Category Archives: music

Any post that mentions music or musicians, and probably both.

Thoughts on ‘Your Band Sucks’

Just finished reading Your Band Sucks: What I Saw At Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear), by Jon Fine, in which he chronicles his life performing in obscure post-hardcore indie cult bands, most notably Bitch Magnet, in the latter half of  the ‘80s, and a reunion tour in 2011-12. (The book came out in 2015 but it’s new to me, so whaddaya want.) Aside from his present status as a minor duke of media, the guy is a bona fide music obsessive and writes with commendable detail, wit, and clarity about the fine mechanics of being in such endeavors, from the intricacies of tuning a guitar to the interpersonal dynamics of endless road trips in a van with two or three other people (who you love even though you often can’t stand them).

How Fine translates the odd music in his head to something he and his bandmates create on a stage of a cruddy club, whether or not anyone else appreciates it, is the book’s real subject, and he does a decent job of explaining the outsider rage that directed his musical compass to a magnetic North of dissonant noise. It’s not that my musical taste aligns perfectly with Fine’s – far from it – but the book is a welcome change from the typical rock-star autobiography filled with tales of drug abuse, debauchery, and celebrities encountered along the way. Rather, it’s about a low-level, bare-subsistance lifestyle and the network of fellow musicians, fans, and fellow travelers that made it possible for a brief few years (I don’t know Fine personally but we inevitably have only a couple of degrees of separation between us). The last few chapters, about the unlikely reunion in middle age, is as sweet as alternative rock culture gets. To give him the last word, “You may have a complicated relationship with the culture that unorphaned you, but it isn’t easily forgotten.”

Explaining that once notorious, long-forgotten Sandra review, at last

Because it’s time…

sandrab_review_1985_two

The original infamous review, from Boston Rock magazine.

Let’s go back to 1985. I was in my mid-twenties, living in Boston and busy not making a living as a music critic for several publications in the city, including Sweet Potato, the Boston Herald, and my local favorite, Boston Rock, for which I wrote a monthly column, “Cave 76” (lifting the title from a Mel Brooks-Carl Reiner 2000 Year Old Man routine), plus occasional side excursions for the likes of the Illinois Entertainer and Spin magazine. I also took it into my head to put out the first issue of my own zine, X It Out. My brain was bubbling with ideas, not always good ones, but I enjoyed stretching my writing wings, fiddling with the forms, seeing what was possible and what I could do. It was a heady time.

So one day a record came in to the Boston Rock offices: I’m Your Woman, the debut album from the hip comedian Sandra Bernhard. I don’t remember whether the editor suggested it to me or I asked to review it, but ultimately, I wrote the following review for the mag. To the credit of the editor, Billie Best, she ran it verbatim, as follows:

SANDRA BERNHARD

I’m Your Woman

Mercury, LP

  Talk about your concept albums — part of the joke is this sardonic, juicy comedienne’s making a record at all. Bernhard’s not really a singer, but she had a dream: spoken-word monologues of varying length fitted between mainstream soul-ish, pop-ish numbers of varying tempo (nothing too fast), written by the artiste with varying collaborators. Commend her for adventuring. If most songs are lachrymose and ill-structured, most of the raps rate five stars for dry wit delivered by one of the world’s most drippingly sexy speaking voices. Bernhard’s mock narcissism is arousingly cute; so are her monologues on lovers’ baby talk, fantasies about your best friend dying in a plane crash, and the starfucking lyrics of “Near the Top.” Bernhard is a thinking man’s wet dream. I want to fuck this woman.

Really?

“I want to fuck this woman.”

Now, I really didn’t (to the best of my recollection) want to fuck Sandra Bernhard. (Yes, I know she’s bisexual/lesbian, doesn’t matter, who cares.) The reason I included it in the review was that I had in my head, “What if a record reviewer really said what he was thinking…that he wanted to fuck the artist he was reviewing, but of course wasn’t going to come out and actually say it…but what if, in this one instance…”

In other words: It was meta. Playful.

It was about fucking with the form, not wanting to fuck the singer. Big difference. And though I’m not calling myself the rockcrit version of Andy Kaufman, there was something of the same spirit behind this particular stunt. Bratty, yes, but original, as far as I could tell.

Although in 1985 the concept of “meta”was hardly unknown, it was perhaps not nearly as ubiquitous as it is now. You might say the same about Sandra Bernhard — although this was her debut album, she was already 30 years old and no ingenue; two years had passed since she first gained significant notice in the film The King of Comedy , in which she co-starred with Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis. Hipsters and critics were aware, most were fans.

I didn’t tell a soul about my actual reason behind the last line in the review. Billie, who, although she took her job as a music-mag editor seriously, usually had a high sense of humor about it all, made some wry remark (we had a teasing relationship whenever I’d show up in the office, but I appreciated that she, on some level, appreciated how my mind worked) and let it go.

When, some time later, I met some fellow rockcrits down at the Rat, they were highly amused at the review, since Sandra Bernhard was soon coming to town to perform: “Give her the review and say, don’t read the last line!” said the Globe freelancer, gleefully.

These days, according to Wikipedia, Bernhard’s original LP “is considered highly collectible and often fetches upwards of $100 at auction.” It probably doesn’t hurt that she poses in her underwear on the front cover (raising an electric guitar high above her head) and on the back cover, assumes a come-hither pose between silk sheets.

