Month: September 2014

Great Albums: Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed

So for my 250th post I am going to talk a little bit about one of my favorite albums ever.  The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed.

LetitbleedRS

I have mentioned this before, but I grew up in a small town with limited radio, almost none of it rock and roll.  So my rock and roll education came almost entirely from my parents’ collection.  Let It Bleed was one of the five or six Stones albums my parents had, and was the most recent chronologically.

The other albums my parents had were their early blues records.  Those are fun records to listen to still, but there’s a huge divide between those and Let It Bleed.  In fact, it’s fashionable to divide the Stones’ career between Pre and Post Beggar’s Banquet, and I agree mostly that this is how they should be seen.  That was when they really matured as a band.  Or when they became irrevocably debauched.  In their case it might just be the same thing.

Anyway, also in fashion is to state that the four albums they put out in this era- Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St.– are mostly the same level of quality and that picking the best of the four is mostly a matter of taste.  I agree with this in theory, but since my parents only owned one of these, Let It Bleed is the best, and it’s grown better as I get older.

When I was a kid it was a collection of crazy songs with a funny cover of a cake made out of junk that’s destroyed on the back cover.  I had to get older to know what some of the songs were about.  I had to get older than that to understand some of the feelings conveyed in the music.

Let’s review some songs-

I don’t know if there’s much to say about Gimme Shelter that hasn’t already been said.  It overplayed and used too often in movies.  It’s also one of the best songs of the 60s.

I wasn’t there so who knows, maybe I’m full of it, but I’ve always assumed that the great struggles of the 60s must have taken a toll on a lot of people, and this song captures that.  It’s a haunting song.  Keith Richards claimed to never like writing topical songs or songs about politics because one day they’d stop being relevant.  There is that risk.  But sometimes having a song that acts like a time capsule is a great thing too.

And purely in technical terms it’s masterful in how it keeps building in intensity.  The Rolling Stones were great at arranging songs to sound like they weren’t actually arranged.

Love in Vain is a nice choice for second- the first so is so intense it’s good to unwind a bit

By this time the Stones could actually do some decent blues.  The guitar is really pretty as well.

Country Honk was ruined for me by that scourge of record listeners everywhere- the record skipping.

That ever happen to you?  You have a song you like, but somewhere along the way the record gets scratched and that sound of a record skipping every single time at the same point in the song becomes etched into your mind, so that every time you hear the song you cringe, expecting the record to skip?  It happens to me, even when I hear it in a format that can’t possibly skip- like the internet

the sweetest ballroom queen I met in Memphis,

in Memphis,

in Memphis,

in Memphis,

in Memphis

Arrrrrrrgh!

Live with Me is the funkiest song on the album

I loved this song and its wild, anarchic sound.  I had no idea what it was about.  This was my favorite song on the album when I was a kid.  So nasty, and such an epic ending when the piano players starts going for it.

Just after that Let It Bleed takes nasty to another level.

Like Love in Vain, this is the song that tones it down a bit after a fast rocker.  As a child I knew what breasts were, so I had an inkling of what was going on in the song, even if I couldn’t have said exactly what.  I had no idea why Mick was singing so slow.  I have a better idea of what he was trying to convey by doing that now.

Midnight Rambler is a song I liked better when I was a kid.  It’s just a little too long.  I’ve never really cared for You Got the Silver.  Oh well, every album has a dud or two.

Monkey Man strikes me as sort of a throwback to when the Rolling Stones were trying to write pop songs, but with an edge to it.

The piano is really pretty.  Wikipedia tells me that the other instrument in the beginning of the song is vibraphone.  Didn’t know that.

You Can’t Always Get What You Want always struck me as an attempt to provide something uplifting at the end of an album full of danger, fear, cooks who are whores, visiting parking lots for “coke and sympathy” and sticking knives down people’s throats.  Like the Stones are trying to make listeners feel better about themselves after their journey to the depths of depravity and I’ve always been grateful for them doing that.

One of the great things about the Rolling Stones is how they can work in so many different genres but always sound exactly like themselves.  Like the Stones don’t bend their music to play in other genres, genres bend to make room for the Stones.

Anyway, 250 posts feels like a real milestone.  I honestly can’t believe I’ve kept at it for as long as I have.  It’s been very interesting though, and thanks to everyone who reads this.  I’ll try to keep ’em coming!

