Friday, August 27, 2010

What I Did This Summer…Well, in Music (Part One)

It’s back-to-school time, so what better way to get in the mood than to give that dreaded first-week-of-English-class report: “What I Did This Summer.”

This summer has been a real up-and-downer in the Wright household. Of course, there was the flood, as almost none of you may have heard in the national news…and there have been the other things that life seems to throw at you when you least expect it. But musically, it’s been a summer like I’ve never known.

The weird thing is, none of the coolness of this incredibly musical summer has had to do with playing music. And that’s strange for me. And difficult. This is the first year I haven’t been in some kind of band in a decade. And yeah, I miss that. Badly. I miss Skelter practice in the Ross basement and pre-practice drinks with The Lightning Catchers at the Tempest on Eighth Ave. I miss rocking out with great musicians…and good friends.

But other things have opened up in their stead. As most of you know, my current job is at Gibson Guitar, where I’m the editorial director. So, I oversee the content of the company website…and I write quite a bit, as well. This has opened the doors for me to interview some pretty interesting people. I’ve had the opportunity to chat with everyone from Slash to Carlos Cavazo to Alex Lifeson to Steve Miller to the guy who played guitar on “Rapper’s Delight” (whose anecdotes about his guitar being continually held hostage by ex-girlfriends is one of the great B-reel laughs I’ve had all year). It really runs the gamut. But this summer, I’ve been particularly fortunate to be able to speak with two artists who really affected my musical make-up — like, that D.N.A.-level music, dating all the way back to my bedroom on Harding Road in Springfield, Ohio in the mid-’70s.

Now, I’d had the opportunity previously, when I worked in comics, to talk with some creative types whom I had admired for years and ask all the questions I’d always wanted to ask. Hell, I even got to work for Batman legend Denny O’Neil for a year. This was reminiscent of those years, though the scale seemed so much larger, I guess, because as much as I loved (and love) comics, music is my bedrock. If you cut me, I bleed music (and blood, so don’t try!). So, this was an amazing opportunity to gain a new insight on the music and players who have meant so much to me.

A couple of months ago, I contacted Denny Laine and arranged an interview for our site. Laine, for those who don’t know, was one of the original members of The Moody Blues and, later, was the one non-McCartney constant in Wings. It was his Wings music that resonated with me both as a kid and, really, to this day as an adult. Wings are a convenient punchline (cue the Alan Partridge reel), but they were an amazing band. Paul McCartney is, admittedly, my favorite musician — and one of my favorite people — on the planet, but the band were pretty amazing, as well. I particularly liked that middle-years line-up, with Jimmy McCulloch on lead guitar and Joe English on drums. Wings over America was a big part of the soundtrack of my household when I was growing up, and it still remains one of my all-time faves. It was great picking Laine’s brains and getting some insight on those guys and those years — and it was somewhat satisfying to learn that someone who was actually in the band also lamented how soft they went toward the end. It was also great to be able to get the scoop from the horse’s mouth on one of those great rock and roll legends, involving Jimmy McCulloch, a loaded gun and two sleeping McCartneys.

(To be continued…)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Play It Purdy for Atlanta

The most beautifully misunderstood featurette on our website is the “Daily Throwdown,” in which we pull two tenuously related video clips from YouTube, generally featuring guitarists of some merit, and ask readers to duke it out in the comments section to determine which one is “the winner.” Really, though? It’s just an excuse to put some cool old clips on the site and generate traffic. But boy, do people get angry about it. Last week, I put Joe Bonamassa on the same page as Stevie Ray Vaughan and you would have thought I’d burned SRV’s Strat and peed on his grave. How dare I imply that Joe was in the same league as Stevie Ray! I don’t think I did, actually, but who cares? That one Throwdown is at 1625 hits and counting. And we do these things every day.

Anyway, the point is that there is some amazing footage out there on YouTube and it’s legally cool to embed it on your site (at least, for now). Sometimes, though, things you think, for certain, will be all over YouTube and will be easy to find turn into little trips down the old rabbit hole. Today, I made such a Carrollian journey…and for that, I blame the rednecks. Or the redneck archivists, to be exact.

