Steve Miller vs. Miles Davis

JohnnyO at Burrito Justice was kind enough include Mock Duck in a write-up about blogs he enjoysFinally…….. a shred of recognition! I nearly wept tears of joy onto my keyboard before I remembered that the salt would corrode what’s left of my decaying laptop.

He also turned me onto 40 Going on 28, which is a great blog in the time-honored tradition of Some Engaging Guy Ranting About Stuff. Ribald, highly ribald. I was particularly drawn to this lyric deconstruction of Steve Miller’s Take the Money and Run. So, I thought I’d also chime in on the subject of Steve Miller  and his unique brand of wistful, easy-rockin’, middle-of-the-road hamminess.

image001One of my favorite reads is Miles Davis autobiography. For one thing, it opens with the word ‘Motherfucker:’ and also ends with that same word. OK, I made that up, but it’s practically the case. The guy who co-wrote it, Quincy Troupe, commented that [paraphrase]: “Miles had a colorful use of swear words– at times, he would use them to add emphasis, and other times merely as punctuation.”

One great part is Miles’ account of the phase in his career when he would open up for rock bands at giant festivals. Interestingly, he has great things to say about the Grateful Dead, whom he respects both as musicians and personalities. However, he goes on to say [paraphrase]: ‘But another time, we had to open up for this no-playing motherfucker named Steve Miller.’ Hilarity abounds as he goes on to describe Steve’s prima donna behavior on tour and his general total disdain for Steve’s music. You can just picture SM doing his general jivvy pseudo-blues thing to a rapt audience and Miles looking on in complete disgust from somewhere in the crowd (decked out, no less, in his malevolent-space-alien look that he sported through the early 70s).

The Gram Parsons Zone

2416_gramparsonsYesterday, I made my annual attempt to develop an interest in Radiohead. As usual, it lasted about 20 minutes. We’ll see what happens in 2010, but 20 minutes seems to be the standard. I have 7 Radiohead albums that people have given me and yet have probably played only about 10 songs on those albums. (Clarification: I’ve heard Radiohead songs zillions of times when someone else put them on or they’ve come on the radio, so it’s not like I haven’t been exposed to them; I’m just talking about how seldom I’ve personally chosen to listen to them). About once a year, I choose an album, put it on, and experience an immediate swell of respect and regard for the band, followed by an almost immediate lapse into disinterest. After a few songs, I realize I haven’t paid attention for the last 10-15 minutes and terminate the exercise.

The weird part is that I literally don’t have a single negative thing to say about Radiohead. I entirely respect them, find them utterly innovative and can immediately detect clear evidence of artistic integrity and creativity in their music. It’s just that I’m not interested in listening to them. Nick Hornby has a great comment on this difference between respecting music and liking it in 31 Songs – I’m paraphrasing here, because I don’t have the book on hand, but he’s basically talking about some dorky pop song he’s recently fallen for and says, “And, yes, I know it’s not as good as Astral Weeks. But when is the last time you’ve actually put on Astral Weeks? It’s something like falling in love: we don’t necessarily choose the best person, or the smartest, or the best looking. There’s something else going on.”

I’ve come to think of this phenomenon as The Gram Parsons Zone– when there’s an artist, or album, or song that you consciously recognize as good and feel you should like, but it just doesn’t take. Of course, the name I’ve given is dangerously subjective– if you love Gram Parsons, or have never heard of him, then it doesn’t make any sense. But, I’m sure everyone can come up with their own artist that fits this description for them. You really know you’re in the Gram Parsons Zone when you feel both guilty and secretly relieved about throwing in the towel. Incidentally, the Gram Parsons Zone can apply to things outside of music. I’ll never forget the liberation I felt when I finally admitted to myself that I don’t enjoy transcendental meditation, Thomas Pynchon or herbal tea.

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.

Pat Boone and the Disappearing Hitchhiker

booneReader JS agitates for a Pat Boone post and thereby provides a nice blog entry on the subject himself:

Why don’t you or Krafty do a music blog on Pat Boone, the loathsome twit from the 1950s who is still around? He was sort of the Great White Hope of Pap (as distinguished from Pop or Rap) Music in the 1950s, turning out castrated, salt free versions of Little Richard hits like Long Tall Sally that were deemed safe for consumption by Nice White Kids. He popularized the Legend of the Disappearing Hitchhiker. He claimed to have been tooling down Pacific Coast Highway in his Rolls Royce (he maintained that he was immune from criticism for owing such an automobile because he was only God’s steward, with real ownership of the limo resting with Jesus) when he stopped for an ethereal young hitchhiker. As they sped down the coast road, the Hitchhiker spoke out passionately against premarital sex, and articlulated his hope that all of Pat’s fans would return to God’s flock, his eyes burning like coals, etc. When he fell silent, Pat turned to the Hitchhiker to express his solidarity only to discover that he had disappeared into thin air!

