Friday, October 31, 2014

Various Artists - Night Of The Living Dead (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

I've been thinking hard about becoming one of those "cord-cutters" I've been hearing so much about, and finally dumping my cable television subscription.  At this stage of my life, cable is a nearly useless frivolity nowhere near worth its monthly purchase price.  Frankly, I simply just don't watch that much TV anymore - or at least the TV the cable companies want me to watch.  I could care less about the endless variety of "reality" shows and singing/dancing contests that befoul the airwaves nowadays - I wouldn't watch Duck Dynasty, Naked & Afraid or Dancing With The Stars at gunpoint.  And don't get me started regarding network television - it's all so samey; either bland sitcoms (I once tried to sit through episodes of The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men - I didn't make it to the first commercial break) or gussied-up whodunit dramas (seriously, how many versions of CSI/NCIS/WTF do they air each week?).  If it weren't for The Daily Show, South Park, Downton Abbey and the occasional Ken Burns documentary on PBS, I'd rarely have the set on at all during the year.

In many ways, it feels odd now to feel so ambivalent about television; for folks my age, TV was an essential and formative experience in our lives from nearly the very start.

Looking back now, I'm amazed at the stuff I used to watch - and that my parents let me watch - regularly at a young age; not just kiddie fare, but some relatively sophisticated stuff (for late 60s/early 70s TV, that is . . .). For example, in addition to I Dream of Jeannie and Daniel Boone, I never missed an episode of Land Of The Giants or The Mod Squad - I was four years old at the time. The next year, when I was five, I recall being bitterly disappointed when I learned that a favorite program at the time, The New People, a hokey drama about hippies surviving a plane crash and building a new society on a desert island, had been cancelled mid-season.

As I got older and was allowed to stay up later, my taste in TV shows continued to skew to programs made and marketed for adults, moving away from fluff like Family Affair, The Courtship of Eddie's Father and Nanny & The Professor and into things that were on past 8:30 pm, like Alias Smith and Jones (alas, Pete Duel . . . he could have
been a big star), Longstreet, Kung Fu and Mannix (quite possibly the most violent network TV show ever aired).

I can't really say that absorbing these 'grown-up' shows at a young age affected me all that much. I mean, watching the fistfights, car crashes and gunplay on Mannix didn't desensitize me to violence, or turn me into some kind of sociopath later in life. I'm sure that, like me, you've heard stories of kids during the 1950s who would watch George Reeves' Superman program, then go out and injure themselves by tying capes to their necks and jumping off the roof of their homes. I've always considered those tales to be mostly apocryphal - kids aren't really as stupid and impressionable as adults think they are, and learn at a very early age what is real and possible in real life and on TV, and what's not. Even back then, I knew that commercial spaceflights, blind detectives and pretty blonde witch-wives didn't really exist. I got it - I just enjoyed the programs.

But there was one aspect about watching those sort of shows relatively late into the evening that had a profound effect on my mind and soul - the Seventies were the Golden Age of classic horror movie trailers airing during breaks, commercials seemingly tailor-made to scare the absolute piss out of any little kids who might happen to be awake that time of night. I couldn't tell you how many times I would be watching TV by myself or with my siblings in a darkened den, when suddenly one of those goddamn things would fill the screen! None of us could get out of the room fast enough, screaming with fright and holding our hands to our ears to block out the sound! It got to the point where, for a couple of years, whenever a show faded to an ad break, I would get up and stand near the doorway to the room, so I could quickly make my escape should something scary pop up on screen.

Here's a prime example of the sort of stuff that would rear its head at any time during the night; this film trailer used to jolt the absolute bejesus out of me when I was seven:

At the time, there was something about seeing a frog with a human hand hanging out of its mouth that just scared the crap out of me . . . so much so, that my dad used to tease me back then by saying "Hey, son!", then putting his arm up to his mouth so that it looked like his hand was sticking out! It never failed to upset me back then, but looking back, it seems pretty funny now.

Here's another one from later in the 70s that was also a guaranteed late-night kiddie room-clearer in my house . . . this trailer is still unnervingly creepy today - just listen to that voice:

As frightening as the movie trailers were, in many ways they had nothing on what used to appear as regular fare on the networks back then. Probably a lot of you are too young to remember, but back in the Sixties and Seventies, the Big Three used to have weekly-scheduled movie series - shows like The CBS Friday Night Movies, NBC Tuesday Night at the Movies, The ABC Movie of the Week (I used to love the opening for the latter - great music, and from what I understand, one of the first examples of computer graphics on television):

These movie anthology shows started out in the 60s, showing old Hollywood B movies and the like, but by the end of that decade, the networks wised up and stopped paying the film studios for their hoary old castoffs and box-office flops, instead producing and airing their own "made for TV" movies.  A lot of the home-grown stuff they showed on these programs was crap - tepid family fare, or pilots for possible future TV shows (long-running series like Kojak, Columbo and The Six Million Dollar Man started out as one-shot movie pilots on these programs). But in some cases, the networks aired some pretty interesting, innovative stuff. For example, the car-truck cat-and-mouse thriller Duel, Stephen Spielberg's first big directorial effort, was a TV movie that was subsequently released to theaters. And the immortal sports classic Brian's Song, with Billy Dee Williams and James Caan as Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and the doomed Brian Piccolo, also began as a Movie of the Week.

But where these made-for-TV movie programs really kicked out the jams was with the mysteries and horror movies they sometimes aired. I recall seeing The House On Greenapple Road (a superb early '70s detective classic that led to the show Dan August) and being jolted by its rather graphic depiction (for that period) of the aftermath of a grisly murder. I remember seeing another creepfest around that time, When Michael Calls, about a woman receiving phone calls from her presumably dead son. And of course there was the still-classic Trilogy of Terror in 1975 - anyone else remember that doll with the razor-sharp teeth attacking Karen Black in her apartment?

But for me, the hands-down gold standard for made-for-TV horror when I was a kid was a movie shown on ABC in the fall of 1973, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark:

In this film, a house full of particularly disturbing-looking goblins (that only come out at night, of course) set out to capture or kill the new tenants occupying their home. I sat and watched this one with my brother in our basement family room in Wisconsin, and for MONTHS afterwards, we couldn't enter a room at night without reaching around from the outside and switching the lights on first . . . and for a long time after that, I looked at wall heating grates with fear and apprehension.  The ending of this movie (and no, I won't give it away here) is one of the all-time great downbeat horror endings.  All in all, the tone and atmosphere of this film lived long in my memory, up until the present day (apparently, I wasn't the only one - director Guillermo Del Toro has been quoted as saying this movie scared the hell out of him as well when he was a kid).

As scary as these television movies were, I think that in some small way, I benefited from experiencing them, in that as I got older, there were fewer and fewer things that could really put the fear of God in me. Before I reached double-digits, I was a thrill ride aficionado, and couldn't wait to ride the roller coasters and other exciting rides at Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion every summer. My friends and I used to play in the woods near our homes well into the night, running through the trees in pitch blackness without trepidation. And I routinely walked home from a buddy's house on gloomy evenings through a long, dark and narrow path through a forest - I never gave it much of a thought at the time. I look at my kids today - who refuse to ride coasters with me at amusement parks, who rarely if so much as walk across the street at dusk to see their friends, and who recoil with fear and revulsion whenever I suggest we settle in for the night with a classic scary movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Shining - and just shake my head sometimes. I think that kids today are scared of a lot more things for a lot longer, because so many of them have been protected for so long from experiencing frightening or disturbing things. And that's a shame. Oh well . . .

I'm a grown man now, jaded and cynical after all of these years . . . and yet there are still a couple of things that just freak me right the hell out.  For example:

A couple of years ago, when I lived in Maryland, I was flipping around the cable box one night and landed right in the middle of Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof, probably the only one of his movies I never caught when it was first released in theaters - I recall that night it was airing on HBO or something. I arrived just before the first 'accident', a graphic head-on high-speed collision between Kurt Russell's "death-proof" stunt car and a sedan full of women - a crash that Tarantino felt the "artistic" need to show over and over, from different angles, to show exactly what happened to each of the auto's occupants . . . Jesus. I don't know if you all have ever seen that movie or that particular scene . . . but as bad as it sounds with my description, it's much worse actually seeing it, and it rocked me and shocked me to my core. I don't know what Quentin was trying to accomplish with that section of the film, but if it was to deliver a sickening kick to the viewer's stomachs, then mission accomplished. I bought Death Proof on DVD a couple of years later, to complete my Tarantino collection. For the most part, it's a pretty decent, entertaining film . . . but to this day I avoid watching that particular crash scene. I can't describe how or why it gets to me - I'm not squeamish, and I don't think I'm particularly sensitive. It's just a scene and an experience I have no interest in knowing all that much detail about.