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Damn it feels good to be a gangster

Just a warning- this is a post about some questions I have.  I don’t think there will be any answers, mostly just thinking aloud.

I was thinking about this scene from Office Space today

Because I was listing to Waka Flocka Flame at my desk.  With my headphones on.

I like this song.  It’s got a palpable sense of anger and dread hanging over it.  It’s not something I listen to every day, but for whatever reason I was in the mood for it.

But I was listening to it with headphones on.  Frankly, I might feel a bit like Michael Bolton from Office Space if someone heard me listening to it.  Why though?  I mean, it’s just music, right?

I think there are two jokes in that scene- one is the ridiculousness of a nerdy white dude rapping and the other is when he sees a black man selling flowers he not only rolls up his windows, but he locks his door.  The implication is obvious – if he had just rolled up his window we could assume he just didn’t want to be hassled.  But locking the door means he’s actually afraid of that man.  He’s rapping to scary black music, but he’s afraid of black people!

I found this scene funny when I saw it, but there’s something deeper to it that I’m trying to pick apart.  I mean, why can’t this dude sing along to some rap music?  I have a cousin who refers to herself as a “country chick” but she’s spent her whole life in Orange County, living within a five minute drive of the Pacific Ocean.  It wasn’t until about a minute ago when I was trying to think of an example of someone I know whose musical taste is way outside of their life that it even occurred to me that there’s anything unusual about that.  Actually, I don’t think it’s that weird.  Country music is as much suburban people music as it is music for rural people.  If she were claiming she could drive a tractor that would be weird.

The other thing is that the guy who made the movie is a white man- Mike Judge in a movie directed at a white audience.  We’re all supposed to look at this and laugh.  Because we’d all know that a white man listening to rap is weird.

I’m going to skip discussion of whether singing along to rap music by white people is OK, if a certain word is used.  My opinion on that subject isn’t really all that interesting.

I was young in the 90s so I was around for the big freakout about “gangster rap”.  But in the end, part of the appeal of gangster rap for white people is that they’re living vicariously by listening to it.  It’s exciting to identify, if only in the most abstract sense, with someone bravely looking at a world of constant danger and fighting against it.  Even conquering it.  I’m not saying there’s nothing ethically questionable there- for some of these rappers this is their real life, and sometimes that music has real life consequences for people.

But I always thought it was odd that right around the time people were freaking out about gangster rap, one of the most critically acclaimed and popular movies was this:

Goodfellas

Gangster MOVIES!  FREAK OUT EVERYONE!

But seriously, what’s the difference?  I’m no more Italian than I am black.  Just like I’d probably have no luck moving to the ghetto and joining a gang, I’d never make it as a mobster.  But for some reason, listening to music is taken as an endorsement of something, but watching a movie is not.  If someone walked into the room and I was rocking out to Waka Flocka Flame, I might turn it down and be a little bit embarrassed.  But I wouldn’t hastily try to change the channel if I were watching The Godfather.

Camping smart phones, photos, some other thoughts

Went camping with my dad and my son this weekend.  I hadn’t been camping since New Year’s, which seems like a while to me.  We’ve really dropped off on the camping trips.  For the last couple years we were living in a really park-like apartment complex and just didn’t feel the need to go.  We’ve moved back to a more city-style place, but for whatever reason we haven’t had the time.  Less people to go with and less time are probably the main reasons.

But it was nice- perfect weather, not too hot and not too cold and I got to spend some time with my dad.

I didn’t however, take any photos.  Why?  I’ve never been a good photographer, and mostly leave it to my wife.  My professional photographer friend says “everyone thinks they can take good photos.”  I disagree.  I take crappy photos.  But I usually do take them.

Recently though, I got a smartphone.  Yes, I finally ditched the flippy phone.  But it was almost the cheapest phone I could buy and the camera sucks.  But I can’t bring a camera because I have a phone camera and that would mean carrying two of the same thing.  I know, it’s stupid, I can’t help it.

Random song:

Wizzard See My Baby Jive

I can’t decide whether I think this song is mad genius or if it’s a high-concept failure.  It’s got great hooks all over the place, and some cool instrumentation, but I’m kind of skeptical about the arrangement, which seems to be everyone play everything at once.  I don’t know.  Definitely some good 70s weirdness.