No, I don’t pine for Sandra as what-might-have-been, but I’m glad it’s all worked out for her.

Oh, I still have the LP. Not for sale.

sandrabernhardimyourwoman

 

 

 

Burt Bacharach is Still Pretty Damn Cool

Burt_B_conductingBurt_Bacharach_2014

The following post is a revised and substantially expanded version of an article that appeared in the Austin American-Statesman/austin360.com on Nov. 21, 2014.

Inevitable preface: I don’t usually do these kinds of jazz improvisations on a journalism theme, so to speak, but  this particular subject seemed to demand a longer treatment, even if only for a blog post.

It’s a sad commentary on recent times that I’ve been thinking lately about whether I need to justify writing so much about such “trivial” things as art and music; I read the news like everyone else and am as disheartened as so many others that things lately seem to be sliding from bad to worse. Of course, if you pay attention that’s the way things always seem, but especially lately, and it’s hard to fight battles against such an overwhelming amount of stupidity, venality, selfishness and shortsightedness that you see demonstrated by people everywhere. (Not from everyone, of course, but it seems to be increasing steadily every year along with the population.)

When faced with the horrible things one watches and reads about every day — some of them very real, some of them phantoms ginned up by the less reliable elements of antisocial media — you might well ask yourself, what good does music and art do? For many, it’s just a detail, something in the background. For others, including me, it’s such a key element of life that doing without it seems unthinkable, whether you’re fortunate enough to create it or just enjoy consuming it, losing yourself in it. Music, literature and other art forms are the way we explain life to ourselves, come for lessons, come to feel, even so briefly, that we’re not alone in this mystery. And so, I don’t apologize for what I do — I greatly value these conversations, which in the best of worlds, run both ways, and I couldn’t imagine not wanting to contribute.

********************************************************************

Some years — OK, decades — ago, when I was in high school on Long Island, the school administrators called an assembly to listen to a songwriter give a speech about his work.

The songwriter was a nondescript-looking middle-aged man named Hal David, who lived in Roslyn, a few towns over in Nassau County. David was a lyricist who had written the words to scads of hit songs composed by Burt Bacharach.

I listened raptly to Hal David’s tales of how he wrote “Alfie” and other songs. I don’t remember a lot of details, but he was amusing in a plainspoken, low-key way, and in the end he received a standing ovation from me and my fellow students.

A couple of years ago, when I mentioned this assembly to the classmates I’m still in touch with on Facebook, nobody else remembered the day we sat and listened to Hal David. But I know it happened, and when, many years later — after, in fact, Hal David had died — I got the chance to speak with the other half of the songwriting team, I told him how much of a pleasure it was for me to get the chance to do so. And it was.

_____________________________________________________

Take a day trip out to the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City, Texas – properly, the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park – and get on the tour bus. Towards the end of the tour, guides will play a recording of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” written in 1969 for the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and a number-one hit for singer B.J. Thomas, and inform you that it was Johnson’s favorite song.

When I tell him this, the song’s composer, Burt Bacharach, says, “Oh, that’s great. I’d never heard that. That always is terrific when you hear something like that. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, he was a good president, he really was. He got things done.”
Bacharach, who stops by the Long Center Sunday night with his seven-piece band and a trio of singers, has gotten a few things done himself. “Raindrops” was just one of a remarkable run of songs – “Walk On By,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Trains and Boats and Planes,” and on and on – composed in the ′60s by Bacharach and his lyricist, the late Hal David, and sung mainly by Dionne Warwick, a vocalist born to handle the duo’s unusual use of syncopation and time signatures.

The result was music two or three degrees of sophistication beyond nearly anything else on commercial radio at the time.

Bacharach hasn’t played Austin since an October 2006 visit to the Paramount (“I remember the bats,” he says), so make no mistake: an opportunity to see the master playing his immodest amount of hits in person with 2015 knocking at the door is a special event, indeed.

Over the phone from his home in LA, the composer charms you with his earnest, deliberate manner, old-school courtesy and unpretentiousness (don’t call him Mr. Bacharach; “It’s Burt,” he insists). Listening to him talk about Hal, Dionne, and Jerry Orbach, you sometimes feel transported into an article in Esquire magazine from 1966, and involuntarily adjust an imaginary tuxedo.

He’s also the busiest 86-year-old you’ll ever encounter, and probably has more plans for the coming year than you do. If his voice is raspier than it used to be and his step maybe — maybe — a bit slower, his mind remains sharp and he doesn’t live in the past. Last January, for example, he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal urging revisions of the antiquated regulations allowing online streaming services like Pandora and Spotify to get away with paying next to nothing in royalties to performers and songwriters, even for songs getting plays in the tens of millions. “Nobody’s thinking of how people get paid,” he says. “There’s so much free music to be had.”

When I ask, “Do you think there’s still a place for sophisticated, literate songs in today’s pop music landscape?” Bacharach laughs heartily and says, “Nope! Well, do you?

“I think there is a place, I think the songs just don’t get heard,” he clarifies. “Radio has kind of just corrupted that whole possibility, because the playlist is so short. Sting’s new musical (“The Last Ship”) is rich with music, it’s beautiful; now, will it be heard on radio? NPR, maybe. I don’t know.”

In the ′60s Bacharach seemed to bestride the world, a dashing international playboy of a songwriter. But he was also something of a late bloomer. He began his career as a pianist for various singers, notably Marlene Dietrich (for whom he also arranged and conducted), didn’t have his first hit record until he was 29 and didn’t really hit his stride until well into his 30s.

