Thursday, January 29, 2015

Dez Record Guides: David Bowie, Pt. II

First I’ll briefly address David Bowie’s live releases, then continue with the Record Guide. At the end I suggest the best compilations out there.


Santa Monica ’72 (live) (1972/1994) ***
‘Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture’ soundtrack (live) (1973/1983) ***
David Live (live) (1974) **
Stage (live) (1978) ***
Glass Spider Live (live) (1987/2008) NR
VH1 Storytellers (live) (1999/2009) NR
A Reality Tour (live) (2003/2010) ****

Most of Bowie’s live efforts are OK to not very good for some reason. I have heard there are fantastic bootlegs out there, but his officially released live material often leaves much to be desired. David Live was the first to be initially released, and it captures him in the awkward transition from his glam period to the plastic soul of the coming Young Americans. Mick Jagger thought it was so bad that he commented that if he were Bowie, “I would honestly never record again. Never.” Bowie on his gaunt appearance on the cover: “My God, it looks like I’ve just stepped out of the grave…That record should have been called ‘David Bowie is Alive and Well and Living Only in Theory.’” Stage is great in parts, but in trying to recreate some of the sonics of Low and “Heroes,” it just doesn’t translate as well live. The Station to Station material, though, is awesome. The live record from his Reality tour (to date, his last tour) does not break new ground or anything, but it is a very entertaining show from someone still at the top of his performing game with a cool setlist containing both hits and nice deep cuts and surprises.

Now Part II of the Record Guide…

Let’s Dance (1983) ****
I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I would guess that this was Bowie’s biggest hit record, at least in the U.S. And I've got a soft spot for this one because it was where I first got onboard. He consciously moves away from the avant-garde and shoots straight for the mainstream jugular. Teaming this time with producer Nile Rodgers and employing the out of place but interesting guitar playing of a young unknown Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bowie delivered a triple shot on the singles charts: “Modern Love,” “China Girl” and the title track; all three are killer 80’s hits and still stand up today. In addition, a cover of Metro’s “Criminal World” and an edgier remake of his soundtrack song “Cat People” are also top notch. Even if the remainder had been just good, this would be a classic album. But the remaining three tracks are unfortunately forgettable throwaways, dragging the momentum when they come on.

Tonight (1984) **
Never Let Me Down (1987) *

I think for the first time in his career, he was unsure of himself and what he wanted to do or how to follow-up his last record. Yes, during his glam period he did start to repeat himself a little, but it was all still great music. Here it sounds like he is trying to reproduce the Let’s Dance formula to rapidly diminishing returns. Tonight is not as bad as its reputation, but it is still not very good at all. “Loving the Alien” and single “Blue Jean” stand out. Many consider Never Let Me Down to be his worst record.

Tin Machine (with Tin Machine) (1989) *
Tin Machine II (with Tin Machine) (1991) NR
Tin Machine Live: Oy Vey, Baby (with Tin Machine) (live) (1992) NR

Not surprising that after a creative dry spell, Bowie would want to shake things up. He decided to work within the context of a band, joining with experimental guitarist Reeves Gabrels and the rhythm section of the Sayles brothers. He definitely sounds like he’s having fun playing hard rock as part of Tin Machine. Not that fun to listen to, though, it is fairly faceless music.

Black Tie White Noise (1993) ***
‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ soundtrack (1993) ***

A creative rejuvenation of sorts, BTWN suffers from a common ailment of Bowie’s records from here on out (and many other artists) in that it is too long. Artists started making records with CD playing times in mind (vs. LP playing times) in the 90’s. Sometimes less is more. Trimming some of the filler would have created a tighter listen. “You’ve Been Around” and single “Jump They Say” are very good. The ‘Buddha’ soundtrack is for a British television show, but they only used one song in the show, so it is really a regular Bowie album. There are some nice instrumental pieces on it.

Outside (1995) ****
Alright, wait for it: his best work since Scary Monsters! This is where Bowie gets his mojo back. I believe that my friend ANCIANT is a huge fan of this work, and for good reason. First, it is nice that Bowie reunites with Brian Eno. It is a concept album that I don’t really follow, but the music is fantastic and holds together as a work (vs. just a collection of songs, which had been Bowie albums post-Scary Monsters.) Moody, intense and yet still quite melodic, for the first time in awhile he sounds like he is recording with purpose. But I also agree with some of the critical assessments of the time. Some of the segues and spoken interludes slow the momentum considerably. Here is the gift of iTunes, cut out all of the segues, and you have a stronger record of just the songs.

Earthling (1997) ***
Bowie’s electronica album. Here is where he sounds like he is following trends instead of creating them or pushing them further. He’s older and musical innovation, especially in rock music, is usually a young man’s game. Bowie: “The young have to kill the old…That’s how life works…it’s how culture works.” That being said, there are still some good songs here. “Looking For Satellites,” “Battle of Britain (The Letter)” and “I’m Afraid of Americans” are all strong.

“…hours” (1999) **
Listening to this I feel as sleepy as the sleeping Bowie on the cover.

Heathen (2002) ***1/2
Definitely a step up from recent work and return to inspired form. It is a record that is somewhat soothing musically but lyrically has much angst (in an adult way). He seems to be trying to work within modern sounds and textures, but in a more relaxed and comfortable way than, say, the more labored Earthling. Some cool covers too: Neil Young’s fantastic “I’ve Been Waiting For You” (which Bowie had been wanting to cover since the 70’s), “Cactus” by The Pixies and “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship” by Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

Reality (2003) **
Well received, but this record does very little for me. Even the singles, which even on bad Bowie records at least are usually good, don’t really stand out.

The Next Day (2013) ***
For all intents and purposes, it seemed that Davie Bowie had retired from music after Reality and a health scare that cut the Reality tour short. Fans and critics were ecstatic when out of seemingly nowhere he released a new record. Bowie, longtime producer Tom Visconti and the musicians had been secretly recording sporadically for the prior two years. It was so hush hush that Bowie had all involved sign nondisclosure agreements. The reviews were glowing, but I think that was in part due to the fact that there was new Bowie product at all. After the initial excitement has dissipated, we are left with the actual album. It is not a bold new direction; in fact, from the referential album cover to much of the music, Bowie is both looking back and forward. He has gotten a bit nostalgic in his old age. The standout is “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”


It is not surprising that an artist as prolific as David Bowie has a bevy of compilations out there. He is one of the rare artists who makes albums that were meant to be heard in their entirety for context and impact, yet also can put together essential compilations out of his many hits and singles. It depends on what you are looking for and how comprehensive you want to get, but Changesbowie (compilation) (1990) ***** does about as good of a job as possible on a single disc. If you are going to go the compilation route, though, go ahead and grab the double The Singles Collection (compilation) (1993) ***** or the more recent three disc or two disc version of Nothing Has Changed (compilation) (2014) *****.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dez Record Guides: David Bowie, Pt. 1

It's been awhile since the last exciting Record Guide, and honestly there are only a few artists left for whom I feel qualified to write one. My good friend ANCIANT (“A New Career in a New Town”…Bowie song) is the real Bowie expert, and I invited him to write a guest guide for Bowie. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Bowie myself lately, and I was in the mood to discuss his music. (ANCIANT is welcome, of course, to respond at length or even to write a counter-Guide and I will still happily publish it here. That would be cool.)

The cliché about Bowie is that he is the ultimate musical chameleon. And while there is definitely truth to the cliché, it also sells him a bit short. Because not until the late 1980’s and beyond does he begin to merely follow trends. During the 70’s, he either started them or took them forward in new directions. Or, as in the case of his Berlin Trilogy, he brings them to the mainstream.

I think it is probably a toss-up between Bowie and Neil Young as to who was the most consistently great, prolific and most important rock artist during the 1970’s. (I guess Led Zeppelin would also be in that conversation). Album after album during that decade Bowie broke ground, was brilliant and turned in unanticipated, different directions.

It is interesting to note that Bowie also probably could not hit it big nowadays. As with Springsteen, he did not hit his stride commercially until several records into his career. Like with NFL teams and their quarterbacks, the record companies these days are not that patient to allow proper artistic development. Bruce did not have a hit record until his third. These days his label would have dropped him by then (and actually, Columbia was about to drop Bruce in ’75 if Born To Run wasn’t a hit.) With Bowie, it was really his 4th record that was destined to become a classic. So, David Jones...

David Bowie (1967) *
You know, some artists come out of the gate on their debut fully formed with brilliant work (The Doors, Zeppelin come to mind). Not so with Bowie. Only interesting in retrospect considering who Bowie would become. These are music hall style songs that almost sound like novelty songs, and some are really laughable. Not that you can’t do this style in a serious manner (The Kinks did it brilliantly during this same time period), but Bowie doesn’t pull it off. Many people don’t even acknowledge this record as part of the real discography, preferring to pretend that the story starts with the next one.

