Tag Archives: Jimi Hendrix

RIP Prince

Just when I thought the high-profile rock star deaths of 2016 were slowing down, Prince died. He was only 57 years old and apparently died due to complications relating to the flu. I’d heard that he’d taken ill following a recent concert and had been rushed to the hospital, but I never imagined that the Purple One would die. I only recently (the last 2 years or so) got into Prince. I can’t exactly recall what spurred my interest in him, but my wife and I really dug into his second-to-last album, the bizarre rock opera ART OFFICIAL AGE, which came out in 2014. Both of us falling in love with a record top-to-bottom is an extremely rare event in my household, which should tell you something about Prince and his appeal.

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Kids today probably don’t know very much about Prince, and I blame that on him. In recent years, Prince’s militancy regarding the online presence of music essentially resulted in wiping him from history for most young music fans. Hell, I grew up in the early 1980s and prior to 2014 I really only thought of him when watching re-runs of Chappelle Show. Scrubbing his music from the web resulted in him being half-remembered as a joke and as the guy who single-handedly ruined Tim Burton’s 1989 BATMAN film. I guess this strategy made him some money, because ART OFFICIAL AGE was the last album I purchased in an actual record store last year after Prince removed all of his music from Spotify.

I’m sad that Prince is gone and that his legacy is kinda screwed up, because Prince was simply amazing. Like a weird fusion of Hendrix and Michael Jackson, Prince was a genuine  guitar hero. I think that’s the biggest thing young people today don’t know about Prince: he was a legitimate shredder. There is an outstanding song on ART OFFICIAL AGE called “Clouds” where at the very end Prince does this amazing guitar solo. It’s a brief burst of virtuosity that’s probably the most sublime (yet tasteful) bit of music I’ve heard in the last ten years. There’s something really rad about a guy that talented being so restrained. If I could play guitar like Prince, I’d have a double-album of nothing but obnoxious solos.

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The best artists evolve and shift over time and boy did Prince do that…and then some. From his early days a downright dirty talking pop star to a quasi-religious (or not?) fanatic who shunned his early success. He spent much of his later years holed up in his house studio recording whole albums that he never bothered to release (that’s if filmmaker Kevin Smith is to be believed). If there’s anything positive to come from his untimely passing, I hope that it’s we get access to some of that music. I’ll bet that much of it is fucking amazing and all of it is super weird.

Rest In Power, dear sweet Prince.

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Songs Ruined By Pop Culture

One the of great properties of music is its ability to serve as a sort of emotional shorthand.  Songs about love or loss allow us to experience these feelings vicariously while also drawing upon our own pool of half-buried emotion.  Songs can have personal connections to us, but what I’m talking about are the broader, surface-level connections that we all feel to some degree.  Every time you hear Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” you don’t get a knot in your stomach thinking about a dark-haired girl I knew in 8th grade. But when we all hear The Beatles “Something” or Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” we all feel an approximation of the same thing.

This ability to instantly invoke feeling makes music the perfect complement to film and television shows that want to underscore and heighten their down dramatic moments.  When used effectively, the results are memorable and wonderful.  That said, there are some songs that are used a little too frequently in films/shows, turning a wonderful thing into a cheat, a lazy-shorthand for actual emotion.  Worse, there are other uses of songs in various pop culture where, even when not overused, become so iconic that the song ceases to have a life outside this one specific use.  For me, these songs are ruined.   Perhaps ruined is too strong a word, but whenever a song becomes unlistenable without conjuring up residual cultural baggage that’s what it feels like to me.  Ruined.

Don't drop that thing on your head...

Don’t drop that thing on your head…

Here are some notable songs “ruined” by pop culture:

1. “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel.  Most casual music fans are probably under the impression that this is a Bob Dylan song.  “Stuck in the Middle With You” feels like a Dylan song because the song was conceived as a spoof of Dylan.  The song was released in 1972 and by 1973 reached all the way to #6 on the Billboard Music Charts. Songwriters Gerry Rafferty and Joe Egan put out two more albums and then disbanded, with Rafferty going onto have moderate solo success including a hit with his 1978 song “Baker Street.”  The song probably would have remained a curiosity/answer to a trivia question had director Quentin Tarantino not resurrected the song for his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs.  The song took on a fresh, demonic connotation when Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, gleefully tortures a policeman while dancing to the track.   Now 99.99% of people are unable to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” without thinking about ears being lopped off.