I should add that JS was a teenager in the 50s, so he experienced the Boone phenomenon as a horrified first-hand witness, whereas for people my age, Boone is more of a kitschy relic. I do legitimately enjoy his In A Metal Mood: No More Mister Nice Guy album, where he does schmaltzy big-band covers of heavy metal songs. Check out, for example, his charming rendition of G’n’R’s ‘Paradise City’.

A Journey to the End of Taste

celineI am reading, and very much enjoying, this little book about Celine Dion.  It’s part of the 33 1/3 series of books about single albums (link is to the series blog), which is pretty awesome — for a retired record collector, the books (each of which is pocket sized and featuring the album’s cover on its cover) recall a little of the fetishistic pleasure of buying the record itself.

I previously read the edition on the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, which was great, but mostly in a sort of “extended Rolling Stone article” sort of way (great stories and interviews about the album’s creation, etc.).  This one is a little deeper than that — it’s written by a self-confessed music snob (a music critic named Carl Wilson) who grew up in Canada, and who therefore hated Celine Dion above all else, and it represents his effort to explore and better understand an artist who is both hugely, hugely popular, and also widely despised.  He traces her roots in a particular French Canadian “chanson” tradition, and speculates that one reason she is so hated (more, for example, than certain equally cheesy African-American singers) is that it is so difficult to locate her in any sort of well-understood musical tradition that it makes her seem all the phonier.  This is a topic that holds great interest for me, because I was raised in a snobby indie rock musical tradition, and worked for a college radio station where you would get in trouble for playing records that were on major labels, etc.  Anyhow I have always taken great pleasure in certain Top 40 hits, while truly despising others, including Celine, so I’ve spent some time puzzling over the question of what value there is in my snobby view, if so many millions disagree with me.  (One of my fondest classroom memories from college is the graduate seminar on Popular Music where the professor spent a 2-hour session purporting to demonstrate, objectively, why “Sweet Caroline” was so horrible and tasteless.) 

I’m not done yet, so I don’t know yet if Wilson comes to any significant conclusions, but it’s great poolside reading in any case.  I’ll also note, without comment, that James Franco somewhat mysteriously name-dropped this book on the Oscars red carpet earlier this year.

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.

Fun with info graphics

I’m currently designing a 200+ page book for an industrial developer in the Czech Republic and have so far had to design about 8 different maps of Europe- including roadways, ancient trade routes, a Moravian Pass and something called ‘The Blue Banana’- for the project. All this diagramming is about as enlivening as putting on chain-mail and drinking from a bucket of sand, so it’s fun to recall favorite silly info graphics as a counterpoint:


This was drawn in 1967 by rabid Velvet Underground fan Jonathan Richman (yes, he of the Modern Lovers) and published in the Boston music magazine Vibrations. Note the ‘made-it line’ running across the diagram– only VU and (mysteriously) the Who join the ‘god’-like Beatles in making the grade, whereas Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the entire sub-genre of art rock fall well short and crater into obscurity.

Then, on a more blatantly farcical note, there’s this pie chart that I love:


Update: Reader JF submits this one for consideration…



I had a belated concern over Michael Jackson’s death: what of Bubbles, the singer’s erstwhile chimpanzee companion, reportedly the only moonwalking ape on earth with his own bodyguard ? I asked a few people what they thought was going to happen to Bubbles when they brought up the death of his master over the past week. Answers were unsatisfactory, ranging from “Who?” to my hairdresser who dismissively said, “I don’t know… he’s old now.” I finally looked into the matter and learned that apparently Bubbles hasn’t been on the scene for a long time, as The King of Pop had him shipped out to a monkey preserve once the chimp started exhibiting aggressive behaviors and posing a menace to Jackson’s son. Oh. That’s sad. I prefer to think of MJ and Bubbles as they were immortalized by Jeff Koons, seemingly eternally inseparable: