Sunday, October 10, 2021

Disappearing act

Tim O'Brien's "In the Lake of the Woods" (1994) is a murder mystery. Maybe.

It's also so hypnotic and compelling that I read the whole 300-page book yesterday morning -- the first time in ages that I've read straight through a novel.

In it, a guy running for U.S. senator gets stomped after the media learn that he'd witnessed an atrocity in Vietnam back in 1968. He never told anyone about it, including his wife. He'd even gone to some lengths to erase the fact that he'd ever been there.

He and his wife retreat to a cabin at the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota after the election, in an attempt to repair their marriage.

That's where the murder happens. Maybe.

O'Brien's pretty tricky about this from the start. "Maybe" is the word used most often in the novel, and most of the last half of the book is purely speculative -- what may have happened to the guy and his wife at the cabin in the woods, and after.

The only problem is that the murder scene is much more compelling and believable than the other chapters that speculate about what happened to the man and his wife, both of whom end up disappearing.

I never doubted for a second that the wife was murdered. The husband does, though -- at one point he dives into the lake to search for her ... but he looks in the wrong place, and some part of him must realize this. Then he pulls his own disappearing act.

In terms of its grip on the reader, this is one of the best Vietnam-aftermath novels I've ever read -- right up there with Peter Straub's "Koko." O'Brien not only gets inside his characters, he also reminds us that human motivation is often a complete mystery -- just as Straub often does.

But if you're looking for a novel where everything is resolved, and all your questions are answered at the end, you won't find that here. As O'Brien reminds us, sometimes the mystery at the heart of the story is what keeps us interested.

I have two other O'Brien novels in the house -- the Vietnam novels "The Things They Carried" and "Going After Cacciato." I'll be checking them out.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Recently read and heard

Before we go any further, here's a list of new-to-me stuff I've been reading and listening to lately. This list covers my music and book intake back to June. Funny, I thought there was more:


* Paul Theroux -- Figures in a Landscape. Theroux's third collection of essays, covering everything from a profile of Robin Williams to slabs of family history and autobiography. Theroux claims he'll never write a full autobiography or memoir, but he's already written at least one -- the brilliant history of a friendship "Sir Vidia's Shadow."

* The Best of Rolling Stone. This 400-page collection of nonfiction pieces was originally published as a special issue of the magazine back in 1992. There's some great stuff here (all cut for space), but the writers' introductions are the best part. Daisann McLane's awesome "The Girl in the Tweed Jacket" is maybe the best, most personal peek behind the scenes, but I wish McLane's wonderful 1979 portrait of Fleetwood Mac, "Five Not-So-Easy Pieces," had been included.

* Gene Sculatti and others -- The 100 Best-Selling Albums of the '60s/'70s/'80s/90s. Dull, unsurprising and full of errors, this low-budget rush-job series was a big disappointment. The only surprises come from learning what kind of crap music most people buy. Gene Sculatti's a good rock critic, but the editors gave him no room to write, and the editing and proofreading are hideous. Avoid.

* Michael Lesy -- Wisconsin Death Trip, The Forbidden Zone. "Forbidden Zone" is about people who deal with death every day -- homicide detectives, undertakers, pathologists, etc. Some of them are such odd characters that they deserved to be in a book. "Wisconsin Death Trip" is about what happened in a small rural Wisconsin town between 1890 and 1910, when an agricultural failure and depression followed outbreaks of diphtheria, dysentery, smallpox and more. People went crazy. Eerie, odd, depressing, one of a kind.

* David Leigh and Luke Harding -- WikiLeaks. Covers the frantic early days of the WikiLeaks classified-information-leak site, but for the rest of the story you'll have to consult Wikipedia.

* Judy Pasternak -- Yellow Dirt. Follows what happens when Navajos start mining uranium on their reservation in Arizona, and the U.S. government stonewalls the tribe about the effects of uranium exposure and radiation for the next 60 years....

* Barbara Moran -- The Day We Lost the H-Bomb. Recounts how the U.S. Air Force accidentally dropped three unactivated atomic bombs on a small town in southern Spain back in 1966. A fourth bomb fell into the Mediterranean Sea and took two months to find.

* Nicholas A. Basbane -- A Gentle Madness. About *extreme* book-collectors. One great long chapter is about a man who stole more than 5,000 rare books from libraries and universities over a 20-year period. Most of the schools never realized the books were missing.

