How I made Pete Townshend want to smash me

June 15, 2011

I was standing in the bar of the Sadlers Wells theater with arguably the greatest bass player in the history of rock. John Entwhistle was looking past me, towards a corner of the bar where a pretty young lady was sipping a martini. In less than three years he would be dead.

My friend Pat and I discussed strategy. “We’re not going to ask for a picture with him. That would be uncool. We’re just going to shake his hand and thank him for the great music.”

Done. We shook John Entwhistle’s hand and he didn’t really hear us. I had heard he was as deaf as Pete Townshend. Or perhaps more interested in the martini lady. Or most likely, both.

“Thunderfingers” saddled past us, his Boris the Spider thingie dangling from his chest, and made his move.  Similar circumstances preceded his death at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas  in 2002. That time, the young lady was captivating enough to make him forget his heart condition and do cocaine.  John Entwhistle would die before he got old…or at least that old. When I heard he was gone at 57, I called Pat to say “damn, we should have gotten a picture with him.”

But that is the only regret I have from the greatest rock pilgrimage I ever took.

Pat had convinced me to join him to fly from Boston to London to see Pete Townshend perform in a small theater. Townshend was performing  songs from “Who’s Next,” declared one of the greatest albums ever by Rolling Stone

The date of the concert — February 25 —  was the birthday of his spiritual guru, an Indian mystic named Meher Baba (who famously said “don’t worry, be happy.”) In a stunning twist, it was also my birthday. (And the birthday of Beatle George Harrison, known as the ‘Mystic Beatle.’ But maybe I am taking this a little too far.)

Who’s Next was played on my Sony Walkman a thousand times. If the sound of the Big Bang is the last note of Sergeant Pepper’s, then the sound of the shimmering synthesizer opening Who’s Next is the first tetrapod crawling out of the ocean.

I got a $200 flight on Priceline and bought my ticket to the show online. The boxy sketch of the theater indicated I would be in the back row. I didn’t care, I had a ticket and I was going.

I didn’t realize until we were at the concert that my situation was a little different. As Pat and I walked in, the bouncer directed him to go upstairs to the balcony. He directed me to walk to the front.

‘Aren’t I supposed to be in the back?’ I asked.

‘No, you’re in the front. Can’t you read your ticket?’

In disbelief, I walked to the front of the theater and sat directly in the middle.

A full orchestra tuned up on-stage. The lights went down. Pete Townshend walked out and picked up a guitar. Right in front of me.

The front row is like a mythical place in a rock concert. Someone else who is more important is always there. Maybe it’s people who are powerful, connected, hip. Every concert I have been too I have been back a few dozen rows, maybe straining to see the action on-stage with binoculars. Not on Feb 25, 2000. I was close enough to my musical hero to reach out and strum the guitar for him.

Townshend explained that the songs being performed were part of an abandoned rock opera he started called “Lifehouse.” The story was set in the future, where music had become a path to universal peace and people connected to each other via technology called “the grid.” (Townshend predicted the Internet 30 years in advance, FYI.) He wanted to bring an audience together with the band for days and weeks at a time, making them part of the creative process and breaking down the barrier between performer and fan.

Progressive? Yes. Did it happen? No. His bandmates shot down the idea and the project was scuttled.

Maybe though this is why Who’s Next became such a great album. Townshend wasn’t constrained by some need to connect songs to some greater story like he did for Tommy. He could just turn up his Hiwatt amp and rock. He could experiment with cool synthesizers and not worry about universal truths.

And rock that night he did. He cranked out hits including “Won’t get Fooled Again,” “Bargain,” and “Going Mobile.” There was one notable exception — a trainwreck really — the initial performance of Baba O’Reilly.

Pre-recorded synthesizers listen to no one but themselves. As the song started I noticed that Townshend came in too early. My the song’s coda it was  a muddled mess of string instruments and guitar distortion. The song ended like a roman candle fizzling on launch, everyone on-stage staring at each other blankly. It was uncomfortable to watch.

Townshend glared at his keyboard player, who raised a finger back as if to say ‘it was your fault, not mine.’ The band gasped at the subversion. The crowd cheered wildly.

A few beats passed. The band collected themselves. The synthesizers started up again.

Maybe I wanted to realize Townshend’s idea to connect audience with performers. Maybe I was just elated that I was in the front row. Maybe I was just happy-drunk. I started clapping in-time with the music and cheering. Others around me followed.

