This week in Boston has been full of patriotism.  April 19 is Patriots Day, a state holiday, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of adults reenact the battles between colonists and redcoats at Lexington and Concord.

Yesterday, I found myself downtown in the Cradle of Liberty– as Faneuil, Hall is called– where the likes of Sam Adams stirred up the rabble to revolt.  An event put on there by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had little connection with the fight for liberty; even so, given the location and the patriotic season, three national songs were rendered at the event by the comely, compact, yet cuddly Colleen: The Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and My Country ’tis of Thee.  She has a good voice, strong but not brassy; and sometimes during her song her smile gave off what looked like real happiness and warmth.

So, even though she threw in some dipthongs (the rawwwket s re-yeyd  gullll–luh-hair), I was moved to clap my hand over my heart and join in. However, I had only gotten to “Oh say can you see” when a woman sitting nearby  disapprovingly shook her head at me:  she wanted to hear the lovely, lyrical, lass, not my graceless (though on-pitch) voice.

If I wanted to belt out the National Anthem, and was willing to cough up an exorbitant price of admission, I could go to Fenway park. No one sings there either, but they don’t care if someone else does.

It’s tempting to end this with a rant on the passivity of the American public, who consumes the National Anthem instead of signing it themselves, just as they consume everything else.  But that wouldn’t jibe with the rest that happened at Faneuil hall. The EPA was recognizing outstanding environmental activists. One of these was the mountain manger of a ski slope in New Hampshire. He turned the Cranmore Mountain resort into a green ski slope, of all things–biodiesel fuel for the grooming equipment, snowmakers using 60 less water, biodegradable, hydraulic fluids. Or the truck driver in New Bedford who had grown up on top of a toxic waste dump and tried to keep schools from being  built on contaminated sites.

So I guess the point of the story just concerns our national songs, which aren’t that great and– like all such music– sound best when you’re playing it yourself.  So I’d rather sing along than just listen.

Glimpses of A Disco Story

Some screenshots from Discopriběh (A Disco Story), the seminal Czechoslovakian teenybopper movie that I watched over the weekend on a friend’s suggestion.

It’s essentially an 80s teen musical in the spirit of Pretty In Pink, anchored by the pop stylings of Michal David, who might really be the most incredibly cheesy person on the face of the planet. Filmed just two years before the Velvet Revolution, it gives an interesting glimpse into the last days of Communism… I suppose. And the points where it converges and diverges with American teeny-bopperism are instructive … I guess. But mostly, it’s just a good laugh. I would recommend it, but I imagine it’s impossible to find a copy with subtitles (I had to have my wife clue me as to what was happening whenever the plot strayed from the most rudimentary teen plot points).

Lots of this: exuberant, goofball out-of-the-blue musical numbers.

Many of the clubs they hang out in don’t really look fully renovated, and thus have a kind of civic-sponsored, junior-high-school-dance vibe. I would make more fun of this, but a lot of clubs in villages still look like this, and I’ve hung out in many such places…

Early on, there’s a Teenage Mischief Montage where the main character engages in a bunch of ruses to evade a tram inspector who’s caught him without a ticket. Suddenly, he plunges into a crowd of goose-stepping, robotic soldiers who are marching through the main town square. Marching soldiers: communist-era comic foil!

Also, a gratuitous topless scene involving these two girls that’s far more random, baffling, and inexplicable than anything you can imagine seeing in a U.S. movie from the same period (and that’s saying a lot). It’s all a bit… unreconstructed.

Aside from the dreamy male and female leads, the other sidekick characters are incredibly cretinous and look like they just fell off a dump truck. This is the lucky male character who gets prominently involved in the topless scene mentioned above. Let’s just move on…

Lots of bonding scenes between father and son, who share a typical (small) Communist-era box flat and therefore share a bed. You can really ratchet up the bonding vibe when the two characters are sharing a bed.

There’s a classic West Side Story angle, in that the boy hides his humble social status in order to try and impress the girl. Interestingly, the humble social role that he’s trying to conceal also involves training to become a chimney sweep (??), so we see lots and lots of scenes with guys dressed liked this.

Then, a fantastically cheesy date montage scene, which someone was kind enough to upload to youtube. I encourage you to watch it.

Finally, after a classic dramatic arc and some depressing moments, the movie ends with a triumphant denouement where thousands of kids suddenly burst out dancing on the main square of Plzen. By this point, my wife had stopped watching, so I was kind of confused as to what had happened that had suddenly made everyone so jubilant… but I enjoyed the happy ending nevertheless.