Tomorrow was going to be the king of all Throwdowns: “Free Bird” vs. “Stairway to Heaven.” Yes, I can see you music snobs out there preparing your tut-tuts as you oh-so-smugly listen to your rare Kate Bush imports and discuss the finer points of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, but come on…“Free Bird” and freakin’ “Stairway!” Duking it out on our site! That’s gold on the interwebs, kiddies.

And of course, I was looking for video footage of classic lineups only (no 2007 reunions from either party), and reasonably good audio. But alas, it turns out that there does not exist a single live clip of the Ronnie Van Zant-era Skynyrd playing “Free Bird” from beginning to end. Not a single one. Oh, there are plenty of versions with Gary Rossington’s slide intro removed or with that long, long, long outro clipped. Or with horrible audio, apparently recorded across the street from the venue, possibly from inside a broken hair dryer. And there are plenty of versions that are split into two YouTube clips, one assumes so that listeners can re-live the thrill of hearing One More from the Road on 8-track tape. But damn it, there exists absolutely nothing I can put on the site next to Zep’s beautifully shot and recorded The Song Remains the Same performance of “Stairway.” My duel of the millennium is dead. So I feel compelled to say…

Really, Skynyrd fans? Really?? This is your freakin’ national anthem (what with “Dixie” being a bit out of favor in the Obama Era, a.k.a. Post-1865 America)! How do you not have a definitive live version of “Free Bird” on YouTube, for God’s sake?! What the hell do you watch when you’re waiting for your Roland Martin bass fishing shows to load?

It’s not a complete loss, though, because I learned something today — something I hadn’t foreseen when I embarked on this journey. I learned about the many miraculous, hither-to-unseen powers of “Free Bird.”

For instance, I learned of its transformative powers. Yes, this FM staple can metamorphose mere video game mouth-breathers into godlike rock stars able to do what Skynyrd nation could not, and that is to post a definitive live version of themselves rocking out to that ultra-badass Allen Collins guitar solo…even if they are doing so on wanky pieces of plastic.

The song also has the power to heal the soul, as prescribed by mourners of everyone from Dale Earnhardt to Akira the boxer puppy. Ah, there’s no more meaningful tribute than a photo collage adorned with the lyrics of a guy telling his girlfriend, “Please don’t take it so badly, ’cause the Lord knows I’m to blame.” I guess, technically, Earnhardt made the decision to take that turn a little too fast, but it’s a bit harsh to point that out in your tribute, don’cha think? God knows what poor, little Akira did to warrant his trip to doggy heaven.

The song also empowers bands with names like Stone Heart and Smokey & the Jokers to feel like, for one shining moment, they are playing on better stages to better audiences (using, presumably, better band names). It certainly must have some confidence-boosting power, or else all those tubby, pimply marching band kids (from middle school to college) wouldn’t play it…and have their parents post it.

Exactly what power Tammy van Zant is harnessing in “Freebird Child” (no, seriously), I can’t say. Presumably, the power to cash in on one’s deceased father. Nevertheless, let me just state that I have a newfound appreciation for this Classic Rock chestnut. And for Skynyrd (seriously, that is a badass guitar solo). So yeah, boys, one more time. Play it purdy for Atlanta.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Last Go ’Round

I spent…it makes me physically ill to say how much, let’s just say a lot…on Paul McCartney tickets last week. It’s Macca’s first concert ever in Nashville, though not his first trip to Music City. He wrote and recorded one of my favorite Wings songs, “Junior’s Farm,” during a stay here in 1974 (“Up popped a C line…err, sea lion…ready to go!”). And it’s almost certain to be his last concert here, as well. Even if Sir Paul, who turns 68 this year, keeps going after the oddly-named Up and Coming Tour, I’m guessing we’ll see less and less of him at places that don’t have words like “Wembley” and “Madison Square” in their names.

The prospect of seeing Paul McCartney for the last time is rather bittersweet. I managed to see my favorite Beatle — and thus, favorite musician — on two occasions when I lived in NYC. Sandy and I caught him at the Garden a few years back in what I then thought was not only my last chance to ever see my hero, but also the greatest show I’d ever seen. Lesser-known (well, for The Beatles) gems like “Fixing a Hole” and “I’ve Got a Feeling” probably did an even better job of transporting me back to my childhood bedroom than did the expected arena favorites, though they killed as well. Just an amazing show, only to be outdone last year with the one-two punch of seeing Macca on the Ed Sullivan Theater marquee (from our perfectly perched offices across the street), followed by Paul’s return to Shea, err, Citi Field. “I’m Down,” “Paperback Writer,” “Mrs. Vanderbilt” (!) and even my favorite post-Wings Paul tune, “Only Mama Knows” – the set list was flawless. The performance, spectacular. And even Sir Paul seemed to appreciate the magnitude of the event (check it out on CD/DVD: Good Evening New York City).

Seeing your heroes can be the ultimate musical experience. And it can be a very personal experience. It evokes long lost memories and, in the case of Paul McCartney, supercharges them with a lights-out performance. Ah, but what if the performance doesn’t match the memory…or the legend?

So many of our musical heroes are in their autumn years, with some even putting on an extra sweater for the fast-approaching winter. Is it worth it to see one’s hero as a shadow of his/her former self? It pre-dates my first-hand sports experience by a few years, but you hear stories about an aging Willie Mays falling down in the outfield in the 1973 World Series. The ‘Say Hey’ Kid as an over-the-hill has-been. Unthinkable. And yet, if given the chance, would you have gone to that game anyway, just to catch a glimpse of the man who, in his prime, was quite possibly the greatest baseball player of all time? You bet you would.

I’ve had this happen a few times with music legends. I saw Jimmy Page (who, in subsequent years, absolutely recaptured his rock god form) with The Firm in Dayton, Ohio in 1984. Outside a brief burst of his former blazing self in a blistering cover of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” he was a shambles. But god, it was worth it for that one moment when Page became Page.

I saw The Who in ’89 on the Tommy tour, playing with an extra guitarist, background singers and even a freakin’ horn section. Definitely not the ’orrible ’oo I’d waited my entire life to see, the Live at Leeds ear-eradicators. But that show had highlights, as well. And when Pete finally set down the acoustic and revved up the electrified power chords, you could see that glimmer. Was it what I wanted? No. But I’d still seen The Who…and mercifully, the band rewarded me years later with an amazing Angry Young Who show at the Garden. Pete was pissed off and, with Zak Starkey proving that he’s the only one who could ever come close to Moonie, they were the jet engine of a band I’d always hoped to see. Now, if based on that Tommy show, I’d decided to stay home all those years later, I would have missed out on one of the great shows of my life. Sometimes, you’ve got to take that chance.

A month or two ago, Sandy and I went with the Vaughans to see Roy Clark at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium. Roy is 77 years old and suffers from arthritis. Think that affected our decision about whether or not to see Roy play the “Orange Blossom Special”? Not on your life.

Monday, June 7, 2010

How To Not NOT Post

I committed the mortal sin of blogging last week by…not blogging. Blog followers (a.k.a. readers, a.k.a. fans…depending on who you are and what your ego allows you to call your peeps. I like “minions”…but then, if I actually use that term, I’ll get 30 or so friends telling me to pull my head out of…err, the clouds) are like any other consumer base. They are creatures of habit. If you promise them that something is coming, then they will be more likely to look for it. If you blog on a regular schedule, folks will check back in with you on a regular basis to see what you’re up to. Conversely, if you blog whenever you feel like it, with little regularity, they will cease to check in after a few weeks.

I try to blog at least once a week, both on this site and on our editorial Blog and Roll page. I don’t really have the time to do more, given the amount of other writing and editing I do. And with Boy 1 pinging around the house like a ball of flubber and Boy 2 still working out the subtleties of Rob Halford’s “Victim of Changes” opening, writing around the house with any regularity is a bit of a challenge — in the same way that the Invasion of Normandy was a bit of a challenge. Beyond that, I like to let the pot boil a while before I put these on the plate, so to speak. But once a week is pretty reasonable.