* Six science fiction writers -- Hell's Cartographers. Writers like Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, Brian Aldiss and Alfred Bester talk about what got them hooked on reading and writing science fiction.

* Nine more science fiction writers -- Fantastic Lives. This is more scattershot than "Hell's Cartographers" and much less interesting. Still, some good stuff by Barry Malzberg, Norman Spinrad, R.A. Lafferty.

* James Gunn -- The Listeners. This 1972 science-fiction novel has a great idea at its center, and the first chapter's pretty good. Then the absurd and insignificant "human drama" gets more and more in the way and the book gets sillier and sillier. Gave up halfway through.


* Mott the Hoople -- first album, side 1. Brain Capers, side 1. Rock and Roll Queen early-best-of. "Rock and Roll Queen" sucked me in. Early Mott was great when they roared. Side 1 of their first album is mostly a great Bob Dylan impersonation. Side 1 of "Brain Capers" features more greatness. I'll be getting back to these guys soon.

* Funkadelic -- Maggot Brain. Loud and chaotic, with an awesome Hendrixy 10-minute guitar solo on the title track. Some throwback R&B-type cuts in the middle, leading to the crazed "Super Stupid" and the sound collage "Wars of Armageddon" -- which along with a steady beat includes protests, chanting, screaming, a mooing cow, and cosmic farts. "Revolution 9" should have sounded like this.

* Tim Buckley -- Happy Sad. Perfect music for lounging around all day in bed with your Significant Other.

* Amazing Blondel -- Evensong. Cute fake-15th-Century English folk music, but nowhere near as good as their later "Fantasia Lindum" and "England."

* The Kinks -- Arthur. Each song turns into real basic bash-it-out English rock'n'roll, and thank God. Includes the glorious "Shangri-La" and rockin' "Victoria," and nice bits like the hilarious "Yes Sir, No Sir" and "She Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina."

* Three songs from Magazine's "Real Life." More listening required.

More soon!

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

I'm back.

Hey there.

Facebook has become a toilet. Jokes and outrage get the biggest reactions, constant unavoidable advertisements crowd out the "real" content (if there is any), and the platform's multi-millions of users have become the product that Facebook is selling.

And that's not even counting the racists and conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers and political crazies.

So I'm back here.

Nice to see ya.

I posted more than 350 music and book reviews and nostalgia pieces on FB over the past three and a half years, and at one point I had more than 200 friends and other folks following me. But I've slowed down recently. I don't have as much to say, and I don't have as much energy as I did three years ago.

Plus, maybe I've gotten a little stale for folks over there. Recently I posted a book review there that I spent a couple of hours on, trying to get the words right, trying to get the message and meaning of a challenging book across without turning anyone off.

Only two people noticed.

Plus I seem to have lost a lot of my sense of humor lately. Or at least what I think of as humor doesn't match the silly crap I see on FB.

Most of all, I'm tired of the silly, pointless arguing. I started dropping "friends" when I realized some of them just wanted to argue, that they only commented on something when they wanted to play "devil's advocate" on some political post I passed along. And who the hell needs that?

Some folks out there just make it really hard for me to stay in the 1972 fantasy world I'd prefer.

Enough whining. Some good news: I'm working, have been working since last December after an unintended year off. Am helping sort used books, CD's and DVD's for a guy who re-sells items on eBay and Amazon. It's only 20 hours a week, and that's fine, because I'm 62 years old now and more and more often I think about retiring.

In terms of my interests, it's a perfect job for me. Most of the time it doesn't require much of a brain or even much attention. But there's some physical labor, and my year off didn't do me any good. The repetitive motions of digging through a huge box of books or media often has my back talking to me by lunchtime, and often by the end of my four-hour work day I have to sit for a bit and let my body rest. I truly am not 55 anymore.

But I remind myself that jobs don't get any easier than this one, and I keep going. If I get fired for being too slow I'll likely retire. That's my plan right now, anyway.

Obviously I'm still writing, and I haven't given up trying to find good music and books that are new to me. I spend much more time reading than listening these days, though.

I don't think I'm "written out" yet and there's a lot more I'd like to write about -- I have a list -- and that writing will likely happen here, where I don't have to worry so much about the length of these essays.

I will warn anyone reading this that if you think I leaned toward being nostalgic and overly personal here in the past, I've done nothing but get more nostalgic and more personal in the last three years.

It should be interesting to see how many people actually read this post. I figure anything more than the two blogging regulars who always used to comment here is a bonus.