Favorite holiday songs

Inspired by recent TK references to ‘Fairytale of New York’, I thought I’d present my abridged list of Top 100 Christmas Songs. I’m ranking these according to a combination of (a) how good I think they actually are as songs and (b) holiday cheer factor:

1. ‘Good King Wenceslas’, Traditional. The class of the field in terms of Xmas carols. Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither! Bonus points for: establishing GKW as the most recognized Czech person in history. Loses points for: creating syllabic confusion about whether it’s ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out’ vs. ‘Good King Wencles last looked out’.

2. ‘Fairytale of New York’, Pogues. A close second— manages to be both heartwarming and bitterly cynical at the same time, which is quite an accomplishment. I’m embarrassed to admit that for a long time I had mentally combined Kirsty MacColl (the woman who shares vocals here) and Kylie Minogue into one person. This was before the latter became really famous; suddenly, when ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ was playing everywhere, I struggled to understand how this could be the same person who had once called Shane MacGowan a ‘cheap lousy faggot’. Only then did I realize the mistake behind my Krystie MacPogue confabulation.

3. ‘Jesus Christ’, Big Star. Here’s a good idea: once you strip the Nativity of all its religious gloss and worn-out piety, it just becomes a really rocking, kick-ass thing to write a song about. Which- hey- it was. Bonus points because you never know to what extent Alex Chilton is being sarcastic here.

4. ‘Christmas Wrapping’, The Waitresses. Another good idea: treating the holidays with New Wave’s signature attitude of cool detachment. Fun, dorky, smart.

5. ‘Christmas In Hollis’, RUN D.M.C. ‘Oh my god, it’s an ill reindeer’. Bonus points for: definitively being first holiday hip-hop track ever. Loses points for: the reality that a rap song can’t ever really put me in a holiday mood.

6. ‘Last Christmas’, Wham! Delightfully terrible from the moment George Michael hisses ‘Happy Christmas’ at you and the beat comes galloping in. Infectiously puts me in a holiday mood even as I desperately wish it didn’t. Simply the mention of this song would have earned this post the “actually good or just ironically ‘good'” tag if the speculation about Alex Chilton above hadn’t already put it in the running. Bonus points for: god-awful video, where the social norms of the 80s forced the Wham! lads to partake in a sham version of a prototypically heterosexual ski weekend.

7. ‘Ivan Meets G.I. Joe’, the Clash. Not a holiday song per se, but starts off with a few moments of what sounds like holiday shopping. And can loosely be construed to relate to Xmas in that it describes the Cold War and – thus, indirectly – our attempts to protect our holiday consumer culture against a Xmas-less enemy.

8-80: This is the part where I list songs that don’t actually do much for me but are about the holidays and are by bands that I like, so I have to mention them to prove that I’m not some idiot who sits around listening to Wham! all day. So: dBs, Beck, Belle & Sebastian, the Ronettes, Flaming Lips, XTC, etc.

81-98: This is reserved for holiday songs by artists I don’t care about at all, but who are worshipped by tons of people I know and like. Sufjan Stevens and Arcade Fire, come on down!

99. ‘Let It Snow’, Gloria Estefan. The ultimate Starbucks holiday jingle set to a demented Casiotone-sounding rumba. Rum-blegh.

100. ‘Silent Night’, Traditional. I had an extended conversation with my father a few months ago about how much we both dislike this song. Especially the sanctimonious lilt at the end of the verse (‘sleep in heavenly pe… eeeeeeeeeeeeeace!‘) Plus, it was composed by a slave trader (OK, I made that up). Get bent, ‘Silent Night’.

Fleetwood Mock

I should probably keep this to myself, but I’ve spent the last week avidly listening to Tusk by Fleetwood Mac, a band I’d never bothered to form an opinion about before. If you’re one of the zillions of people who grew up on Rumors, the notion of a guy in his mid-30s only just now catching up on Fleetwood Mac probably seems awkward at best. If you’re part of the equally large group that thinks the band is irredeemably cheesy, then my sudden devotion probably seems all the more heedless and shameful for being so late-to-the-ball. It guess it would be something like writing “I just found about this cultural phenomenon called ‘Burning Man’– I’m thinking about going next year!”– acotlytes and detractors alike would be nauseated, and nobody has a neutral attitude towards it. My only excuse is that I was a teenager in the late 80s in the Northeast: if there was ever a time and place hostile to late 70s smooth rock, that was it. So this genre became a sort of lingering blind spot for me, something I’ve only just caught up on in my 30s.