Space Oddity (aka David Bowie, aka Man of Words, Man of Music) (1969) ***
Here Bowie is folk/psychedelic troubadour. There is one bona fide masterpiece here, and it is the title track. He had the luck/savvy to release the song as a single several weeks before the Apollo 11 landing, and so space-themed things were all the rage. But it has lasted the test of time and remains an arresting, haunting, gorgeous piece of storytelling. There are some other very good songs here as well, even if they don’t match that song. “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “Memory of a Free Festival” are memorable, “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” has a great groove and “Letter To Hermione” is pretty.

The Man Who Sold the World (1970) ***
Once again shifting sounds, Bowie leaves the psychedelic folk of SO and creates a harder edged rock record. Some consider this to be the birth of glam, a genre for which Bowie will soon become the patron saint. While good, I do find a sameness about these songs where they kind of all blend together. Bowie is an artist who has benefited greatly from collaboration with musicians on his records, and he has an impressive record of working with innovative guitarists. Crucially he is fairly generous in allowing his musicians to contribute and shine (although he did not use Stevie Ray Vaughan to full effect on Let's Dance, I must say). This is where the crucial Mick Ronson gets onboard. The expansive opener “The Width of a Circle” is impressive and almost proggish. “The Supermen” is also great (although I prefer the version released as a bonus track on Hunky Dory). As with the last record, it is the title track here that stands above the rest, though.

Hunky Dory (1971) ****
It has taken me years to properly appreciate this record, but now I get it. Sonically, he takes the best of his two previous records and melds them together. The acoustic guitars are prominent and many of these are folkish songs, but Ronson is also here to add some grit and glam touches. It is here where he really plays with what will become a key theme on the next few records, ambiguous sexuality (“Queen B**ch,” “Oh! You Pretty Things”). He pays tribute to some contemporary heroes (“Song For Bob Dylan,” the riffy “Andy Warhol”). He also returns to space themes with the beautiful “Life On Mars,” and I guess classic “Changes” could stand as his artistic manifesto.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972) ****
There is no questioning the impact of TRAFOZSATSFM. Arguably THE glam record, it is a concept album about an alien rock star of ambiguous sexuality, and through this construct Bowie explores themes such as fleeting fame. He became a superstar as Ziggy, his stage alter ego of the period. But as to the actual music. First of all, guitarist Mick Ronson is as responsible for the great sound here as Bowie is. His guitar work is awesome. While acknowledging the huge impact and influence of this record, I personally find it far from his best. About half of the songs are bona fide Bowie classics: “Ziggy Stardust,” “Suffragette City,” “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman” and the wonderful opener “Five Years.” But the rest of these songs I don’t consider top shelf Bowie. Am I wrong here, ANCIANT?

Alladin Sane (1973) *****
The conventional wisdom is that Ziggy the classic, and this follow-up is still fantastic, but not quite as great. I flip that wisdom. I much prefer AS. It is in much the same style, only grittier and glammier. From the raunchy Ronson crunch of opener “Watch That Man” to the sleazy toss-off cover of the Stones’s “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” AS feels less labored over, looser and a lot more fun than its more celebrated predecessor. And here’s the thing I always like about Bowie’s best music, he lets his great supporting musicians really stretch out and shine. The title track is a pretty conventional Bowie track of the period until pianist Mike Garson cuts loose on a daring, almost free jazz freak-out solo, showing a willingness to stretch the boundaries even here.

Pin-Ups (1973) **
This is the minor place holder that it seems like it would be. Bowie covers some of his favorite British rock/pop songs from the likes of The Who, Them, The Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, The Kinks, etc. He doesn’t improve on any of them. “Sorrow” is nice.

Diamond Dogs (1974) ****
I don’t really get the, err, dogging of this album. It is actually one of my personal favorites. He was entering a period of intense cocaine addiction, and the whole glam thing was getting stagnant and he was clearly needing a new direction, yet the dystopian visions and strung out decadence here really work. He wanted to do an ambitious concept album based on Orwell’s ‘1984,’ but couldn’t get the rights, so he kept some of the ‘1984’ themed songs and put out a post-apocalyptic record (and you know how I love post-apocalyptic entertainment!) “1984” is great, and of course “Rebel Rebel” possesses one of the all-time classic guitar riffs.