Townshend glared at me, probably the same look he gave Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock before he knocked him off stage with a guitar neck. I know he wanted to smash me. The song had already gotten screwed up, now some stupid kid was going to screw it up again. They were shooting a DVD, dammit.

I stopped clapping. The band made it through the song. After the applause died down some smartass yelled “play it again!” Townshend smiled and said “We probably will.”

And if you look closely at different parts of the DVD recording of Pete Townshend, Live at Sadlers Wells, you can see my bearded face. Smiling in the front row.


When putting failure on your resume makes for a great song

April 23, 2011

A few years ago my friend Chris and I saw Jim Boggia play in the Iota Club, a tiny venue in Arlington, Va. that gets a lot of acts on the rise. (For example, Nora Jones and Ryan Adams played there way back when.) But for everyone who passes through Iota to go onto big stardom, there are 100 or more who blow the lid off the place, only  to quickly dissolve into the white noise of life. It’s a travesty that the same hopeful energy that so many bring to their music doesn’t transfer into material success. But for some musicians — like Jim — it’s fine. They even embrace it.

Jim has a song called “Show my Face Around” which openly admits disappointment in his music career.

‘Cause I don’t like to show my face around

‘Cause I’m afraid I let some people down

So I just crawl back in my world of sound

Jim’s “world of sound” includes recordings of his family and friends that make it into “Show my Face Around.” You hear his mom singing “Hallejuia I’m a Bum,” you hear his dad saying “Hello everybody, hello,” you hear sound effects and analog tape hiss. It makes me think of my own sonic experimentation, when I discovered a delay pedal could make my guitar sound a thousand feet tall, when I flipped the 4-track tape over to create a backwards solo, when I discovered how two guitars playing the same chords, panned equally to the left and right, sound amazingly beautiful on stereo headphones.

Jim would rather be living in this sonic world rather than dealing with the difficulties of playing music full time. At Iota that night he told a story about an interaction he had with a music exec who told him he should “sound more like Howie Day.” Whatever your thoughts on Howie Day’s music, such a suggestion to someone of Jim Boggia’s caliber is like suggesting to F. Scott Fitzgerald that he should write James Patterson thrillers.

But Jim is doing just fine. He toured the UK and Japan recently, he has played with Jill Sobule and Tracy Bonham, and his most recent album has a perfect 5-star rating on

True to form, his latest album is called “Misadventures in Stereo,” a title that evokes the same spirit of his previous song “Show my Face Around,” which wasn’t afraid to address his musical melancholy.

Think about it: recording and promoting  a song about your limited musical success is analogous to listing your greatest failed project on the top line of your resume.

But that’s the beauty of music: you are not expected to conform, you are expected to express, and when it’s done at the expense of your own ego, well, it’s more authentic. Unlike people who go through life and pretend they do everything right, who can strut their way through any situation, Jim Boggia has total credibility because he admits where he’s been. A guy like Kanye West, on the other hand, is everything I dislike about what music has become, big heads and big declarations, hyperbole and swagger, set on party beats and music-less music.

Jim Boggia is the rare intersection of talent and truth. Check him out.

Cowbell rocks

April 20, 2011

The greatest SNL skit ever featured WillFerrell as a fictional cowbell player on the recording of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t fear the Reaper.” Cowbell works in comedy because it’s goofy, clanky, easy to play…unlike sophisticated and sexy rock band instruments like guitars and drums.  But if you take a listen to songs where cowbell is used…well…cowbell kind of makes them rock.

Listen to “Train in Vain” by the Clash, a great, upbeat groove with Joe Strummer’s plaintive vocals about getting dumped. Just before the song starts to fade, a cowbell kicks in. Joe’s done singing,and as he walks away from the microphone the cowbell hits like nails into his broken heart…genius.

Listen to “Welcome to the Jungle” by GNR. You hear that song in your car and you start playing along with the cowbell on your steering wheel…it holds up the song better than the bass drum. You could almost turn down all the other tracks and listen to the cowbell for 3 minutes and it would still rock.

Casino Queen by Wilco is one of the most fun songs ever by one of the most fun bands you can see today. (I once saw lead singer Jeff Tweedy bring a catering tray out from backstage and start hurling vegetables at the crowd.) The cowbell on what is arguably their biggest hit just makes your leg start to go up and down. This is the response that rock brings, and it reminds us that we are alive and that the white noise of our daily lives is only as loud as we make it.

