to be writing about music for local publications (with the exception of Midtown Monthly, which tapped me to write this little stumble down memory lane), I've kinda fallen out of the discipline of checking out new sounds, a dedication I'd developed in fits and starts over two and a half decades, and the whole world isn't beating a path to my door to ask me what I think about its new music.

Anyway, some words later when there's more time and inspiration, maybe?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

You're looking good. A big strong line.

Buried in the minutiae of flying and buzzing vampires again. Sooner or later, I'll be getting around to some kind of thoughtful discussion of current music, but right now I'm just treading water until I get unstuck. Or unbugged. Or something.

So rather than bore you with more navel-gazing rockcrit twaddle (um, who am I kidding; no one's reading this shit), I figure it might be best to continue on the theme of weird-ass no-talents with this link.

So enjoy. Or not.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Where's El Kabong when we need him?

So I've been sitting in this coffee joint trying to write for the past couple of hours. There is music playing. The channel is something called "The Coffeehouse" on satellite radio station Sirius XM.

OK. Don't get me wrong. There are a lot of singer-songwriters I love. Unfortunately, I haven't heard any of them on this particular station. The shtick here seems to be that the singer-songwriters are playing covers of classic tunes. After a bit of hard listening, sometimes it's possible to figure out what song is getting covered. The problem is that the singers are so woefully insipid or cliche-ridden, like the waif-girl with the guitar or the stoner kid with the frizzy hair and the guitar, that even Lennon-McCartney or Bernstein-Sondheim comes out sounding like Jason Mraz or Melanie Safka, as in extremely annoying.

Having played or sat through countless open mics, I'm a veteran of sitting through sets by insipid singer-songwriters. But this station reaches a new level of blowage, or suckage, or whatever metric you want to apply to this stinkola musical shark chum.

Now, the problem, when this stuff gets foisted at the coffeehouse level, is this: You have your ASCAP or BMI dicks going around jacking up cafe owners, who might prefer to program their own playlists, via playing iPods or CDs, in their establishments. You know, like local bands or singers or bedroom electronica acts that could use the exposure. So what happens, after the rep from one of these publishers' enforcers gets in the cafe owner's face, is that he or she decides its easier to put up a "no covers" sign for anyone playing there, and then these proprietors subscribe to one of these foreground music firms like Sirius XM for their musical needs, because the paying-royalty business with the music is already squared away.

And some of those Sirius channels are pretty damned good. But a few of them, like this particular channel, were something Dante Alighieri was writing about in the 14th century.

I've been listening to this stuff for the past three hours. For the most part, what I've heard is generic, flavorless musical granola that goes in one ear and out the other. If the old Broadway test for a hit is that you walk out of the theater whistling the tunes you just heard, well, I'd have to plead amnesia here. I can't remember a thing, except for some acoustic guitars, whiny voices and other earmarks of "authenticity," like the occasional squeezebox.

The part that really bums me out is that coffeehouses used to be great places to hear local music. Here in Sacramento, there are a number of very good acts that haven't stopped recording new music just because record stores appear to be going the way of the slot car emporium. These acts sell their music at shows. You have to go to the shows to see them and buy the music. Which a lot of fans do. Still, wouldn't it be nice if you could walk into coffee joints around town and hear fresh new music from local musicians, instead of some kind of watered-down contemporary Muzak that has no local connection? Talk about a lost opportunity.

I'm not sure how this could be done, but wouldn't it be cool if there was a local-music waiver for coffeehouses and bars and clothing boutiques, so that establishments wouldn't get penalized by roving BMI or ASCAP agents for helping to promote local music? I'd sure prefer to hear what Buildings Breeding or Ahoy! or Mike Farrell or Ricky Berger or Agent Ribbons or Desario or Baby Grand or a bunch of other local acts are up to than some of the swill that's getting piped in instead.

And you?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

When bad music achieves greatness

By 2009, the idea of the music business being in some kind of tailspin is what I call a blinding flash of duh, the kind of "water is, y'know, all wet and stuff" observation that most of us stopped making a long time ago.

Uh huh. CDs aren't selling. There's so much music that outright sucks, that it's hard to find the stuff that doesn't; it's like trying to find hidden Spanish doubloons among the chozzerai at Jim Denio's Farmer's Market.

That said, there's a lot of great music still getting made. Musicians don't stop being creative just because no one wants to spend $17.99 for the latest Hoobastank CD, or Chris Daughtry, or whoever this week's big foist is at what used to be called album-oriented rock radio. It's just that the distribution machine is broken, and the big labels are signing very little of worth, while giving the least-qualified people on earth the ability to push their garbage on the rest of us.