Young Americans (1975) ***
Bowie’s glam was clearly coming to a creative dead-end, and he had been listening to a lot of soul music at the time, so he decided to have a go in his own unique way. Bowie is about as white as they come, and he called his new direction “plastic soul.” It is actually fitfully good. The title track is the clear standout, of course, but “Win” is underrated. Interesting to note John Lennon’s involvement in this record, he co-wrote and played on “Fame” and participated in Bowie’s not very good cover of “Across the Universe.”

Station To Station (1976) ****
Bowie is now the Thin White Duke. His intake of cocaine was prodigious by this point, and Bowie claims to have little recollection of recording this record at all (much like Pete Townshend claims to have no memory of making All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes). No matter, it is still quite good. Brilliant in parts. Usually transition records don’t stand up to the fully formed starting or ending points, but here he manages to transition from his plastic soul and lay some sonic groundwork for the bold work around the corner, while still creating a work of substance in and of itself. The multi-part title track is almost prog, and the wonderful “Golden Years” is funkier than anything on Young Americans. Interesting record in that it really is caught between two phases of his career. I don’t like “Wild Is the Wind,” though.

“The Berlin Trilogy”:
Low (1977) *****
“Heroes” (1977) *****
Lodger (1979) ****

Bowie relocated to West Berlin for awhile for new inspiration and to get a handle on his drug problem, and hooked up musically with Brian Eno. Bowie and Eno ended up making three records commonly referred to as “The Berlin Trilogy.” The first two, at least, are masterpieces. Inspired by a burgeoning interest in visual art and the German music scene (especially Kraftwerk and Neu), Bowie and Eno boldly cast aside structure and created songs that were jarring, jagged, fragmentary and experimental. Rarely has a mainstream artist such as Bowie taken such risks and come out so successfully with product. On the second side of the first two records, the mood shifts dramatically to ambient instrumentals more in keeping with much of Eno’s work. Low is the most risky and brilliant of the trilogy, but “Heroes” does contain some more fully formed songs, including what may be Bowie’s single greatest song in the soaring title track. Lodger is more accessible while still staying somewhat experimental (no instrumentals and more recognizable song structures), but it is also the least interesting of the three.

Scary Monsters (1980) ****
Considered by many to be the last great Bowie record. In fact, many times as Bowie has released a subsequent record and a critic likes it, you will often see the phrase “his best since Scary Monsters,” as if this were the benchmark for his last work of significance. Critics also often claim that it is a grand summation of his disparate styles up to this point. I don’t really hear that, though. To me it sounds like a natural progression from The Berlin Trilogy, as Lodger moved away from the most extreme experimentalism yet maintained some outside the box musical thinking, I hear SM continuing in the same vein. And it is a better record than Lodger, although Eno is now out of the picture. “Ashes To Ashes” is fantastic, and gives us an update of Major Tom’s condition (from “Space Oddity”). “Teenage Wildlife” is near epic, and features some wildly great guitar playing from Robert Fripp, while “Scream Like a Baby” is one of his more underrated songs.

Lest you think that I will just rate every Bowie record highly, he will come back down to earth post-1980 in Part II of the Record Guide. But his 70’s work is practically unassailable, rivaled only by Neil Young and Springsteen in consistent greatness during that decade, and only Neil in how prolific he was. I will also address live Bowie and compilations in Part II.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Shame and Apocalypse

Two interesting Op-Eds at The first one is Jake Tapper discussing how disappointed he was that there was no high level U.S. official at the momentous 1.5 million person march in Paris after the recent terrorist attacks. Tapper says: "I say this as an American - not as a journalist, not as a representative of CNN - but as an American: I was ashamed." I try and try to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, but damn they are so stupid sometimes. Talk about opportunity to be seen as a world leader handed to you on a silver platter. Jon Stewart on the Daily Show also went after the administration. Tapper and Stewart aren't exactly right wing talk radio. As Stewart incredulously said when mentioning that Eric Holder was actually in Paris that day for a meeting but couldn't make it to the march..."what the f*ck?!" The White House made some lame excuse that security concerns would detract from the event. Uh-huh. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn't have security concerns? British PM David Cameron? German president Angela Merkel? Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority? The King of Jordan? All were there. Even Russia sent their equivalent of Secretary of State, Foreign Minister Lavrov. Ashamed is right. Obama, Biden, Kerry, Holder...somebody!? Either cowards or political fools or something else. You think John Kerry would be more at risk than the prime minister of Israel? Netanyahu not only boldly marched, but then gave a speech afterward at Paris' largest synagogue. January of 2017 cannot get here soon enough as far as repairing our global leadership goes.