There also is in fact a cowbell on the original recording of “Don’t fear the Reaper.” You can hear it if you listen closely, added after all the other tracks were done. It doesn’t make as much of a difference in the song as the previous examples, but if you dropped it out, anyone familiar with the song would be missing something.

Gotta have more cowbell baby.

The B-52s got writer’s block

December 29, 2010

I am playing a gig on New Year’s eve with my friend Donny. Donny once walked into his brother’s living room to find the B-52s quietly watching daytime television.

I find it ironic that such an iconic party band would be doing something so mundane. Shouldn’t Fred Schneider be off somewhere shouting at people to bring their juke-box money? Shouldn’t Kate Pierson be screaming like an underwater-sea-creature? I imagine when Donny walked into the room someone said  ‘Shhh! Oprah’s got stripper love triangles…Keep it down!!!’

They were in Donny’s brother’s living room because they had rented his entire house for six months for a tidy sum. His house included a recording studio with everything a multiplatinum selling band would need to make a record.

Except creativity. Apparently the B-52s had writer’s block. Which is why they were watching daytime TV and not recording an album.

They were in a tough situation. They were recording the follow-up to Cosmic Thing, a multi-platinum seller that climbed into the U.S. top five and landed them on the cover of Rolling Stone. The album had spawned a song that would be played at 97% of all wedding receptions for the next thousand years: Love Shack. Others, like Roam, Deadbeat Club and Channel Z got airplay.

Cosmic Thing brought the band into the mainstream. Without it, they may have been relegated to the one-hit-wonder dustbin of music history…known only for 1979’s Rock Lobster. They could have very well taken the T-Rex path to musical obscurity.

Donny was standing there with his brother for a simple reason. The B-52s’ six months were up. In fact, they were three days past six months. The band’s manager…also quietly watching daytime television…had a simple response. ‘Can we do six months more?’ And that was that.

With what the band had paid in rent they very easily could have bought a respectable house themselves. But gone are the days when bands would drop big cash for a setting that would foster creativity and collaboration. The B-52s latest album was probably recorded on a Mac in whatever location they happened to be in. I doubt even U2 would rent out Slane Castle these days.

To end the story, the album the B-52s recorded at Donny’s brother’s house would eventually be called Good Stuff. The title track achieved moderate radio airplay and a Grammy nomination. So I guess the TV-watching in the end did them some good.

As of 2010 the band shoulders on, touring on occasion and specializing in highly lucrative corporate gigs…getting flown into places like Boise to spend 45 minutes rocking out some Holiday Inn ballroom while a few hundred middle-aged managers get looped on the company dime. I’ve known people who have hired them. Apparently they are gracious, fun and every bit the up-beat, wacky party band they used to be.

Kate Pierson said in a 2009 interview that she still likes playing the song Private Idaho after all these years (which no doubt goes over well in Boise). She was thankful about getting the chance to do what she loves.

She’s living in her own private Idaho, but she knows how lucky she is to be there.

The alleged creator of the skull with lightening through it logo OR a homeless guy moved into my rental condo and claimed to have named the Grateful Dead

November 11, 2010

I had been gone for two weeks in June on a vacation. I’ll never forget the greeting I got when I came back.

“Hi. I’m Chuck, your new roommate.”

He was in his mid-fifties, white hair, missing most of his teeth. He had deposited his stuff all over the main areas of the small rented townhouse in Vienna, Virginia where I lived. It was like a yard sale materialized in my house. There were model airplanes in the kitchen that smelled like superglue. There was a toolbox in the TV room. I remember some kind of small kitchen appliance sitting on the front step.

Why was he there? My previous roommate, who always struck me as shifty, invited him to “sublet” his room so he could save a few hundred bucks and move in with his girlfriend. He conveniently did this while my other roommate and I were away. He did not tell either one of us.

In those first few moments standing there, processing the fact that a stranger had moved all his possessions to my place of residence, Chuck launched into the hard-sell. He talked so fast it was like he had downed a Starbucks and a shot of amphetamines.

I learned more about him in five minutes than I learn about most of my coworkers in five months. His dad was in the foreign service and he spent time as a child in Viet Nam. He was a pilot and worked as a contractor. He served two tours of Viet Nam later as a young man. He was adamant that the CIA had staged 911. He had gone to prep school with Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir. He said he was the one who had coined the name “the Grateful Dead” and created the famous skull-with-lightening-through-it logo.

And, oh yeah, the Grateful Dead owed him 12 million dollars. I’m not sure how he settled on this figure. But he was emphatic. The Grateful Dead owed him 12 million dollars. There was such conviction in his voice it was like he already picked out his new Bentley.

Chuck was buttering me up. That night, in my living room, he was going for some kind of paternal bond, selling himself as a fatherly wise older guy who was there to help my roommate and myself cope with our youthful challenges and learn from his sage ways.

Nada. He was homeless and living out of his Chevy Astro van and needed a place to stay. I knew this.

From a legal standpoint, he had no right to be there and he was not on our lease. But we only had three months left in the house. We would all be leaving soon. This guy was a little out there, but he just wanted a warm bed to sleep in and a shower.

Plus he was a veteran. The only thing I did to serve my country was register for the Selective Service and spend two misguided semesters in college shining shoes and trying to keep from laughing while a staff sergeant screamed in my face. I felt I owed Chuck some slack for facing death in the jungles of southeast Asia…some kind of karmic retribution for never having to go to war myself.

Plus, I counted myself a Christian. Maybe this was some kind of test. Maybe when I went to the Great Beyond JC would turn to me and say “that was me back in Vienna who needed a place to stay you big jerk, and you threw me and my model airplanes out into the cold…now go fry in eternal torment.” So I let Chuck stay.

What a mistake.

A week after Chuck moved in my other housemate Bill came back (he had also been on vacation). Bill saw the model airplanes and various clutter and asked me what was going on. I told him that Shifty our roommate had pulled a fast one by subletting and not letting us know.

Bill was an interesting cat. He was an art student with a girlfriend on the other side of the Beltway. He spent his weekends sprawled on the couch watching art movies, eating pizza and leaving the boxes all over the kitchen. He also was huge. Like 6-7 and 400 pounds. But completely soft-spoken and jittery. He kind of reminded me of the old cartoon where the circus elephant gets spooked by the mouse.

Bill also avoided conflict like me. He didn’t want to create a contentious situation to get this guy out of our place…he was willing to wait out the last three months of our lease. But he wasn’t happy.

So we all settled into some kind of uneasy existence.

Chuck came and went to work on construction in the city. Bill went to his art classes. I went to work.

It worked for a couple of weeks. Chuck and I had some pretty interesting conversations.

He was a writer, and a really good one. He showed me a piece he wrote for his prep school magazine (the one he attended with Bob Weir,) about his life, published some 13 years earlier in 1991. He was so happy with it that he was turning it into a book proposal and already had written several dozen pages.

The piece recounted his childhood in Viet Nam as the son of a diplomat, then later as a Special Forces officer in the Phu Bon province. I still have a copy of the magazine — he gave it to me. In the piece he writes he knew the whole time that the Viet Nam war would be a colossal mistake, a misguided conflict that was more about American hubris and paranoia than fighting communism. He writes:

…my father predicted…we would be drawn into a war here, and the way things were shaping up, unless a miracle occurred, we would eventually lose it. It would be me, my brother, and our generation who would fight it. With these words, a portion of my youth drew to a close. I felt a peculiar pain behind my breastbone…I thought of my friends back in America who, in a few years, would be cannon fodder.

Despite passages like these, the writing is upbeat, almost mystical. Chuck spends more time talking about his adventures as a kid in 1958 in Southeast Asia than his later time in the jungle as a soldier. The epilogue from the piece talks about his “Pacific Rim fine leather products import/export business,” shows him standing on the porch of a cozy-looking colonial style house with an attractive Asian woman on his arm (his former wife), and says he was a “candidate for the U.S. Congress.”

The guy living out of his car who believed the Grateful Dead owed him 12 million dollars was a candidate for Congress. Well, considering what some of them are like I guess it’s not far off.

It was the mother of three next door who looked like the mom from the “Wonder Years” that pointed out to me that Chuck was a textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“He needs help,” she said. “You can tell he thinks people are after him.”

She said on one occasion she was riding in the car with her 14-year old son, who had just gotten his driver’s permit. He came into the parking space in front of their townhouse a little too fast and hit one their empty metal trash cans with a loud bang.

Chuck was outside smoking. She said he jumped about four feet in the air.

Nice lady next door would know something about PTSD. Her husband was an Army Colonel who served in first Gulf War. And her last comment as she turned to run back into her house got me a little scared.

“I’ve told my kids to be nice but keep their distance.”

We had one month on our lease when things came apart.

Chuck knocked on the locked door to my basement apartment. His tone was measured, but his eyes were wide.

“Someone broke my computer,” he said.

“I didn’t break your computer,” I responded.

He took me up to his room and pointed at his laptop. There was a crack about 3 inches long in the screen, and you could see the plasma starting to seep out onto the plastic. This would not be an easy fix.

His look was so intense I know he believed I broke it.

“Chuck. I’ve never been in your room,” I said.

“Well, then it must have been Bill,” he said. “Bill broke it.”

This was bad…given that Bill was already terrified of this guy and spending most of his time at his girlfriend’s, I knew that any kind of accusation could give the guy a heart attack.

“Let me talk to Bill about it,” I said. “But I’m sure he didn’t break it. Maybe you knocked it when you weren’t looking?”

Reasoning would not work at all. Chuck was convinced of sabotage. I could only hope that he didn’t reciprocate like Martin Sheen taking out  Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.

I wasn’t there when Chuck confronted Bill. Bill responded by calling the cops. I came home from work one day to find two county police officers on my stoop. Chuck was gone…along with his model airplanes, kitchen appliances and tools.

Bill was shaken up but relieved. He said when he told Chuck the cops were coming to arrest him for trespassing, and that he had a copy of the lease that didn’t have his name on it, that Chuck peacefully backed down…that he retreated to his room and started running his possessions down to his Astro Van. He was gone in minutes.

A few weeks later I got an email from Chuck. There was no mention of the events that transpired to make him leave, and no mention of his computer. He asked me if I wanted to have dinner. I didn’t respond. Not from malice, I just didn’t want to open the channel.

I think about the guy every now and then. I picture him off in some public camping ground, chatting people up about the book he’s writing, telling them about the 12 million dollars the Grateful Dead owes him, smiling his toothless smile.

I wonder how many others are out there like him, who go to war and then come back to slip through the cracks of society. Guys who do what is asked of them by shipping off to some geopolitical situation, only to came back and have their lives turned upside down because they cannot reenter the world.

“War is hell,” said a Civil War general. Maybe so is coming back.

The bookish accountant and Diamond Dave

April 27, 2010

My dad helped to start a legal association and they would have their meetings in places like Bermuda, Cabo San Lucas Mexico, and the Cayman Islands. Every so often my parents would invite my siblings and I to join (I know, we were deprived children) and we would get to sit by the beach sipping drinks with tiny umbrellas while my dad and his colleagues toiled away drafting bylaws and statues off in some closed conference room somewhere.

Often our days of lounging would end on some windswept point overlooking the ocean, when we would join everyone from the association for dinner. It was at one of these such dinners that I ended up sitting next to a quiet, introverted lady, an accountant from the association. She wore glasses and was soft-spoken…I was pretty sure she had several cats. She reminded me of the “Church Lady” from Saturday Night Live.

She didn’t talk much, if at all. I remember as the conversation languished being silently annoyed that I couldn’t sit next to my dad’s colleague Harry who actually was Prince‘s lawyer at one time. He handled the litigation around the Purple One’s fight to get out of his record contract, which led to his changing his name to the “artist formerly known as Prince” and being famously photographed with the word “Slave” on his cheek. But Harry was at another table…and tonight it was me and bookish lady and I was doing my best to keep the conversation from flatlining.

So I asked her about music…what was her favorite group? What did she like? Her response could have knocked me over with a feather.

“My first cousin is David Lee Roth.”

This is one hell of a bombshell from someone who seemed like her idea of raucous music was an Everly Brothers concert.

After I picked my jaw up off the ground I asked her what “Diamond Dave” was like. She said he was a pretty normal guy.

She mentioned that she would take girlfriends to see Van Halen in the 80’s, and they would go backstage and hang with the band. She said she even stayed at David’s house and hung out by the pool with her friends, and that he was always a courteous host.

This is pretty amazing given that Rolling Stone once called David Lee Roth “the most obnoxious singer in human history.” Or that the guy has been known to perform with drunken midgets on-stage.

But if you think about it, maybe the only way to make it in music is to convince the world you’re crazy. Would anyone even care about Amy Winehouse if she were normal, if there weren’t pictures of her wandering London in her underwear? Or James Taylor, who at one point spent time in a nuthouse? Britney Spears shaving all her hair off only helped things in the end, didn’t it?

At the time of my dinner with Bookish Lady, David Lee Roth was in the news again because he decided to become an Emergency Medical Technician in New York City. He even cut his hair short to go unrecognized. His trainer was quoted in the New York Post saying Roth was” very studious, punctual and hungry for knowledge.”

Apparently this crazy on-stage persona, who leaped around doing scissor kicks and screaming, was serious about stepping out of the limelight and just helping out. He didn’t need the money. Sure his career wasn’t at its peak, but he could still play shows in Topeka and make lots of money.

He was even credited with saving a Bronx woman from a heart attack. I remember asking Bookish Lady about it at our dinner, and she said something to the effect of, “he just wants to help people.”

Who knew?

Next time you’re sitting at dinner with a stranger who seems boring, ask them about music. Maybe they know one of the Beastie Boys.

Dark keyboards, dark singers

April 13, 2010

The Casio SK-1 was launched in 1985 and sold for less than $100. It became popular with musicians in later years, I’m convinced, because the sounds on it are just downright spooky. There’s an evil-sounding flute, a dark synth sound, and a human-voice-echoing sample that sounds like someone is yelling for help while plummeting into the Grand Canyon.

I actually found an SK-1 one in a rainstorm in a trash can in Boston in the late 90’s. When I got it back to my apartment and put six AA batteries in it I was amazed that it still worked.

If Call Me Kat was a keyboard she would be a Casio SK-1. That’s why the Danish singer-songwriter plays the instrument live. You’re not sure where her voice leaves off and the keyboard begins.

She’s mysterious and spooky, like if the ghost of Billie Holiday came into your bedroom at 3am and started whispering in your ear. Similar artists like Feist and Regina Specktor bring a bit of bounce and playfulness to the female singer-songwriter thing. Call Me Kat keeps it dark, even paranoid, on her debut album, “Fall Down”.

From “Bug in a Web”

I would walk a million miles
If it could change this into being just a bad dream

From “Do your Trick”

Where are your feelings warm and tender
Where are your kisses sweet and wild
You act as if you had a hidden agenda
I’m all at sea I’m all beguiled

From “My Sea”

On a night like this my head is spinning
Demons crawling on the inside of my chest
Everything in green looks rather yellow
I wish some of these thoughts would take a rest

…Then she closes the record by covering a band that is from the same time period as her SK-1 and known for writing some dark songs of their own…The Cure.

Her version of “Lovecats” is so original and dark that even Robert Smith, once called “pop culture’s unkempt poster child of doom and gloom”, would surely find it acceptable. It ends with what sounds like distorted low notes on piano, a music box and a satanic-sounding voice exclaiming “lovecats!”

And the instrumentation is equally moody. Analog synthesizers…glockenspiel… melodica….thumping percussion…what sounds like sampled horns and digital trombones that have been pitched down…creepy guitars playing minor chords…

Call Me Kat could be to music what Marlene Dietrich was to film noir. I know I’m tired of Nora Jones…

The greatest “bridge” ever in a pop-song

April 11, 2010

Almost every song you hear on the radio follows this pattern:





The “bridge” is the one part of the song that doesn’t repeat.

I love a good bridge in a rock song. It takes the listener to some place new, maybe a different key or different instruments. It sets up the song for a  raucous return to the verse-chorus combo at the end.

My favorite bridge ever written is the one in “Our Lips are Sealed” by the Go-Gos.

The song was originally a slow ballad written by guitarist Jane Wiedlin and her then-lover about their clandestine affair in 1981. The lyrics are allegedly instructions he sent her in a letter to not address rumors swirling about their relationship…

…pay no mind to what they say

…doesn’t matter any way

…our lips are sealed

This of course went on to be a top-20 hit and one of the best pop songs of all time, according to Rolling Stone. So this guy’s whole plan to keep his nookie with Jane under wraps kind of backfired. But I digress, because I want to tell you why I love the bridge of the song so much.

When the bridge hits around 1:29 bassist Kathy Valentine jumps up an octave and plays a simple, beautiful melody that just kind of hangs there, while drummer Gina Shock plays a more driving beat on her hi-hat and Jane plunks out perky, reverb-soaked rhythm guitar. Then Jane sings “hush my darling don’t you cry” so angelically that you understand why the woman became an ordained minister.

All-told, this is a 32-second piece of music. I want to loop it and fall asleep to it. Thanks Jane & company.

Feeling Zen on a Saturday afternoon

April 4, 2010

My wife totally thinks I’m weird, but I love a station on Sirius XM Radio called the “Spa channel.”

It’s called that because if you have ever had a massage it’s the music they play…simple synthesizers playing major chords over lots of reverb, with the plunking of pianos or sitars in major keys, maybe angelic voices rolling over the top.

Pete Townshend wrote a song called “Pure and Easy,” which talks about “one note” that connects us all.

I kind of understand that when I hear the spa channel. Because despite the chaos of the world, the wars and financial meltdowns and general human narcissism and apathy…the simple music on the Spa Channel kind of reminds you that simplicity is really all you need.

The world is moving so fast these days. Everyone needs to move on to the next stimulation. There’s anxiety about the economy, about security, about being successful.

There’s something reassuring about a hammer dulcimer hitting the pleasant intervals of “Amazing Grace…”

Local musicians: 30+ years…80% less pay

March 19, 2010

You gotta give musicians credit these days. Because “making it” as a musician (whatever that means) has never been harder.

I’ve talked to guys who played in bands in the 70’s who said that getting $100 per man for a night of playing – as well as food and drink on the house– was standard.

$100 dollars a man for a band of hardworking pros is still the norm today. Sounds reasonable. But here’s the kicker. $1 today is worth less than 20% of what it was worth in the 70’s. So guys playing gigs in the 70’s were making more than $500 each per night in today’s currency.

Do you know of any profession that has undergone an 80% paycut in the past 30 years?

And that’s just the hardworking musicians in your neighborhood bar. If you look at the bigger animal of the record industry, the guys who end up with so-called “record deals,” they’re not so great either.

Because a “record-deal” isn’t a deal at all. It’s a loan, money given with interest to musicians to create and promote a record. And the artists are required to pay it back.

There’s no shortage of musical horror stories out there. You hear about bands that break up still owing huge sums to record companies. One of my favorite bands from Boston played for years only to lose all rights to their name and their music when their label was shuttered. One of the most famous examples is the Goo Goo Dolls. Though commercially successful now, at one point they had shipped 2 million records without seeing a cent in royalties.

It’s no wonder that Hunter Thompson wrote:

The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.

Full-time musicians who live off their craft are today’s idealists. Because they keep doing what they love, despite the diminishing financial incentives and uncertain future of the industry. So let’s not forget this next time the tip jar is passed, or we hesitate to pay a $5 cover when shelling out $12 for a martini is no problem …

And some of these musicians are doing some really creative things to keep that craft going.

Like Shane Hines and the Trance.

Their music is high-energy stuff you’d here on alternative and adult contemporary radios stations. Like many musicians, they have no record deal. So they invited people to finance their band.

And it worked. According their Web site, they raised $34,000, which helped them produce two full-length albums and buy their own 15-passenger van.

This support also helped them get on MTV, as well as an invite to join a live broadcast from the most famous recording studio in the world: Abbey Road (where the Beatles recorded nearly everything they ever did.)

And they are still out there. Playing next month at the Peachtree Tavern in Atlanta. Taking a swing through Tennessee, Virginia, Indiana and Florida. And in-between shows they’ll go through the situations like the one described on their Web site

… we’re in North Carolina and all I have is three dollars and some change to get something to eat. We’re at the gas station and I’m debating whether or not I eat a pack of peanuts and a bottle of water or if I should indulge in a banana and maybe a chocolate milk. All of a sudden Shane says, “Hey I’ve got ten bucks.” Then Mindy says, “I have five dollars…” Bam! Instant upgrade to a Subway 12″ chicken breast, diet coke, and change for a snack at the 7-11 on the way home. Anything you can offer is an enormous help to us and we have great incentives to also show our appreciation.

So here’s to supporting the last idealists out there…your local and full-time musicians.

The gig pays one-fifth what it paid 30 years ago, but that doesn’t keep them from getting out there to make music happen.