Case in point: Warner Bros. Records, once arguably the greatest of major labels, has, in the past few years, signed celebutard Paris Hilton, and now is rumored to have inked custom-label deals with odious gossip assclown Mario "Perez Hilton" Lavandeira Jr. and MTV's The Hills' twittish prick Spencer Pratt, the latter of which will no doubt sign his wife, the spectacularly untalented blonde celebutard Heidi Montag. Rumor has it Pratt's imprint also will release the debut album slash train wreck of the spectacularly untalented and zaftig tochis'd celebutard Kim Kardashian. That's a swirling vortex of suck. And, no, The Onion isn't running Warner Bros. now, even if it looks that way.

But that's a rant for a different time, when I feel like shooting listless and rotting carp in a barrel.

Besides, if I want to listen to "bad" music, why listen to Simon Cowell-approved junk, or Mouseketeer star turns, when there are so many great sides of exquisite awfulness available? Of course, the ones I'm talking about are the product of those "send us your poems and we'll turn them into hit records" ads that ran in the back of magazines in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Compilations like Beat of the Traps and Makers of Smooth Music turned people onto these unlikely gems of pop music wonder back in the 1990s, and I've never gotten tired of them.

The first one I remember hearing was an outright prank, the result of Los Angeles (now Santa Rosa) singer John Trubee sending a song mill a poem called "Stevie Wonder's Penis." What came back in the mail was a record titled "Peace & Love" by Ramsey Kerney, a hack-job country ditty with some tired cowpoke singing "A blind man's penis is erect because he's blind" before stumbling off into a ramble about UFOs. Understandably, it became an underground hit in L.A. in the 1980s.

Once I got hooked on songpoem records, I fell into a rabbit hole where performers like Rodney Keith Eskelin (aka Rod Keith, Rodd Rogers, et al.) Gene Marshall, Bobbi Blake and others were huge stars, and rightly so. Yeah, the arrangements can be hackneyed, and the lyrics are outright hilarious, and we're generally not talking about the kind of passion Sam Cooke mustered with the Soul Stirrers here, although there are some exceptions.

Perhaps I shouldn't sully your appreciation of hearing these brilliant creations for the first time with my critical observations. So I won't, except to say that I envy anyone hearing "Get Down and Wiggle It a Little," or "Your Body Is Making Eyes at Me," or "We Are the Men Counting Sheep, or "She Knows How to Do the Do Dee Do" for the first time. The great free-form radio station WFMU has archived several albums of songpoem greatness on its blog site, which you can download here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here. At this writing, there are six compilations containing 175 cuts of songpoem weird goodness; I'll add links if and when WFMU puts new compilations up. (On edit: another volume with 27 additional cuts of songpoem greatness has been added).

So, if you're tired of what you're hearing elsewhere, go to those links and download to your heart's content, and put 'em on your iPod or whatever you use to listen to music. I try to listen to them when I'm away from traffic, like on the bike trail, because you never know when you'll burst into laughter.

And laughter is a very good thing.

They squeak when they walk

Three days in, and already I'm feeling the lash of the blogger's whip.

Which is pussyass bitching, when you get right down to it. I mean, how friggin' hard is it to sit down and type up a load of doggerel? Child's play, really.

So here's a blast from the past. Back in 1982, I had some drinking buddies who were in a band called the Authorities, when we all lived in a colostomy bag of a city called Stockton, California.

Stockton was the place where my parents ended up, which is what happens in life when you're not really thinking about where you're going, and then suddenly you wake up to find you're a wage slave in a place like San Joaquin County, not exactly a great place to raise the kids. Not exactly a great place for anything, except getting arrested, crashing cars into trees or irrigation ditches, OD'ing on drugs, or hanging out your shingle as a tent-revival snake handler.

There were a couple of routes for those of us with the attention spans of insects. One involved serial incarceration, which I flirted with but never really perfected into something that would give me the requisite C&W cred in Nashville. The other centered around starting a band. I wasn't very good at that, either, but some of my friends were.

A few of them were in the Authorities, which recorded a bunch of stuff at a studio in Modesto, four songs of which ended up on a seven-inch EP called Soundtrack for Trouble. My favorite was the genius rant by the late "Big Nick Slurb" Kappos; its lyrics went something like: "I hate cops/ They're all fucking piggers/ They all got mustaches/ They squeak when they walk/ I hate cops." There were more words, but that was the gist.