Other than Death Proof, there's probably only one other film that still fills me with the same sort of shock, horror and dread - the original Night Of The Living Dead.

"Night Of The Living Dead?", you may be asking yourself - "That cheap-ass black-and-white zombie-attack throwback from the Sixties - are you kidding? Hell, there aren't even any decent special effects in that movie!" Yes, all of that is pretty much true. But it's that lack of production values - the grainy footage, natural lighting and settings, and odd camera angles - that makes NOTLD what it is. It comes off as less a film and more of almost a documentary, a chronicle of actual events that occurred that night. There's an undercurrent of realism that runs through the movie - in the movements, mindsets and actions of the various victims in relation to their plight - that makes you feel not only like "this really happened", but also "this CAN really happen".

And despite its lack of color, the film contains some of the most shocking scenes in horror film history. It goes without saying that zombie movies as we know them today basically didn't exist before 1968. With Night Of The Living Dead, director George Romero not only invented the genre, he also introduced an unprecedented depiction of gore rarely seen before that time. Animated dead bodies feeding visibly on human flesh and entrails was jolting back then, to audiences more used to the restrained 'shock' of a Christopher Lee Hammer Horror film or a Hitchcock flick. It remains jolting today.

The scene in NOTLD that always gets me is near the end (semi-spoiler alert), when the zombiefied little girl eats her father, then hacks her mother to death with a paving trowel in the basement . . . To me, that's a profoundly messed-up segment, with the girl's arm rising and falling again and again, and the sound of the trowel entering her mother's chest, over and over - brrrr! For me, unwatchable.

 Not much thought was given to compiling a Night Of The Living Dead soundtrack when the movie was completed in the late '60s. In fact, it wasn't until more than a decade later that anyone got around to doing so.  The album is full of good ol' '60s-style incidental suspense/horror film music, along with a fair amount of dialogue from the film.  Apparently, it didn't sell very well - to the best of my knowledge, this disc has never been released on CD.

So here for your listening pleasure is Night Of The Living Dead (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), released on vinyl by the label Varese Sarabande in 1982. I hope that this soundtrack helps set the tone for your scary and spooky Halloween night. So have fun, and enjoy! And as always, let me know what you think.

 (As for myself, I have no particular plans this evening, after the final trick-or-treater departs. I don't know . . . I guess I'll just stay in and watch some TV . . .)    

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Here's a fun fact: a small snippet from the final selection on this soundtrack album, "Funeral Pyre (End Title)", was used in one of the most disturbing (and yet hilarious) cartoon scenes of all time, the 'Call The Police' segment of Ren & Stimpy's "Rubber Nipple Salesmen" episode on Nickelodeon.  If you've never had the chance to experience it . . . bon appetit (and keep in mind that this was a show for children):

Thursday, October 16, 2014

UB40 - Geffery Morgan

I recently got my new iPhone model (the 128 GB 6S) in the mail after waiting most of a month for it (I REFUSED to stand in line at an Apple Store like a knucklehead to buy it . . . unlike plenty of others, in my observation). I loaded all of the information off of my old iPhone onto, then went looking for some new applications to add to my now-huge capacity. One that seemed pretty cool was the Bandsintown app, which notifies you of live music events in your area, based upon the music you have stored on your phone.

This app was ideal for me; I don't know how it is in your area, but it seems that nowadays it's getting harder and harder to find out when cool bands are coming to town. Until fairly recently, my go-to source for information on local concerts was the local weekly free newspaper you could find on the street and in places like record stores and coffee shops. I'm sure that there are many other methods of finding out this info, but the weekly alternative press was something I was used to, and had used for decades for finding out what was going on. When I lived in Washington, DC, I looked forward to every Thursday,
when the newest edition of the superb DC City Paper would be out on the streets, so I could see who was playing that week at The 9:30 Club or The Black Cat. In San Francisco, the SF Weekly knew the ins and outs of that city's music scene; down the coast, the LA Weekly kept me informed of what was happening down there. Even Dallas, Texas had a decent weekly, the Observer.

But in recent years, the alt press has been taking a beating, mostly due to changes in the music business and media in general. Record companies used to spend a lot of time and effort ensuring that their album releases were written up in these journals, and these papers counted on that conduit of somewhat exclusive music information, because it drew readers and generated advertising revenue. But with the rise of the Internet came changes in not only the way people acquired their news, but also how they purchased their music. Music companies realized they could reach many more people by promoting their wares online rather than via newsprint, and people began going to iTunes or Amazon for albums and songs, rather than visiting their local record shops. So the weekly papers began losing influence and revenue, especially once the major music retailers (Virgin Megastore, Tower Records, Sam Goody/F.Y.E., etc.), the papers' major outlets, began consolidating, downsizing and closing their doors. These days, a lot of these alt-weeklies are just holding on, after slashing their staff and scope of coverage. The local papers up here weren't as fortunate - the long-running Boston Phoenix shut down in early 2013. Its sister paper, the Providence Phoenix, containing
information on happenings in Rhode Island, has recently been harder and harder to find, and I finally found out why - it too is finally throwing in the towel, with its final edition published yesterday. So like I said, now that I have none of my old reliable concert information sources to rely upon anymore, this Bandsintown app will be very useful.

I fired the thing up and it did a scan of my phone's songs, then provided me with a list of all of the artists and similar artists who may or may not be on tour (the bolder the name of the group, the closer/more imminent their next show would be). I was rather surprised to see, of all the bands listed, the group UB40 on the tour roster. I thought those guys had broken up years ago!

I used to be a big UB40 fan back in the day. Like practically everyone else in America, my gateway to this band was their song "Red Red Wine", an old Neil Diamond cover that was the band's first US hit, peaking at #34 in March 1984, during my plebe year at the Naval Academy (the song was re-released as a single in the States in 1988, and this time made it to #1). As plebes, we weren't allow to have radios or music devices (well, at least not officially . . . !). But no matter - you heard "Red Red Wine" everywhere that spring, wafting out of dorm rooms throughout Bancroft Hall. Soon after Plebe Year officially ended that May (just before the senior class graduated), I went into downtown Annapolis and made my first "legal" music purchase of Labour of Love (containing that song) on cassette at a local record store.

I thought that every song on Labour of Love was fantastic. While "Red Red Wine" was the only tune that made an impression on America, three other songs ("Many Rivers To Cross", "Cherry Oh Baby" and "Please Don't Make Me Cry") also made the UK and Irish Top 20, and the album went multi-platinum in England (and sold a million copies in the U.S.). Over the next year, I set out to acquire the rest of UB40's back catalogue, haunting record stores in the DC area, looking for import copies of their original British albums. By the summer of 1985, I had managed to acquire pretty much all of them -  
Signing Off, Present Arms, Present Arms in Dub, UB44, The Singles Album, UB40 Live.

What I loved about UB40 in those days is the power and conviction they put into their music. They weren't just a bunch of Brits dabbling in reggae - they WERE a rock-solid reggae/dub band, with a sound that seemed to come straight from the Caribbean, but dripping with political meaning and social consciousness, aspects that resonated with the Britain of the late 70s/early 80s. Once I listened to these discs, these aspects got to me as well. Songs like "Tyler" (about a 17-year-old black Louisianan wrongly imprisoned in 1976 for the death of a 13-year-old white boy - this song was intended to be UB40's first U.S. release in 1980), "King" (about Martin Luther King) and "One In Ten" showed that these guys weren't fooling around. It used to be said back in the early 80s that the Irish band U2, with their politically-charged songs and events, was "the only band that mattered". I would venture to say that, in terms of "mattering", UB40 far outstripped U2 in that regard. When I heard that the band was going to release a new album in the fall of 1985, I was extremely hyped up for it.