Compared with most of the other songwriting teams clustered around New York’s Brill Building, Bacharach and David, who was seven years his senior, were the adults in the room by both age and musical preference. The simple chords of early rock ′n’ roll didn’t impress Bacharach, who had cut his teeth on the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and modern classical works by Ravel, Stravinsky and others; he was also influenced by Brazilian music from the likes of Ivan Lins and Milton Nascimento.

(Snippet of interview follows)

Me: Does working with different lyricists or singers affect how you compose a song?

Bacharach: Yeah, absolutely.

Do you hear them in your head performing the work first, or…?

Yeah. We started with Dionne with “Don’t Make Me Over,” and the more I saw that she could do, the more the possibilities became musically, and I guess for Hal lyrically too, because we could stretch – all you have to do, Wes, is look at a song and say, like “Promises, Promises,” in the Broadway show it was very intense and very trying for the singer; the singer had many words and many notes. Jerry Orbach used to say, “God, why’d you have to make it so tough?” Well, I made it so tough because it has to work (out) the anger – “Promises, promises, I’m all through with promises now,” y’know, and showing him pissed off and showing him able to actually go and free himself…I have no regrets that I made it (with) that many notes and that many words. You listen to Dionne’s record, it’s so fluid and fluent, she floats through it. Effortless.

It’s like, “Syncopation? No problem.”

Yeah, and effortless. You know, in one breath, taken this way, that way, no labor, no stress doing it.

That – is the syncopation, the rush of words, the taking people in unexpected places melodically…

In principle.

That’s something that comes naturally to you –

Exactly.

_______________________________________________________

He was a perfectionist in the studio but tripped up away from it, with an often messy private life marred by bad decisions — if you’re interested in more background on both, including his four marriages and the tragic suicide of his daughter Nikki, read his candid-to-a-fault 2013 autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart. (I didn’t elect to talk to Bacharach about his private life. I’m more interested in his music.)

If Bacharach descended into schmaltz – if commercially successful schmaltz – in the ’80s, he became hipper than ever in the ′90s, working with Elvis Costello and seeing his songs covered by appreciative rockers like Chrissie Hynde, Oasis, Sheryl Crow and Ben Folds Five.

In recent years he’s been working on not one but two stage musicals with Costello, with whom he collaborated on the remarkable 1998 comeback CD “Painted From Memory.” Bacharach and Costello have long been noted as one of music’s odder couples, but there’s no denying the chemistry of their complementary sensibilities; aside from Hal David, has Bacharach ever had a more productive pairing with a writing partner?

One musical, currently on hold, is based on the “Austin Powers” movies (in which Bacharach appeared in cameos as a talisman of ’60s cool). What kind of tunes, one wonders, did they end up crafting for this. “Some are funny, but they’re not like run-of-the-mill songs,” he says. “Because I don’t write that way. But they’re good.”

The other work, based on “Painted From Memory,” is a creative alliance between Bacharach, Costello and Chuck Lorre, the TV writer and producer behind “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” and a songwriter and musician himself. Bacharach calls it “a serious, dark drama musical.”

On top of this, he’ll soon be collaborating with a couple of country songwriters – Bacharach scholars might note here that his first hit, “The Story Of My Life,” reached number one on the country charts for Marty Robbins in 1957.

“Not that I know how to write a country song,” he notes. “I don’t know what a country song is, really. Right now the country market is so male-dominated, ‘I love my pickup truck and a bottle of beer.’ But good songs still have a chance there. I start the day after Thanksgiving with Tim Nichols, who’s coming out here, and he’s a very good country writer. We’ll see what we come up with. Harmonically, I don’t think guitar-wise. I’m more keyboard-oriented, and (don’t think in) simple, plain three-note chord songs or basic chords with no sevenths, no seconds or anything like that.”

Bacharach has always enjoyed performing live, which is why he still does it.

“When you are playing for people, it’s a great kind of a contact,” he says. “I don’t like it when the room is dark, ′cause you’re just playing in a sea of blackness — I like to see people, I like to see their reactions. If there’s a tear shed, I like to see that. If they’re moved, it makes it all worthwhile. If they’re touched, if they feel good, if you can make somebody feel good for a couple of minutes in their day, that’s a big reward.”

__________________________________________________

At the Long Center that Sunday night, November 23, he walked out from the wings, casual but impeccable as usual in a blue blazer, neatly pressed dark jeans, and a tieless blue shirt, to tremendous applause from the mostly older crowd. Burt hadn’t only shown up, he was in command, a maestro seated center stage at his Steinway Grand, confident and in his element as he directed the players with quick, minimal arm movements, and relayed brief anecdotes about the songs throughout the concert. As noted, Bacharach is a raspy-voiced singer of limited range, but when he took on “The Look of Love” and “Alfie,” you held your breath as time stopped and just appreciated what he was giving us. Even his minimalist reading of “Wives and Lovers” – a pop song saddled with some of the most sexist lyrics of all time – was a revelation, more of a plea than an breezy anthem.

The seven-piece band — including, naturally, a flugelhorn player (“the sound of the ’60s,” as Mrs. Pogoer put it), Bacharach’s 21-year-old son Oliver on occasional piano, and a trio of three versatile singers, John Pagano, Donna Taylor and  Josie James — moved seamlessly from one hit to the next in a seemingly endless stream (see the set list below, which I scribbled down while I listened in a semi-trance).  I couldn’t find another review of the Austin show online, but for comparison, here’s a review of the show he did two days before in Kansas City and here’s a video of “I Say A Little Prayer” in concert in Ravello, Italy last summer that shows the same basic stage setup.

Call it easy-listening or elevator music if you like; to me, it was two solid hours of classy, superb pop, and it felt like coming home. Believe it or not, Bacharach, at 86, still seemed to be at the top of his game.

_______________________________________________________

Reasonably accurate set list at Burt Bacharach’s concert at the Long Center, Austin, Nov. 23, 2014 (includes medleys):

What The World Needs Now

Don’t Make Me Over

Walk On By

This Guy’s In Love With You

I Say a Little Prayer

Trains and Boats and Planes

Wishin’ and Hopin’

Always Something There to Remind Me

One Less Bell to Answer

I’ll Never Fall in Love Again

Only Love can Break a Heart

Do You Know the Way to San Jose

Anyone Who Had a Heart

God Give Me Strength

Waiting for Charlie to Come Home (Etta James, b-side of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” recorded 1962, lyrics by Bob Hilliard)

Love Theme from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

My Little Red Book (“My only attempt at writing a rock ‘n’ roll song”)_

Windows of the World

Baby It’s You

Message to Michael

Make It Easy on Yourself

On My Own

Close To You

The Look of Love (sung by Burt)

Arthur’s Theme

What’s New Pussycat

The World Is A Circle

The April Fools

Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Wives and Lovers (sung by Burt, very minimalist, quiet version)

Alfie

A House is Not a Home

Encore:

Two new-ish songs whose titles I don’t know, but they were good (from Some Lovers, a 2011 musical Bacharach wrote with lyricist Steven Sater and the composer’s first musical since Promises, Promises)

Any Day Now

That’s What Friends Are For

Second Encore: Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head (audience singalong)

From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage

As published in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.

David Bryan, a founding and still active member of Bon Jovi, is more than just the guy who’s been playing keyboards on the likes of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” for the past 30 years. For Bryan, having a second career as a composer for stage musicals is just another side of the same coin.

A pal and bandmate of John Bongiovi Jr. since both were teenagers in late ’70s suburban New Jersey, Bryan is also the composer and co-lyricist of “Memphis,” which opens Tuesday at Bass Concert Hall and plays through Dec. 15 as part of the Broadway In Austin series at Texas Performing Arts.

+From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage photo
LINDA ROWE

David Bryan is the longtime keyboard player for Bon Jovi and composer of musicals, including “Memphis.”

Strictly speaking, “Memphis” isn’t a jukebox musical, because the songs are original to Bryan and his writing partner, fellow New Jerseyan Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). “Memphis,” which deals with segregation and an interracial romance against the backdrop of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’50s, was first staged in California in 2002, but it took another seven years to hit Broadway. In 2010 the show won four Tony awards, including best musical, best original score and best book.

Bryan and DiPietro have since collaborated on another musical, “The Toxic Avenger,” based on the ’80s cult horror film satire, and are developing a third, “Chasing the Song,” set in the world of the early ’60s pop-song hit factories.

We caught up with Bryan, 51, over the phone during a short home break before the last leg of the current Bon Jovi tour. “I got two more Japans and seven Australias,” he says with the matter-of-fact cadence of a veteran of the rock wars. “We’ve already done 95 shows in 48 countries in the last nine months, so I understand when our touring company tours. I go, ‘I get it.’”

+From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage photo
JEREMY DANIEL

Jasmine Richardson stars as Felicia and Joey Elrose as Huey in the touring production of “Memphis,” a musical about an interracial … Read More

American-Statesman: How do you get from Bon Jovi to writing the music for ‘Memphis,’ and do you use a different set of songwriting muscles when you’re writing for a stage musical as opposed to a rock band?

David Bryan: “Memphis” was one of the first things that I did in the theater world. I got a script from an agent and I connected with it, and I just knew every one of those songs. One of my first bands with Jon, when we were 17, we had a horn band that played Springsteen and the (Asbury) Jukes and blue-eyed soul, so I knew about horns and I knew what it sounded like. What you see today on stage, when I demo’d it way back when, that’s what it’s based on.

What kinds of changes were made to the show before it finally made it to Broadway?

I got the script in ’01, we put it up in 2002 and ’03, then we were on the shelf for three years. Contractually we couldn’t do anything, and it never went past that. And then we put a whole new team together, did it in La Jolla and up in Seattle, then came into Broadway. You don’t tell a musical when it’s done and how it’s going; it tells you. The advantage, I think, for us is even though it was a longer than usual road, we were lucky enough to have four full productions, and you learn. By the time we presented on Broadway, we were completely confident.

Why do you think the show is so popular?

It’s just a universal story. It’s not entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It has a message, and that’s what really drew it to me. It’s the birth of civil rights; it gives kudos to where rock ‘n’ roll came from. It shows an American story, but (also) shows a human story. And it shows how the arts have lifted mankind beyond beating each other with bones. It’s art. It’s the first time the caveman drew on the wall.

The show carries a message; it’s also primarily entertainment. How did you and Joe balance the two?

I think you let your audience figure it out, instead of pointing a finger and telling them. It is a subtle component to our show that I’m proud of. Instead of, you know, “You shouldn’t be racist,” it shows what it is, and we let people discover. It’s also not a dirge; for me, it can’t be such a heavy thing that you’re not also being entertained.

Currently, you and Joe are working on the musical ‘Chasing the Song,’ which is about the early ’60s, the Brill Building …

That’s still in development. Hopefully, it will be coming to Broadway next year or the year after. It’s about the first woman (music) publisher, so it’s like the female Don Kirshner, which, reality-wise, there was no such thing. We’re championing what women’s rights were in 1960, where a woman got out of the house and started a publishing company. It’s a fictional view of facts, so we get to twist our stories. I think for Joe and I, there has to be some moral fiber instead of just entertainment.

Does it come very naturally to you to write in older styles of music, or is that something you have to work at a little bit differently?

It’s funny, on Broadway everybody talks about that. Everybody does research and they try to be exact in that time period. I don’t come from that world and I don’t write from that world. I write from what I think the character does and how that character sings. In your dialogue, you have to have enough emotion so it boils over where you actually sing a song, because in real life you don’t burst into song.

It’s modernized, looking back on time. It’s not just a history lesson. So that’s why it feels more contemporary, that’s why it’s not just, “Wow, that’s a ’50s show.” That’s the beauty of writing something original. It celebrates what brings us together, not what separates us. And hopefully, you’ll walk out singing my songs.


Live from Ljubljana, Lou Reed

lou_reed_ticketI never met Uncle Lou. Thus, unlike several of my friends and acquaintances, I have no personal anecdotes to relate about my encounters with the late and widely lamented ex-Velvet and punk godfather of godfathers (sorry, Iggy; sorry, guys in the New York Dolls and MC5). Many others are currently retailing those stories elsewhere to good effect. Suffice it to say, who else do you know that, when he died, people were simultaneously: 1) amazed that he could die at all, 2) that he hadn’t died 30 years earlier, and 3) found no contradiction between those two statements? For a coda, see my card on someecards.com: “When you die, may people be so upset that they argue for three hours on Facebook about whether or not it’s a hoax.”

Depending on who’s doing the anecdoting, Reed appears to have been capable of being everything from a generous, sensitive and kind soul to a snarky, gratuitously cruel misanthrope. In general he appears to have been nicer to his fellow musicians than to those pesky journalists, with a few exceptions in either case. I never interviewed him (probably just as well), although his artistic vision certainly made as large of an impression on me as on most of my writing-art-and-music-making contemporaries in love with alternative views and ways of making noise. He may not have been the nicest guy in the world, but how different would the world be now had he not been?

The only time I saw Lou Reed play live was on August 1, 2000 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I was living at the time. Ljubljana was probably as good a place as any to see him go to work, given that I was rather too young to have made the scene when the Velvet Underground played Max’s Kansas City in 1970, let alone prior to that.  As you can see from the ticket stub, in 2000 Lou was on the Ecstasy Tour, named for his then-current album; you can find the setlist here, although for me the concert was equally as memorable for the setting as the performance. It was held at the picturesque Križanke outdoor theatre in the Old City, on the premises of a gorgeously atmospheric former monastery (originally dating from the 13th century) “nationalized” after Tito took power and redesigned by the ubiquitous king of Slovene architecture in the second quarter of the 20th century, Jože Plečnik. All cobblestones, climbing vines and artistically poured concrete, it’s still very much in use for festivals and concerts; I would see Patti Smith for the first time at Križanke in July of 2001, in her first appearance in Slovenia, where she gave one of the best shows I’ve ever seen performed by any artist anywhere.

I saw quite a few other Western musicians and bands during my time in Ljubljana, including Bob Dylan and Blondie, and the fact that they were performing somewhat out of their element — geographically if not spiritually — added something to my enjoyment of them; they related to the European audiences differently than they would have to a home crowd, and may have felt more inspired in relatively unfamiliar territory. (That certainly seemed to be the case with Patti, as well as when I witnessed Bob Dylan tearing through “Masters of War” in the Hala Tivoli basketball arena on April 28, 1999, during the height of the Kosovo War.) The well-known truism about non-mainstream artists being more appreciated abroad than at home certainly applied here. (Back in 2010 I wrote about foreigners performing and in some cases relocating to Slovenia for the Adria Airways inflight magazine, which expounds more on the subject.) If the former Bloc wasn’t punk rock’s only spiritual home it was certainly one of its major adopted ones, and in some cases became the actual home of Western punks, alt-rockers and alt-poets searching for their True Place.

Reed was 58 when he played Ljubljana. Ecstasy had received generally excellent reviews, not that whatever his latest album was mattered much to the Slovenes who packed the house that night.  To them and to most people born after 1940 in ex-Yugoslavia and in Central and Eastern Europe in general, Reed was a leather-jacketed god who had descended from the heavens to walk among them for one enchanted night.  The whole region was balm to the dark, poetic, sooty-concrete-building, grimy-street-loving soul; of course, Reed’s and the VU’s vision would resonate there more than anywhere else this side of the West Village. (Read this piece about how the Velvets may have played a crucial part in eventually sparking the 1989 governmental upheaval in Czechoslovakia; “Why do you think we called it the Velvet Revolution?” Vaclav Havel told Salman Rushdie a decade later.)

Križanke is indeed an outdoor theater, with open sides, but as this photo shows, it’s fit with a metal roof and isn’t open to the stars (or the rain) and is flanked by buildings on one side, walls on the other side and the back and the stage in front, and thus feels pretty much enclosed. Low concrete steps slope gently backwards from the stage. For most performances the audience sits on folding chairs, but on the first night of August, 2000, whoever was promoting the event decided to — the hell with it — do away with the chairs and just pack in as many live bodies as could cough up the 5000-tolar admission fee (roughly $25 USD). It ended up being as crowded in there as a New York City subway car at rush hour; you could literally not turn around when standing up, and everyone stood up for the entire show. It was a potentially dangerous situation — I don’t know what would have happened if we’d all had to rush for the exit at once — but most people in the audience didn’t seem to mind the real-time sardine analogy. After all, they were getting to see Lou.

What do I remember of the show itself? It was a solid, very loud performance. Loud noise, and lots of it, both from feedback from the amps and roars from the Lou-lovin’ audience. There was good interplay between the frontman and his band.  I wasn’t reviewing the show and didn’t take notes, and from the vantage point of 13 years later it all seems a bit of a blur. A loud blur with many flashing lights. Among his people, Lou seemed to be in a good, even gracious, mood, enjoying himself as far as I could tell; early on he said “Hvala lepa” (in Slovene, “thank you very much”) to general gasps from the crowd. Better-known material was in short supply, save for “Sweet Jane” and “Vicious” and the last encore, “Perfect Day.” Nobody much cared. Lou then said, with feeling, “Thank you so much” and vanished into the night.

Relieved we’d survived, we wiped our brows and knew we’d had a visitation we wouldn’t soon forget.

Aimee Mann on the perils of fame, her inspirations and keeping things real

Life & Arts D1, Sept. 22, 2013

Life & Arts D1, Sept. 22, 2013

Aimee_statesman_2 Aimee_statesman_3 ….As published in the Austin American-Statesman, Sunday, 9/22/13 (click on images to enlarge).

Go ahead and call Aimee Mann the anti-Miley Cyrus, or even an anti-Madonna for hipster intellectuals: She’s one performer who’s actually improved and gotten greater respect with age. The singer-songwriter, who plays Friday at the Paramount Theatre, has become something of a model for musicians looking to grow and change with their dignity and artistic integrity intact, managing the trick of riding the waves of shifting cultural trends without being enslaved by them. Widely misunderstood in mid-’80s Boston (the Virginia-bred performer’s then-adopted home) as a shallow, spiky-haired new wave ice queen fronting the made-for-MTV band ’Til Tuesday — “Voices Carry,” a much-aired video on the music channel back when it actually played music, was a Top 10 hit in 1985 — Mann soon pulled a 180, kicking the ice queen to the curb and deglazing her persona.

“I’m not big on personas,” Mann says from L.A. “I think in order to have a larger-than-life persona, you have to have some essential split in your personality that starts to border on craziness.” Fed up with record-label image-makers and the questionable bauble of fame, which she never had much use for anyway, she took on the now-familiar role of wry, low-key relationship chronicler — in other words, her real self — to carry on.
And carry on she did, through minefields of record label woes and rocky personal liaisons. Into the bargain, she founded a boutique label, SuperEgo Records, to release her own work, way before every other indie rocker was doing it. If you’re too young to remember ’Til Tuesday, you might know Mann from her soundtrack to the 1999 movie “Magnolia” or even for portraying a fictional version of herself, as a maid for hire, in a 2011 episode of “Portlandia” (satirizing the decline and fall of the music business). “Charmer,” her current album, was inspired by her musings on narcissists. It also makes for fun listening, something not often said about some of her earlier, more subdued work. From the Cars-like early ’80s power-pop touches of the title track, to “Labrador” (the video for which is a shot-by-shot remake of “Voices Carry”), it’s equal parts ear candy and sophisticated wordplay, with a sweet melodic shell wrapped around a liquid sarcasm center.
“I think I’ll always have a soft spot for pop songs from the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Mann says. “I think that stuff will always be my favorite, even if it’s sometimes kind of cheesy. A lot of stuff had horns on it (and) really forceful use of background vocals, the kind of things that people don’t do that much anymore.” On “Charmer,” she adds, “The idea of pop music was in my mind, and the subject matter of people who are charming and what charm means, and the different permutations of that. That sort of lends itself to a more pop aesthetic, because you’re dealing with a lot of surface sparkle and appearances, things that are shiny and bright.”
Even in ’Til Tuesday’s salad days, Mann chafed at the rock star image game and the recognition that came her way. But when she was starting out and trying to get some attention, one wonders what she did expect might happen. “When you’re young, it’s natural if you play music you want to play it for people and you want people to appreciate it, but you don’t really know what that’s going to look like,” she says. “And sometimes that looks like a guy following you home at 4 in the morning. So that’s kind of identical to a stalker that you want to call the police on, but because he says he’s a fan then you — especially for a woman, maybe men don’t have this thing — for me there was a lot of where fans felt a lot like people who could continually be putting you in danger. But there was this feeling that you couldn’t really protect yourself, because” — and she raises her voice in a mock stage-comic way — “they’re your fan, so you have to be nice! Or it could be somebody who wants to murder you! You’ll know later, after you’re dead! “And then, you realize people, because they recognize you, expect you to continue to entertain them in some way, even though they’re a perfect stranger and you’re not a person who knows how to talk to people in that way. I’d be at dinner with somebody, and a total stranger would come and sit down at the table. I can’t be entertaining enough for that person and also, by the way, I didn’t invite you to sit at my table!
“I don’t know who has the skill set to negotiate those kinds of situations, to both have boundaries and be able to eat dinner in peace, but not have people get upset. But sometimes people do get upset. People call you at home and you say, ‘Look, I can’t talk right now, and I don’t know who you are,’ and then they start calling you names, because they think that you should be available. God bless anybody who can handle that, but I was not cut out for it.”
Which raises the question: What accommodations did she make with herself to want to go out on a stage and perform her songs? “Well, it comes from a different place than a sort of Miley Cyrus type person who is all about performing and being out there and having a more show-offy quality,” she says. “The main thing that I feel I do is songwriting, and that’s completely private; the codes of your language and metaphor (are) that you’re not going to tell people what certain things mean to you; that’s your own business. It’s kind of a way to say things without saying things.”
When Mann isn’t performing solo, she plays bass in a side project, the Both, a power trio with indie punk-pop performer Ted Leo and a touring drummer. An album is forthcoming, probably on the Matador label, and although there may be more to come from that, she says, “I can’t really picture being in a full-time band. Once you get into a permanent band, that’s when people start fighting.”