2. “Gimmie Shelter” by The Rolling Stones.  The first cut off the Stones 1969 classic LET IT BLEED, “Gimmie Shelter” is an epic tour de force.  The song is notable for prominently featuring vocals from a non-Rolling Stone (singer Merry Clayton) and for tackling the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time. The song’s dark, seductive groove and “rape and murder” references make the song ideal for use in films with violent content.  So not surprisingly, the the song has been used in countless cops ‘n robbers shows and films.  I also think it’s impossible to make a film about the Vietnam War without using this and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.” But the person who really ruined this song was director Martin Scorsese who has used it in not one, but three films: Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. It’s a great song, but it has been done to death.  For a song about the horrors of the Vietnam War, I sure do think of garlic-breathed mobsters when I hear it…

3. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. Originally released in 1986, “In You Eyes” was the first song on the second side of Gabriel’s fifth solo album SO.  Essentially a perfect time capsule of 1980’s pop, SO also famously featured the hits “Big Time” and “Sledgehammer.”  At the time of the album’s release, “Sledgehammer” was the bigger hit due in part to a really cool stop-motion animated music video.  But all that changed three years later when Cameron Crowe used the song in his teenage love story Say Anything… The song gained renewed attention and immortality when, near the film’s climax, John Cusack blasts the song from a boombox hoisted high over his head.  I was but a babe when Say Anything… came out, so the nostalgia is a bit lost on me, but even I can’t hear Gabriel’s song without thinking of Cusack.  The song’s been used over the years in similar context, but everybody is really just copying Crowe.

4.  “All Along The Watchtower” by Bob Dylan but covered famously by Jimi Hendrix.  Everybody agrees that Hendrix was a guitar god, and his cover of Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” is an amazing interpretation (seriously, have you heard Dylan’s version?) but much like “Gimmie Shelter” the song has been co-opted by filmmakers who use the song as a kind of shorthand for “doing drugs in ‘Nam.” The song’s use in Forest Gump is the gold standard of such use (that film is probably one of the worst offenders when it comes to using music as lazy shorthand).   The track’s overuse has reached the point of cliché, I actually laughed when I saw Zack Synder’s Watchmen film where the song’s use bordered on parody.

5.  “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood & The Destroyers.  The title track off the George Thorogood’s 1982 album, “Bad to the Bone” was not a hit.  But within a few short years “Bad to the Bone” became the band’s most recognizable hit.  How you ask?  Because the song has been used countless time to telegraph to the audience that a certain character is a badass.  Most famously the song was used in conjunction with Arnold Schwarzenegger in T2: Judgment Day when the muscular robot first dons his iconic black motorcycle jacket.  “Bad to the Bone” was a kinda cool tough-guy song that has now been watered-down into a novelty song, thanks in part to it’s uber-level of machismo.  Today the song is now mostly used in comedies in contrast with a particularly un-tough character (i.e. a loveable loser).

6.  “What I Am” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians.  The impetus for this list was the recent use of Edie Brickell’s 1988 one-hit wonder “What I Am” on HBO’s Girls. This season on the show, an ill-advised cover of the song that makes its way onto YouTube and haunts a particular character. I hadn’t thought about/heard this song in ages, but the day after I saw the first episode of Girls third season, I started noticing the song was on the radio more than in previous years.   A catchy chorus and twisty, semi-thought provoking lyrics are now rendered meaningless thanks to the series.  This is now a song about defeat and the soul-crushing reality that none of our dreams are going to come true.  Thanks Girls.

 There are countless other examples of song ruined by pop culture, Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was forever stamped by Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey in Wayne’s World as was “Sweet Home Alabama” in every movie to every take place in the South (or feature Southern characters).  I’m sure just how ruined these songs are depends on your film/TV watching habits.   I’m curious to hear what songs you the reader feel have been used to death or ruined by pop culture.  Speak up in the comments section.

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Al Anderson’s “Ridin’ In My Car” Was Not A Hit: What The Hell 1977?

They say that life isn’t always fair, and nothing proves this adage more than the music industry.  Like a lot of show biz, the music industry operates on the whims of a fickle public and the greed of miserly record executives.  Sure, there are amazing success stories of bands and singers who are legitimately talented AND make boatloads of cash & fans–but for the most part the music biz is a landscape of dead dreams bloating in the sun.  If there was a sure-fire formula for crafting a #1 hit record, then some tycoon somewhere would have figured it out, right?  A quick glance at the Billboard charts for the last 25 years reveals a bizarre and, quite frankly, baffling array of popular/hit songs that have nothing in common–other than the fact that they were created by human beings.

As a race, human beings are always looking for answers.  We desperately seek order in the chaos that surrounds us.  I have a hard time putting my head on to my pillow each night, because I live in a world where Al Anderson’s “Ridin’ In My Car” was not a hit record.  If there truly is a higher power, why would he allow his children to suffer “You Light Up My Life” by Debby Boone?  Why would he place the crown of  Best Selling Single of 1977 upon a song like “You Light Up My Life” and not “Ridin’ In My Car”?  It just doesn’t make any sense, and quite frankly, only serves to underscore my own nagging suspicion that were are, in fact, truly without a higher power’s protection*.

I hope you are VERY pleased with yourself, 1977.

Who is Al Anderson?  Well he’s a guy who joined a band called the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet (NRBQ) in 1971 as a guitarist.  This is a band that I only recently discovered, but who’s legacy I’d been (unknowingly) enjoying for years.  The band was formed in 1967 in Florida and proceeded to quietly release super-fun and catchy pop-rock records.  They’ve maintained a dedicated following over the years and have actually done some pretty high-profile stuff.  What kind of stuff?  Well, when they weren’t buys touring and releasing awesome records  they wrote some songs for a little show called THE SIMPSONS** (maybe you’ve heard of it?).

And yet, you’ve still never heard of them (they’ve only recently popped up on my radar).  Now, to be fair, you probably haven’t heard of Debby Boone either and  if you have you probably hadn’t thought of her in a while.  So perhaps I’m putting an over-importance on having a “hit” single.  Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t really mean anything.  For example, it’s a famous rock anecdote that  guitar-God Jimi Hendrix only had one hit single (the Dylan cover of “All Along The Watchtower”).  Does that mean that Hendrix is in the same class as Debby Boone? I don’t think anyone would argue that, and yet I still can’t shake the Capitalist urge to judge artistic merit based on sales/popularity.

This album also features a song called “I’ve Got A Rocket In My Pocket,” which also failed to set the charts ablaze.

Chances are you’ve never heard “Ridin’ In My Car,” so you’re probably wondering what’s so special about it.  It’s a great little gem of pop-craftsmanship, and quite frankly the only astounding or truly awe-inspiring thing about it is the fact that it was not a hit song.   The song was released in 1977 (I cannot find any further information on the release date online, further evidence that history is written solely for and by the victors)  on NRBQ’s fourth album ALL HOPPED UP.  “Ridin’ In My Car”, even upon the first listen, strikes a very familiar cord.  It’s one of those songs that, as you’re listening to it, it seems like you’re already intimately familiar with it.  Like a classic Beatles cut, it’s immediately accessible and catchy.   Lyrically, the song is about the sadness of lost love and the memories of a pervious summer.  The song’s basic conceit is that this guy associates driving around with this woman that…well, things just didn’t work out between them (she found someone else):

“When I’m home alone I can think of other things to do/But when I’m rolling in forward motion I think about only you.”

It’s very pure and simple (and kind of cute),  which is exactly what a good song should be.  And even though the lyrics aren’t super-complex, they’re memorable and clever.   I specifically smile every time I hear the first verse, which despite having a very straightforward rhyme scheme (“chance” and “romance”) the phrasing is absolutely perfect:

“Remember last summer when we had the chance

To find each other, start making romance

But it didn’t come off beacuse you found another

Without one hand of a clock, what good is the other?”

I’m pretty sure that if you’d given me 1,000 years I’d have never come up with that comparison of lovers and two hands on a clock face–but it’s spectacular.  I’m not saying that this song is the greatest song of all-time or that it makes a deeply profound statement….but it beats the hell out of that other song released in 1977:

“Rollin’ at sea, adrift on the water

Could it be finally I’m turnin’ for home

Finally a chance to say “Hey, I love you”

Never again to be all alone

And you light up my life

You give me hope to carry on

You light up my days

And fill my night with song”

Poor Debby Boone, I’m glad she’s finally getting a chance to say “Hey, I love you.”  How fantastic for her.  I’m not going to beat up on Debby Boone, hell I don’t even know if she wrote “You Light Up My Life.”  In fact, now that I listen to the song I can totally see why it was a #1 hit song–it’s completely stupid and devoid of anything approaching honest emotion.  And artistry?  Forget it, this is pap…pure and simple. When I listen to “You Light Up My Life” I’m not challenged with any of the complexities of an actual human relationship.  There is metaphor and imagery in “You Light Up My Life” but it’s so basic and cliched that I know exactly what Debby’s singing upon first listen.  I don’t have to hurt my brain trying to figure out how Debby’s been “adrift” and how this new love is both a “home” for her and filling her with “song.”  This is popular entertainment at it’s finest and it was thusly rewarded.

So, to come full circle, the key to a hit song is just being completely idiotic and basic as hell…right?  Well, going back to 1977 it turns out there were SOME very popular songs that weren’t completely-lobotomized: The Eagles (the fuckin’ Eagles, man) had a monster hit with “Hotel California” which is pretty esoteric/sonically interesting (i.e. the opposite of “You Light Up My LIfe”).  Also a hit that year was Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s strange, kinda cool Springsteen cover “Blinded By The Light.”  I wouldn’t consider that (very controversial at the time) song to be a watered-down, idiot’s song.  Studying the charts for 1977 reveals just how skitzo American music tastes were/are.    I mean, 1977 was a year when the charts were topped by both the Bee Gees “I Just Want To Be Your Everything” and Meco’s “Star Wars Cantina Song.”  So in the end, the pop/rock charts for 1977 do little to explain what happened (or why) but only serve to underscore why the United States is a Republic and not a Democracy–because “popular” and “right” are often mutually exclusive.

FOOTNOTES:

*And if there is a God after all, he has one hell of a sense of humor.

** See the 8th episode of the 11th Season “Take My Wife, Sleaze” which features the (original/episode exculsive) song “Mayonnaise and Marmalade.” 

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