Geffery Morgan come out that October, as the follow-up to UB40's U.S. breakthrough album Labour of Love. It had favorable sales, but I think it was a disappointment to those American buyers looking for another "Red Red Wine". As such, its been sort of an overlooked release in this country, only making it to #68 on the Billboard 200. But I feel Geffery Morgan is one of the great UB40 albums, perhaps their last great album, with some of the best original material they ever did. The opening trio of tunes, "Riddle Me", "As Always You Were Wrong Again" and "If It Happens Again" are incredibly strong, and set the tone of quality for the rest of the album. Other highlights include the beautiful "Seasons", the jazzy experimental "the Pillow", the superb "I'm Not Fooled So Easily", and one of their great closers "You Eyes Were Open".

In many ways, Geffery Morgan is truly UB40's transitional album, the dividing line between UB40's purer reggae/dub releases earlier in their career and the poppy, less-adventurous, radio-friendly "reggae karaoke" they seem to have gotten into immediately afterwards. While the reggae groove on this album is still strong, in many songs ("Riddle Me", "You're Not An Army") you can sense the band's movement to the mainstream. Note that their next U.S. release, Little Baggariddim featured their Top 40 cover (with Chrissie Hynde) of the crowd-pleasing "I Got You Babe", followed by 1986's Rat In The Kitchen album, full of what were in my opinion watered-down faux-reggae hits.

UB40 went through a bad patch shortly after the release of Rat In The Kitchen. In 1987, bassist Earl Falconer was involved in an auto accident in England that killed his brother, UB40's producer Ray "Pablo" Falconer. It was determined that Earl Falconer's blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit, and he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison (the band's only release during his time in jail was 1988's Labour of Love II). However, the band rebounded soon after Falconer's release. UB40 released Promises & Lies in 1993, their first volume of new material in almost five years (this is the album that Bitty McLean worked on). The album contained their biggest hit, a cover of Elvis Presley's "(I Can't Help) Falling In Love With You", that was used in the Sharon Stone movie Sliver. This pop-reggae number reached #1 in the U.S. in May 1993, where it remained for seven weeks. It also marked the effective end of my UB40 fandom. The group released several more albums over the past twenty years, including two more Labour of Love compilations. Their releases are regular visitors to the UK Top Thirty, but they haven't done squat in America since Promises & Lies. In my mind none of their discs of the past two decades capture the fire, power and conviction of that band that came storming out of Birmingham nearly forty years ago.

2008's TwentyFourSeven was the last UB40 album featuring all of the original members. In 2013, amid much acrimony and serious financial issues (including bankruptcy declarations by several group members, related to their label's woes), UB40 divided into two factions, with original members Ali Campbell (lead vocals), Mickey Virtue (keyboards) and Astro (trumpet, toasting) leaving the main body and touring as a trio, but still billing themselves as "UB40". Just last month, the main band filed writs against the "UB40" trio in High Court, claiming that they have no rights to the name. The case has yet to be heard, but it is bound to be a long, drawn-out, contentious affair, as neither side seems willing to back down. For the moment, however, there are TWO UB40s currently out on tour. All in all, it's a sad coda to a once-great band.

So here, for your listening pleasure is Geffery Morgan, in my opinion the last, best representation of UB40 as an accessible but authentic reggae band, released thirty years ago today (October 16th, 1984) on DEP International. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Various Artists - Uncut: Why Don't We Do It In The Road?

Well, this was supposed to be my "Year of The Beatles", with plenty of Fab Four posts here in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the band's first U.S. visit. Hasn't quite worked out that way, I'm afraid . . . although hope still springs eternal. I'm still trying to complete the blog post for the "Beatles vs.
Stones" poll from many months ago (among other entries I've been endeavoring to crank out) . . . but it's taking way longer than I anticipated. So as a stop-gap, here's a half-decent compilation of Beatles covers, released as a bonus attachment with an issue of the music magazine Uncut in the summer of 2001 - an issue that I purchased in real time many moons ago (and still have in my possession - it's over in a rack I keep in the corner of the living room of old music magazines I've liked and saved from over the years).

Here's the lineup:
1. Echo & The Bunnymen - Ticket To Ride
2. Lowell Folson - Why Don't We Do It In The Road ?
3. 801 featuring Phil Manzanera & Brian Eno - Tomorrow Never Knows
4. Teenage Fanclub - Tell Me What You See
5. Otis Redding - Daytripper
6. Siouxsie & The Banshees - Helter Skelter
7. Nils Lofgren - Anytime At All
8. Junior Parker - Taxman
9. The Damned - Help
10. Marianne Faithfull - I'm A Loser
11. Gene - Don't Let Me Down
12. Al Green - I Wanna Hold Your Hand
13. Tiny Tim with Brave Combo - Girl
14. 10cc - Across The Universe
15. Billy Bragg - Revolution
16. Laibach - One After 909
17. Joe Cocker - I'll Cry Instead
18. Rainer - Within You, Without You
19. Chris Farlowe - Yesterday
20. Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel - Here Comes The Sun
21. Peter Sellers - She Loves You
22. Lord Sitar - Blue Jay Way
23. Booker T & The MGs - I Want You (She's So Heavy)
24. Oasis - Helter Skelter
There's nothing particularly deathless here . . . in fact, there's a lot of stuff here (like the Tiny Tim and Peter Sellers versions) that is sort of annoying. But for the most part, it is interesting to hear the different ways these various artists take on these Beatles classics. Favorites include Otis Redding's sweat-soaked, muscular live version of "Day Tripper", Teenage Fanclub's "Tell Me What You See", and "I Want To Hold Your Hand", done in Al Green's inimitable voice and style. There are a lot of other winners here - I'll let you dig them up yourself.

So here, for your listening pleasure, is Uncut: Why Don't We Do It In The Road?, released as part of said magazine in July 2001. Enjoy, and as always, please let me know what you think.

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Please pardon my laziness . . .

Still up and running here, believe it or not.  Lotta stuff happening this summer, so I've been a bit lax at posting new stuff.  But not to fear - Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole is still active, and more of my pithy, delightful (ha) posts will be gracing your eyeballs soon.

Thanks for bearing with me.  In the meantime, I invite you to browse some of the older posts, for things you might have missed.  As always, EVERYTHING ever posted on this blog, no matter how old, is still available - all you need do is ask!

More later . . .

All the best to you from Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My first quarter-million

Sometime earlier this afternoon, this blog received its 250,000th visitor . . . not too shabby for a ramshackle, ham-bone, cobbled-together music site barely four years old! Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole has come a long way from its humble, tentative origins . . . and it's all due to the support and encouragement I receive from folks like you.

I'd like to thank all of you who, since the spring of 2010, have taken the opportunity to check out my little corner of the Web, and who have found something here that interested and/or intrigued you. I have done my best to make each and every entry here amusing, amazing, entertaining, informational and/or possibly enlightening (special kudos to the very few of you who have found the secret, hidden posts I've stashed here over the years . . . well done tracking them down!). I like to think that with the significant number of visitors I've had here, I've succeeded, somewhat.

And a final tip of the hat to you out there who have gone the extra mile and provided me with your comments, critiques and thanks for the music you requested and obviously care so deeply about. Reading and posting your comments is the thing about this blog I enjoy the most - so keep those cards 'n' letters coming!

Today is also Paul McCartney's birthday . . . so in honor of both our landmarks this June 18th, here's a special posting for the occasion: the two-volume Wingspan: Hits and History set, released by Parlophone on May 7th, 2001, compiling all of the McCartney post-Beatles hits between approximately 1970 and 1985, both solo and with his band Wings. All of the songs on the first disc, Hits, were hugely popular commercially, especially in the mid-to-late 70s when McCartney ruled FM radio. The second disc, History, is made up mostly of fan favorites, tunes that didn't become massive hits like the ones on the first disc. But there are still plenty on this half that you will recognize, like "Take It Away", "Helen Wheels" and "Maybe I'm Amazed". A lot of people slag Sir Paul for fully embracing mass-appeal radio pop after his groundbreaking days with The Beatles. Maybe that is so, but the guy knew what he was doing, and the results here speak for themselves.