And it is not just the administration. Perhaps the Republican leadership could have shown what they are supposedly made of (not to mention scoring easy points on Obama). Obama may be too cowardly to show (or not care), but maybe our bold congressional leaders could show some cajones. Boehner? McConnell? Nope. How about some presidential hopefuls for 2016? What kind of strong image would that project, Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush marching in Paris with world leaders. I guess it didn't occur to them. How much do they pay their campaign advisors again? The march was on Sunday. Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Paul Ryan couldn't make it to Paris either. No, instead they were at the Cowboys-Packers game. Jesus.

The other article is about just how screwed we are environmentally. Want to be be scared? Read this. I generally lean conservative or libertarian on most things, but the environment has always been an issue where I tend to agree with my liberal friends. I can't think of an issue more important than the survival of the human race. Seriously, read the article. Yes, I am a conservative/libertarian, but I also believe in science. And whatever outlier scientists those on the right can get to dismiss our impending environmental apocalypse, they are far outweighed by the vast majority of scientific consensus. I don't even see why this should be a political or partisan issue at all. I do know that those on the left have squandered their credibility over the decades by being Chicken Little. They have made it easy for some kooks on the Right to prove them wrong on this exact prediction or that specific prediction. But you know, the sky really is falling.

As much as I love post-apocalyptic cinema, I don't want my kids living in a Mad Max world.

Oh, speaking of, have you seen the trailer for the new Mad Max movie coming out this summer? I love this stuff! Can't wait. Here it is, be sure to watch it full screen...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dez Reviews the Books 'Laika' (2007) by Nick Abadzis and 'Soviet Space Dogs' (2014) by Olesya Turkina

Longtime readers of GNABB or associates of mine know that since history is my profession, I have gotten obsessed over the years with various random historical topics. The mutiny on the 'Bounty,' Jonestown, and of course, the animal space programs. In my class, I have a day that I set aside for the early (through Apollo 11) space race. It is a fun day, and I've got a little segment where I discuss the Soviet space dogs and American space chimps. Invariably, it is one of the favorite presentations of the year for my students. I don't know exactly why, other than to say that I understand it because I find it fascinating too. (By the way, Deborah Cadbury's 'Space Race' remains my favorite U.S.-Soviet comparative study on the early space race).

I think I get more emotion out of my students when I reveal the fate of Laika the space dog than when discussing the carnage of the Civil War or other such tragedies. Laika, as many of you know, was the first earthling to go into space. Hers, however, was a one way ticket and the Soviet scientists knew that from the outset. The Soviets had just scored a dramatic victory with the launch of Sputnik (the first human-made satellite) in October of 1957. Premier Nikita Khrushchev was eager to follow it up with something just as spectacular, and he demanded that it fall during the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in November. It was suggested that another satellite be sent up and for it to transmit the Soviet anthem around the world, but Khrushchev scoffed that he did not want to send up an orbiting "pipe organ." Then genius Chief Designer Korolev suggested sending up one of the dogs that they had been training for just such missions. It was a go.

ABOVE: Laika, the first earthling to travel to space

Due to Khrushchev's imposed and impossible time table, the Soviet scientists did not have time to perfect a recovery system for the passenger, so from the outset it was going to be a one way ticket to oblivion. Before you immediately assume that these are typical cold hearted commies, all accounts I have read detail the close and personal relationship that they developed with the space dogs. They did everything they could to treat them as humanely as possible given the circumstances and required training, and bonds were formed. The lucky dogs that did make it back and then were retired often found homes with the families of the very scientists who had trained them. I say found homes because all of the space dogs were mongrel strays picked up off the streets of Moscow. This not only fit the Soviet proletariat ideology (vs. using more bourgeois purebreds), they figured that mutts were genetically fitter and their life on the streets had already made them tough and more adaptable to extreme conditions. On Laika, Oleg Gazenko, who had been in charge of the Soviet space dog training, said in 1998: "Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. We treat them like babies who cannot speak. The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog."