Feel free to comment below. More soon.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

I'm back! Sort of....

Hello there. Been awhile.
I've been hanging out over at Facebook for the last couple years. It ain't always pretty over there. Got a few friends, a few people who follow me and seem to like what I do -- but there's a lot of petty, stupid BS over there, too.
So I'm posting this to see if anyone notices. Maybe it's time for this blog to make a comeback.
Things have changed. I'm no longer working, been unemployed since last November, before the coronavirus crisis. They worked me to death at my old job, to the point where my legs and feet were cramping up every night. Every day for three months, I complained that I needed more help, that nobody was doing their job, that everybody left all their work for me.
Finally, I came in on a Monday evening to discover that the place was a wreck, that nothing had been done during my weekend off. I had a screaming meltdown for about five minutes. Then I did my usual evening's work, putting the place back together from scratch.
I was fired the next day, after 16 years at the store. It came as sort of a relief.
My request for unemployment compensation was denied. It took the unemployment folks two months to make a decision. My appeal was also denied. My former employers didn't even bother to show up for the appeal hearing.
I started sending out resumes the first day after getting fired, but there wasn't much out there. Then the coronavirus hit and jobs practically disappeared.
There's been a slight bounceback since mid-May, when the economy started opening back up again, but there still isn't much out there. I sort of went into shock when corona hit, but since then have been fairly optimistic about future job possibilities.
I'm just grateful I had a little money stashed away when I was fired.
Know anybody who could use a decent reporter-editor-proofreader-photographer with 20 years of experience? How about a retail-sales cashier and customer-service rep with 21 years of experience? If so, let me know below. I could use a good job, even part-time. Not truly desperate yet, but getting there.
Still reading lots and listening to music some. I have maybe half the energy I did five years ago, so I'm afraid that book I was planning to write about Really Bad Prog is most likely never going to get finished.
I have a couple other book projects in the works, however. Am currently 8,000 words into a cheezy B-movie-style horror novel. God knows if I'll get it done, either. But my next completed book will go to a legitimate print publisher. My experience with selling e-books has not been good.
I am hanging in. Wish I had some more positive news to pass on.
My girlfriend had a heart pacemaker installed back in December after some fairly scary health-related stuff happened, and though she feels way better than she did before, neither of us are planning to run any marathons. I'm grateful she's around to take care of me. I do my best to take care of her.
If anybody's out there, drop me a line in the comments below. Let me know what you've been up to. We'll see if this blog is worth getting rolling again.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

All new Strange Music marathon!