Anyway, I have definitely enjoyed sharing my tunes with you all over the past four years, and (despite my recent slowness at putting new posts up) I have no plans to discontinue doing so any time soon - I've got a bunch in the pipeline as we speak. So I look forward to the next quarter-million visitors . . . and beyond!

Enjoy the tunes, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Various Artists - The Obscurity File

Back during my freshman year at the Naval Academy in the early '80s, we plebes weren't allowed to have radios or any sort of music or electronic devices in our rooms (this was a couple of years before incoming classes were issued with laptops, so I'm curious as to how that rule is currently enforced - if I was a plebe now, my computer would be jam-packed with .mp3s). Of course, this didn't stop the vast majority of plebes from smuggling in their newfangled Walkmans, and stashing them and their tape collections in various places in our rooms. I was no exception to this rule - a favorite hiding place was in the ceiling tiles above the bunks. By the time Plebe Year ended, I was surprised that the ceiling didn't collapse from all the cassettes I had stashed up there!

Anyway, starting in my second year in Annapolis, I made up for lost time, musically. WHFS, the local alternative station, was always on in my room (fortunately, my roommate was into that stuff as well). Later on, in the 1990s and beyond (before its untimely but predictable demise), 'HFS became more of a commercial 'modern rock' station, flogging stuff like tired grunge bands, Green Day and the like. But back in the day, the station was still fiercely independent and for the most part anti-commercial, and had DJs with the sack to play some pretty unheard-of, off-the-wall stuff that I ended up enjoying immensely. Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert, with his nasal, high-pitched voice, was the signature DJ and most recognizable station personality. But there were other on-air individuals - like Aquaman, Mother Earth Meg, Neci and the like - whose shows I enjoyed and regularly tuned into. I would occasionally tape some of their programs for later listening.

One night, one of the 'HFS DJs (whose name I've long since forgotten) played a 45-minute nonstop bloc of some pretty outstanding stuff, most of which I'd never come across before. I taped pretty much the entire show (still have that cassette stashed away in the basement). These tunes included Iggy Pop's "Run Like A Villain" off of his 1982 album Zombie Birdhouse (in the early 80's, Iggy was then in the midst of a long career slump; one he wouldn't pull out of until 1986's Blah Blah Blah), Pylon's "Yo-Yo" . . . and this peppy little New Wave gem:

I had no idea what the name of this tune or the band was, and after that one broadcast that evening, I never heard it on the radio again. But I thought it was great, and I never forgot the song and its lyrics - "Good luck, Ronnie Reagan - save us from ourselves". I hoped one day that I would run across it once again. It was literally decades later, actually, before I dug up more info on this song.

One day a few years ago, I plugged my rudimentary remembered lyrics into a search engine, which provided me with an answer. The song was called, appropriately enough, "Ronnie's Song", by a California band called LAX.

I did a little research on the group, and found that it was formed in 1980 and fronted by Redondo Beach's Carl Pritzkat, with his brother Mike on bass and their friend Chris Holmes on drums. The band gigged around the LA area, and in 1981, shortly after President Reagan's inaugaration, released "Ronnie's Song" as a single on Michricar Music. The tune was fairly popular in the Los Angeles Basin - the legendary DJ Rodney Bingenheimer on the influential station KROQ played this song frequently during the early '80s. This major-station exposure did nothing for LAX; "Ronnie's Song" was their only release, and they quickly faded away.

Armed with this new knowledge, I made several attempts to track down this incredibly hard-to-find single, with no success whatsoever. I finally found the song on a compilation album of way-out, forgotten early '80s chestnuts called (appropriately enough) The Obscurity File. Here's the song lineup:
1. Ogden Edsl - Kinko The Clown
2. Killer Pussy - Teenage Enema Nurses In Bondage
3. Wild Horses - Funky Poodle
4. Unit 3 With Venus - Pajama Party
5. Little Girls - The Earthquake Song
6. Bouquet of Veal - Dwarf Tossin'
7. Angel & The Reruns - Buffy Come Back
8. Klondike Carl - Time Is A Ticky Talk
9. Brian Briggs - See You On The Other Side
10. The Bollock Brothers - Harley David (Son Of A Bitch)
11. LAX - Ronnie's Song
12. The Vandals - Urban Struggle
13. Scott Goddard - Cowpunk
14. Bird & McDonald - The Rodeo Song
15. Ogden Edsl - Kinko Returns
The album features tunes mainly by Southern California New Wave musicians, most of whom were "one-hit wonders" (the term "hit" being applied very liberally here) . . . but others who gained a little more recognition in the industry, including Angel & The Reruns (who were featured in the movie Bachelor Party; their song here is the infamous one referring to the drug overdose of Anissa Jones, who played "Buffy" on TV's Family Affair) and Scott Goddard, who used to be a member of The Surf Punks. For the most part, however, most of these songs were considered novelties, and as such were relegated to play on radio programs like Dr. Demento and late-night freakout shows . . . like the one on WHFS where I heard the LAX song so long ago. A lot of the songs here are silly, and this album post probably won't be breathlessly awaited by a majority of you. But if you find one song on here that's to your taste, you'll probably like them all. So, give it a shot, if you dare!

[And as for LAX's Carl Pritzkat, after his short career in the music industry, he went into the digital media field, founding Mediapolis in 1994. He recently joined Publishers Weekly as Vice-President of Business Development. It's good to see that music wasn't the beginning and end for him, and he's moved on and is doing well in life.]

So here for your listening pleasure is The Obscurity File, a collection of relentlessly obscure New Wave releases, put out by Oglio Records on July 19th, 1994, an album that I acquired based on the fuzzy memory of a half-recalled song heard over a quarter-century ago. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ed's Redeeming Qualities - More Bad Times

A hopelessly obscure and woefully nearly forgotten band, the alt-folk group Ed's Redeeming Qualities was formed by four New Hampshire friends in 1988.  Band members Carrie Bradley and Dan Leone met while they were students at the University of New Hampshire; they later linked up with Dan's brother Dom (who moved to the state from Ohio) and Neno Perrotta. With their quirky, funny songs (many of them written by the gifted and prolific Dom) and strange instrumentation (most of their music was driven by Carrie's violin, Dan's ukelele and Neno's bongos), Ed's Redeeming Qualities quickly became one of the darlings of Boston's late-80s indie scene, along with bands like The Pixies and Throwing Muses, playing places like the Middle East and the late lamented Rathskeller ("The Rat").

Sadly, soon after their Boston debut, Dom was diagnosed with cancer.  He died in November 1989, taking with him much of the band's spirit. After Dom's death, the band relocated to San Francisco, where they landed an album contract with a small folk label. They released two albums there in the early 1990s, More Bad Times and It's All Good News, but found little commercial success with them. Their only real mainstream radio exposure was on Dr. Demento's nationally syndicated novelty music radio show, where a couple of their songs were occasionally featured. Needless to say, that's not exactly the sort of exposure you're looking for to establish and maintain a following.

Probably the only reason I know anything about this band is that Carrie Bradley was briefly a member of The Breeders. She participated in the group's legendary demo sessions and their first album, 1990's Pod.  Ed's Redeeming Qualities received its biggest exposure in 1994, when The Breeders covered their song "Drivin' On 9" on their platinum smash Last Splash:

(The Breeders also covered the song on the Pod demos - I honestly prefer that version to the album version, but whatever . . .). Bradley joined the Deal sisters' band again as a guest during their 1994 Lollapolooza tour, and ERQ started receiving some favorable press during that time.

The positive vibes from Last Splash maintained Ed's Redeeming Qualities for a while, but with the lack of commercial success it was unsustainable. The group released one final album, At The Fish And Game Club, in 1996, before disbanding the following year. Since their demise, Carrie Bradley went on to form the band 100 Watt Smile, which released two albums in the late 1990s, and does a lot of session work. Both Dan Leone and Neno Perrotta became writers, Dan penning food and fiction columns for weekly alternative newspapers and Neno writing and publishing poetry. But ERQ is still beloved in the Boston area - they played a very well-received reunion show at TT The Bear's Place in Cambridge (just around the corner from the Middle East) in January 2011. And they still have plenty of fans across the nation, who appreciate and adore their strange and humorous songs. They might not be everyone's particular cup of tea . . . but they are well worth a listen.