Anyway, I listened to Rumors a few times and it enjoyed it in the half-sincere/half-snide fashion that crops up over and over again in this blog (I’m probably going to have to add ‘things I’m not sure if I seriously or ironically enjoy’ to the tag list, but can’t figure out how to concisely phrase it). But then I moved on to Tusk, which is a legitimately great album– it has all the good things that Rumors has, but without the cloying-and-craning-for-stardom-and-success thing that makes Rumors a little bit annoying after a while. Believe me, I understand the dynamics that keep people from taking this band seriously: the multiple lineups, revolving front men, tacky intra-band romances and name formed from last names of band members— all of this seems a piece with the coke-fuelled arena-rocking supergroup zeitgeist of the late 70s. Then there’s whole cheesy/breezy LA thing (a Pitchfork staff list of best albums of the 1970s aptly likens Rumors to ‘a David Lynch LA’ with its ‘bowling lane-slick production’) and the Jefferson Starship-like 80s solo projects. There’s the Clintons and Gores prancing around victoriously to ‘Don’t Stop’ in ’94.

But once you peel aside all that compromising context, I don’t see why Tusk shouldn’t be a record that ‘serious’ music people listen to any less than, say, Big Star’s Sister Lovers: both are fractured, introspective, sprawling records by bands with brilliant songwriters, commercial aspirations and self-destructive trajectories, caught at a point when they had nothing to prove– albeit for opposite reasons. More than anything else, the difference between the records is Fleetwood Mac was coming off the highest-selling album in history, whereas Big Star had nothing to prove because they had no hope of stardom any more. Big Star never ‘made it’, and seem untainted partly as a result. With Fleetwood, we have to deal with all the grotesque flab of their successes, which is daunting indeed (I’m thinking specifically of Clinton’s big bobbing head here).

Another difference is that Big Star was never impersonated by a decoy band, a fate that befell Fleetwood Mac in one of the weirder episodes in rock promotion history. The band’s manager, Clifford Davis, frustrated by the band’s reluctance to tour, ridiculously claimed the legal rights to the band name and put together an imposter version of the band, then booked a series of concert dates and launched a U.S. tour. What? File this under Ruses That Wouldn’t Worked Out Nearly As Well In The Twitter Era. Given that this was the 1970s, word gradually began to leak out that the original members weren’t involved. I guess the fact that no women were involved in the lineup might have helped tip off audiences. Inevitably, the scam stalled as the real band members managed to get off their asses long enough to obtain a legal injunction against the rogue manager. Thus, the end of Fleetwood Mock.

Weirder still, the zombie Fleetwood Mac band– under new name Stretch– later released a hit single ‘Why Did You Do It? that’s actually good! Better yet, the song airs their grievances with real Fleetwood Mac drummer and namesake Mick Fleetwood (they had basically been sold the same bill of goods as the concert goers and expected that Mick was actually going to join them and legitimatize the project– whether Mick was complicit or not in the whole situation remains unclear and fiercely disputed). It’s a stolen identity grudge song! If you read the bio of fake Fleetwood guys, you’d never imagine that they’d be capable of going on to be a modest success in their own right–  judging from the names of the bands they were recruited from– Status Quo, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera, Curved Air (!) it sounds like it’s gonna be the worst group in the history of the world. I’d known ‘Why Did You Do It?’ for years since my friend Sara put it on a mix for me and liked it OK without having any idea of the wacko history behind it.

Last thing, unrelated to above tangent: another convoluted chapter of the band’s history involves the hapless misfortunes of earlier frontman, Peter Green, who led the group a few incarnations before Buckingham and Nicks joined. Just for fun, if you unquestioningly accept the most sensationalistic version of each event reported on the internet, the story you wind up with is: Green’s mental health began to deteriorate after he unwittingly took acid in Munich, where he was hanging out at something called the ‘High-Fish-Community’ at the behest of two German promoters who wanted to stage a ‘Bavarian Woodstock’ (I can’t even type those last two words without giggling). As his sanity started to slip away, he insisted that the band members give all their money away to charity and quit once they refused, eventually joining the religious cult Children of God. This is the same outfit that Christopher Owens– front man of current indie darlings Girls– was born into and escaped from as a teenager. So: weird that there’s just one degree of separation (albeit a highly disturbing and un-fun one) separating Fleetwood Mac and Girls.


