Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hall & Oates - Ultimate Daryl Hall & John Oates (Discs 1 & 2)

In July 1983, I returned to my old hometown of Annapolis, Maryland, and began my plebe (freshman) year at the Naval Academy, a lifelong dream of mine. Plebe Summer is a time-honored tradition at USNA, a time when inductees are tested, trained and molded into military officers. The (all too true) joke about Plebe Summer is that they take away everything you're accustomed to in life, and slowly give them back to you as 'privileges' during your remaining four years at the Academy. And that's EVERYTHING - freedom, civilian clothes, music (the hardest blow for me), sleep . . . (and some would say 'dignity' as well . . . but we'll just move on). That summer is designed to be demanding and rough, both physically and mentally, and many don't make it through these first few weeks. A few plebes excel, but most just grit their teeth and slog their way through it; I was one of the latter.

So I presevered like the rest. We were up before the sun every morning, and every minute of every day was tightly scheduled and fully utilized, with marching, three-mile runs, close-order drill, uniform and room inspections, sailing instruction, ship and aircraft identification, and a million other things to do before lights out. In the midst of all of this intensive training, physical exertion, spit-and-polish and military pride and tradition - I met a girl and fell in love.

Near the end of the summer, the authorities began giving us . . . well, not exactly free time, but the opportunity to choose for ourselves what we wanted to do during sports period in the late afternoon. We were free to try out different intermural activities, and one day, on the recommendation of a friend, I decided to look into the fencing class over in Ricketts Hall. I'd seen it on TV, and it looked like fun. It was in that class that I saw her close up for the first time. She was a fellow plebe in a different company from mine, and as such her living quarters were far away on the other side of Bancroft Hall. I had noticed her during marches and morning runs, but until that point I'd never been within 50 yards of her. A buddy of mine was in her company, and as luck would have it, he was also in the fencing class that day, and introduced us. We had the chance to talk a bit between waving epees around, and seemed to connect somewhat. Even wearing the drab Academy-issue athletic gear, I thought she was gorgeous.

Plebe Summer finally ended, and the upperclassmen returned for the start of the Academic Year. Even with the start of classes, a plebe's time was still tightly scheduled, but in a different way than in the summer. But with all that we had to do, I still made the time to cross the huge Bancroft Hall dormitory (I was in 7th Wing, she was in 4th) - down the center of each passageway at a dog trot, arms close to my body, shouting "Go Navy" or "Beat Army" when making a sharp 90-degree turn - to see her as much as I could. I was taking a risk seeing her so much - Academy regulations strictly forbid relationships between first-year students, so I had to play it uber-cool. Besides, early on I wasn't quite sure where I stood with her; I believed that she thought of me more than as a fellow plebe, but I couldn't get a sign from her either way. So I had to lay back, and see what happened.

In October, the Naval Academy Drama Club ('The Masqueraders') put on a multipart production of Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, calling the whole shebang Kings. I had a bit part in the first portion, but nothing in the latter parts. So on the second night, I invited her to attend the show with me. We sat side by side in the audience of the darkened Mahan Hall theater, the only lighting illuminating the stage. At one point in the play, Sir John Falstaff was parleying with his boon companion, the wastrel Prince Hal, and said/did something particularly uproarous. As I laughed with the rest of the audience, I brought my hand down on the armrest and, to my surprise, found it resting on top of hers. She instantly grabbed mine, and it was as though an electric shock ran up my arm! We sat there in the dark for the rest of the play, holding hands secretly, down low so no one would spot us. That's when I knew for certain how she felt about me . . . that is, at least I thought I did.

The next few weeks were . . . trying, to say the least. I wanted to see as much of her as possible, which of course wasn't much time at all. We began scheduling "study" sessions together in empty classrooms in Michelson and Chauvenet Halls after evening meal, but soon had to stop doing that after nearly getting busted by one of the upperclassmen patrolling these buildings one night. But finally, a rare and unique opportunity presented itself.

That November, for the first time (and as it turned out, for the ONLY time) ever, the annual Army-Navy football was played not in its usual Philadelphia location, but on the West Coast, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. And thanks to the efforts of Academy boosters and private contributors, the ENTIRE Brigade of Midshipmen and West Point Corps of Cadets would be in attendance.