Here's Ed's Redeeming Qualities' More Bad Times, released in 1990 by Flying Fish Records.  This was burned off of my vinyl copy (which, in an instance of synergynistic coolness, I bought off of a member of Washington State's Beat Happening), as the CD version is nearly impossible to track down.  Enjoy, and as always, please let me know what you think.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ultra Vivid Scene - Mercy Seat and Special One EPs

More good stuff from that golden music era of the late '80s/early '90s . . . I used to catch the occasional Ultra Vivid Scene tune on one of the various alternative radio stations I listened to back in the day, and always enjoyed what this band had to offer.

Ultra Vivid Scene was essentially singer and guitarist Kurt Ralske, accompanied occasionally by a rotating host of musicians. Ralske was a gifted musician pretty much from the get-go; at sixteen, he had already gained entrance into Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. But Ralske was always a free spirit and seeker of sorts on all levels, never settling on one particular thing, but absorbing what he thought was necessary before moving on to the next location and experience. He stayed at Berklee long enough to gain a thorough exposure to jazz music concepts, before moving on to college in New York City in the early 80s, and falling in with some of the major figures in that city's "No Wave" music scene (folks like James Chance and Thurston Moore). These New York sounds, which included not only the contemporary experimental scene but also the output of the Velvet Underground and hardcore punk, were a major influence in the music Ralske was attempting to piece together. He joined his first bands while in New York, serving as guitarist for Nothing But Happiness (who released a single ("Narcotics Day"/"Couldn't Make You Mine") in 1985 and an album
(Detour) in 1987), Dissipated Face (sort of a punkier version of The Contortions), King of Culture and Crash, fronted by singer-songwriter Mark Dumais. When Dumais decided to relocate Crash from NYC to London in 1987, Ralske went along.

During his time in England, Ralske was exposed to the experimental, abrasive, guitar-driven sounds of bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. To quote an interview he conducted years later: " . . . the example of the Jesus & Mary Chain was very important for me. It pointed [toward] a way of doing things that were both simple and very complex at the same time. I was keen on this idea that things could have a simple form but actually be complex and subtle in their meaning."   It was the culmination of his extensive experience playing with his bands along with the profound influence The J & M Chain had on him that led him to form Ultra Vivid Scene in early 1988.

Ultra Vivid Scene (which, as stated above, was essentially Ralske) was quickly signed by 4AD later that year. His/the band's first recording, the four-song She Screamed EP, was released that August. Of all of the group's releases, it's the one that comes closest to emulating the Jesus & Mary Chain sound, albeit filtered through Ralske's extensive exposure to more mainstream rock (probably because it's the only release completely written, produced and performed by him). For example, here's the title cut:

UVS's first full album, a self-titled release, quickly followed in October 1988. The album is somewhat less abrasive and experimental than the preceding EP; the mixture of pop and noise here is definitely skewed toward the pop end of the spectrum. For me, in some cases (like the songs "Nausea" and "A Dream Of Love") this amalgamation is compelling; in others, it comes off as bland and whiny alt-rock. The best song on Ultra Vivid Scene in my opinion is "Mercy Seat", an almost perfect grind-pop meld of My Bloody Valentine and The Velvet Underground. [In my scrambled musical memories of years past, I had all but convinced myself that I had heard "Mercy Seat" in late 1987, more than a year before it was actually released. After a little reflection, I realized that I was confusing the song with the band Mercy Seat, former Violent Femmes vocalist Gordon Gano's gospel-punk side project, which released a self-titled album in the fall of 1987.]

The group and 4AD also realized what a winner they had in this song. In the spring of 1989, “Mercy Seat” was re-recorded and released on an EP, along with an excellent cover of Buffy St. Marie’s “Codine”, a new song called “H Like In Heaven”, and the original version of the lead track. The new version of “Mercy Seat” was augmented by a long, languid intro that almost doubles the track’s length but doesn't necessarily add anything new or compelling to it - in many ways, it weakens the power of the original album cut.

Here's one of the two videos made for "Mercy Seat" (the shorter version) - I included this one because near the end of the clip (at about the 3:25 mark), you can catch a glimpse of one of Ralske's erstwhile session band mates - none other than Moby himself - with hair no less!

Both the album and the Mercy Seat EP were fairly well received by critics. But Ultra Vivid Scene's main problem at the time was that they couldn't translate their music to audiences in a live setting. The band set out on their first American tour in 1989, but the shows were not well received. Ralske hired musicians rather than doing it all himself, so there may have been an issue with getting these hired hands fully conversant in his music. In addition Ralske (admittedly) paid little attention and less interest as to how to adequately capture his studio sound in concert. The result was a series of poor shows that killed much of their momentum in America; they were reportedly so bad that after a label representative saw them play in New York, he recommended that Ultra Vivid Scene become purely a studio concern, and no longer be allowed to play live.

Despite these setbacks, UVS soldiered on. Ralske reentered the studio in November 1989 to record the follow-up to Ultra Vivid Scene. This time out, he enlisted some help - namely, an established producer (Hugh Jones, who previously produced well-received indie/alternative releases, including That Petrol Emotion's Manic Pop Thrill and The Icicle Works' debut album) and a bevy of seasoned studio musicians. He also got some assistance from some of his friends in the industry, such as The Pixies' Kim Deal. The extra support freed Ralske from shouldering the entire burden of putting an album together, and led to the creation of probably Ultra Vivid Scene's finest record.

The new album, Joy 1967-1990, was released in May 1990. Overall, it's a lot peppier and somewhat bouncier than its predecessor (perhaps reflecting the lifting of pressures off of Ralske), and it was very well received in both the UK and US. The album reached the British Top 60, and three cuts off of it charted on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. The highest charting single in the US was Ralske's sole collaboration with Deal, the excellent song "Special One" (which liberally steals much of its riff from Big Star's "September Gurls"). Here's video of the song:

[This is purportedly the "official video" - there's another one I used to see years ago, a black and white version with just Ralske and Deal sitting together and singing . . . I always hated that video, because Kim Deal (as much as I love her) acts like a complete bitch in it and all but hijacks the performance - smoking, mugging for the camera, pushing Ralske off his stool and and one point giving him a vicious face slap . . . not her finest moment.]
As with the previous album, 4AD recognized this as the strongest track off the new disc, and subsequently released "Special One" on its own EP later that fall, along with three non-album cuts.

Despite the negative reaction to their first tour, in the wake of the good press they were receiving with the new album, UVS went out on the road again in 1990, starting with a small concert series in England. Again, disaster ensued. Ralske commented years later about the shows:
" . . . with great fanfare, there were four nights of performances at a smallish club in the centre of London called the Borderline. In the audience were all the press and everybody important in the music industry. And basically we went out there and completely sucked: we had a very inadequate performance. I have spoken to other people who told me that, that was the point at which the fate of Ultra Vivid Scene was sealed. The performances were so bad that 4AD apparently begged people not to write about it. [laughs] Nobody wanted to think or talk about this group at all, ever again."
Ralske's take of the reaction to their performance was pretty spot-on. From that point onward, 4AD's support of UVS was sharply curtailed. Yet the relationship between the band and the label continued for a little while longer.

Prior to the sessions for Ultra Vivid Scene's third release, Ralske put together a real band to go into the studio with (consisting of himself on guitar and vocals, Julius Klepacz on drums and Jack Daley on bass), and this time the music was a true collaborative effort between the three of them. Rev, with a clear, polished
professional sound, was released in October 1992. Once again, despite label trepidations, Ultra Vivid Scene went out on the road to support it. But this time, the trio was in sync, and the result was some superb live performances.  But it was too little, too late for the group. The album failed to chart in either the US or England, and only one song, "Blood and Thunder" made the Modern Rock chart. Ralske and his band were released by 4AD in 1993.

For most of the rest of the 1990s, Ralske made his living engineering and producing records for the likes of Rasputina and Ivy, while working on his own experimental electronic music (he released four albums in the late 90s / early 2000s). Since then, he has moved into other artistic fields. He is now a well-respected and award-winning video and media artist, who holds professorships at two renowned East Coast art schools, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the NYC School of Visual Arts. His works have been exhibited all over the world; have you ever been to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in downtown New York City, and noticed the video display right there in the lobby? That's his, and it's on permanent display there. His current curriculum vitae focuses mostly on his digital endeavors, barely mentioning his stint as a popular, groundbreaking alternative musician.