Krafty adds: I suffered from the same “70s smooth rock blindspot” as Dan, and never truly appreciated FM until I saw this amazing documentary about the making of “Rumors.” It’s part of VH1’s “Classic Albums” series, where the filmmaker interviews band members, producers, and other people involved with the record, and there are always extended scenes in the studio where the master tracks are getting messed around with (so you get to hear the song with just the drums, then with the drums and bass, then with the backing vocals, etc.). I cannot recommend the “Rumors” installment highly enough: everybody in it (particularly Lindsey Buckingham) is amazingly articulate in describing what it was like to be the most popular band in the world, on lots of drugs, and also two couples in the process of breaking up and writing songs about the disintegration of the relationships that would become the most successful album in the world. If you set your Tivo to “Classic Albums,” it will record it within about six weeks (I’ve discovered this through erasing it by mistake periodically and the re-recording it).



I was delighted to read the New Yorker profile (subscription required) of Bryan and Bryan, the identical twin doubles tennis stars. I’ve long been fascinated with Bryan and Bryan, although I have to say that it’s the same sort of ambiguous fascination that I have with the music of Perry Como where I’m legitimately uncertain to what extent I really appreciate them and to what extent I find them fascinatingly corny, where the dividing line lies between these feelings, and whether that dividing line is actually real or meaningful in the first place. It’s all somewhat confusing. On the plus side, they seem like legitimately nice guys, they’ve almost double-handedly kept doubles tennis alive as a sport, plus they have the cool twin E.S.P. thing going on where they make the same moves on the court at the same time without knowing they’re doing it and defeat more individually-talented tandems of singles stars through their single-organism style of play.

On the other hand, there’s just something about them that exudes a sense of all-American ham. Perhaps this feeling has its roots in the observation of their clean-cut twinny appearance, or in their boring names (‘Mike’ and ‘Bob’). But, whatever its origin, your suspicion feels well-founded by the time you read the New Yorker’s commentary on their musical activities: ‘… the twins ran through one of their own, tennis-themed power ballads– “I can’t be broken again. I’ve got to hold on now.”‘ Yikes. That’s up their with Dirk Diggler and Chest Rockwell’s fledgling recording career in Boogie Nights.

The real thing that mesmerized me about Bryan and Bryan in the first place was their signature on-court chestbump celebration, a quirk that marries both their lovable exuberance and harder-to-take-seriously sides together in one glorious, goofy expression. [Grammatical note: ‘Chest bump’ is officially spelled as two words, but I’m putting them together for editorial effect, to make it seem like a familiar part of our cultural landscape.] Part of the magic of the chestbump is that they seem to launch into it via the same twin E.S.P.– it’s not like they exchange a knowing glance and go into it, or like one brother leans towards the other suggestively to initiate it. It’s more like, they win a point  and suddenly – bang! – chests are bumping.

As an homage to Bryan and Bryan, my friend Patrick and I adopted the chestbump as a legitimately-enjoyable-but-also-basically-just-goofing-around move during a trip we took to Portugal a few years ago. We tried to develop the same chestbump-E.S.P. that the Bryans’ display. But mostly, it was just fun to gratuitously celebrate things that don’t really merit celebration during our trip. Our top 3 dumb chestbumps, in reverse order:

3. Getting completely lost on steep, remote hills in the Portugese countryside and then finding the path back to safety just as we were entirely running out of energy… chestbump!

2. When our on-flight drink service arrived after we were belted into our seats. Nothing is sillier than doing a chestbump when you’re physically restrained around the waist.

1. A chestbump (I can’t remember the provocation) executed in a doorway, causing Patrick to smash his head into the doorjamb. Rank amateurism, I know.

To summarize: the chestbump is a physically exhilarating gesture that promotes camaraderie, and I highly recommend it. You can’t let yourself be restrained by social self-consciousness from executing it in public. That’s just society telling you what you can’t do, man.

What Colonel Sanders listened to

Guest-blogger Grandjoe checks in by email on the subject of the real-life Colonel Sanders, whom I blogged on a few weeks ago:

In the mid-1950s, a friend of mine from college and his family owned a cabin in Keene Valley, NY that had previously been owned by Colonel Sanders. The latter left there a collection of 78 rpm records, including “There goes Barney Google with his Goo-Goo-Googley Eyes.”  We played it quite a lot, with fascinated amusement.  That’s it.