Great Albums- The Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

The Kinks are, in my opinion, the most criminally underrated band from the 60s.  They weren’t the best, they weren’t most ground-breaking, but the fact that they have such an amazing songbook and that people remember maybe four songs of their whole catalog is a shame.

If I had to guess I’d say the problem for them is that Ray Davies isn’t a dynamic frontman like Jagger, or a great singer like Lennon.  The band isn’t a rock and roll machine like the Who or a kickass gang of pirates like the Rolling Stones.  They don’t have anyone who would be notable on their own, no Ginger Baker type drummer and Dave Davies is no Jimi Hendrix.  They don’t particularly have grit like the Doors or Janis.  They never managed to reinvent the pop song like The Beach Boys or the Beatles.

What could they do?  Well, they could rock about as hard as anyone, when they wanted to, which was not that often, at least in the 60s.  They were funny and irreverent and Ray Davies was a great story-teller.  And they wrote great songs.  Mostly it was Ray writing them, but every now and then Dave would come along with a classic of his own.

That’s really the heart of them for me.  Other than Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, no one wrote so many good songs, that were so good, in so many different ways as the Kinks.

They could caveman proto-punk- You Really Got Me, Til the End of the Day.  They could do funny social satire- Sunny Afternoon, A Well Respected Man, Village Green Preservation Society.  They could do hard rock, either anthemic- Lola or groovy- Powerman.  They could do great, sad songs like Dave Davies’ classic – Strangers. or the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Alcohol.  Or just cute songs- Act Nice And Gentle.  They put together some of the most beautiful ballads ever recorded- Days, Waterloo Sunset.

They experimented with a variety of styles, and probably in a smart move, didn’t do a ton of psychedelic rock (they weren’t very good at when they tried), but were really all over the map.

Perhaps most amazingly, the Kinks did something none of their contemporaries managed to do… record a good song in the 80s:

But I wanted to focus on my personal favorite album by them- Arthur:

Arthur was intended to be a concept album to accompany a television special that never got off the ground.  I don’t know if knowing that makes the album better.  You could just as easily think of it as a series of character studies.  It’s about a family, Arthur being the father.  He’s got some kids:

One of them goes off to war:

And dies:

Part of what I like about this album is how much it’s grown with me over the years.  This was always a terribly sad song about a young man trying to be brave and leaving his mother behind.  Having become a parent it’s just devastating.  It’s amazing to me that a young man could have written a song with such empathy.

Arthur also has a son who is a hectoring leftist of some kind:

And some other kids who are looking for a new life in Australia:

The Kinks did a great job of giving the listener a varied emotional experience.  If the whole album were versions of Some Mother’s Son, it would be a real drag.  If you listen to this on LP, this is the last song on the first side, and if it weren’t for the preceding songs, the long, kind of repetitive jam at the end would seem kind of lame, but it lets my brain unwind.  This is one of the sad things about losing the concept of the LP- you can’t really take the listener on the same sort of journey in 3 minutes.

So Arthur’s kids have all gone away and he’s left at home alone.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know whether Ray Davies is making fun of the character in his song, when there’s also clearly so much love for his subject.  I don’t know if he’s criticizing Arthur for accepting his place in society, or if he’s admiring his finding it.  Sometimes I listen to this song and want to be Arthur.

I shouldn’t say Arthur is alone, his wife is with him

I love this song.  This is a song I used to think was kind of stupid, and again, I wasn’t sure if Ray was mocking Arthur and his wife or not.

It wasn’t until I was poor myself that I understood why poor or working class people place so much value in things.   I grew up in a reformed hippie, middle class household and it was considered in poor taste to want to buy luxury items, or brand name items.  That was just tacky.

But I had a rough time for a while when my son was just a baby and now I get it.  Being poor is hard.  Every day is tough, because if you’re close enough to the edge you never know what’s going to cause you to really get stuck- stuck with recurring bills, and debt you can’t pay off.  It’s scary and demoralizing.  But sometimes just having a little something nice makes it tolerable.  Yeah, maybe it shouldn’t matter if you have a nice hat, like the one Arthur is presumably wearing, because who cares, it’s a hat and you’re still poor.  But sometimes having a nice thing to point to, when everything else sucks, can make you want to go on.