OK, here's the scam: I have this HUGE pile of previously-unheard Strange Music piled up here for a book project that may never get finished, and what I'm gonna try to do now is listen to a bunch of it and review it off the top of my head as it plays, and see how much I can take. Three hours is usually my drop-dead point, but I'm pretty bored musically right now, so let's see.
But first, something to warm up the turntable....
* Steppenwolf: Move Over, from MONSTER (1970) -- Hilarious lyrics about how that impatient younger generation is pushin' ol' John Kay to the brink. Nice screechy guitar. OK organ, too. Production seems a little muddy and bass-heavy.
* Touch: We Feel Fine, from their first album (1969) -- Loud organ and guitar fanfares, high-pitched vocalist. All I know about these guys is that keyboardist Don Gallucci later became a record producer. Psychedelic, a little crude, one nice lyric about "watching L.A. fall into the sea." A lot going on here in late-'60s heavy! fashion. OK group vocals on the "We feel fine" chorus-line. At least there was no drum solo. Nice spacey album cover, by the way.
* Touch: Friendly Birds -- This is as quiet as "We Feel Fine" was loud. Acoustic guitar and hushed vocals. Briefly sounds like it's gonna turn into a Broadway show-tune, like something from HAIR. Then nice guitar-and-piano mid-section. Meanders. Some talent, but a good snappy tune would help.
* Touch: Miss Teach -- No. Sounds like Pink Floyd's THE WALL cut down to 3-1/2 minutes.
* Touch: Seventy-Five -- This is the album's 11-minute magnum opus. Sounds like the Stories' Ian Lloyd on vocals. About dreams and dreaming -- nice spacey organ, if you're into "freaking out." Ah, so THIS is where the drum solo is. That repeating police-siren organ riff is really annoying. Made it through, tho. Eleven minutes I'll never get back. And a waste of $8. What else have we got?
* Trapeze: Black Cloud, from MEDUSA (1970?) -- This sounds like bad Deep Purple. I heard an earlier Trapeze album that was gentle and folky and psych-ish, and this is way cruder. Occasional flashes of a lighter touch, but not enuf. They're a power trio. And the singer's annoying. How did this end up on the Moody Blues' Threshold label? Produced by John Lodge of the Moodies. Glenn Hughes ended up in Deep Purple, didn't he? Lotsa cowbell, if you care.
* Trapeze: Medusa -- This is lighter, and moodier. And of course it's the last track. And the singing's still annoying. And then they heavy it up.... No.
* Funkadelic: Standing on the Verge of Getting it On, from the album of the same name (1974) -- Opens with squiggly comedy vocals, then into a funky dance groove with group vocals. Makes me want to move. Middle-break call-and-response vocals sound like James Brown. This is pretty nice -- I was actually expecting something heavier.
* Funkadelic: Jimmy's Got a Little Bit of Bitch in Him, from STANDING ON THE VERGE.... -- Sly, low-key vocals. The message seems to be -- you name it, it's OK! Over too fast.
* Funkadelic: Good Thoughts Bad Thoughts, from STANDING.... -- Opens with 6+ minutes of nice, spacey solo guitar, by either Eddie Hazel or Gary Shider. Then a low-key vocal offering Cosmic Advice, among which is: "Free your mind and your ass will follow. Good thoughts bring forth good fruit. Bullshit thoughts rot your needs. Think right and you can fly." Nice, laid back, very pleasant. Who knew?
* The Roches: The Hallelujah Chorus, from KEEP ON DOING (1982) -- Yes, THAT one. The Roches did some great stuff on their first album (1979): "Hammond Song" is heartbreakingly gorgeous, "Quitting Time" is almost as good, "We" is funny, and "The Married Men" is worth hearing. This is an impressive a capella exercise. And that's all. It's not funny, it's just odd.
* Roches: Losing True, from KEEP ON -- THIS is more like it. Gorgeous trio vocals, eventually followed by Bob Fripp's ghostly guitar. Maggie Roche was some songwriter. Fripp produced, of course. More songs like this and they woulda been world famous.
* Roches: The Largest Elizabeth in the World, from KEEP ON -- Cute, funny, silly.
* Roches: Sex is for Children, from KEEP -- Overlapping vocals with Fripp's guitar. Kinda noisy, at first. Then becomes a guitar duo. I can't really hear the words, and they're not included on the lyric sheet.
* Roches: Keep on Doing What You Do/Jerks on the Loose -- Their vocal blend was really magic. This is like the album's big production number -- it almost sounds like there's strings on here. Hey! Three-quarters of the '80s King Crimson is on this album! Says Bill Bruford's here, wonder where? OK, the vocals are fine and the playing's good, but I didn't really notice the words. For a Big Closer, I wonder if that's good. Two out of three?
* Mimi and Richard Farina: Pack Up Your Sorrows, from CELEBRATIONS FOR A GRAY DAY (1965) -- Wow, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Only Bob would never be this sweet. Charming.
* Nektar: Marvelous Moses, from RECYCLED (1975) -- Opens with lotsa keyboards, then wordy verses and choruses. Mildly funky. Then a keyboard fanfare. Which builds rather nicely. And gets cut off so we can go back to the verses. The Girlfriend points out there's nothing in the first half of the song to warrant the instrumental build-up. The vocals and the tune seem to be out of time just a bit. Not their best.
* Peter Gabriel: Here Comes the Flood, from his first album (1977) -- Wow, pretty dramatic. And I thought I didn't like him....
* Peter Gabriel: Moribund the Burgermeister, from the CAR album -- Hmmm. Could be Genesis. The mid-section is evil, mechanical music. GF says it sounds like Peter's making fun of something. Playful. Funny.
* Syd Barrett: Dark Globe, from AN INTRODUCTION TO.... (2017) -- "Won't you miss me at all?" RIP.
* Steve Hackett: Please Don't Touch, from the album of the same name (1978) -- Whiny, slidy guitar followed by light Mellotron-style keyboards and more twiddly guitar. Cover says to play this at maximum loudness; I was expecting something heavier. Inoffensive background music.
* Steve Hackett: The Voice of NECAM/Icarus Ascending, from PLEASE DON'T TOUCH -- Singer sounds vaguely like Peter Gabriel. This could be a Genesis song. Then more inoffensive background guitar....
* Justin Hayward: Tightrope, from SONGWRITER (1977) -- OK, I'm cheating here. I heard this once or twice about 40 years ago. Now it sounds thin, ESPECIALLY the horrible tinny whiny keyboards. Hayward's voice is OK, but his singing style is subtly different from how he sang with the Moodies. Not bad, but a bit self-referential. Does anybody really care about a rocker's hard times? Did anyone care back then? And the audience effects are silly. Bit of Hayward's tasteful guitar toward the end. But not enough.
TOMORROW: Three more hours of off-the-cuff reviews. If I feel up to it....