For us plebes, this trip to California was to be a rare taste of freedom from Academy regulations for a couple of days. While many mids and cadets were going to be housed in various area hotels, the majority of us were put up, in twos and threes, with local families (from what I heard later, many more people volunteered to host us than were required - say what you want, but the L.A. area is pretty hospitable). As such, restrictions on civilian attire for all midshipmen, including plebes, were lifted - only on the day of the game would we be required to be in uniform. The game was also our only official function during that period; prior to that, we were on our own and could do what we wished. Needless to say, I was REALLY looking forward to this trip - not only for a mental break, but as a rare opportunity to spend some serious quality time with my girlfriend.

In California, I was going to stay with a sponsor family along with my buddy Jim, a fellow plebe in my company. We had been in touch with our temporary landlords in the week prior to the journey - they lived in Pasadena, fairly close to the stadium. My girl was staying with her roommate with a family in Torrance, California, which on a map looked reasonably close to Pasadena (I'd only been to Los Angeles once before, so I was clueless about the distances between places). At that point in my life, I still didn't have a driver's license (don't ask why - long story), but Jim was fully on board with hooking me up with her, with the nebulous promise of a double-date with her roommate as his reward. We arranged for the rental of a vehicle to tool around in during our time there.

The main body of midshipmen flew out of BWI to LAX on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (I still marvel at the logistics of moving 4,000 mids and 1,000 other related officers and staff - it all went like clockwork, without a hitch). We landed in LA that evening, and our host family met Jim and I at the airport. We immediately changed into civvies in the bathroom, then they took us over the rental car lot, where we found to our surprise and delight that the agency had upgraded us to a hot-looking red Mustang convertible. Jim put the top down, and we drove to Pasadena up the 110 through the relatively warm evening breeze, feeling on top of the world.

Having no access to my own music since the summer, my main preoccupation during the drive was finding a decent radio station. I settled on a station playing a new Hall & Oates song called "Say It Isn't So", released by RCA the previous month as one of the two new songs (the other being "Adult Education") on their greatest hits compilation album, Rock 'N Soul Part 1. "Say It Isn't So" was a continuation of Hall & Oates' evolution from a soft rock duo into more of a neo-blue-eyed soul, almost power pop band - a move that began in 1980 with their hit "You Make My Dreams", and continued through the early 80s with huge hits like "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)", "Maneater", "Private Eyes" and "Family Man". This latest song was filled with echoing vocals, syncophated electronic drums and synths, cowbell and wood block accents, and enough hooks to hang a full set of Calphalon cookware off of it. That ride to Pasadena that evening was the first of many times I heard that song that week - it quickly became the unofficial theme song to my California adventure.
"We like to be the strangers at the party, two rebels in a shell.
You like to move with the best of them you know we move so well.
Don't need someone to lean on. I know that there's an open door.
But if I'm faced with being replaced I want you even more so baby say it isn't so...
The next day was Thanksgiving Day, and as such we were obliged to spend the day with our host family. I was itching to get down to Torrance, but it just wasn't happening that day. Friday was planned as the Big Day of Freedom for the visiting academies - the only things planned for us that day was a special evening at Disneyland, with admittance only for mids, cadets, and their families and guests. I finally connected with my girl over the phone, and the plan was that Jim and I would drive down to Torrance that evening to meet up with her and her roommate, and from there we would proceed in a two-car convoy to Disneyland. Upon arrival there, we would pair off and go do our respective things.

Well, the first thing I discovered on our trip south was that Pasadena to Torrance was a hike, at least 35 miles, a trip made even longer by the standard Friday evening L.A. traffic. So we had several opportunities to hear "Say It Isn't So" during the drive down, since it seemed every radio station in the Los Angeles Basin had the song on heavy rotation.
"Who propped you up when you were stopped low motivation had you on the ground.
I know your first reaction you slide away hide away goodbye.
But if there's a doubt maybe I can give out a thousand reasons why.
You have to say it isn't so...
By the time we finally got to the place where she was staying, Jim and I were both frazzled. But I perked up immediately upon seeing her - it was the first time I'd ever seen her out of uniform (so to speak), and she looked GOOD. We said a quick hello-goodbye to her sponsor family, then we all hit the road. It was at that point that I learned that she didn't have a valid license either, so we couldn't ride with one another to Anaheim. She hopped in their rental car with her roommate, while I somewhat dejectedly climbed in beside Jim, and we began another 30+ mile drive in the dark to the park.