Laika was launched on November 3, 1957. ("Muttnik" as the American press sarcastically, yet still affectionately, referred to her). For decades the Soviet propaganda machine insisted that she had survived seven days in orbit (reporting on her status over those seven days to the rest of the world) and then was painlessly euthanized through poisoned food pellets. It was only in 2002, when the files were finally declassified by the Russians, that the truth was known. In reality, she perished several hours after launch due to a miscalculation in thermal conductivity, making the onboard fans to keep her cool useless. She painfully burned to death. (Although I am sure that Yuri Gagarin was happy they figured this mistake out on Laika instead of on him). After Laika's trip, the Soviets eventually figured out how to bring the passengers back, turning the adorable Belka and Strelka into the first Soviet pop stars who could actually enjoy, as much as dogs can, their fame.

BELOW: Laika paraphernalia

The sacrifice that these dogs (and the American chimps) made for the space programs cannot be underestimated. Scientists were not sure that earthlings could survive space travel at all. These animals showed us that they can.

ABOVE: Strelka and Belka. They made it back.

Olesya Turkina's 'Soviet Space Dogs' is actually nicer to look at than to read. It is a good read and gives some fantastic information on the space dog program, but I think that it could have been written a bit better. I just think that in the end there is still a lot about the training and details of the missions that we still do not know. She does discuss Laika, Belka and Strelka and others's fame, symbolism and pop culture status beautifully. Speaking of beauty, this book is gorgeous. It has excellent pictures and she has undertaken the monumental task of collecting and photographing as much iconography and pop culture-related items as possible. Toys, calendars, stamps, matchbox covers, postcards, statues...not just in Russia but worldwide, related to the space dogs. The propaganda coup becomes obvious through these pictures. Funny thing is that the Soviet authorities were not prepared at all for the worldwide concern and eventual backlash regarding Laika's fate. They had to scramble to create stories of how painlessly she met her fate after the world demanded more details as to poor Laika’s demise. Turkina details that wonderfully as well.

Nick Abadzis's graphic novel 'Laika' is wonderful. I am no expert on graphic novels, I've only read a handful ('Maus,' some of the important Batman ones, oh, and ‘Planet Hulk’). Abadzis’s work of historical fiction attempts to remain as true to the historic details as possible while filling in the personal moments and backstory with imaginative fiction. Chief Designer Korolev, Gazenko, Khrushchev, and some of the other scientists are presented true to form. The heart of the story is in the touching relationship that forms between Laika and her primary caregiver, Yelena Dubrovsky. It is a touching tale that brings real emotion to Laika’s story, and does her memory justice. The primary themes are destiny (in fact, the opening scene has Korolev wandering in the Siberian snow repeating the mantra “I am a man of destiny…I will not die”) and trust.

It is about Korolev’s manic drive for the destiny of the Soviet space program (and his own redemption after having been a political prisoner, arrested in one of Stalin’s purges), but even more Laika’s destiny to go from anonymous stray on the streets of Moscow to worldwide icon, but having to sacrifice her life in the process. And the trust these dogs have in their trainers, and the ultimate trust broken by knowingly preparing her for her one way journey for the glory of the Soviet State. The book is a triumphant accomplishment, but sad. I daresay you will shed a tear or two as Laika rockets to the stars (the visuals in that part of the book are stunningly effective too, with the closing mantra “you can trust me” being repeated in Laika’s mind). So it is bookended nicely by the two themes, opening hopefully with destiny and closing with trust (broken).

Laika’ **** out of *****
‘Soviet Space Dogs’ *** out of *****
Also, reference ‘Space Race’ by Deborah Cadbury ****1/2 out of *****

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Dez Reviews the Book 'Waging Heavy Peace' by Neil Young, 2012

You'd think as big of a Neil Young fan as I am that I would have picked up his first "autobiography" when it came out, but I just got around to reading it. I guess I figured that I knew everything already, having read other books on the man. Perhaps I was afraid he would be like Springsteen, a great artist, but a huge bore in interviews. Man was I wrong. This book is fascinating and I have a deeper respect for Neil after reading it. It is unlike any book I've ever read, in that it is almost completely stream of consciousness and conversational. That sounds like a cliche, I know, but this book really is like that. You feel like you are hanging out with your very obsessive, renaissance-man, crazy Uncle Neil for an evening over drinks (or stronger substances) and he just talks about whatever comes to mind. Ostensibly he is telling us about his life and times, but there is no chronology. And that is its utter charm. He will be telling you about recording Harvest, then jump to a trip to the grocery store he made last week, and then go off about a drive through the California desert in 1977 in one of his vintage cars.