The online music magazine The Quietus featured an extensive interview with Ralske last October, the first he's given in many years. In it, he does much to all but dismiss his previous career in music. “I know there are some people that are still interested in those [Ultra Vivid Scene] records”, he stated, “but mostly I’m just focused on the present and the future. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.”  That sort of precious, pretentious "I'm a real artist now" attitude irked me, more than a bit. Kurt, you once made challenging, compelling, popular music - a creation that tens of thousands of people enjoyed, loved and still remember. OWN it, and respect your fans, instead of being a big arty wuss about it.

Shortly after I read the Quietus article last year, I received a letter in the mail, telling me I had been selected for jury duty that November.  I spent most of the first week of November cooped up with several dozen other similarly unfortunate members of the public in a dank room in the basement of the Rhode Island Superior Court building on Benefit Street in downtown Providence, just a little ways from the RISD campus. They gave all of us who weren't assigned a case time off every afternoon to go out to lunch, and I invariably made the walk down North Main Street to eat at Fat Belly's Pub.

It was during one of my lunchtime strolls through RISD that week that I saw someone walking towards me who I swore was Kurt Ralske - the guy had the same thinning hair and glasses that were in his interview picture. His words in the article - and my reaction to it - were fresh in my mind, and I was just about to address the man headed in my direction to see if it was, in fact, him . . . but at the last second, I just kept my mouth closed and let the person walk on by. It might not have been him at all - who knows? And even if it was, what would/could I say? I'll let him be content with his current life and career; I'll be content with the music he left behind.

And here it is for you all to be content with as well - two Ultra Vivid Scene EPs:
  • The Mercy Seat EP, released in April 1989; and
  • The Special One EP, released on November 12th, 1990.
Both discs were put out by 4AD, and distributed in the US by Columbia Records.  Enjoy these tunes, and as always let me know your thoughts.  

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Mercy Seat EP: Send Email  

Special One EP: Send Email

Monday, April 28, 2014

Single Gun Theory - Surrender EP

One of the many "one-shot" purchases I've made over the years, when I would purchase a band's entire album or EP just for the one song that I liked or thought was cool (I'm very glad those days are gone - thank God for iTunes).

I bought this disc in Washington, DC (good ol' GWU Tower Records) in the winter of 1992, solely on the strength of "From A Million Miles", a song that was then getting serious play on DC's alternative station WHFS. I had scant interest in "Surrender", the song for which the disc is titled - to my ears, that tune was nothing more than the standard shimmering ethereal gossamer electro-pop being put out ad nauseum back in the early '90s. But I thought "From A Million Miles" was amazing then . . . and still think so today.

Australia's Single Gun Theory recorded for nearly fifteen years, releasing four albums (including a movie score soundtrack) and more than half a dozen singles and EPs during their existence. But since their demise in 2000, any mention of or information about the band is exceedingly difficult to come by. All of their music has long been out of print, and their old recording label carries no reference to them on their website. It's a shame, really - perhaps what Single Gun Theory put out wasn't exactly timeless and universal, but the band made an effort to produce some appealing music to leave to the world, and at the very least that should be acknowledged. A lot of their sounds, as I said above, might have been boring and synthpoppy to me and a lot of others. But to paraphrase Anton Ego: "The average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

Therefore I leave to you all what is, in my mind, one of the band's finest moments - Single Gun Theory's Surrender EP, released by Canada's Nettwerk Records on January 28th, 1992, featuring one of my favorite songs from back then, "From A Million Miles":

I've been dragging my ass on postings over the past couple of weeks, if you haven't noticed. I will probably be backdating a couple for this month in the coming days. Until then, I hope this one tides you all over for a bit. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Nirvana - With The Lights Out (3-disc set)

On the evening of Saturday, April 9th, 1994 (April 8th in the States), I was feeling a mite peckish, so I took my girlfriend out to eat at Yamagen, the teppan-yaki joint located inside the swank Parkroyal (later Crowne Plaza) Hotel (now long gone, a casualty of the devastating February 2011 earthquake) in downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. The Christchurch Casino was then under construction directly across the street from the hotel, screwing up traffic moving up and down Victoria St. and limiting access to parking. But fortunately I found a spot a block over, on Peterborough Street close by Strawberry Fare, the dessert place I usually took my dates to after dining out. So my plan was to go there for a plate of Death By Chocolate after eating at the hotel.

Yamagen was basically the city's answer to Benihana, the international restaurant chain. I'd been to the place a couple of times before, and all in all the cuisine wasn't bad (although to be honest, teppan-yaki is pretty hard to screw up). The place was fairly packed, it being a weekend. But we were seated fairly quickly, and spent an hour or so there enjoying the food and the show the cooks at the grill put on for us, juggling pepper mills and flipping shrimp onto our plates.

After dinner, we grabbed our jackets from coat check and made our way through the Parkroyal's vast, cavernous glass atrium towards the street, headed for the dessert place. There were a few TVs placed here and there around the lobby, and in hindsight I can recall seeing out of the corner of my eye brief images of a semi-recognizable face flashing across the screens - a young guy with dirty blond hair. But I really wasn't paying attention, so nothing registered in my brain.

Just before we got to the door, a hotel employee wearing slacks and a blazer emblazoned with the company logo hurriedly came up to us, with a weird look on his face. I thought for a split-second that I might have left something in the restaurant, or there was something wrong with the bill I just paid. But the guy (who, by the way, I didn't know and never saw there at the Parkroyal ever again) literally grabbed my arm and all but shouted "Can you believe it? Kurt Cobain's dead."

That's how I first heard the news, and that's when everything I saw clicked. My girlfriend and I abandoned our plans to go to Strawberry Fare, and lingered for a few minutes in the hotel lobby watching the news coverage. Then we quietly walked out to my car and drove back to her place, where we sat and watched several more hours of coverage on SkyNews. As it was in the U.S. and the rest of the world, Cobain's demise was HUGE news in New Zealand.

This might come off as kinda cold and unfeeling . . . but as the seemingly endless round of stories and interviews related to Cobain's death aired that evening, I have to say that although I was sad, I wasn't exactly shocked and surprised to hear of his suicide. A lot of you may have forgotten about this . . . but it was little more than a month earlier that a story was published that during Nirvana's recent (and as it turned out, final) European tour, an unresponsive Kurt was rushed to an Italian hospital after ODing on roofies and booze. While there have been some dissenting opinions regarding the nature of the incident, the consensus is that it was an intentional overdose on his part. I remember the reporting of the incident very well, and immediately regarded it as an "uh oh" moment as it quickly faded from the headlines.  The handwriting was pretty much on the wall at that point.

After a week in a Rome hospital, Cobain returned home with his wife Courtney Love to Seattle, spending his days locked in his room abusing alcohol and drugs. In mid-March Love called the local authorities over, after another alleged (and still disputed) suicide attempt. Things got so bad in the house, that near the end of March, Love arranged a drug intervention with Cobain's friends and music company executives. By all reports, it initially didn't go over very well. But after a day of cajoling, Cobain finally relented, and agreed to check himself into a drug rehab center in Los Angeles at the end of the month. His stay at the detox facility lasted less than 48 hours; he fled the recovery center on April Fool's Day and flew back to Seattle, where he was seen at various area locations in the city over the next couple of days, before disappearing again on April 4th. An electrical contractor discovered Cobain's body in his mansion on April 8th, but it was later determined that he killed himself on approximately April 5th.

Conjecture and speculation on the causes and circumstances that drove Cobain to finally take his own life with a shotgun on that tragic day has for years filled the pages of many a book and magazine article. It is well established that Cobain had suffered from significant mental health issues, including bipolar disorder and ADD (both of which went largely untreated), for much of his life, long before he was ever in a band. In addition, there was a history of suicide in his family (two of his uncles also shot themselves to death), along with a family history of alcohol and drug abuse. In many ways, Kurt Cobain was almost a poster child for "potential suicide risk". And undoubtedly the pressures and issues related to the rise of Nirvana from their humble indie beginnings to superstardom only exacerbated his many conditions and tendencies.