KUTX Live at the Paramount presents Aimee Mann When: 8 p.m. Friday Where: The Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave. Cost: $30 to $50 (selling out fast; check website for availability) Information: 472-5470; http://www.austintheatre.org

Aimee Mann says her current record, “Charmer,” was inspired by her musings on narcissists.

Aimee Mann says her current record, “Charmer,” was inspired by her musings on narcissists.

Hey, hey, they’re (still) the Monkees

This article appeared as printed below in the Austin American-Statesman on Saturday, July 27, 2013. I’ll be posting periodic newspaper and magazine articles of mine on this blog once the first-publication-rights embargo period is past.

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Micky Dolenz reflects on fiction versus reality in advance of Wednesday’s Long Center concert with bandmates Nesmith and Tork

BY WES EICHENWALD – SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In their time, they were phenomenally successful — in 1967, they sold more records than the Beatles and Rolling Stones combined — and also were dismissed equally resoundingly by most critics and tastemakers over the age of 16. The Monkees were never a cult band who labored in obscurity — they just played one on TV — but nevertheless, they’re still kind of underappreciated. As Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork undertake a five-week-long “Midsummer’s Night with the Monkees” tour — Wednesday’s stop at the Long Center hits about the midpoint — it’s a fine time to consider the enduring appeal of this custom-engineered group. It’s been 45 years since the show was canceled, but still they come again, rapturously welcomed by a loyal multigenerational fan base as if the Summer of Love never ended.

“To me, it’s like the revival of a show,” says the ever-congenial Micky Dolenz, the self-described “wacky drummer” character — offstage, the guitar is his instrument of choice — over the phone from his L.A. home. “I’ve done a lot of musical theater over the last 20 years. I did Broadway a couple of times. I just got back last year doing ‘Hairspray’ in London, ‘Aida,’ the Elton John-Tim Rice musical, ‘Grease.’ When we get back together, it’s like the revival of ‘Cats’ or ‘Oklahoma’ with the original cast. … If there’s three of us we figure it’s the Monkees, and it happens.”

The elephant in the room is that only three Monkees are indeed left after the sudden death of Davy Jones, one of the signature teen idols of the ’60s, of a heart attack in February 2012. “Yeah, of course, he’s sorely missed,” Dolenz says. “But it’s also turned into, as it would, a very different kind of show than it was with David, and that helps because that keeps it kind of different and fresh.”

Having the long-absent Mike Nesmith returning to the Monkee fold after Jones’s death certainly does that. “Mike, you know, just was never interested,” says Dolenz. “He had other things on his plate; he was running a big company for many years. My sense of it (is) he just didn’t want to perform, and the fact is, he didn’t. Right after the Monkees he had the First National Band for a brief period, and then that was it. We always invited him to every reunion, and a couple of times he showed up. Before David passed we were already talking about going out again, extending (a previous) tour, and Mike was being approached to do that.” After Jones’s death, he adds, “We got together and started discussing doing a memorial concert for David. And Mike said, ‘That’s great, let’s do it.’ And that got some traction and turned into kind of a memorial tour even though we didn’t call it that. And Mike had a great time, we all had a great time, and here we go again.”

Yes, the Monkees started out in the mid-’60s as a fictional band put together for a TV show as a way to capitalize on Beatlemania, with an American twist. And, yes, although the four assembled actor/musicians always sang on their records, other hired hands played the instruments and wrote the songs. But after the first two albums the frontmen, led by Nesmith, got fed up with the charade, demanding more creative independence. The band pulled up the curtain on their own machinery, played their own instruments on record and on tour, and wrote at least some of their numbers (in 1996, for the band’s 30th anniversary, the four made a point of writing and producing all the songs and playing all the instruments on what remains their last studio album, “Justus”).

“I’ve often said the Monkees actually going out and touring and playing is the equivalent of Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan,” Dolenz says. “So that is somewhat unique. Mike Nesmith always said it’s a bit like Pinocchio really becoming a little boy.

“It’s magical. It really was magical.”