The traffic to Anaheim down Route 91 was pretty heavy, but for some reason, despite my protests, Jim insisted on driving like a maniac. He was weaving in and out of traffic like Mannix, music blaring ("Say It Isn't So" was heard at least once more during that drive), and soon the girls were nowhere in sight. I was plenty pissed, but fortunately she and I had made plans for this contingency - whoever got to Disneyland first would wait for the others by the front gate. So when we arrived, I immediately stationed myself by the ticket entrance near Main Street, U.S.A., and waited for her . . .

And waited . . . and waited. For nearly 2 hours. Jim waited with me for a while, then I released him from his unspoken obligation so that he could enjoy himself while I waited alone. There were thousands of people, military academy members and their guests, who streamed into the park during that time. And I'm pretty sure I eyeballed every single one of them on their way in. But somehow, someway, I missed seeing her arrive. Whether it was accidental or deliberate on her part didn't cross my mind at the time; all I could think about was how I missed my one big chance. I met up with Jim again as the park was closing, and we drove back to Pasadena, with me slumped in the passenger seat as, sure enough, "Say It Isn't So" played in the background.

The next day was the football game at the Rose Bowl. Due to my state of mind, I remember very few details of that day. We formed up into companies a couple of miles away from the stadium, and marched through a couple of Pasadena neighborhoods on the way there. Navy stomped Army, 42-13, a score that at any other time would have given me a great deal of satisfaction - but not that day. I finally met up with her late in the game, behind the stands. Couldn't get a clear explanation as to what had occurred the night before; in my mind, Jim and I were to blame for losing them on the highway. I was hoping to set up some time with her that evening, after the game, but she claimed she had other plans she couldn't break - which only added to my dejection. Overall, I was getting a weird vibe from her, and I didn't like it.

However, I saw her once more in California, in the airport waiting area the next day, just before we flew back East. In full view of other mids, she was overtly affectionate to me, in a near-blatant-disregard-of-Navy-rules sort of way. So that cheered me somewhat, and I felt pretty good on the flight back.
"Say it isn't so painful to tell me that you're dissatisfied.
Last time I asked you I really got a lame excuse.
I know that you lied.
Now wicked things can happen...you see 'em goin' down in war.
But when you play in a quiet way that bites it even more.
Back at Navy, we again carried on as before. But the rendezvous quickly became shorter and farther between. Finally, a couple of days before Christmas break, in an empty classroom in Michelson Hall, she lowered the boom on me - we were through; she was seeing someone else. Whether this new thing had begun prior to or after Pasadena, I never got an answer to. But I was devastated, and went through the holiday back home and almost the entire second half of Plebe Year pretty much in a depressed daze.
"Why you gonna go do you hafta say you wanna go ooh ooh baby say it isn't..."
Say it isn't so, indeed.

"Say It Isn't So" should have gone to Number One. But it had the misfortune of being released the same week as Michael Jackson's and Paul McCartney's "Say Say Say", off of the latter's Pipes Of Peace. The two songs battled for the top spot all through that November and December 1983 and into January 1984, with "Say Say Say" coming out on top. The Hall & Oates song was second-best every time - a ranking I suddenly could relate to.

For the next 3 1/2 years, she and I attempted to studiously ignore one another, a task made difficult by the fact that a) the Brigade of Midshipmen is fairly small; b) we were both English majors, a fairly rare breed at Navy, and as such were in several of the same courses over the years; and c) after graduation, we both chose the same speciality within the Navy, so we were in school together for almost another year after Annapolis, and encountered one another regularly since then. But in the past 25 years, we have only spoken together twice, very briefly, both times initiated by her, in a spirit of patently false bonhomie. While I was polite to her, both times I refused to be sucked in - some hurts never fully go away.

I used to be a pretty big fan of Hall & Oates back in their '80s heyday, but their appeal has definitely waned for me as the years have gone by. I don't have the same sort of nostalgia for them that I have for other bands from that era. Nowadays, I regard them more as "the Seals & Crofts of the 1980s" or "the American Wham! with a bit more testosterone". Yes, I know that sounds harsh, especially in light of all the hits they had - Billboard still regards them as the most popular duo of all time, beating out such acts as The Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, Steely Dan and Ike & Tina Turner, among others. But for me, this band will always be associated with "Say It Isn't So", the song that played continually in the background in the Navy-themed, unhappy-ending version of my own personal John Hughes movie in the late fall of 1983.