Frankly, I didn't pay that much attention to Nirvana (consisting of lead guitarist and vocalist Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl) when they first came onto the scene in 1989. I mean, I'd heard their name mentioned once or twice in the music rags, and I recall noticing their debut album Bleach in the racks when it was released in the summer of 1989. But by their appearance and with the little I'd heard of their music, I all but dismissed Nirvana as just another hair metal band - a genre I just wasn't into in the late '80s. There was plenty of other stuff out there that I was into in 1989; discs by bands like Ministry (A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste), Nine Inch Nails (Pretty Hate Machine), The Jesus & Mary Chain (Automatic), De La Soul (3 Feet High & Rising), The B-52's (Cosmic Thing) and, of course, The Pixies (Doolittle) were just a few of the great albums released that year. So it's not like the world was hurting for good music. Plus, Nirvana's then-label Sub Pop didn't exactly kick out the jams to generate sales for Bleach; both national distribution and promotion of the album was sorely lacking, and in its first two years the album only sold about 40,000 units.

Nirvana began recording demos for their follow-up to Bleach in early 1990, but they were increasingly unhappy with Sub Pop's lack of attention and management issues (the label was then in the midst of some significant financial difficulties). So after laying down about half a dozen tracks, they abruptly shut down the session and started shopping the session tape around to other labels (kind of a dirty, backhand move on the band's part - but hey, I guess you gotta look out for yourself; no one else will). Due to the buzz the demo tape generated, Nirvana left Sub Pop and signed with major label DGC Records later in 1990. After a series of delays, recording of their sophomore album resumed in the spring of 1991 under the direction of DGC in a Los Angeles studio. But by the time this new album, Nevermind, was released on the first day of fall that year, Nirvana was almost completely off my radar.

I was transferred from Norfolk, VA to the Washington, DC area during the early summer of 1991, and moved into an apartment in nearby Arlington. I spent a lot of time that summer and fall fully re-familiarizing myself with the DC area, checking out all of the dance clubs and music venues. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there used to be great places all over DC, with every kind of music imaginable. I became a regular at places like The 9:30 Club, Fifth Column and The Spy Club, and through exploration and word of mouth I came across lots of other outstanding joints there were well off the beaten track.

A couple of blocks south of DuPont Circle, the area around the corner of 19th and M Streets was a minor DC party area during that time, ranking well behind the Georgetown, F Street and Navy Yard club and entertainment areas. The M/19th scene was centered around Rumors, a horrible, sweaty, cheesy Top-40 joint that somehow has managed to stay in business up to the present day. There were a couple of strip clubs (like Camelot) and half-decent bars along the north side of M Street, and the late, lamented Lulu's Club Mardi Gras dance place was a couple of blocks west. But the best places in that area weren't visible from the street. The blocks behind the buildings along M and 19th are/were laced with extensive alleyways and service roads, and back in the late 80s/early 90s, someone had the inspired idea of setting up a couple of rockin' warehouse-type clubs in some of the unused/neglected spaces back there.

It was in one of these places (the name of which I've long since forgotten) one weekend night in early/mid October, 1991 where I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit". The club was very crowded that night; I had a hard time even getting to the bar. But once there, I pretty much parked myself in a secure corner
with a bottle of Pete's Wicked Ale (remember that stuff? For a while there, it was running neck-and-neck with Sam Adams for top craft brew . . .) and surveyed the scene. A few minutes later, the DJ dropped the needle on this new song, and with the very first note of the opening guitar riff, there was a RUSH of people racing for the dance floor. By the time the drums kicked in seconds later, the floor was jam-packed with flailing, moshing, laughing people, and the bar area had, almost like magic, completely emptied. I had no idea what the name of the song or artist was, but it appeared that I was a lonely minority; seemingly everyone else in the club was intimately familiar with the tune. The dance-floor crowd happily belted out every word with abandon. All in all, it was a remarkable five minutes to witness; it had been many years since I'd seen a song have such an effect on a group of club-goers.

At the time, I didn't inquire as to the name of the song or band; I was a little embarrassed at being so clueless. But it was in the week that followed that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke out, in DC and across the nation - suddenly, the song was being played everywhere . . . and not just the alternative stations. Long-established local rock stations like DC101 jumped on the bandwagon as well. It honestly got to the point where you literally could turn the knob any time during the day and find the song playing on at least one station. At the time the song sounded like little else being played over the airwaves.

And in the same manner that it affected all of those folks in the club that previous weekend, it affected me as well - not just the excitement the tune generated, but the music itself. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a very well-put-together song, with the softer verses drawing you in before launching into a chorus that kicks you in the head and gut at once. And the final payoff, with Cobain shrieking "A denial" over and over, is simply one of the great endings in rock history. Who cared if you could barely understand the lyrics? It made a Nirvana fan out of me. At the end of that week, I went over to the George Washington University branch of Tower Records and purchased Nevermind.

Nevermind, in my opinion, is one of those rare albums you come across that is completely devoid of filler. EVERY song on Nevermind is a winner, with several approaching all-time classic/near classic status: "Teen Spirit" (of course), "Come As You Are", "Lithium", "Something In The Way" - just to name a few. I thrashed this disc for pretty much the entire autumn of 1991 - not that I needed to; by November, practically every rock/alternative/college radio station in the country was playing multiple cuts off of it. By December, Nevermind was selling nearly half a million copies per week (prior to its release, the label was hopeful that the album would sell 250,000 total), and was flying off the shelves so fast that DGC Records gave up trying to implement a carefully crafted marketing strategy for the record they had concocted (to quote label president Ed Rosenblatt, "We didn't do anything. It was just one of those 'Get out of the way and duck' records."). In early January 1992, Nevermind took over the top spot of the Billboard 200 chart, ironically and prophetically replacing "King of Pop" Michael Jackson's Dangerous. As far as the mainstream was concerned, alternative rock had arrived, and was now a force to be reckoned with.

The massive success of Nevermind also put Nirvana in a weird and unwanted place. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was hailed from all quarters as "the anthem of a generation", and the band, especially Cobain, was thrust into the position of becoming spokesmen for Generation X - a place they did not seek and definitely were not ready for. You would think that, for a guy with low self-esteem issues like Cobain, finding fame for something you created and suddenly being hailed as a generational representative and voice of a movement, with people hanging onto your every word, would be the best thing ever to build up his confidence and esteem. But that's not how it works with depression. Instead of embracing the benefits of fame, Cobain shrank from them, constantly questioning the nature of the adulation and status he was receiving. He felt misunderstood by fans and critics and boxed in by his newfound celebrity. He began to harbor resentments against people who claimed to be fans of the band yet refused to acknowledge, or seemed to misinterpret/misunderstand, his and the band's social and political views. Cobain regarded himself as politically and socially liberal and egalitarian, with a Buddhist worldview and virulently anti-commercial, and appeared to make efforts to maintain these stances as Nevermind became one of the most commercially successful records of all time and was embraced and championed by factions of society (anarchist, libertarian, etc.) subscribing to ideologies at odds with what Cobain said he believed in.

But however much Cobain claimed to subscribe to his slate of beliefs, there was another side to his personality that belied certain aspects of his self-described ethos. Shortly after Nevermind went to Number One, Cobain bluntly asserted his power within the group and made what can only be described as a blatant money grab, demanding a reorganization of Nirvana's songwriting royalty structure. Rather than continuing their long-established equal three-way split based before on what was considered a collaborative enterprise, Cobain demanded the lion's share of royalties, since he wrote most of the band's songs. At first, and to their credit, Grohl and Novoselic were cool with this . . . until Cobain began insisting that the new structure be made retroactive to the release of Nevermind. Needless to say, the other two band members weren't about this proposal at all, and in the spring of 1992, the issue came very close to breaking up the group. In the end, a "compromise" of sorts was reached (although to me, agreeing to give Cobain 75% of the Nevermind royalties doesn't seem like much of a compromise). But bad feelings within the group remained, adding an additional level and dimension to the outside strains Cobain was under.

