Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Fun With Bruce

From Jimmy Fallon's show...

Dez Reviews Bruce Springsteen's 'High Hopes' (2014) and Offers Some Thoughts On Modern Boss

I've never trusted Bruce Springsteen as an editor. How do you explain the fact that songs like "The Fever," "Thundercrack," "Fire," "Because the Night," "The Promise," etc. never made it onto proper albums? How do you explain why Springsteen has never released the Main Point show from '75? The Winterlands show from '78? (Pristine bootlegs exist, I've got them. They will absolutely knock you on your ass). His new record, High Hopes, is only sort of new. It is comprised of tunes from the last 12 years that didn't make it on to one of the seven albums he has released since 2001. There are three covers (songs by The Havalinas, The Saints and Suicide), some leftovers and a couple of remakes of already released tunes. Doesn't sound that substantial, does it? Afterall, how bad does a tune have to be to not make the cut for 2009's Working on a Dream (tied with 1992's Human Touch as his worst album).

I am pleased to report that High Hopes ranks amongst the best of his post-2001 work (up there with The Rising and Magic). The fact is, most of these songs are much better than almost all of Working on a Dream. Again, perhaps Bruce is not the best judge of his own work.

By its very nature, High Hopes is not a very coherent record. It lacks the thematic arc of each of the previous seven records. But that, I argue, is one of its several saving graces. There is no overall theme here, but it still holds together enough to be a real album vs. an odds 'n sods collection. In his liner notes, Springsteen says that these tunes were "among the best of my writing [from this period] and deserved a proper studio recording." He is right. His new best buddy Tom Morello (formerly of Rage Against the Machine) plays on seven of the twelve tracks, sometimes adding killer and edgy guitar textures, at other times sounding very out of place. Morello has become an unofficial E Streeter, having filled in for Steve Van Zandt on legs of the last tour, and serving as Bruce's "muse" on this record (his words). They give their now famous duet on Bruce's "The Ghost of Tom Joad" a proper studio rendition, even trading vocals on verses. Bruce and Morello exchange fiery guitar solos, although this admittedly works better in the live setting (download the live version from Magic Tour Highlights on iTunes).

"American Skin (41 Shots)" first appeared on a live record from 1999. A controversial song written about the police shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York, he has resurrected the song in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. I may not agree with Bruce's politics here (I often don't), but I cannot deny that "American Skin" is one of the best songs he has written in 25 years. The live version had some flaws associated with it being a concert recording, and the song desperately needed a proper studio recording. It is a centerpiece here, and rightfully so. People either really like the song or don't, I think it ranks amongst his best modern work.

Other highlights include the moody "Down in the Hole," with a smooth and brooding rhythm that recalls "I'm On Fire." "Frankie Fell In Love" is a joyous song of bromance along the lines of "No Surrender" or "Bobby Jean," a song that would have sounded at home on the stripped down rocking side of The River. In his notes, Bruce says the song reflects "shades of Steve [Van Zandt] and I bumming together in our Asbury Park apartment." With great throwaway lines like "World peace is gonna break out / From here on in we're eatin' take out," Bruce hasn't been this whimsical in a long time.

Along with "American Skin," the other clear highlight is "The Wall." A real stunner, Bruce uses most of his space in his liner notes talking about this song, which was written about Jersey rocker Walter Cichon of The Motifs. The Motifs were early musical heroes of Bruce's, "raw, sexy and rebellious, they were heroes you aspired to be," he writes in the liner notes. In the song, Bruce sings "Your high boots and striped t-shirt / Billy you looked so bad / you and your rock and roll band / you were the best thing this sh*t town ever had." Cichon was drafted in Vietnam, and went missing in action. So the song is from the perspective of visiting the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. one evening and talking to Cichon. It is a beautiful and haunting song (all the more as it features wonderful organ from deceased E Streeter Danny Federici).

This song is a key to why this is one of his best records in two decades. Springsteen's records have become more political since 2001. It worked on The Rising as a response and reflection of loss from 9/11, that record has only gotten better with age. But beyond that, Springsteen's populist protest and anger, to me, sounds forced and at times hackneyed (reaching a summit on Wrecking Ball). Bruce's message in "The Wall" is also a protest and political ("I read Robert McNamara says he's sorry"), but the difference here is that it comes first from a personal place. It is grieving the loss of someone he admired. The McNamara line would sound shrill on its own (like a lot of Wrecking Ball to me), but the previous two lines give it the needed emotional punch: "I remember you in your Marine uniform / Laughin', laughin' at your ship out party / I read Robert McNamara says he's sorry." Man, that is great! This is the Bruce of Nebraska/Born in the U.S.A., not Working on a Dream. And then there's this:

"I'm sorry I missed you last year / I couldn't find no one to drive me / If your eyes could cut through that black stone / Tell me would they recognize me / For the living time it must be served / The day goes on, cigarettes and a bottle of beer / Skin on black stone / On the ground dog tags and wreaths of flowers / With ribbons red as the blood / Red as the blood you spilled in the Central Highlands mud / Limousines rush down Pennsylvania Avenue / Rustling the leaves as they fall / Apology and forgiveness got not place here at all / Here at the wall"

Bruce hasn't written something that good in a long, long time. If you have ever visited the the wall in D.C., it is unlike any of the other memorials or sites (rivaled perhaps only by the Lincoln Memorial in its power). Bruce captures it beautifully.

I guess what makes High Hopes so excellent is that it is not trying to be. The fact that it is a ragtag collection of tunes left off records over the last 12 years, three covers and some dramatic remakes, Bruce, for the first time in 12 years, wasn't trying to make a labored statement. He is just being Bruce, writing song by song instead of trying to write an album that says more. The songs can say enough. Bruce sounds unforced (well, "Harry's Place" sounds a little forced), loose yet focused here, perhaps spurred in part by Morello. Morello is great in places and annoying in others, but I think working with him has given Bruce a nice change. He is working with someone he sees more as an equal vs. his band, as great as the E Street band is. There are few throwaways here (I'd really just categorize "Heaven's Wall" and "This Is Your Sword" as unworthy), the rest of this is great stuff. At 64 years old, this is more than we should expect from Springsteen.

**** out of *****

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Dez Reviews the Documentary ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’ (2012) and presents a Big Star Record Guide

I have often said that Big Star was the greatest band that you’ve never heard of. Well, they aren’t that obscure anymore, having become a cult favorite and a common name dropped by the likes of Michael Stipe, Paul Westerberg et al. In a just universe, they would have become as big as Zeppelin in the 70’s, but instead due to almost comically bad luck, record label incompetence and combustible personalities, when they actually made their amazing Anglophile power pop in the 70’s nobody other than ecstatic music critics actually heard the stuff. Formed by brilliant and eccentric Alex Chilton (just out of his child prodigy phase as teenage singer for The Box Tops), tragic and talented Chris Bell, Andy Hummel and Jody Stephens out of the strange musical cauldron of Memphis, they had all of the ingredients to be one of the biggest bands of the 1970’s. But it just never happened.

That is the central theme of Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori’s excellent documentary ‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.’ That is, why the hell weren’t they the big stars they were supposed to be? Why wasn’t #1 Record a #1 record? The answers are many, and covered in great detail in the film. Stax bought out Ardent Studios (Big Star’s home), but had no idea how to handle a rock band. Then Stax went bankrupt in the early 70’s, and couldn’t promote the first record. Columbia Records bought the Stax label, and then refused to distribute the second record, Radio City. They were getting rave reviews in Rolling Stone, Creem and every other music publication, yet you could not find the record in any record store. The third record was so desolate and out there that it was not even released for three years (long after the band had actually broken up). Those three records (#1 Record, Radio City and Third/Sister Lovers) make up the remarkable core of their legacy.

Throughout the film, Alex Chilton remains a fantastic mystery and Chris Bell is finally given his due as an equal partner in Big Star, at least on that first record. The roots of the band and early days are well covered, but it is the disintegration and solo directions of Chilton and Bell that actually offer the most interesting moments of the film. (If you purchase the DVD, there is over an hour of deleted scenes that are quite good and fill the story out even more).

ABOVE: I want Jody Stephens' (left) jacket

Chilton went on to turn his back on the melodic power pop revolution that he helped to inspire, and became one of the true eccentrics of music. From punk pop to experimental rockabilly/punk deconstruction to Sinatra covers, he was nothing if not unpredictable. Bell’s mental illness and tragic death in a car accident in 1977 are especially poignant in the film (with great interviews with David Bell, his brother and keeper of his legacy), including the stunning fact that a guy with that talent was working as a cook in a local restaurant at the time of his death (Alex Chilton quit music in the 80’s for a few years to be a tree trimmer in New Orleans, but that was more out of eccentricity). My only complaint regarding Bell is that they barely touch on his conflicted sexuality that was such a big part of his pain and confusion, which in turn influenced his work a great deal.

But for any Big Star fan, this film is a godsend. Fantastic footage, humorous and heartfelt interviews with the survivors (both Bell and Chilton, the key figures, are dead) and it does justice to the legacy of the greatest forgotten band. One of the most telling scenes in the film is the one regarding the early showcases where the audience is going absolutely nuts during the performances. The audience was comprised completely of music critics. No fans. They didn’t have any.