Here's an example. Neil's talking about spending time in Hawaii and seeing "vog," which he claims is natural pollution from volcanic activity. Then he says "The vog reminds me of the stupid laws against burning wood in fireplaces in the city because it causes air pollution. Sh*t! That is ridiculous! These beautiful fireplaces were built in the homes and apartments of New York and San Francisco...for a reason." Then later on the page (after going off on a tangent about electric cars), "I was just kidding about that law. There really is no law. I might have just made that up, because part of this book is from my memory and I have a big imagination." Later, on the same page: "News bulletin: In truth, there really is a law like that. I just learned about it."

If you want a true chronological biography, check out Jimmy McDonough's excellent 'Shakey: Neil Young's Biography.'

And the balance of space given to different subjects is totally random, too. He might spend a page discussing the recording of After the Goldrush, but then spend five pages discussing a new model train that he built. Sample:

"Almost all technology can be found to have some roots in the science of railroading and real railroad operations. During development of what is now Lionel's [Neil is part owner of the Lionel Model Train Company and helps design many of their most complex models] system for control of action and sound on a model railroad, I became obsessed...the complexity involved is like a drug. For instance, every action has a sound and every sound has variables. Every sound variable needs an algorithm based on an action, and every action needs a variable control mechanism and a sensor to monitor its position or at least predict its position, possibly based on the positions of other related moving parts of the machine's systems. To me, this is stimulant. I am fascinated by it, by all of the possibilities. Every sound needs to be recorded in such a way that it is variable by an algorithm based on the mechanical action or by the controller...The end result is music."
What? This is a rock star?

Oh, he is also designing state of the art electric cars and testing them cross country (one of the more poignant passages is near the end of the book as he describes driving one of his electric cars alone on a backroad in Florida and he feels the presence of some of his close musical cohorts who have passed on, like David Briggs and Danny Whitten). He is also co-founder of a company that is designing high-definition digital sound (PONO). Don't get him started on what he thinks of iTunes and mp3's. Pages and pages on the science of sound and how nobody can really listen to music anymore because of mp3s and vinyl is the sound of the gods but we should be able to have that digitally. And he is installing his high def digital systems in the electric cars that he is designing...the guy is incredible. Oh yeah, and then there is the music stuff. He will be introspective and nakedly honest for a few paragraphs, and then tell some long humorous tale from the road. There are passages of beautiful, lyrical writing, and then what reads like a transcript of a late night drunken rant about vinyl vs. iTunes or greedy managers or whatever. All on the same page!

One thing that gets me is that he writes so beautifully about his wife Pegi, whom he was married to for decades. I mean, tearjerking passages about their love, and what they have been through, and how she is his foundation. This last year he and Pegi divorced. After reading this book, I would have bet everything on them staying together until the end. I do wonder what the hell happened between 2012 and 2014.

It is a wonderful read, even if you are not a huge fan. But if you are a Neil Young fan, this is gold. He comes across as a whimsical, mad scientist, incredibly intelligent, renaissance man full of energy. The best thing to do is to give you some more samples.

Detailing a trip to a used music/bookstore in Hawaii and coming across his own work for sale:

"Marc was way down one aisle along the wall looking in a box on the floor marked with a big letter Y. There was my life's work, all my CDs thrown in a box on the floor. 'Here you are!' said Marc. As he sifted through the CDs, I saw the titles flying by and had flashes of memory of each one. There were about thirty or forty different albums in the box. I felt suddenly very sad. All of these people had given up their CDs! The original vinyl versions sounded much better than the CDs, but they were still important to me. I had spent so long making each one, pouring myself into it, making it sound great. Now they were all in this little box, shadows of their former selves. If someone wanted to hear one of my old records, it was either on CD or online. This store was closing in on me. I found an old Clive Cussler book I must have missed back in the day, bought it for $2.50, and headed for the door. That place had become very depressing. I was overwhelmed with the reality of what had become of my life's work. Stopping at the checkout, I inquired, "Do you carry vinyl?" "Oh no, there's no demand for that," said the young lady at the cash register."

On touring and performing nowadays:

"There are a lot of things that can go wrong on the road. If you get sick, you still play, but people think you are losing your edge. If you have half a house, people don't feel they are part of something. If you don't have a great crew, your sh*t doesn't sound right. If you don't have the best equipment, your show may not sound as great as the last one or the next one. If you have a reputation, it is on the line. If you forget what you are doing, it shows up on YouTube. If you remember what you are doing, it shows up on YouTube. If you do something new that isn't ready, or something old that you screw up, it is on YouTube. If snot comes out of your nose while you are playing the harmonica and slithers down the harmonica rack onto your t-shirt, it is on YouTube. If you say something stupid...It is a lonely job out there performing. I have to do it because I always have. I probably always will. I love the music part. I like it when the sound is right and the audience is into it and the music is relevant. If one of those elements is missing, you are screwed. You are killing yourself slowly. You need all three elements. At this age, I think relevancy is the big challenge."