This was just one of the most obvious examples of the conflict going on within Cobain, as he attempted to reconcile the two sides of his image - the external side (superstar multimillionaire "King of Grunge") and his private (bohemian underground rock rebel); contradictory images that in many ways mirrored his bipolar mental state.  Cobain's lyrics, cryptic as they are, reflected these internal contradictions - seeming to mean one thing one minute before meaning the opposite in the next line.  In an interview last year, Krist Novolesic made an offhand remark about calling Kurt out good-naturedly on the nature of his words during their recording session - while at the same time succinctly confirming what I mentioned above, the tug of war going on within Cobain's head:
I'd go, "Did you hear what you just said? You contradicted what you said a minute ago." He'd laugh at himself, because he knew it. He would be like that. He wanted to be a rock star – and he hated it [my emphasis].
Another example of Cobain's dealing with this juxtaposition was in the recording of Nirvana's third (and last) album, In Utero. In Utero was supposed to be Nirvana backing away from their "rock stardom"and reclaiming their indie cred. But in many ways, In Utero simultaneously rejects and embraces everything Nirvana did before it.

In what is considered the definitive Nirvana biography, the 1993 book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, author Michael Azerrad asserts that "the music of In Utero showcased divergent sensibilities of abrasiveness and accessibility that reflected the upheavals Cobain experienced prior to the album's completion." Novolesic has said that on this album, Cobain wrote some wonderful, beautiful songs, and then during recording deliberately tried to roughen them, add noise and rawness to the music, both on specific songs and throughout the entire album. For example, "Heart Shaped Box" starts off as a heartfelt ballad before suddenly launching into a howling chorus, then lurching back again to ballad-mode. Soft, soulful songs like "Dumb" would immediately be followed by grinding, shrieking guitar workouts like "Very Ape" and "Milk It". And, of course, Cobain couldn't help but take aim at both himself and his new supporters and critics - witness the first words in the very first song on the album, "Serve The Servants":

Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I'm bored and old
Self-appointed judges judge
More than they have sold
Practically every moment on In Utero is a contradiction to what comes immediately before and after it - and it was designed that way. Still, for all the band's talk about In Utero being a 'rejection' of their Nevermind sound, a lot of songs on this album follow the sonic blueprint of its predecessor - perhaps not in a point-by-point song comparison, but in the LOUDquietLOUD structure and instrumentation.  Nirvana was, after all, a three-piece, and there's only so much you can do to change your signature sound before going off into Lou Reed Metal Machine Music mode and completely alienating your fans - something Nirvana was not about to do.  

In Utero was purposely recorded and designed to be Cobain's ultimate "anti-commercial" response to Nevermind - but the fucking thing still sold 15 million copies worldwide.  So, um - mission accomplished . . . (?)  

In spite of all that, In Utero is a much more personal album than Nevermind, clearly reflecting Cobain's state of mind at the time of recording. After his death, a lot of critics and observers made much of the words and phrases used in the disc's songs, which to them seemed prophetic in terms of how Cobain eventually ended his life - Pitchfork media recently called the album "the rough draft for rock‘n’roll’s most famous suicide note". Personally, I think that's bullshit. I have never believed that Cobain wrote the album with the conscious intent of offing himself soon afterwards and justifying/explaining the reasons behind it to the masses
beforehand. Critics did the same thing with Joy Division's Closer after lead singer Ian Curtis' 1980 suicide - it was no truer in that case than it was for this one.

There is a term - apophenia - that I think applies here. Apophenia is defined as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness", but it has come to represent the tendency to seek patterns in random information in general. That's exactly what lazy journalists tried to do in the wake of Cobain's death, and that's where they failed. There is no morbid, sinister pattern in In Utero; it is NOT a farewell from a walking dead man.  It's just a very powerful record showcasing the many things that were on Cobain's mind at the time. Looking into it any further than that is a foolish and ultimately futile exercise. Dave Grohl did a lengthy interview with Rolling Stone last September, where he spoke extensively about Nirvana's last album. Here's what he had to say, in relation to what I wrote above:
"The album [In Utero] should be listened to as it was the day it came out. That's my problem with the record. I used to like to listen to it. And I don't anymore, because of that. To me, if you listen to it without thinking of Kurt dying, you might get the original intention of the record. Like my kids. They know I was in Nirvana. They know Kurt was killed. I haven't told them that he killed himself. They're four and seven years old. So when they listen to In Utero, they'll have that fresh perspective – the original intention of the album, as a first-time listener. Someday they will learn what happened. And it'll change that. It did for me."
* * * * * * *

Late last year, People Magazine published an article conjecturing what popular musicians who died young (like Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison) would be doing now if they had lived to the present day. For the story, the magazine commissioned a high-end film manipulation/restoration company to come up with mocked-up portraits, illustrating what these singers might look like nowadays. The pictures themselves are remarkably realistic and poignant, none moreso than that of a Kurt Cobain pushing 50:

The People story itself was lightweight foolishness, full of idiotic predictions as to what these stars' current lives would possibly be like (for example, Elvis "presides over the largest musician-owned eatery chain in the United States, an all-you-can-eat buffet called Hunks & Hunks O' Burnin' Love . . . "; Bob Marley "is elected president-king for life of Jamaica . . ."). But the writeup for Cobain is probably the most plausible of all the artists featured:
"Given Kurt Cobain's love for his daughter and his disdain for the media and stardom, we like to think that the Cobain of this picture eventually moved to Portland, remained wholly devoted to Frances Bean, and drives a Prius. He DJs (very) infrequently, turns down every interview request, and enjoys the occasional craft beer."
I could totally see that scenario happening for him, Cobain living the life of a rock recluse, the grunge version of Axl Rose (albeit with a little more class, hopefully). But we'll never have the opportunity to see that ourselves . . . which is a pity.

Then again, with Kurt gone for these twenty years now, you and I also have not and will never have the opportunity to see him in decline. We don't have to witness Cobain sliding into irrelevance, or hear critics badmouthing his latest poorly-received album, forever comparing his current output to his early iconic Nirvana hits. We are spared the ignominy of seeing Cobain as a contestant on Dancing With The Stars or serving as a guest judge on American Idol. We'll never have to deal with crap celebrity magazine photos of Kurt squiring his daughter to some pretentious fashion show premiere, posing dutifully and a bit shamefaced in front of a white canvas covered with corporate logos. We all are spared the constant biannual faux-media frenzy of a rumored Nirvana reunion at next year's Coachella or SXSW. There will be no nasty, drawn-out Kurt & Courtney divorce proceedings; no "tell-all" books by disgruntled old band members; no pointless collaborations with sorry bands like Slipknot or OneRepublic looking to milk whatever would be left of Cobain's indie cred.

 Like some other performers who left us far too soon (such as Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, and Hendrix), Cobain is now frozen in time, and is quickly passing into the realm of legend. He will always and forever be the brooding, scruffy-looking, twenty-something floppy-haired genius who impacted musical history. In many ways, he has ascended into the pantheon of those stars who will never grow old, and whose reputation and work will forever be secure. As tragic as his death was, and in spite of all that his friends, family and fans lost with him being gone from the Earth for these past twenty years, at least there is some small solace in that.

 My younger sister sent me this Nirvana box set for Christmas in 2004 - one of her better holiday gifts in the past twenty years. A Nirvana set was previously scheduled for release in late 2001, but was held up by Courtney Love, specifically over the unreleased song "You Know You're Right". Love considered the tune a valuable centerpiece song, and as such didn't want to see it buried and "wasted" in a multi-disc set. She dragged the surviving band members into court regarding it. In the end, a compromise was reached, and "You Know You're Right" was released on the 2002 single-disc Nirvana compilation - paving the way for With The Lights Out two years later (in the end containing an acoustic demo of "You Know You're Right", which I hope to God Grohl and Novolesic included as a "screw you" gesture to Love . . .).

All in all, this is a superb set, in that instead of repackaging cuts from the band's studio albums, the set consists almost entirely of previously rare or unreleased material, including b-sides, demos, rough rehearsal recordings and live recordings. The songs are sequenced in roughly chronological order, so by going straight through them, you can basically follow the evolution and development of Nirvana's sound. For fans, this is an essential recording.

So, here you are - Nirvana's With The Lights Out box set (Well, the first three music discs; I didn't include the fourth disc here, a DVD of band rehearsals, concerts and music videos), released by DGC Records on November 23rd, 2004. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.  

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