I encourage any of you, whose blog is of importance to you or your business, to keep up with it. Give your readers a reason to come back on a regular basis, and give new readers a reason to start following.

So mea culpa, folks. New blog to come, asap!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Music Made Me a Crabby Old Man at a Very Young Age

This post is dedicated to the lady at the Shell station, this weekend, who was eavesdropping on my conversation with fellow editor Bryan Wawzenek. When she heard me utter the words, “Music Made Me a Crabby Old Man at a Very Young Age,” she declared — based on her “20 years at BMI” — that I needed to write that song. Sorry to disappoint, ma’am. Not writing that ditty anytime soon, but I will write that blog.

What we were discussing, as we queued next to the Slim Jims, was my supposition that music is never so important to you as it is when you’re 15. You’re pissed at your parents because they don’t understand you. You feel increasingly isolated and alienated at school. And just a glance from a member of the opposite sex sends your hormones into overdrive. You can’t drive yet, which (to an extent) tethers you to your house, to your bedroom. The head, the body — it’s a boiling cauldron of confusion and unfocused, intense emotion.

For a 15-year-old, music can be a refuge. Artists are still mythic figures. You’re not quite old enough to see their faults or discover their frailties. The lyrics are religion. “The world is full of kings and queens who blind your eyes and steal your dreams/It’s Heaven and Hell” might as well have been Shakespeare to me. I knew what Ronnie meant. And the music itself — you live and die on every note. I could replicate every nuance of the extended “My Generation” from Live at Leeds in my head while sitting in a classroom and trying (probably unsuccessfully) to look attentive. And life isn’t so crazy when you’re 15 that you can’t escape to your room to listen to music, meaningfully, every night. Life never again affords you that luxury. You sneak it in on car rides or over dinner. But nightly time for headphones and liner notes just evaporates when college and careers arrive. Music at 15 can be…everything.

The thing that happens, though, is that you spend the rest of your life chasing that feeling and, quite naturally, you rarely (if ever) capture it. And so, as you discover music later in life, it doesn’t quite measure up to the music that you loved as a teenager. This, in turn, causes the ears to close on new things. I fully admit to waging this constant internal battle. I fall into comfort zones for months at a time with ’90s Britpop, NWoBHM, ’60s Beat Music, Classic Rock…you get the idea. Old stuff.

And that’s why I’m so grateful when someone shakes me out of one of these musical comas. The aforementioned Bryan handed me a disc by The Hold Steady this weekend, a band I never bothered to learn based…well, on nothing really. The name, maybe? Seems like one of those trendy little fourth-generation, Gap-Punk band names. And yet, this stuff is good. I’m not the world’s biggest Springsteen fan, but this modern mix of The Boss, Thin Lizzy and maybe a bit of Elvis Costello is interesting. Intriguing, even.

I’ve been lucky enough to bump into sharers at several crucial stages in my Crabby Old Mannedness. In college, that lender was the Leon County Public Library in Tallahassee, FL, which turned me on to jump blues and a bit of classical, sure, but also some new music that couldn’t fight its way through the worst Classic Rock playlist ever concocted for radio. (Thanks, GULF 104, for hiding #@*$%! England from me during the #@*$%! ’90s!)

In my brief time in Massachusetts, my buddy Grover introduced me to Oasis, beyond the familiar singles. If I’ve annoyed any of you over the years with my Oasis-mania, you now know whom to blame. And this served to spark a ravenous appetite for all things Britpop.

When I got to New York, I had several musical lenders and sharers, if not mentors, along the way. I think I already gave most of these guys a shout-out in my last post, but it bears repeating, the immense personal value I place on their generosity, loaning CDs or burning discs of things I had turned my nose up to, forcing that stuff on me for my own betterment. Thank you, DCers.