You know, that is the key that sets Neil apart from almost everyone else his age still out there performing. He has remained relevant, always. It might not have always worked, but it was always new and relevant. To this day, if you go to his show, he will primarily play his new material. He won't give you a greatest hits show. He just won't. In fact, he will often tire of the current record he is touring for and start playing tunes that will appear on the next record. That happened to me at my first Neil show in 1989. He was touring for the mediocre This Note's For You, but came out and did not play a single song from the record. Instead he came out and played almost the entirety of what would become Freedom, released later that year. Lucky for me, Freedom is one of the Neil's greatest records. I still vividly remember that show. And I have the permanent hearing loss to prove it. (He also played such rarities as "For the Turnstiles" from freakin' On the Beach. Awesome.) If I remember right, in the McDonough book referenced above, there is a paragraph about that incendiary '89 show in Houston that I saw. It was special.

I like Neil's assessment of his own work: "I have written a lot of songs. Some of them suck. Some of them are brilliant, and some are just okay...they are born and raised and sent out into the world to fend for themselves." On "Alabama," to which the band Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote "Sweet Home Alabama" in response ("I heard Mr. Young sing about her / I heard old Neil put her down / well I hope Neil Young will remember that a Southern Man don't need him around, anyhow"), Neil says: "I did 'Sweet Home Alabama' at that show and the folks loved it. My own song 'Alabama' richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don't like my words when I listen to it today. They are acusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue." I think I've only heard John Lennon give such brutally honest assessments of his own work (the Playboy interviews).

As you might expect, being as fascinated by technology as he is, he loves to talk guitars, amps and equipment. Funny: "I took [the pickup] to a guitar shop down on Western Avenue in LA and dropped off the pickup to get it wound again; there was a procedure that supposedly fixed the problem. I'm glad I only gave them the pickup, because when I returned later to retrieve it, the store was gone. Not a trace. They left with my pickup! Sh*t! That sucked. What a bunch of a**holes!"

There is so much in this book. So much in this rich life of Neil Young's that is gripping, warm, harrowing, intense and beautiful. So much that he admits he couldn't fit it all in his almost 500 page book. In 2014, Neil published his second book, entitled 'Special Deluxe: a Memoir of Life & Cars.' I haven't read it yet. The reviews have been excellent, most saying it is superior to his first book. He uses his favorite cars that he has owned and built over the years as a jumping off point, with each car representing a period in his life and he tells stories from there. Sounds cool, I will read it soon and once again sit down with crazy Uncle Neil and listen to his strange, wonderful, nonlinear tales.

**** out of *****

BELOW: Neil's second book...

Saturday, January 3, 2015

RIP Joe Cocker, 1944-2014

I know this is a little late, but Joe inconvenienced us by dying over the holidays. At any rate, a gifted, one of a kind singer and performer. I think what kept him from reaching the top tier of rockers of his generation is that he did not write his own material, instead depending on other songwriters, from legends (Beatles, Randy Newman, Ray Charles) to hacks. He was more a spirited interpreter than musical visionary. But at his best, he was an awesome force of nature.

BELOW: Here is the clip that most people associate with Cocker, but it is still remarkable to watch, both for its passionate performance and his spastic gyrations. Cocker at Woodstock...

BELOW: You've got to watch this one now. It is John Belushi doing his famous Joe Cocker impression. It is remarkable for different reasons. Not only does Belushi take on Cocker's vocals and mannerisms, he also lampoons Cocker's famous drug and alcohol problems. Something Belushi himself knew a lot about. (Unlike Cocker, Belushi was a brilliantly visionary artist). It is cruel, hilarious and brilliant. I believe Paul Jacobs is playing the role of the pompous Leon Russell, who served as Cocker's onstage musical director through part of the 70's. He does a fantastic job doing Russell. Watch the whole thing, it is brilliant.

BELOW: And to show that Cocker had a sense of humor, here's a short clip showing Cocker and Belushi sharing the stage. Who is more Cocker?