I think those lyrics kill.

Nick was the guitar-playing heart of the band, and I remember his record collection consisted mostly of the complete works of the Mothers of Invention, the Ventures and Throbbing Gristle. He lived in this fourplex on Pershing Avenue just north of the University of the Pacific, across the Calaveras River. We used to get drunk there a lot on cheap beer that we stole from the 7-Eleven up the street, which we justified because the people who worked there were Pontiac TransAm-driving Persian coffee shop hanging out exchange student dicks. Later, around 1984 when I left town, people started playing around with opiates, and there was one John the Baptist of junk who worked pretty hard at convincing the local rockers that you couldn't have real punk cred unless you shot up with him. Which inevitably killed Nick, who met his demise in the men's loo of the Stockton Greyhound bus depot, with a needle hanging out of his arm.

Curt Hall was the singer, Brian Thalken also played guitar, and he'd written a song called "Radiationmasturbation" that was a classic of punk melodicism. Brian had been in the Fall of Christianity with bassist Theron Knight and drummer Gary Young, who later got famous as the vegetable-vending drummer of Pavement. I can't remember if Ron "Rondo" Copetti or Tony Smith played bass on the record, which I no longer have a copy of. The late Dave Kambestad played drums. The other two songs were "Achtung" and "Shot in the Head."

I designed the cover, which means I used a Delta College graphic arts class at night to shoot black and white screened repros of some pictures in a book of Maoist poster art I'd found a few years earlier at Tower Books on Watt Avenue in Sacramento, and to blow up the type. I think the teacher busted me and told me to knock it off, but I went ahead and did it anyway behind his back. Brian had the records pressed up and they sat in his closet for a while. A bunch of them were at Rather Ripped Records, which got raided by the FBI for selling bootlegs.

Anyway, this little record is apparently quite collectable, if you believe what you read on the Internet. We all thought the Authorities were great, but multiple drunken trips to Mabuhay Gardens in Hall's blue Pinto station wagon to launch the band into immortality only succeeded in getting some of us arrested for drunk in public. Multiple times. That jail across the alley from the Keystone Korner was a regular Barney Miller episode, albeit with a David Mamet script.

If you see Soundtrack for Trouble, or the reissue that included a bunch more tracks, pick it up and play it real loud.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It's all about the words

For somebody who considers himself a writer of sorts, I'm more of a melody and harmony guy than a word freak, which means that I tend to hear music the way a dog does. Where you may hear something like: "Well, she don't make me nervous, she don't talk too much/ She walks like Bo Diddley and she don't need no crutch," to me, that tends to register along the lines of "Woof. Woof woof woof. Woof woof."

That doesn't mean I can't appreciate a well-turned phrase. My current favorite line comes from the Flaming Lips' song "Do You Realize," which apparently some forward-thinking legislators in Oklahoma recently nominated for the state song. Unfortunately, there was a quorum of evangelicals maintaining vigilance in the statehouse to put the kibosh on such alleged tomfoolery, otherwise we'd have Okie schoolchildren singing the Buddhist sentiment "Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die" - which might be shock-inducing for a few of them.

Heartbreak is a primary component in the loam of the songwriter's muse, and there's nothing like a broken heart to kick a songwriter's ass into writing great stuff. "You're a Big Girl Now," one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs, from his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks, has its share of excellent lines in that regard. The final verse begins kinda weakly, with the couplet "A change in the weather is known to be extreme/ But what's the sense of changing horses in midstream," but then Dylan goes in for the kill: "I'm going out of my mind, oh oh/ With a pain that stops and starts/ Like a corkscrew to my heart/ Ever since we've been apart." Yep. Bob totally nailed that one.

On a lighter note, the Ramones opened their anthem "Rock 'n' Roll High School" with this great couplet: "Well I don't care about history/ 'Cause that's not where I wanna be." No angst-ridden French philosopher ever put it more succinctly.

I've tried to write a few songs over the years, and it's really hard to find the right words; melodies and chord progressions are easy. Most of my efforts are clunky, in the way Brian Wilson was on "Johnny Carson" from the 1977 "comeback" album The Beach Boys Love You: "When guests are boring he fills up the slack/ Johnny Carson/ The network makes him break his back/ Johnny Carson ...."

Yeah, that's about my speed as a lyricist. So I have a deep appreciation for people who can match words to music effectively. Even if it all sounds like "woof woof woof" to this dog's ears.