Music can sometimes teach you things like that.

Maybe some day this song will grow on me.  So far it hasn’t yet:

The album ends with a great rocker

This is at heart maybe a sad song, but it always brings a smile to my face.  It’s a song that laughs in the face of pain, sadness and disappointment.

I didn’t cover all the songs on the album.  There are a few more, and they’re worth listening to, if not my favorites.  Like I said before, I’ve enjoyed this album for close to twenty years now, but it’s grown with me in a way that few others have.  It’s taught me lessons that took me years to understand.  It’s helped me put myself in the shoes of people who don’t even exist, but I feel better for having done that.  The best music can do this and this is some of the best.

Things that suck about being in a band: disaster strikes

There’s so much that can go wrong playing a live show that sometimes it’s amazing to me that people try to play them at all.  They range from the moderately inconvenient to stuff that totally stops the show.  I’ve had a good range of them.

I don’t really get nervous very much playing at shows, because truth is, I’ve had about everything go wrong that could.  But I’ll start with the worst.

I wrote about playing a Halloween show in 2004 in Japan.  I thought I had written about the following year, but it looks like I only sort of mentioned it here which was a follow up to here.  Basically, I had played a Halloween show with a couple of bands.  One of the bands was the opener, and the guy who was supposed to play guitar got too drunk and we sounded pretty crappy.

The following year my buddy says, “let’s do another band!”

I say, “sure, who’s going to play guitar?”

“Do you remember _____?”

“Oh yes I do, and no I don’t want to play with him.”

“Aw come on, I’ll make sure he doesn’t get drunk”

Long story short, I agree to play.  We watch him like a hawk, but somehow, some way, he drank something and was PLASTERED.  We start setting up and he can’t find an outlet for his amp.  Which he had been twiddling nobs on for like 5 minutes before realizing it’s not even plugged in.  So I set my guitar down in a very questionable stand and go to reach over to plug his amp in.  In the process, I bump my guitar off the stand.  CRASH.  Broke the headstock right off.

Now I am standing there, with a drunk, barely standing idiot for a guitar player, a broken guitar and worst of all, I’m dressed like an angel with huge wings.  I was mortified.  I almost cried.  Not joking.

But the show had to go on, so I borrowed a guitar and played for about three songs before I gave up because half the songs weren’t ones I could play and sing and the guitar player guy was worse than useless at that point.  That was the worst I’ve had so far, but plenty of other things have gone wrong.  Mostly equipment failures of some sort- guitar comes unplugged, guitar strings break.  Sometimes the drummer’s bass drum will start moving away from the rest of the kit if it’s not properly anchored.  These are all things that are pretty easily remedied.

Sometimes you’re just having an off night and the songs just sound bad.  Sometimes the sound man is terrible and doesn’t mix the band properly.  We once had a sound-man fall asleep and our mics were feeding back in the most painful way.  I don’t even know how it was possible for him to sleep.  But sometimes the band just sucks.  I know people who beat themselves up for mistakes, even on good nights.  Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t do that is part of why I still play music.

Random Thoughts

This is almost post # 250.  250!  I can’t believe I made it past #10.  That being said, I have dropped off a bit.  Things are different- I’ve got more to do these days.  Plus I’m trying to go to the gym. In fact I would be there, but I was like- I practiced last night and I’ve got a show tomorrow night, I should just relax my legs.

So I’m relaxing, trying to get a few songs done.  The band has been busy lately, which is good because we’re trying to save up for some recording, but not so good because we’re not making a ton of money.

Song I like:

They just announced a west coast tour, hope they make it back to San Diego.

These guys are local and they’re great

They do something I think is interesting, but bands should be careful with- little breakdowns in the middle of songs.  I was just reminded of this because I recently saw a band that was trying to do this a lot and it really wasn’t working.  I’ve come to the following conclusions on abruptly throwing in wildly divergent parts in the middle of songs

  1. Audience can’t expect them.  Unless they’ve already heard the song, in which case it can’t be helped.  This means not doing the same one multiple times in a song
  2. They should be fairly short.
  3. Wildly different guitar sounds are something to be careful with.

At least that’s my take.  I’ll have to try something like this to see if it works.

Book Review- Blueprint for Disaster

So I finally got my hands on the computer again!