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Great funny songs

We could all use a laugh, right? Now more than ever.
When I posted that "music or die" list a few days ago, I threw in a couple comedy songs at first, just to see if anyone was awake ... but then I deleted them after a couple days, because we take this music stuff Seriously here at The Back-Up Plan.
But to heck with that. My son once told me that if a song can make me laugh, I'm halfway to being won-over. And he's right. So here's some great funny songs (and albums) you may have overlooked. Or maybe not....
* AC/DC -- Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.
* Aerosmith -- Big Ten Inch Record.
* America -- Muskrat Love.
* Kevin Ayers -- Connie on a Rubber Band, Butterfly Dance, Gemini Child, Soon Soon Soon, Singing a Song in the Morning, ODD DITTIES.
* Bare Naked Ladies -- Alcohol, It's All Been Done, Get in Line, Never is Enough, Who Needs Sleep?, Some Fantastic, STUNT, If I Had $1,000,000.
* Beach Boys -- I'm Bored With My Old Man, Vegetables, Gettin' Hungry, I'd Love Just Once to See You, BEACH BOYS PARTY!, SMILEY SMILE(?).
* Beatles -- I'm Down, Yellow Submarine, When I'm 64, Hey Bulldog, Honey Pie, Why Don't We Do it in the Road?, Octopus's Garden, Maxwell's Silver Hammer, Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Her Majesty, Mr. Moonlight.
* Byrds -- Mr. Spaceman.
* Cab Calloway -- Minnie the Moocher.
* Camel -- Down on the Farm.
* Can -- Mother Upduff.
* Caravan -- Magic Man, Golf Girl, Waterloo Lily, The Dog The Dog He's at it Again, Cthulhu, A Very Smelly Grubby Little Oik.
* Carpenters -- Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (long version).
* Neil Diamond -- Crunchy Granola Suite, Soggy Pretzels, Broad Old Woman (6 A.M. Insanity).
* Dickies -- Nights in White Satin, Stuck in a Pagoda With Trisha Toyota.
* Electric Light Orchestra -- Yours Truly 2095.
* Fairport Convention -- Mr. Lacey.
* Fleetwood Mac -- Oh Well, Not That Funny.
* J. Geils Band -- Love Stinks, No Anchovies Please (not really a song).
* Go-Go's -- Skidmarks on My Heart, Girl of 100 Lists.
* Gong -- Anything with Daevid Allen on it....
* Gryphon -- Don't Say Go, Flash in the Pantry.
* Slim Harpo -- Tina-Nina-Nu.
* Heart -- Hit Single, Strange Phenomena, Break.
* Herman's Hermits -- I'm Henry VIII I Am.
* Incredible String Band -- Minotaur's Song, Mercy I Cry City, THE HANGMAN'S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER.
* Jethro Tull -- Back to the Family, The Mouse Police Never Sleeps....
* Nick Kershaw -- Gone to Pieces.
* King Crimson -- Cat Food, The King Crimson Barber Shop, Happy With What You Have to be Happy With, Prozack Blues.
* Kinks -- Apeman, Village Green Preservation Society, Lola.
* Led Zeppelin -- Whole Lotta Love, Hot Dog.
* Little Feat -- Dixie Chicken, Candyman Blues.
* Lyle Lovett -- My Baby Don't Tolerate, She's No Lady.
* Madness -- Embarrassment, Shut Up.
* Paul McCartney and Wings -- Magneto and Titanium Man.
* Pat Metheny Group -- Forward March.
* Monkees -- Gonna Buy Me a Dog, Your Auntie Grizelda, Randy Scouse Git, Tapioca Tundra, No Time.
* Moody Blues -- Om, Painted Smile, I Am.
* Motorhead -- Killed by Death.
* The Move -- Tonite.
* National Health -- Binoculars.
* Ted Nugent -- Wango Tango, Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.
* Parliament -- P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up).
* Pink Floyd -- Flaming, Careful With That Axe Eugene (?), Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict, In the Flesh?, The Trial.
* Pogues -- Fairytale of New York.
* Police -- Does Everyone Stare?, On Any Other Day, REGATTA DE BLANC.
* Queen -- Death on Two Legs (Dedicated to...), Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon, I'm in Love With My Car, Good Company, Seaside Rendezvous, Don't Try Suicide.
* Bonnie Raitt -- Give it Up or Let Me Go, No Getting Over You.
* Rolling Stones -- Emotional Rescue.
* Todd Rundgren -- Song of the Viking, Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song, An Elpee's Worth of Toons.
* Simon and Garfunkel -- At the Zoo, Punky's Dilemma, A Simple Desultory Philippic.
* Sky -- Tuba Smarties.
* Split Enz -- Poor Boy.
* Al Stewart -- Mondo Sinistro, Red Toupee.
* Strawbs -- Part of the Union, Backside.
* Pete Townshend -- Misunderstood.
* Rick Wakeman -- The Breathalyzer.
* Johnny "Guitar" Watson -- Gangster of Love.
* The Who -- My Wife.
* Yachts -- Tantamount to Bribery.
* Yes -- Every Little Thing, No Opportunity Necessary No Experience Needed.
...To be continued....