I had never heard “There Goes Barney Google…” before, but I gather it was something of a smash hit at the time:


In general, I’m pretty interested in early pop music from 1930s, 40s and 50s– not the jazz stuff that we now regard as classic, but the mainstream ephemera pop like “How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?” And when I say ‘interested’, I don’t mean that I think it’s good. Most of it is blandly cheerful, shrill and somewhat creepy. What I mean is that it interests me because it was the last beachhead of really white pop-culture music sensibility before basically everything became influenced (generally to its benefit, I would add) by African-American music. You can argue that later artists like Pat Boone provided a super-white alternative to conservative teens, but musicians like Boone operated in a kind of consciously reactionary way, presumably aware of their own non-blackness. ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ or, for that matter, ‘Barney Google’ are sung with no apparent awareness of their racial makeup, an awareness that was impossible to skirt after Elvis. As far as I can tell, Perry Como (who I do legitimately enjoy) is the the cut-off point, as he was the last big star before Elvis.

Another corollary group of interest is pop songs from the 40s and 50s that were in fact clearly influenced by African-American musical traditions, but seem to have a total lack of self-awareness about the point. I’m sure there are zillions of good examples of this, but the one that jumps to mind is the great scene in The Big Sleep where Bogart stalks Lauren Bacall to a party and inexplicably finds her singing with a band in some kind of parlor room:


What a knockout. Anyway, as a disclaimer, I should probably add that I’m grouping together three instances of pop culture that occurred in a 30 year span, so my generalizations about pre-Elvis pop aren’t terribly specific. Or informed. But, if it’s a necessary pretext to posting footage of a 22 year-old Lauren Bacall, so be it.

In praise of Van Halen


Van Halen was my favorite band when I was 9 years old, and they regularly become my favorite band again for about 10 seconds out of every month. It’s not always the same song or album that reels me back in, but there’s invariably a few bars of ‘Jamie’s Crying’ or ‘Mean Streets’ or some other song that convinces me just for a few fleeting seconds that I’m experiencing a high-point of pop music sensibility that nothing could possibly improve upon. Just as I’m often disturbingly unsure these days as to when I’m being earnest vs. sarcastic, so is there an underlying uncertainty about whether my enjoyment of VH is legitimate, kitsch, both, neither or whether (most likely) there’s no meaningful distinction between the two.

There’s nothing unique in a white male my age having a favorite crotch rock band from his youth that he secretly still enjoys the hell out of, but I think there are a few things that distinguish Van Halen and make them uniquely enjoyable to both a 9 year-old and 35 year-old sensibility. One is that fact that, more than any other really hard-rocking band I can think of, they didn’t seem to be against anything. Most loud, heavy bands seem to draw their energy out of righteous indignation, or political dissent, or social alienation, or offending middle class values, or some kind of dialectic. Although the Ramones were pretty much bubble gum rock-for-rock’s sake, they still drew on a dislike of blues rock and middle-class Queens banalities to define their identity. The first few Zeppelin albums were close to rock-for-rock’s sake, but they were still dripped in blues pretensions and (later) pseudo-mysticism. Even bands like the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, who didn’t seem to stand for anything much, still cultivated a sense of gaunt, ragged menace. Van Halen, in contrast, seemed to come out of a place of sheer inane, boundless enthusiasm and nothing else. Indeed, the list of things they were for seems almost as short as the list of things they were against– booze, girls, and parachuting into their own concerts is about it. Their songs summon to mind kids driving around in the early 80s trying to get laid and just about nothing else– no sense of milieu or context. Most of the time when we like a band, part of what you like is the sense of conviction– the evidence that the Clash actually let poor kids sleep on their hotel floor, the fact that Iggy Pop really did crawl on broken glass. With Van Halen, on the other hand, there’s a kind of perverse levity to the whole thing. You get the feeling at times that they would have just as soon gotten perms and formed a (really great) disco band if that’s what would have brought in the money and girls, yet somehow this makes it all the more enjoyable.

Also, few bands had such an articulate and boffo advocate as singer David Lee Roth, who once commented that VH songs “should come with a kit including a bong, a thesaurus, and a driver’s side air-bag.” In 1977, a reporter asked Roth to explain why all the critics were raving about Elvis Costello’s new debut album and ignoring Van Halen’s, despite the fact that the kids were all listening to the latter. His response:”Maybe it’s because the critics look like Elvis Costello.” Hit ’em where it hurts, Diamond Dave!

Possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever heard is the vocal track from Runnin’ With The Devil direct from the booth, isolated from the rest of the track.