But for those of you lacking the same sort of visceral reaction to this band's music, here's an excellent two-disc compilation, Ultimate Daryl Hall & John Oates, released by RCA in 2004. Enjoy, and let me know what you think.

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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Halloween Horror: Scary Sounds From The Hex Files

With October 31st just around the corner (relatively speaking), here's a silly post for you - one of those "spooky" sounds effects recordings, the kind usually played on Halloween Night by the neighborhood house that always seems to go all-out for the holiday . . . You know the house that I mean; every neighborhood has at least one - where the yard is filled with fake tombstones, "ghosts" hang from the trees, and the man of the house is usually lurking in the bushes, wearing a Frankenstein or gorilla costume, ready to jump out and scare the bejesus out of unsuspecting trick or treaters.

I was never into Halloween as much as that. Therefore, for the life of me I can't figure out when, where or why I purchased this CD. I must've seen it in a cutout bin somewhere in the late 90s/early 00s - the come-on line of "More That 73 Minutes Of Continuous Scary Sounds!" on the cover must have enticed me to pick it up. Still, the sound effects contained on it are pretty good, and if anything, it'll get you in the mood for Halloween. I wouldn't recommend playing the entire 73 minutes while you're sitting around the house, however . . .

Anyway, here you are - Halloween Horror: Scary Sounds From The Hex Files, released by good ol' K-Tel in 1997. Hopefully at least one of you out there could use a record like this. Either way - enjoy!

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Another milestone reached

At around midnight my time last night, a visitor from Hayward, CA came to Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole, looking for an old Starbucks Christmas compilation. That person was the 20,000th unique individual to check out my blog - which I think is pretty amazing! To all of these new visitors, and to all of you who continue to come back again and again to read my meandering screeds and check out my music, I just want to say "thank you" once again. I'm glad that you all like my little corner of the blogosphere, and I enjoy the kind comments regarding my efforts here that some of you have left. I'm still having a lot of fun with this, and don't intend to stop any time soon.

[While I'm here, a couple of quick administrative notes: Some of you may have noticed that I'm in the process of changing the music links so you can click directly on them to reach the downloads - just trying to make it easier for you all! And I received a notice from Rapidshare that since I'm not a Premium member, they will be deleting my uploaded files (beginning with the first one I posted there last year, The Crabs' Sand And Sea). So I'm phasing out all of the Rapidshare links on my earlier posts - it's all Mediafire, all the time now (Mediafire is better anyway).]

Thanks again - more to come!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Poll Results - "Who Destroyed Van Halen?"

Well . . . that was an easy question, wasn't it?

Here are the results:

- Eddie Van Halen: 7 votes (46%)
- Sammy Hagar: 3 votes (20%)
- David Lee Roth: 1 vote (6%)
- Gary Cherone: 1 vote (6%)
- Michael Anthony/Alex Van Halen/Wolfgang Van Halen: 0 votes
- This question is bullshit - they STILL rock!: 3 votes (20%)

Look - no one outside of Van Halen is ever going to know the FULL story of their breakup in the wake of their 1984 tour. The 'public' reason was the usual one - "artistic differences"; namely, control over the band's sound and image. But every band member from that era has a different story as to what really went down, and each gives a different reason - Eddie Van Halen was a dick and a control freak, David Lee Roth was a prima donna who "got too big for his britches", etc., etc. Throw in the pressures of humongous fame, shitloads of money, plenty of booze and pharmacological mind-benders to go around, and the age-old power struggle between "the guy who created the band vs. the guy who is the front man/public face of the band" (see "Rolling Stones, The", re: Brian Jones), and anyone could see that there was bound to be a flare-up within Van Halen sooner or later.

But my personal feeling regarding all of that is this: Eddie is one of the greatest guitarists in rock history, and the awesome licks he laid down over the years served as the foundation of Van Halen's sound. But Roth was the guy in charge of building an edifice on top of that 'rock'-solid base, and he infused the band's music with color, excitement, 'zazz' - things that rock fans look for in their favorite bands. Those two guys (and I'm not discounting the excellent rhythm section of Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen, who were also integral parts of the band) were a unit, and without them working together, playing their particular roles within the band, Van Halen simply was not and would never be "Van Halen".