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Two dozen better albums

As a follow-up to my last post, here's a list of two-dozen great (mostly Strange Music) albums everyone should hear, that aren't mentioned anywhere in 1,001 ALBUMS YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE. This list is entirely off the top of my head -- I'll take the blame for any inaccurate info. How many of these have you heard?
* Gryphon -- RED QUEEN TO GRYPHON THREE (1974).
* Gryphon -- TREASON (1977).
* Providence -- EVER SENSE THE DAWN (1972).
* Happy the Man -- CRAFTY HANDS (1978).
* Amazing Blondel -- FANTASIA LINDUM (1972).
* Group 87 -- (1st) (1980).
* Sally Oldfield -- WATER BEARER (1978).
* Caravan -- BLIND DOG AT ST. DUNSTAN'S (1976).
* Sky -- SKY2 (1980).
* Genesis -- A TRICK OF THE TAIL (1976).
* Camel -- THE SNOW GOOSE (1975).
* Camel -- NUDE (1980).
* Wigwam -- NUCLEAR NIGHTCLUB (1974).
* Moody Blues -- THE PRESENT (1983).
* The Jam -- SETTING SONS (1979).
* Renaissance -- LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (1976).
* Shoes -- PRESENT TENSE (1980).
* Split Enz -- WAIATA (1981).
* Yes -- YESSONGS (live) (1973).
* Queen -- INNUENDO (1991).
* Gentle Giant -- FREE HAND (1975).
* Go-Go's -- TALK SHOW (1984).
* Illusion -- OUT OF THE MIST (1977).
* Bangles -- ALL OVER THE PLACE (1983).
OK, there's 25. Get back to me after you've heard all these and we'll talk....

Monday, February 19, 2018

The usual suspects

Now, this is disappointing. OK, I admit it -- I'm officially Old. There is a LOT of crap listed in this book.
After having such a great time with 1,001 SONGS YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE, I thought I'd take a chance on 1,001 ALBUMS YOU MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE (2005, general editor Robert Dimery). And mainly I'm reminded about how out-of-touch I've become.
I expected that this 950-page list of supposedly great albums (from Elvis's first in 1956 to the White Stripes' GET BEHIND ME SATAN in 2005) would have a lot of predictable choices in it. The shock was how very predictable many of them are ... in the period I'm familiar with.
I wish the contributors (90 of them, mostly British, one name I was familiar with) had gone a little farther out, gotten a little weirder. True -- Can, Neu!, Faust, Robert Wyatt, Soft Machine, and albums by other weirdies are written-up here. Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and other progressive-rock heavies are included. Even Emerson, Lake and Palmer have a couple of albums included in the lineup.
But generally, the choices are what you'd expect -- the same acknowledged classics you've heard lauded in other books of this type. And even the off-the-wall choices are generally the "coolest," most acceptable cult titles.
And I refuse to accept the idea that Britney Spears has an album I need to hear before I die. I'll die happily without that, I'm sure.
There IS some good stuff in here. And the articles are almost always informative and well-written -- though I think the book's practice of highlighting "key" tracks in lists of album-contents misses some great stuff.
The cult choices are obvious, too -- Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, early Roxy Music, early Brian Eno, The Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Tim Buckley, etc.
There are a few surprises, but not enough. They could have been a lot more daring.
I have some reservations about their individual album choices, too.The Beach Boys' SURF'S UP is not a great album as a totality, and they note this. (Great second side, though. Add two songs from the first side and you've almost got a great album.) I don't think RUMOURS is the best thing Fleetwood Mac ever did. But the compilers include Mac's TUSK, too, so it all balances out.
There are some factual errors, too. Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour gets his name spelled wrong at least once. MEET THE BEATLES wasn't their first album release in the States -- INTRODUCING THE BEATLES was released a year earlier. And four students were killed at Kent State University in 1970, not two -- this is VERY simple fact-checking gone wrong: "Four dead in Ohio!" There are other proofreading errors.
And while I was happy to see Brian Wilson's reconstruction of SMILE listed here, I've come to see that CD as just a place-holder to keep the CD-player warm until the SMILE SESSIONS set was released a few years later (though the compilers had no way of knowing that release was coming, back in 2005).
I also think the book is skewed toward more recent releases. The '60s are covered adequately; the '70s are covered in much greater depth. But suddenly 1980 arrives and the book isn't even half-finished.
There is very little here that I can relate to after about the mid-1980s. Which may mean this book wasn't meant for me.
Also, unlike 1,001 SONGS, there is no index listing 9,000 more albums you really should try to check out in your spare time. Such a list would have helped -- and probably would have made me drop most of my complaints.
Here's the thing: Sitting here at the keyboard, off the top of my head, I'm sure I could come up with a list of two dozen great albums everyone should hear -- that aren't mentioned in this book. I'm sure you could, too. And your list would be just as good, or better. That's what musical taste is all about, right?
Well, this book shows that musical-taste-wise, I'm an old fuddy-duddy. So once again, I'll be changing the name of this blog to "Living in the Past."

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The worst Number One hits ever

Ever get a REALLY bad song stuck in your head for no known reason? This has been happening more and more often to me lately. First noticed it awhile back when I was in the shower and suddenly Melanie's "Brand New Key" popped into my head, ghod knows why. I don't mind if songs suddenly occur to me -- but I'd like them to be songs I LIKE. Who's programming my brain?
Then other songs I liked even LESS started hitting me at odd moments, so I figured I'd do some research on this odd medical phenomenon. I dug out Joel Whitburn's reliable TOP POP HITS compendium of BILLBOARD chart data, and thought I'd scribble down what seemed to me the worst Number One hits ever. Here's what I came up with, in chronological order....
* "Monday Monday," The Mamas and the Papas (1966). Even songwriter John Phillips didn't know what it was about....
* "Sunshine Superman," Donovan (1966).
* "All You Need is Love," Beatles (1967).
* "Ode to Billy Joe," Bobbie Gentry (1967).
* "One Bad Apple," Osmonds (1971).
* "Brand New Key," Melanie (1971).
* "My Ding-a-Ling," Chuck Berry (1972). Never underestimate the power of a really bad and stupid dirty joke. Repeated endlessly.
* "My Love," Paul McCartney and Wings (1973).
* "Bennie and the Jets," Elton John (1974). Made worse by radio overplay. See below.
* "Billy, Don't Be a Hero," Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods (1974). Who?
* "The Night Chicago Died," Paper Lace (1974). Who?
* "You're Having My Baby," Paul Anka (1974). '74 really wasn't that great a music year....
* "Fallin' in Love," Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds (1975). Absolutely flat mainstream pop. Coulda been an insurance commercial.
* "Let's Do it Again," Staples Singers (1975). Yeah, they were pretty great. But not here.
* "Disco Lady," Johnnie Taylor (1976). See Chuck Berry. Too bad, because Taylor's "Who's Makin' Love?" is a classic.
* "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart," Elton John and Kiki Dee (1976). In the Bottom 10 among the worst things Elton ever did. I never thought "Philadelphia Freedom" was so great, either.
* "You Light Up My Life," Debbie Boone (1977).
* "My Sharona," The Knack (1979).
* "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)," Rupert Holmes (1979). Who? Ever hear Rupert's "Nearsighted"? Best thing Barry Manilow never did.
* 1981. Almost all of 1981's Number One hits were total crap. "Physical." "Bette Davis Eyes." The only exceptions were Blondie's "Rapture" (worth it just as comedy), one barely tolerable REO smash, and two OK songs by Hall and Oates. Otherwise, right down there with 1974 for bad music years.
* "I Will Always Love You," Whitney Houston (1992). Still being used to clear birds off of airport runways. Check out writer Dolly Parton's gorgeous original version instead.