A couple things:

This article on Washington Post was amazing.  Amazing because of how awful the situation it describes is.  This is local government preying on poor people, Sheriff of Nottingham style.  If you have time for a long read and a need to ruin your day, I highly suggest it.

How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty

There was just so much about it that is insane, from prosecutors that act as judges in adjacent cities, to police issuing tickets for the lamest of infractions, to cities agreeing to share halves of roads so that the bounty of ticket-writing can be split up equitably.  It’s just insane.

But back to what I was going to talk about.  I’ve been researching urban issues for a while now, and a big part of what I’m interested in is housing.  I’m not an ideologue, I came to the issue with an open mind, and having learned quite a bit on it in recent years, I’m not sure that I have any more definite opinions.  But I’m keeping at it.

The book is:

Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago Public Housing

By D. Bradford Hunt

Shorter- the book blew my mind

The longer:

Having read a bit about public housing lately, I’m largely on the fence about whether or not it’s a good idea.  There are many, many horror stories about “the projects”, but most of them seem to come from a handful of cases, the most notorious, and most horrific, come from the ugly cement monoliths erected by the Chicago Housing Authority.  In fact, another book I read recently, Edward Geotz New Deal Ruins put it this way- “The fact is that public housing came to ruin in Chicago.”  Chicago’s fuck-ups were so catastrophic and so high profile, that they basically soured the nation on the idea at all.

What went wrong?  I’ll spoil it for you.  According to Hunt, everything.  There’s no one culprit here, but the obvious ones make appearances- bureaucratic incompetence, political corruption, union corruption,  racism, ivory-tower social reformers, out-of-their depth administrators, real estate developers, Democrats, Republicans, flagrant spenders, excessive budget cutters, kids running amok, teenagers in gangs… it’s all here.  Even some things I wouldn’t have thought of.

I’m not going to rehash the whole book because you’ll read it if this interests you or not.  But there were a handful of things that really stuck out in my mind.

1) Too many kids.

The author brings up a point I haven’t seen anywhere else, but strikes as pretty important, even if I can’t prove that it’s right or wrong.  The big apartment buildings had way too many kids in them.  The designers wanted to make safe buildings for families, so the majority of the apartments were three to five bedrooms.  If you’ve ever spent time living in apartments this is highly unusual.  Few complexes have more than a handful of three bedrooms and I’ve never seen a private complex where that’s the majority.  Basically, children, and later, teenagers overran these buildings.  Adults were outnumbered and there were simply too many to keep an eye on.  Kids vandalized the buildings, played around in the elevators (sometimes with tragic results) and basically tore the places apart.  And then the gangs started recruiting them as they got older.

2) High rise buildings were a cost-cutting measure.

Apparently it’s cheaper to build vertically then it is to build horizontally (I suspect I knew that, but I can’t remember… huh).  And it didn’t end there.  Some of the cost-cutting involved things like not putting doors on closets and having elevators that didn’t stop at every floor.

3)  Cost-cutting measures came about because HUD set out to prove that government could build housing for less than private builders.

This to me was the most insane thing I read in the whole book, because it makes no sense at all.  Public housing was proposed partly as a means to make housing available for people who were locked out of the private market.   The private market is driven by profit motive- developers build trying to minimize costs, because they can only push so much of their cost onto consumers before consumers refuse to rent/buy.  So it makes sense to try to replicate that.  But that’s only half the issue.  Renting an apartment from a private developer mean not only are you paying for the cost of the building, you’re paying for them to make a profit.  But it’s easy to save renters money by not making a profit, which the government was trying to do.  Saving them money by building for cheaper than the private market (which is already trying to build at the lowest possible price) is hard.

How did HUD expect this to happen?  Realistically, short of doing something totally insane like saying “we got wood for this building for free because we’re the government and we can log National Parks when we feel like it” there’s not really any way of doing this.  Government mostly buys materials and labor on the open market like everyone else.  Labor it usually has to pay more for.

That part of the book drove me nuts.

At any rate, those were some of the big insights I got out of this book.   The author doesn’t appear to believe that public housing can work.  I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not sure I disagree either.  But it’s good reading for anyone who wants to know what not to do.  Or who just wants to gawk at dozens, maybe hundreds, or even thousands, of people behaving badly, stupidly and carelessly with terrible consequences for the poor and vulnerable.