Retrofit Digest: R.E.M. on Mountain Stage, 1991

REM8

I pulled out my copy of R.E.M.’s performance on the “Mountain Stage” radio show on April 28, 1991 the other day and about half a verse into the first song I just sort of…swooned.

Were you around then? Did you hear the show? This was, suddenly, a long time ago. A few weeks after the smash break-through Out of Time came out, just when its lead single “Losing My Religion” was everywhere, all the time. For latecomers like me — bystanders who only ever started listening when the indie band moved to Sire records and got airtime for way-better-than-anything-else-on-the-radio tunes like “The One I Love,” “Fall on Me” and “Stand” — figured out, in a hurry, that these college-rock kids weren’t just one of the two most important bands in the world (the other being U2), but were also the closest approximation of the Beatles since….well…the Beatles.

Not just because the playing was so great, which it was, or because the harmonies sounded so distinctive and perfect, which they were. Or because the songs sounded so great and had such elliptical-yet-moving lyrics, which they did, particularly when delivered in Michael Stipe’s oak-and-beer voice. But because it was all that stuff at once, all together, blended into this kind of seamless, perfectly balanced whole that you could only really describe as R.E.M.

It was mysterious, it was lovely, it was the sound of the moment, the sound of my generation coming into full flower.

Here’s a little video of the actual Mountain Stage show, the abstract poetry-meets-achingly-pure-Beach Boys-harmony piece called “Belong.”

Holy shit, right? Yes, exactly. What’s he saying? Why is that seemingly dark vision — the first words are “The world collapses…” — muttered beneath such sweet voices? I’ve been thinking about this tune for 22 years now and I’m still thinking. And wondering.

There should be wonder. There should be mystery. And in 1991, for that egg-balanced-on-end moment when there was R.E.M. and Nirvana and Pearl Jam and U2 and they were all at their peak and all at the top of the charts, weirdness and mystery were not just welcomed in to the mainstream, they dominated it. You would turn on the radio, any station at virtually any hour of the day, and hear a chain of gothic colloquialisms and half-uttered admissions of sin. I give you “Losing My Religion,” performed here on MTV’s Unplugged, almost exactly as it had been on the bare Mountain Stage stage.

Feelin’ pretty psyched? This collision of sound and words, feeling and thought, blossoms turned to full, blooming leaf, the sun on your back and nothing but clear skies ahead. It’s never going to last, but in that moment it nearly sort of absolutely feels like it might. So find that old tape, or see if your kid can digitize it for you somehow, and turn it up.

You symbiotic, patriotic, slam book neck. Right? Right.

Why the Wombats are the new Beatles

 They come from Liverpool. They attended the Liverpool Institute, where Paul McCartney and George Harrison went to high school. Only now that school is called the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts, due in large part to McCartney’s cash and vision. And when the nascent Wombats — Matt Murphy, Dan Haggis and Tord Overland-Knudson — performed for McCartney at the end of their LIPA career he took immediate and overwhelming notice.

This perhaps because the co-chief Beatle instantly recognized how much the bands have in common: The instantly memorable melodies; top-notch harmony singing; the juxtaposition of upbeat songs with lyrics that are as silly as they are smart; as personal as they are universal; as piercingly insightful as they are funny.

“I don’t do much producing now, but I’d be tempted (to work with the Wombats),” McCartney said.

Over the next five days I’m going to try to convince you, my average reader, in all your smart, indie-leaning, old school-rock-loving, perpetual puzzlement for all things dance-y, clubby and youth-y to realize that there’s at least one new train headed exactly where you want to go. It’s called the Wombats. Let’s climb onboard

We’ll start  with “Anti-D,”  from the Wombats’ latest (2011) album, “The Wombats Proudly Present…the Modern Glitch.” Here, main songwriter/singer Murphy (who goes by Murph), twists a plea for love into a precisely etched portrait of the downside of a chemically-enhanced consciousness. The images are as direct as they are vivid: “We kick back and let the pills do the talking/People hear a distinct rattle when we’re walking…” The chorus as sweet as it is confused and confusing: “Please allow me to be your anti-depressant,” and the concluding bridge/musical digression stirring, sweet and vaguely doomed: “…so I threw away my Citalopram/I need it more than what was in those 40 milligrams/So cast away with the doctor’s plans and please allow me…”

Sweet, sad and just brilliantly performed, “Anti-D” is one of the best new songs I’ve heard this year. I’m particularly fond of this acoustic performance:

Also, here’s the original album take, as set to the official video for the song:

 

Paul McCartney at 70: Listen to what the man said – Part 1 of 2

For almost everyone these days Paul McCartney has always been there. That instantly recognizable voice. The forever-boyish face, with its winking and grinning and cute little comic takes. The black (or, in latter years, various hues of dark) hair, the grating airiness that, when you least expect it, condenses into a bolt of light so sheer and bright it seems otherworldly.

a living god, an embarrassment, generational symbol, an innovator, a shallow popsmith, a symbol for his generation, his country, global popular culture. . . McCartney has been, and continues to be, all of the above.

So now the man turns 70, his fame/influence/legend moves into its sixth decade and still he rumbles onward. More tours, more new music, more videos, books, paintings, post-hippie proclamations for peace, luv and the desperate unfairness of critics who never took him seriously.

Sure, it seems annoying at times. But try to imagine the day it ceases. How quiet and airless will the world seem then?

Still skeptical? Fine. Be who you are, hear what you like. But first, at least, take a listen to my imaginary box set of Paul’s best post-Beatles work. I imagine it as a two-CD box, with a subsequent collection (or two or three or 15) of the great lost/unreleased stuff he’s kept in the vault all these years.

This is the stuff that got released. From 1970-1990. Twenty years, twenty songs. The next 20/20 comes tomorrow.

DISC ONE: 1970-1990

1. Every Night – One of the two best-written songs on the solo debut, ‘McCartney’ from 1970, a casually sparkling track (played entirely by P) with one of those perfect soaring melodies that seem to drop whole into his imagination.

2. Maybe I’m Amazed – The one epic track on the same album, all tumbling chords, blazing lead guitar and screamingly passionate vocal. One of his greatest songs.

3. Another Day – Dismissed at first by John Lennon for being too bourgoise, his antipathy seems fueled more by post-Beatles rage than the song itself. Another acoustic-based song (albeit with drums and a full band, ‘Another Day’ is actually a spare, bittersweet tale of a lonely woman lost in the rush of the city’s business district. As Denny Seiwell, who drummed on the track, told me while reminiscing about the sessions a few years ago: “I thought holy shit! It’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in New York!”

4. Too Many People – A blazing rocker directed at Lennon (“….Too many people preaching practices/Don’t let ’em tell you what you want to be!”) the guitars sting, Paul’s bass elevates the low end to center stage, and all the frustration, anger and joy of the moment scream through his voice.

5. Ram On – An offbeat choice, sure (I ditched ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ to fit it in) but here is Paul, ukelele in hand, singing softly to himself (the title refers to his earliest stage name, Paul Ramon), urging himself to find the courage of his convictions, his love and his humanity. From the high schkwonk of the tape rolling at the start to the layers of sound, it’s like listening in on a private moment, with all the artifice vanished and the heart of the man in plain sight.

6. Hi, Hi, Hi – One of the stone cold nastiest songs in anyone’s music catalogue, this stomping rocker (released as a single in 1972) tosses a litany of decadence’s greatest hits (bootleg records, marijuana, wild sex, etc) into one blazing cauldron. “Like a rabbit I’m gonna grab it/Gonna do it ’til the night is done,” he screams, and just when you think it can’t get more intense here comes the break: “Move it!” he shouts, and the vehicle shifts into double-time, spinning wildly to its climax. Thrilling.

7. Jet – Almost every song from ‘Band on the Run’ could be on a best-of collection. But this rocker, with its rumbling sax hooks, high-intensity vocal and impermeable-but-perfect lyrics (“And Jet, I thought the major was a lady suffragete!”) drive the free-at-last message home with Hulk-like power.

8. Let Me Roll It – Another ‘Band’ rocker, this one a stripped-down, scary-intense nod to/satire of Lennon’s primal scream sound (see: “Plastic Ono Band”). Here the whole story is in the bare-bones bass line, the slashing guitar runs and the echoing-off-the-walls sound of McCartney’s vocal. “I can’t tell you how I feel/My heart is like a wheel/Let me roll it to you.” Yes, please.

9. Listen to What the Man Said – Here’s a huge hit from the ‘Venus and Mars’ album of 1975 that you never hear on the radio or see people writing about. Why not? It kind of rocks, and every time I hear it it’s like hook after hook after delicious hook. That opening guitar figure; David Sanborn‘s Tom Scott’s leaping, skipping soprano sax lines (and that solo! Even more impressively, that’s the first take). I know it’s frothy (particularly the lyrics), but it kills me every time. But the wonder of it all, baby. The wonder of it all.

10. Let ‘Em In -From its military-like rhythm, the simplest possible instrumention (piano-bass-drums, joined in the chorus by a flute and horns) and the cryptic procession of names in the lyrics, the tune is hypnotic, even vaguely psychedelic. Sit still and close your eyes. Are they coming to a party or just dropping by? Why won’t he (or can’t he) open the door himself? What’s that voice saying in the fade-out?

11. Letting Go – The studio version on ‘Venus and Mars’ sounds strangely muffled, so skip ahead to the ‘Wings Over America’ live album for the unfiltered, live-and-loud version. I always took this is a love-as-obsession song, tracing the point where passion bleeds into compulsion. Others have different interpretations, but don’t listen to any of us. Listen to the song.

12. Cafe on the Left Bank – From 1977’s odd/disappointing ‘London Town’ release. Again, the production fails the song, which in this case is another propulsive rocker, with a rich organ part, spellbinding bass and francophiliac lyrics that are mostly a blur. But sometimes that doesn’t matter.

13. Spin It On – So many people dismiss 1979’s ‘Back to the Egg,’ and I’m not sure why. Maybe they were stll upset about ‘London Town,’ which is sort of understandable. But did they listen closely enough to hear how raw and punkish the first side of this album is? This tune in particular runs double-time throughout its entire 2:12, with Paul stuttering, screaming and carrying on like a maniac throughout. Bonus tracks from this album: “Old Siam, Sir,” “To You.”

14. Junior’s Farm – A single from 1974 (I’m too lazy to put it in correct order), but another four-on-the-floor rocker with wonderfully cryptic lyrics (I was talking to an eskimo/Said he was hoping for a fall of snow/When up popped the sea lion, ready to go”), and great lead guitar from the young, doomed Jimmy McCulloch. The track is a blast of energy, the performances flawless. And here’s a bonus shred of lyrics I always took for a Watergate reference: “Ollie Hardy shoulda had more sense/He pulled a gee-gee and he jumped the fence/All for the sake of a couple of pence.”

15. Take it Away – From ‘Tug of War,’ McC’s first album after the death of Lennon. A cheerful, but reflective tune about loss, resilience and the healing, transformativel power of music. In which ‘Take it Away’ has several meanings, all of them powerful, all of them just right. Does the music sparkle with unexpected transitions, modulations and more? Um, yeah.

16. Back on my Feet – Hidden on the b-side of an English-only 1987 single, the first fruit of McC’s co
llaboration with Elvis Costello (which could have/should have powered his next album, but didn’t due to predictable ego/control problems) has the multi-faceted intrigue and joy of the best Lennon-McCartney songs. Imagine Paul’s hopeful ebullience harmonizing with Elvis’s darker, streetwise vision, layer it into the story of a sadsack loser who swears things are just about to turn around for him, and you’re just getting started. Dig this up. Download it. You won’t be sorry.

17. My Brave Face – So a handful of the Elvis collaborations turned up on ‘Flowers in the Dirt’ from 1989, including the lead-off track, which again illustrated the lovely John/Paul dialectic that Paul/Elvis could summon so effortlessly. Would it seem phony? If Paul emphasized the partnership would he give the world more ammo in its campaign to undermine his reputation as a 2nd-class songwriter? That’s what he worried about. And so the all-but-finished Paul-and Elvis album got shelved. This tune got slightly bowlderized (Elvis’s original production adhered to the Cavern vibe of guitars, bass and drums) but still, a lot rings true. Check out the duo harmonies (both voiced here by Paul for ridiculous reasons), particularly in the chorus when he goes “…take me to that place…” If you know your Beatles, that’ll make your heart skip, right there.

18. Don’t Be Careless, Love – Another Paul/Elvis collaboration, and this one is so musically quirky and lyrically unsettling it won’t leave you be. The first of two death songs (‘That Day is Done’ is pretty awesome, too) on the album, this one skips elegiac for horror-show creepy. “Saw your face in the morning paper/Saw your body rolled up in a rug/Chopped up into little pieces/By some thug…” he sings, a downward keyboard glissando seals the deal and you’ll be excused if you feel a little dizzy.

19. Don’t Get Around Much Anymore – From the oldies-only, Soviet Union-only (for a while) ‘Choba b CCCP’ album in 1988. I wonder what it would have sounded like if the Hamburg-era Beatles — famed for giving the Mersey Beat treatment to cowboy songs, jazz songs, show tunes, anything they all knew well enough to fill in another three or minutes in their night-long sets — covered Duke Ellington? Exactly like this. Fantastic.

20. Figure of Eight – The opening song on the enormous 1989-1990 world tour (Paul’s return after a solid decade of avoiding the concert stage) rocks harder than its counterpart on ‘Flowers,’ and better still, features Robbie McIntosh on a perfectly-done slide guitar solo.

(COMING TOMORROW: 1990-2010; FROM “OFF THE GROUND” TO THE FIREMAN AND BEYOND…)

Happy Birthday, Brian Wilson!: An extra-bonus interview with a man made for all times.

Dateline: Beverly Hills, July 20, 2010. 

Brian Wilson stands on the porch of his house, watching his guest climb awkwardly from the rental car and limp/gambol up the walk. “Hey, Brian!” the guy calls. Brian waves. “You better come inside,” he says. “It’s a hot one.” 

The subject of the moment is his about-to-be-released album, “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin,” which paradoxically sounds more like Brian than a lot of his more recent records of original songs. He’s always excited to sell his new work, but this time he seems extra-proud of himself. Unsaid, but real: He didn’t dog it this time. He threw himself into the project, really put his own, personal, 21st century stamp on the arrangements and, particularly his vocals, which aren’t perfect, per se, except for that they’re so tuned in; so full of emotion; such a vivid representation of his quirky, tormented, beautiful mind. 

Brian points to his teleivision. “Have you ever seen this show?” he asks. “This stuff is amazing. I love this how.”

Point of fact: The screen is black. 

But so what?: He’s listening to one of those cable music stations, this one is all oldies from the ’60s. Unlikely shit, too, like Paul Revere b-sides, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, on and on. When Brian tunes into the sound – as he will occasionally, holding up a finger to stop the conversation — he stares fixedly at the black screen while the music plays. What’s he seeing? We’ll never know. Something beautiful, I suspect.

(Hit ‘Read More’ to follow the jump!

Brian Wilson doesn’t think like you and I do. This has caused him great pain over the years. And yet it has also allowed him to create majestic works of music, many of which define the American experience of the mid-to-late 20th century. You see a black screen, he sees the face of God. It’s the music that matters. 

Here’s part of what he had to say that day.

 

 Q: So tell me a little more about your first memories of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

I was listening to it, but I couldn’t think. I was like, ‘Hey I love this!’ after I grew up I remembered that. And then when I was much older I learned how to play that pretty part, you know the part with the violins? I learned how to play that on the piano. I didn’t listen to it that much growing up. Just when I was two, and then about 20 years went by, and when I was 28 I learned how to play it. My best friend was a total Gershwin fan, Tandyn Almer, he wrote ‘Along Comes Mary,’ by the Association. My parents didn’t own that record. But there was like a ton of songs to do, and we had access to 104 unfinished songs, played by George himself. We narrowed it down to 2 out of 104, so we wrote two original songs inspired by those songs. We went through all of them, and slowly narrowed it down.

Q: Do you feel haunted by your own past? (in attempts to bring up the Beach Boys’ sour legacy)

I think I’ve come quite a ways. I didn’t really like that ‘Imagination’ album (1998 comeback recorded during his brief stint in the Chicago exurbs, with country/adult contemporary Joe Thomas co-producing) as much as I did some of mine. Some of it was alright, though. Some of it is okay. I like ‘Cry,’ I like ‘South American,’ that’s the one I wrote with Jimmy Buffett. “Lay Down Burden,” I like that, too. (Successfully dodging attempt to bring up the Beach Boys’ sour legacy)

Q: And that clarinet section in the middle of “She Says That She Needs Me,” I love that. Is that your arrangement? 

Oh yeah, that was me. He (talking about the clarinet player/section leader, I think. Or Joe Thomas? Who knows?) took it down verbatim and did it right there.