I also discovered KEXP online, which allowed me to listen to the radio without wanting to bludgeon a station manager…or a Clear Channel computer, as the case may be. And WDST, Radio Woodstock, one of the rare broadcast stations that still plots its own course, playlists be damned. They may be few and far between, but these little pirate ships of music do exist, I’m happy to report.

And now I’m in Nashville, surrounded by a new batch of music lovers. I’m looking forward to sharing and learning about other brave new worlds of sound. If you’re sitting out there reading this, listening to Abbey Road for the 9,000th time, I encourage you to step outside your cocoon and trade some CDs or MP3s with your friends — friends who maybe don’t have the exact same tastes as you, who exist outside your comfort zone.

New and wonderful music is out there right now, my friends. Go and find it!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I Love the Noughties

First off, congrats to the Brits for not only (finally!) naming the past decade, but for actually finding a cooler name than “the Aughts,” to which I had previously pledged my undying allegiance and love. I was a bit surprised, when the Noughties ended, to find an overwhelming volume of music that was generated during that period that I actually loved. I admit to having a bit of Old Cootism, even if I try (poorly) to be hip and with it (generally by using terms like “hip” and “with it”). I fall quite easily into Sixties and Seventies comfort zones for months at a time. The Eighties were a bit of a black hole for me (which is odd since that’s my high school decade), but the Nineties…ahh, the Nineties…

The Nineties was a treasure trove for me. As people who know me — or, hell, acquaintances — can attest, I love Brit-flavored (sorry, flavoured), guitar-driven music. So the Nineties, with the resurgence of Britpop and bands like Oasis, Dodgy and The Boo Radleys, was heaven for me. But that scene was dying out by the end of the decade and, quite honestly, it didn’t look like America was willing to pick up the slack with the likes of Limp Bizkit and Creed topping the rock charts.

But indeed the Noughties were spectacular, if you were willing to seek out cool music that might not ever play over the increasingly irritating American airwaves, emanating from the most unlikely of places (Sweden, New Zealand, Nancy Sinatra!). I appreciate everyone who helped me open my ears over the last decade, especially Morgan Dontanville, Leon Avelino, Nachie Castro, Scott Booker and the other music traders I had the fortune of hanging out with during my New York decade.

Anyway, in the spirit of last week’s “Listomania” blog, here is my completely subjective, unapologetic Top 40 Songs of the Noughties:

1. “Do You Realize??” The Flaming Lips
2. “Whatever Happened to My Rock ‘N’ Roll (Punk Song)” Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
3. “Falling Down” Oasis
4. “Fat Children” Jarvis Cocker
5. “Sailor” The Brian Jonestown Massacre
6. “Part of the Queue” Oasis
7. “Somebody Told Me” The Killers
8. “Smoking Pot Makes Me Not Want to Kill Myself” Stardeath and White Dwarfs
9. “Lord Don’t Slow Me Down” Oasis
10. “Infra Riot” The Soundtrack of Our Lives
11. “I Woke up in Love This Morning” Doug Powell
12. “Feel Good Inc.” Gorillaz
13. “Turn up the Sun” Oasis
14. “Nevermore” The Soundtrack of Our Lives
15. “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” Kylie Minogue
16. “Hate to Say I Told You So” The Hives
17. “The Tears of a Clown” Bertrand Burgalat with A.S. Dragon
18. “Sister Surround” The Soundtrack of Our Lives
19. “Keep What Ya Got” Ian Brown
20. “I Predict a Riot” Kaiser Chiefs
21. “Love Burns” Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
22. “Spectral Mornings” Cornershop
23. “21st Century Man” Nigel Clark
24. “Borderline” The Flaming Lips with Stardeath and White Dwarfs
25. “Wayfaring Stranger” Neko Case
26. “Eyeball Tickler” Oasis
27. “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do” Garbage
28. “DARE” Gorillaz
29. “Common People” William Shatner featuring Joe Jackson
30. “One Big Holiday” My Morning Jacket
31. “Burning Down the Spark” Nancy Sinatra
32. “Rehab” Amy Winehouse
33. “Hash Pipe” Weezer
34. “Hit the Heartbrakes” Black Kids
35. “I Heard Myself in You” January
36. “There There” Radiohead
37. “MF from Hell” The Datsuns
38. “Wake Up” The Arcade Fire
39. “Only Mama Knows” Paul McCartney
40. “Pompeii am Götterdämmerung” The Flaming Lips