Sports of sorts

What I've been reading lately....
* James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales: THOSE GUYS HAVE ALL THE FUN: INSIDE THE WORLD OF ESPN (2011) -- A 750-page "oral history" of sports network ESPN, from its founding up to a few years ago. I skimmed over their tales of corporate struggles, but you'd never guess there could be such wild stories and such controversy involved with a cable TV channel that just broadcasts sports and sports talk. It's all here -- from Keith Olbermann's departure to Mike Patrick's "retirement" to Hannah Storm's wardrobe choices, and it's all great, hilarious stuff. As an oral history, the book tries to track down and interview everyone who ever worked for or appeared on-camera for ESPN, and though I've sometimes disliked this format for a book, this one puts you right inside the studio. You feel like you know these people. Which led me to re-read....
* Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller: LIVE FROM NEW YORK: AN UNCENSORED HISTORY OF SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (2002/2003) -- I remember reading this a few years back and feeling mildly disappointed that the book wasn't big enough, that somehow it didn't do justice to the great comedy show that's been rolling since the mid-'70s and keeps coming back from the dead. But maybe that was just my uneasiness with the "oral history" format. This 2003 version (600 pages) includes some new interviews -- but of course, they're not set aside in a new spot; you have to re-read and find them. I had a great time, this time around. Although Eddie Murphy isn't interviewed anywhere in here, LOTS of other SNL veterans are, and there's some great backstage gossip. And controversy, too. A great way to blow off a few hours, if you were ever a fan.
* Rick Reilly: THE LIFE OF REILLY (2003) -- This is a best-of from when Reilly was writing the back-page column for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. My only serious disappointment was they didn't include Reilly's coverage of the 1986 U.S. Open -- a golf piece so hysterically funny I still laugh 'til I cry whenever I re-read it. Who knew you could make golf so funny? (This piece was brought to my attention by my old Air Force boss and writing coach Gary Pomeroy, who was always looking for funny stuff and taught me that the one place you could break the rules in a military newspaper was on the sports page. As a result, I went looking for my own funny golf stories -- and then just funny stories, period.) They also left out Reilly's column "Nobody Loves a Blit," a classic about REALLY stupid team nicknames.
But the stuff that IS here is pretty great -- especially the pieces about how taking part in sports or just being a sports fan helps hold people together. Some of this stuff will tear you up. Which leads me to....
* The annual BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING, series editor Glenn Stout (2005, 2007-2010). Amazing what you can find at Goodwill. After reading Reilly and remembering the way I got sucked into the YEAR'S BEST MUSIC WRITING series awhile back, I tried these. And man, was it worth it. Each volume assembles the best sports writing the editors can find each year, from national magazines down to local newspapers and Internet blogs. There's a lot of writing here about repetitive brain injuries to football players (before the NFL finally agreed there might be some brain damage involved with concussions), and about broken-down old players who gave their bodies for a few minutes of excitement for fans on the football field. There are lots of stories about drug- and steroid-abuse by players who then spiraled further downhill -- and about athletes who were able to come back from that. There are many stories about how sports holds people together -- one of the best is about a woman college basketball star who suffered a quadruple amputation ... and how her recovery helped hold her teammates together. There are amazing and moving stories of achievement and sacrifice here, superb and deeply human writing. The funny pieces are a real hoot. Overall, the stories are better and more human -- I hate to admit this -- than almost any in the BEST MUSIC WRITING series.
* Robert Young Pelton: THE WORLD'S MOST DANGEROUS PLACES (Fifth Edition, 2003) -- I read an earlier edition of this a few years back and thought it was kind of thin and stupid. Not this one. In more than 1,000 pages, Pelton and the MDP staff look at dozens of global hotspots and tell you everything from getting there and getting out safely, how to exchange money, whether to drink the water, and how to place bribes in the right places. And they do it all with a grim but hilarious sense of humor. It also helps that one of the most dangerous places they go into detail about is the good old USA. I'm sure there's a newer edition out there....