‘Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me’ (2012) **** out of *****

Big Star Record Guide

#1 Record (1972) *****
Many people slightly prefer the sophomore effort to the debut, but the first is still my favorite. Perhaps because this was still a joint Chilton/Bell band, and I am a huge Chris Bell fan. Shimmering, staggeringly great power pop. This record should have been huge, it is as much a bridge between the Beatles and Kinks to American power pop in the 70’s and 80’s as The Byrds were. Maybe even more so.

Radio City (1974) *****
Chris Bell had left the band due to depression, anger over the lack of success of #1 Record and confidence issues dealing with Chilton getting most of the press. His presence is still here, though (he is uncredited on some of these tracks). But you can tell that this is now an Alex Chilton enterprise. Things are a bit more chaotic, riskier. This is a rawer record than the debut, but just as great. Chilton is a master of power pop, and he lets a bit of off kilter madness into the mix as well.

NOTE: One of the best deals around is the twofer released in the late 70’s of #1 Record and Radio City. You can still buy it for the price of one cheap record. It is what introduced most people to the magic of Big Star.

Live (live) (1974/1992) **
A live radio session from ’74 while they were promoting Radio City that is pretty loose, but it does have Chilton’s brilliant cover of “Motel Blues.”

Third/Sister Lovers (1974/1978) ****
After the double failure of their first two records, Hummel also left and Chilton became pretty bitter. He was also struggling with some drug addiction. Out of the chaos comes the outstanding and disjointed third record. For all intents and purposes, this is an Alex Chilton record. None of this was suitable for radio play, and it wasn’t even released until several years after they broke up. That being said, much of it is stark and beautiful. “Holocaust,” “Nighttime” and “Kangaroo” simply must be heard. And “Thank You Friends” is a fantastic, sarcastic kiss-off to all to the nonexistent (at the time) Big Star fans.

Nobody Can Dance (compilation, live) (mid-70’s/1999) *
Is this a joke? This collection of rehearsals, outtakes and live tracks is unlistenable. Chilton at his most disdainful of his audience.

Columbia: Live at Missouri University (live) (1993) ***
After over a decade of not even being willing to discuss the topic of Big Star, Alex Chilton shocked listeners again by reforming the band. The reason was typical Chilton whimsy. Some Big Star fans at the University of Missouri asked him to reform the band and play at the university. So he did. Reuniting with Jody Stephens and adding Big Star acolytes Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer (of The Posies), they played a joyous set. And stayed together and sporadically performed until Chilton’s death in 2010.

In Space (2005) ***
The latterday line-up released a much anticipated record in 2005. About half of it is excellent power pop. The other half sounds like Alex Chilton being very weird.

As far as compilations go, there are several out there. The box set Keep an Eye on the Sky (2009) **** is exhaustive, with some rare pre-Big Star tracks to boot. The live bonus disc is a bit disappointing, though.

Chris Bell solo

I Am the Cosmos (mid-1970’s/1992) ****
Chris Bell never released anything after Big Star in his lifetime, other than the stunning single and b-side “I Am the Cosmos" / "You and Your Sister” (both on this record). But he recorded sporadically in the mid-70’s, and these tracks were laid down in Memphis, England and France. So it would seem that this hodgepodge of tracks would not really hold together. On the contrary, it is a wonderful record and really does sound cohesive. Someone interviewed in the Big Star documentary (I forget who) said that Bell’s solo record (not released until 1992) is the actual sonic continuation of Big Star. I agree. “I Got Kinda Lost” is an infectious and loose rocker, the title track is majestic, “You and Your Sister” is likewise beautiful (and features Chilton on vocals). “Speed of Sound” is one of the most gorgeous songs I’ve ever heard.

Alex Chilton solo

You want to explore Alex Chilton’s solo work? Good luck to you. Spread over many records, EPs and one off singles, it is a maddening discography. I’ve got some of his material. Like Flies on Sherbert (1979) is either * or ***** depending on your personal philosophy regarding what music should be. Rhino’s 19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton (1991) *** is a fair representation of his overall solo career, but is also a mess. Like his work.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dez Reviews 'Johnny Carson' by Henry Bushkin, 2013

The title of Henry Bushkin's "biography" of television giant Johnny Carson is a bit of a misnomer. A more appropriate title would have been 'My Adventures With Johnny' or 'Two Decades of Hanging Out With Carson.' Not that it was a bad read. In fact, in general, it was quite good. But in many respects it is just as much about the author (Carson's lawyer, pseudo-manager, tennis partner, entourage and fixer all wrapped into one from about 1970 through the late 80's) as it is about Carson himself. But that is appropriate, because as most people know already from his reputation, Carson was one of the most unknowable and cagey personalities in the history of show business. A straight biography would never really work beyond just surface facts because Carson was impossible to know. The only real way to approach a book about the man would be like this one, describing someone else's interractions with him.

That is, of course, a supreme irony because his persona and easy manner hosting The Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992 made him a warm and witty late night companion for millions. I remember watching Carson a lot near the end of his reign on television, and no matter the stresses of the day, it was great to sit down with Johnny and unwind. But as Bushkin (and many others have as well) points out, Carson was completely at home chatting it up with celebrities separated by his desk barrier and 20 million viewers on TV, but he was ill at ease at a small dinner party.

In person, Carson was a difficult man, to say the least. Bushkin started his association with him in the early 70's, when Carson rashly decided to get rid of his representation and start over with a young, unknown, inexperienced lawyer to help him out with one of his many divorces. One of Bushkin's first encounters with Carson entailed helping to break in to Carson's second wife's apartment to gather evidence of infidelity (it turns out she was sleeping with Frank Gifford). One of the more interesting aspects of this whole book was how working for Carson, especially in the capacity that Bushkin did, was a full time committment. Bushkin blames Carson's demands that "he be top priority" for the dissolution of his own marriage. But it also brought him wealth and the usual amenities associated with hanging out with one of the most powerful men in showbiz.

Again to the unknowable Carson. Part of it was perhaps his stoic Nebraska upbringing. Some of it, according to Bushkin, was his emotionally abusive mother. But Carson was not really open to anyone. Not his four wives, not his own children, not the A-List celebrities that he seemed to be so comfortable with on his show. Bushkin describes an at times generous man, but strictly on his terms. And he hated to be "pressured," as in asked for emotional support when he just was not capable of giving it. Two stories told in the book exhibit this dichotomy. His own son descended into suicidal mental illness and was hospitalized. He asked for his dad, but Carson refused to visit him. Instead, he sent Bushkin (his lawyer) daily to visit his son and make sure he was alright (Carson weakly rationalized this by saying if he showed up, it would create a media circus). On the other side of the coin, when Carson heard that the owner of one of his favorite steakhouses was having serious tax problems with the IRS, he sent the guy a $100,000 check.

Bushkin is a bit vague on their falling out. Carson abruptly fired him over some business dealing related to Carson's production company. But perhaps that was the way it was with everyone in Carson's orbit. Easy come, easy go, and the person left behind is a bit dumbfounded. The book is good, with plenty of entertaining anecdotes (such as when Carson drunkenly lunged across the table at Tom Snyder for little other reason than Carson hated his show, or when president Reagan had to call Carson personally and apologize after Carson felt slighted for being given the standard tour of the White House vs. a private one after Carson had hosted an innaugural ball) and with some very interesting insight into the business dealings with the networks. Afterall, it was Bushkin negotiating on Carson's behalf, so he has some considerable knowledge.

Regardless of the complicated and often petulant man that Carson was, his talent remains singular. I'll leave you with an extended quote that captures how special Carson was. Bushkin is describing a dinner party at the house of Henry Mancini. Carson is supposed to be there, but he is uncharacteristically late. Bushkin is amazed at these A-list Hollywood players nervously awaiting the arrival of the King of Late Night:

"And thus I was surprised that so many of these people made it a point, when getting a drink or another canape, to detour to my side of the room and quietly ask...'so where's Johnny?'...what was fascinating was the eagerness with which they asked...none of them knew Johnny well. It struck me that most of them genuinely wanted him to come...hoping to get to know him better. You could see how Johnny's general aloofness from the Hollywood scene actually drew people to him, how his relative unavailability on the social circuit restored the mystique that his nightly presence on the tube corroded...

And that's when most of these people had met Carson, on the set of the Tonight Show, where they developed an incredible respect for what he did. Despite their enormous talents, none of these actors could do what Carson did...they played characters, inhabited invented identities, brought to life a carefully constructed script. But Johnny took the stage just as himself, reliant mostly on his own native gifts. Night after night, he performed live to tape in a medium that permitted no rewrites if a line didn't work or no do-overs if someone messed up...When guests like Stewart or Kelly or Lemmon came on the Tonight Show, they were naked - no lines, no characters, no costumes, no director - just themselves. Carson helped them by drawing out the qualities that made them seem interesting, glamourous, witty and fun...he played the straight man to their jokester, the pupil to their master, the fan to their stardom...Carson's nightly exhibitions of wit, intelligence, grace and sheer showmanship set [the] standard for entertainment.

And on that night at the Mancinis, after hearing the eagerness and even tension in the voices of Hollywood's greatest luminaries as they asked for Carson, I saw the singular respect he'd earned among his peers. He was indeed a star among stars."

ABOVE: Nobody was better

*** out of *****