Q: Are you surprised that you’ve turned into such a road warrior after all those years? I saw you do a lot of shows with the Beach Boys in the ’70s and early ’80s and you always looked like you were miserable, frankly. But now you seem to love it up there in the lights…

We’ve d toured our asses off for 12 years. Not sure we’re gonna do it this year, tho. I took to it pretty quickly. All that showmanship stuff, like saying, ‘Hello, hey, how you doing!’ and ‘Okay, now we’re gonna play ‘row, row, row your boat,’ with the audience singing back to me. I took to touring really easily, like a second nature or something. My favorite part is istening to my band play. They’re the best musicians I’ve ever known. They learned all my songs before I met ‘em, even. They had them all learned. That was wonderful when I met the Wondermints. I went up to them and said, ‘Would you ever consider backing me up?,’ and they said, Sure! So we got those four and rounded up a bunch of other people from Chicago and so on, and we had ourselves our group. They stuck together longer than the beach boys. The Beach Boys are about done now, without Carl. When he died that was it for the Beach Boys.

Q: Are you surprised by how much you’ve achieved in the last 12 years?

I don’t know. I just got back into writing songs, I guess. I had a creative explosion a couple of years ago, just before ‘That Lucky Old Sun.’ I wrote 18 songs in two months. I couldn’t believe it, the songs kept coming and coming and coming. ‘Midnight’s Another Day’ is a very good song, I sang it very beautifully, too. I knew it was gonna be the best song on the album once I wrote it.

Q: Do you think that finishing ‘Smile,’ and having it be such a huge hit, was career changer for you?

Not really, it just seemed like one more second. It did feel good to get it out of my hair. People loved it, though. Having it out was a real mind-blow. 

Q: How did you go about recording all those Gershwin songs? Was it intimidating to take on songs by one of your biggest heroes?

Well, we had a ton of songs to do. Paul Mertens, one of my band members, arranged the orchestration part of it. We took it one day at a time. Two songs a day, and within a week we had all the orchestrations down pat. Then we said, Oh my God, we’re gonna need some backing vocals! So I arranged the backing vocals, and that took about a week or two. And finally the leads started happening. It was a monster of a project. I would sit and sing for 8 hours a day. My wife produced my vocals.“You Can’t That Away from Me,’ does have the ‘Little Deuce Coupe’ sound.

Q: And yet, you’re not as much of a white boy musician as people think…I really love your vocal on “I Loves You, Porgy,” (Hey reader – Remember what I said earlier about the vocals on the Gershwin record? Exhibit ‘A’ – check out how vulnerable and bewitched he sounds on this track…so swept up in feeling that the cracks near the top of the melody actually ADD to the listener’s pleasure, b/c vulnerable people are by nature a little cracked, and plus also he’s singing in the voice of a woman, one accustomed, it seems, to totally fucked-up relationships, and you you know who else is familiar with similarly fucked-up relations? Brian Wilson, that’s who, and so here’s a cover version, borrowed from an African-American woman, that is somehow one of the most haunting autobiographical songs in BW’s hauntingly autobiography catalogue!)

Well, I was always inspired by that Chuck Berry song. He taught me how to write songs.  And I learned how to play boogie-woogie on the piano when I was 12. ‘Shortenin’ Bread’ had that boogie-woogie beat. I knew some of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ by heart, but then I learned the rest of it. My buddy Paul Mertens taught me how to do it.

(Starts to sing) ‘I loves you, Poooorgg-eeee! ’ I had a natural feel for it. I loved the tune. I instantly had a natural feel for it. And it does have that sweet yearning sound to it. And man, that whole ‘Porgy & Bess’  part of the record is my absolute favorite part on the whole record. It all just fits together. 

Q: The ‘Rhapsody’ melody flows throughout the whole record…it kinda makes me think of how ‘Rhapsody’ itself has flowed through your life and career…

Yeah, sure. It flows and flows on the album, sort of like a river. The album is loaded with good melodies. Gershwin’s melodies are like, great. When we finally came to the one tune, ‘the like in I love you,’ I thought that was a beautiful tune, a really beautiful tune. That line, ‘the pain in painting,’ Scott wrote that, I love it. A little bit of pain in the edges, just like life. It makes the rest of it more sweet. 

Q: So you don’t sound the least bit intimidated about collaborating with George Gershwin.

No, not really. I was beyond myself with like being proud, you know? And of course I was in awe of Gershwin himself. Someone gave me a book called ‘Gershwin,’ written by someone very close to the Gershwins. I’m gonna read the book. I’ve never read anything about him before.

Q: Well, what are you up to now? Melinda and the kids are out of town, you’re sort of doing your own thing here in the city. So are you writing new tunes?

Naw, I haven’t b
een working for a while, I’ve run dry. Totally dry on concepts for songs, you know. Can’t get a melody written, can’t get a chord pattern written, nothing at all.

Q: But Brian, you’ve been telling me that for ten years, and then there’s another album of new songs coming…

Yeah, I know. I guess it goes in cycles. 

What are you listening to now?

You see this show? (he points to the black TV, with that ‘San Francisco (Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’ song playing in the speakers) That’s a tv program called ‘Sixties Revolution,’ and I listen to it lot of the time. I thrive on music, I need music to live. Because without music I would not be alive. Doesn’t it feel therapeutic to you? What kind of music do you like? (blah, blah, blah, blah, Beatles) Well, obviously the Beatles, I mean obviously. And Bruce? Oh wow, he’s great. He’s just a wonderful singer. And I’ve been listening to Elton John, Marvin Gaye, who is absolutely one of my favorites. Also Elvis Presley, the Doors, and. . . What’s that song? (sings -‘She came from somewhere back in his long ago…) Who’s that? Oh yeah, the Doobie Brothers. So I like that, and Van Morrison, too.I’m really familiar with all that stuff again, because I’ve been spot-checking the radio stations lately, and so I can tell you what’s what.

Q: Are you a Stevie Wonder fan?

Have you heard ‘Superwoman’? When I heard that I thought, that guy’s really got it on the ball! And ‘He’s Misstra Know It All?’ Oh my God! When I heard that I thought to myself, how in the world can Stevie Wonder write that kind of music? In the early-to-mid 80s I bought that album with ‘Superwoman’ and I said – what am I listening to!? That Moog synthesizer, ‘I think I can deal with that, is what went  through my mind. . .’ then he goes into the synth thing and I thought, I’ll never hear anything that good again in my life.’ (made to love cover): I like Carl’s version, too. They’re both good. But Stevie is a fabluous singer, a really good singer.

Q: I’m a big fan of Wilco, too. Have you heard them?

Wilco? Huh. Is there something to it that I might like? For instance, what is it about them that you really like? (blah, blah, melodic, blah blah experimental, electronic noise, great songs, kind of spooky…) I will definitely check it out. And the guy does ‘Love and Mercy’?’ Okay, I’ll check it out.

Q: Yeah, you should. I can make you a CD, if you want…and you should really check out the albums they made from Woody Guthrie’s old lyrics…this one called “My Flying Saucer,” it’s so not what you expect from the “This Land is Your Land” guy…

Do you think there’s anything real to UFO’s? Or is that just something people say? In general, have they established that there are really UFO’s? They have pictures, don’t they? Is that stuff real, or do they know for sure? (John Lennon said he saw one over New York City in the ’70s…)  No kidding!!!! He said he saw a UFO? (throws back his head and guffaws really loudly) Maybe that thing liked the Beatles! They wanted to get his autograph. Jesus, there are so many things out there people don’t understand, it’s a weird trip.

Q: Do you feel like you’re in a mystical trip when you’re writing; like when it feels like the music isn’t coming from you, but THROUGH you?

It’s like you can’t put your hands wrong, it just falls into your lap. And it’s like, what is this? What the fuck is this? We wrote ‘God Only Knows’ in 45 minutes. That one came faster than any song we ever did. Then McCartney told me it was his favorite song. That’s when I said to myself, ‘My God! Paul McCartney who wrote ‘Let It Be’? I’ll tell ya what, though. Every time I listen to that song, ‘Let it Be’ I turn the damn thing off. I can’t listen to it anymore, it’s too scary. Not too powerful, just too…whatever. Too gospelly, too something, I can’t tell what it is. But I can’t listen to it anymore.

Q: I’m totally confused right now.

Years ago I used to rely on it to help me live my life. When things happened I’d tell myself, ‘it’s okay, just let it be, it’s going to be okay.’ I did that for years, and it would help me just let things go. But now I’m scared of it. Songs do that. They carry you from one trip to another, like a meditation. 

Q: I know you think music is totally spiritual. It has the power to soothe you, and freak you out.

Absolutely. It is a way to connect to a higher force. Spector did it, and the Beach Boys did, too. We all put our heart and soul into the vocals. Like when we did, what the hell, ‘Dance Dance Dance?” the vocals bounced between the bass and the high part – Dance/dance, dance/dance, that was cool. (It’s that surfin’ singin’ sound…) Yeah! 

Q: Your brother Dennis was a big inspiration, and a great songwriter too. But sometimes it seemed like the Beach Boys didn’t want to do his tunes, even when they were getting so good…

Yeah he was an idiot. We all had to kind of tame him down. We used to have corporation meetings, and Dennis would start yelling. He’d walk around the room  yelling, ‘You guys are a bunch of idiots! You don’t know what’s going on!’ And Mike would go, like, ‘What the fuck?’ And he’d go on and on for like 10 or 20 minutes, circling the table. He did that a few times. And after he did that a few times we didn’t like him anymore. He was being such an asshole about everything. I hung out with him in the early ‘80s for a while, but not much. It was a happy time, in the ‘80s, though.

(Absolutely no clue what he means by this. The years he and Dennis hung out were dismal and awful for both of them; Dennis was addicted to everything bad and Brian was trying to smoke, drink and drug his way out of his hellish psychiatric problems, which were then undiagnosed, untreated, unsympathized with, etc., basically the most un-fun experience anyone could have. The songs they wrote together were pretty awful, too. Sorry, but it’s true.)

Q: I know you were crushed when Dennis died. Then Carl died. Gershwin died young, too. Like, really young. Some guys just don’t make it to the end of their story…

Yeah, Gershwin had that brain tumor. Brain cancer, right? The same thing? (You’re like a horse, tho…you survive everything) no, that’s not true. Some of these radio stations play these advertisements that just drive me crazy. They’re just crazy, you know. Totally far out. So that’s it? We’re done? Thank you man. I’m gonna go to the park and take a lap.

(He gives his guest a hug, walks him outside and waves goodbye. And….scene.)


Apple Rot – Why the Beatles had to break up

Peter Doggett’s new book about the end of the Beatles, “You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup,” is out now, and while I haven’t read it yet, let’s just assume it’s truly interesting and cool and extremely well done, if only because it’s truly unfair to assume anything else.

But then I read this review in Businessweek, and bristled at the critics’ analysis/deconstruction of the book/story, in which the entire gothic tale gets reduced to a series of personality flaws and corporate mismanagement, as if the artistic/personal/passionate bonds between Lennon, McCartney & friends were more or less akin to, say, the Time, Inc/AOL disaster.

“Imagine what the Fab Four could have raked in over the years if they had behaved more like their rivals, the Rolling Stones, and not let their personal indulgences and adolescent resentments drive them apart,” critic Hugo Lindgren harumphs.

Well, sure. But there are so many things wrong with that sentence (e.g., the Stones as “rivals,” e.g. Apple to the Fabs’ Microsoft) you want to toss the whole thing against the wall, hard, and turn on the TV.

Again, I’m not going to offer a word on Doggett’s actual book/thinking/argument, but Lindgren’s boil-down version (proposing variations of the Evil Yoko theory; the evil Linda theory; the evil Klein theory; the crazy John theory; the power-hungry Paul theory) presents a corporate-friendly reductionism that offers basically no insight into the reality of the situation.

Here’s the thing: It’s all true, to an extent. And it’s all wrong too, because there’s no conclusive answer to any relationship rooted so deeply in the fiery viscera of love/hate/joy/grief. Except to say that the same thing that united the Beatles into such a transcendent group of artists was the central factor in tearing them apart. Certainly, you can argue that better, more sensitive management might have helped, or that the women in J and P’s lives might have shown a bit more restraint in their partners’ musical/business affairs. But the truth (to me) is that all of those externals were created by/set in motion by J and P themselves, who used them as animations of their own personalities. Because no matter how non-logical and heartbreaking it is for us fans (and analysts of cash flow and potential profits) some artistic/creative bonds can’t last forever.

Together they channeled a kind of creative/artistic/spiritual lightning. When they held hands God’s own light crackled through their nervous systems. Beautiful, majestic, ultimately deadly. You can only ride that energy for so long before it begins to do you in. Cue the drugs, the dissolution, the crazed assassins. Every yin has its yang, every explosion of light leaves a shadow. But the light remains, too, and that’s what matters the most.