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Listomania: How I Learned to Love the Laziest Journalistic Impulse of All

I have long been of the opinion that the lowest form of entertainment writing is “The List.” “Top 100 Albums of All Time.” “Top 10 Actors of the Nineties.” “Top 25 Vampires” (a real “story” from Entertainment Weekly, the listiest magazine there ever was.). You know these articles. Even before I was writing or editing for a living, I could still picture the torpid editorial office responsible, just back from a four-day Vegas junket, looking at each other blankly when asked what stories they had for the week. The terror, of course, only lasts a second before someone blurts, “Top 100?”

Because really, what effort does a list like this take? A 20-minute poll around the offices, followed by 20 minutes of tallying. And then? Just lay out the list and write USA Today-sized McNuggets of info under each entry. Lazy journalism, at best.

94 Kirk Douglas

Known mostly for his Gibraltar-like chin and for siring the guy who continues to bogart Catherine Zeta Jones, Douglas also was an actor in films like Spartacus, Out of the Past and Paris brûle-t-il. Of all the men who said, “I am Spartacus,” he was the most convincing.

A woefully incomplete summary of who the actor was, followed by three films — one everyone could pat themselves on the back for knowing, one to allow the author the smug feeling of one-upping his readers, and one readers and author alike had to look up (possibly in someone else’s Top Actors list) — followed by a witty summarizing sentence.

Lazy, lazy, lazy! And yet…and yet…

List stories are gold for publishers. They almost always perform better than regular articles, even if they contribute absolutely nothing in the way of new information for readers. My last glance at our top performing stories of the past 30 days showed that at least a quarter of them were lists — and some of those were over a year old. Those are the articles that get reposted everywhere — and all those links back to your site are like money in the bank when you’re counting those “visits” numbers every day.

Why, you may ask — and I have — do these stories always seem to perform so well? Three reasons, I think:

1) First and foremost, they are a breezy read. Admit it. When given the choice in Rolling Stone of reading an eight-page expose on arms deals in Pakistan or reading the readers poll of Top 10 Artists of the Year, which do you read first? Okay, let’s make it fair. Are you more likely to read a densely, but certainly well-written eight-page expose on the subject or a half-page box titled “Top 10 Reasons we have to get out of Pakistan.” If you said the former, you’re either on a Congressional Sub-Committee on Pakistan or, more likely, you’re the author’s mother. McNuggets win.

2) There’s no time investment in a list story. You pick them up, read a few entries and set them aside until you have another spare minute or two. They are perfect reading for the subway or the breakfast table. Entertaining enough to pass the time, but easy to walk away from. From a digital perspective, they are the perfect iPhone read.

3) Most importantly, no matter how banal the subject, the reader will immediately form an opinion and seek validation for that opinion. To put it succinctly, the story title creates an immediate need to read the article. “Top 25 Vampires of All Time.” In a flash, the mind conjures: “That had better include Max Schreck as Nosferatu!” From that moment on, you have to know if your choice made the list. Surely, you will be infuriated. Some pasty emo guy will almost certainly purse his lips in the top 5, while a masterful, nightmarish performance from the 1920s is destined to flounder in the lower regions of the poll — if it appears at all. Still, you have to know.

That’s the ultimate draw of lists: the inherent compulsion they engender. It takes a lot for a title to make a reader feel personally invested in the narrative of a story. And if you look at the list as a narrative, from Point A to Point Z, this is indeed the case.

So, with that in mind, it’s not the worst idea in the world for a publisher or editor or blogger to shed his/her high-mindedness and embrace “The List.” I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords and am currently working on the Top 50 Guitarists of All Time. Come check it out…and get mad!