With that in mind, and in light of the fantastic success they had during their long time together with those two guys laying the musical smack down, both Eddie and David should have worked harder to find some common ground, or at the very least 'sucked it up' and stopped bitching about it. I mean, hell, we've all worked with people we don't particularly like. And there are plenty of relationships out there that aren't exactly Ozzie and Harriet. But most people find ways to work around or through situations, without stomping away in a huff. Bands are no different, and when the albums are flying off the rack and the money's flowing in, and you're driving a friggin' Lamborghini to your gigs, that's incentive enough to make things work.

In my opinion, Roth was better at finding and accepting those compromises than Eddie was. For example: for their 1981 album Fair Warning, Dave wanted to continue the rocking, poppy sound (where his vocals were the prominent feature) found on the band's previous two successful albums, 1979's Van Halen II and 1980's Women And Children First. Eddie, on the other hand, wanted the new album to showcase denser, more complex structures (that, coincidentally of course, made his innovative guitar work the album's focus). Roth didn't like it, but he acquiesed to Eddie - the result being that Fair Warning was the band's worst-selling album of their early years. In this case, Dave put the band, and overall band harmony, ahead of his own interests (although the fact that the album underperformed and he was proven right must have been sugar on his tongue . . . ).

I think that, for all of his antics and silliness, deep down, David Lee Roth knew the 'secret' of Van Halen, which was that the sum of him and Eddie together was much greater than the two of them apart. And frankly, it seemed that Eddie Van Halen never understood that, and he operated under the assumption that since the band bore his name, that he WAS the band. I think a lot of his dissatisfaction and frustration stemmed from not having the other band members, especially Roth, acknowledge this - and that's what led to their breakup.

[In many ways, the situation within Van Halen in the early/mid-80s is similar to the situation within The Smiths around that same period. Johnny Marr is one of the greatest guitarists of the past 30 years, and the music he made with The Smiths will live on long after we are gone. But without the combination of his talents with those of Morrissey, Johnny Marr is just another sideman - a superb one, but a sideman nonetheless.]

Now, as for Sammy Hagar . . .

A lot of people say a lot of bad stuff about Sammy, the circumstances surrounding his entry into the group and the nature of the band's music during his long tenure in Van Halen. But say what you will about him, Sammy's a smart guy - he saw his opportunity and he took it. I mean, honestly - what would you have done in his place?

Say you were a middle-aged rock 'n' roller with a small amount of success and a couple of fairly big hits (nothing major) in your solo career. But with your fortieth birthday fast approaching, it seemed that your chances of becoming a headliner were rapidly fading. One day out of the blue, some guys you barely know, members of one of the biggest bands in the world just coming off their second 10-million-plus selling album in five years, give you a call and ask you to join up. Would YOU have said "No"? Hell NO you wouldn't have.

Sammy might appear to be an 'all rock and roll, party-hearty'-type of guy on the outside. But as he's definitively proven over the years (through his profitable bike shop, nightclub and tequila enterprises), he's a businessman, pure and simple - with a keen eye for the bottom line. Sammy is not an innovator, per se. In all of his business ventures, he has taken existing concepts and products and successfully managed them, without really improving on them or bringing any new, unique ideas into the mix. That's not a critique of his operating style - it's proven to have worked for him time and time again, so more power to him. But you could argue that Sammy approached his tenure in Van Halen the same way. Hagar was never going to out-gonzo Roth - it would have been foolish for him to even try, and he knew it. His job in Van Halen was to keep the band going as an operating concern, and that was it. And in that regard, he was successful - every VH album he was involved in reached #1 US, and the band's singles still made regular appearances on the Billboard Top 100. So what if album sales were way off from the Diamond Dave days? And who cared if the live shows weren't as exciting, or Van Halen didn't seem as 'larger than life' than they were in the early 80s? Sammy did his job; by the measures that matter, Van Halen was still a headlining band. So Hagar shouldn't be "blamed" for the demise of Van Halen; in many ways, Sammy saved the band.

I've attached Van Halen's career-spanning 2-disc compilation album, The Best Of Both Worlds, released by Warner Brothers in 2004. It is, in my opinion, both the best and the worst VH compilation available. How can it be both? Well, I don't have the words to tell you - but fortunately, someone else already took care of that. If you have the time, please read Stephen Thomas Erlewine's superbly well written review of this album in Allmusic.com. I agree with every word he says here.

As always, enjoy - and let me know what you think (I have a feeling I'm going to get a fair amount of comment on this one . . . but I've been wrong before!)

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