Comparing them to their ostensible role models the Beatles will always leave the Monkees at the very short end of the stick. But if you ignore all that Prefab Four, zero-authenticity stuff (unfair, in any case), you can start to appreciate the Monkees for what they were — a fake rock band, at least at the start, but an endearing one, with a bunch of songs that have stood the test of time and a far better musical legacy than those left by other small-screen entertainments like the Partridge Family and Brady Bunch (thanks in no small part to songwriters like Boyce and Hart, Carole King, Neil Diamond and Harry Nilsson).

“The closest thing that’s come along, I think, with that sort of paradigm is ‘Glee,’ a show about an imaginary glee club,” Dolenz says. “But they can all sing and act and dance. If the truth be known, the Monkees was like musical theater on television, like a Marx Brothers movie. In fact, it was John Lennon that first made that comparison. They were like little half-hour Marx Brothers musical movies, comedy and singing and dancing and some little adventure and some shtick.”

The making of the show remains rather a blur in Dolenz’s memory: a typical schedule involved filming two episodes per week — three days per episode — heading into the studio in the evenings to record up to three vocals a night, rehearsing on the weekends, then starting over again on Monday morning. “I don’t remember a lot of specifics, frankly, about it,” he says. “People ask me what was my favorite episode, and it was like, it’s all the same episode! It was 52 (episodes); that’s a 26-hour movie.”

Despite fans’ continuing efforts to support a Monkees entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dolenz doesn’t give it much thought. “I’ve never cared about getting into any Hall of anything. I mean, we’ve had a lot of great, wonderful rewards, won a couple of Emmys. But no, I don’t chase that stuff. I’m very flattered that the fans sign petitions, and there was a big article in Time magazine online about it.”

It also doesn’t bother Dolenz that he may not have gotten his due as a singer of pop hits. “It’s probably because I’ve done so many other things and been richly rewarded,” he says. “I have had so many great reviews and so much interest and kudos from my work in musical theater — proper musical-theater singing — that it far outweighs any sort of frustration I might have had. But also, those are really early pop songs. They were very light pop, didn’t take a whole lot of singing. The Monkees was a garage band, basically.”

It wouldn’t be a Monkees show without multimedia, and Dolenz promises lots of visual interest beyond the guys on stage; supremely appropriate since Mike Nesmith, with his longtime interest in video, was a key figure in the birth of MTV, which in turn led to a huge Monkees revival when the station rebroadcast the TV show in 1986. “We always had media in our shows,” he says. “We were, to my knowledge, the first band to go on the road, in ’67, with a full-blown movie screen, projecting bits of the show and our interviews and all that stuff. … And we’ve done that ever since, whenever it was possible — but now with video and with all the archival material that pops up, this is really some of the finest stuff.”

In the end, what does the TV show mean to him? “The Monkees was a television show about a group that wanted to be the Beatles. We had a poster of the Beatles on our set, we’d throw darts at it. And that’s one of the reasons I think it was so successful — because it spoke to all those kids around the country and the world who were in their living rooms and in their basements and garages playing, wanting to be the Beatles. It was always a struggle for success. That was the heart of the show. Always trying to get a gig, trying to get a record contract, trying to do a battle of the bands — but on the television show the Monkees were never successful.”

Dolenz is on to something: Unlike most other music stars of the era, the Monkees seemed approachable. “I put it down to the original show, but also the music,” he says. “It’s not uncommon at all to have three generations (attending) the shows. It’s of course the original fans, and then a huge resurgence of the fans in ’86, and now because of the Internet and Antenna TV and all that, very often it’ll be the grandmother, the mother and the daughter. I feel absolutely blessed to have been a part of that.”

Manufactured band? Check. Forty-five years since the TV show left the air? Check. Revival, even, of a hit musical? Perhaps. On the other hand, when these three aging dudes hit the stage, the audience will likely know they’re seeing something that’s as real as it gets. And if the trio is no longer anyone’s idea of the young generation, they likely still have something to say, even if that something is only “Hey, what’s your problem? You should learn to appreciate the Monkees.”


Sidebar: Micky Dolenz’s Austin roots

The Monkees’ three Texas stops — Wednesday at the Long Center, Thursday in Houston and Friday in Grand Prairie — likely hold a special resonance for two of the three band members. Longtime fans know that Mike Nesmith is a bona fide Texan, born in Houston and raised in Dallas, but they may not know that Micky Dolenz’s mother, the late actress Janelle Johnson Dolenz, was born and raised in South Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood and studied drama at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas.

“I remember every Thanksgiving we had to watch the Aggies and the Longhorns,” says Dolenz. “I love Austin, it’s beautiful. Been there many times, loved it.” His mom, he added, “used to tell me about how she would go out to that swimming hole, what’s it called?”

Uh, Barton Springs? “Yeah! But when she went out there was a dirt road, and the kids would just go out there and swim and make out. It was totally off the beaten path. Of course, now it’s developed into quite a local hot spot, right?”

Academic records from UT show that Janelle Dolenz, then known as Ja Nelle Johnson, lived at 1003 Milam Place, just south of Riverside Drive and west of Interstate 35; the 1940 U.S. census also shows her at that address with her mother, grandmother and younger brother Jack. Johnson was valedictorian of her high school class at St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic girls’ school near the present Saint Mary Cathedral (although when enrolling at UT she listed her religion as Baptist). Johnson was only 16 when she started college in the fall of 1940 and appears to have left at 18, after finishing her sophomore year in the spring of 1942. She married fellow actor George Dolenz the following year.

Before leaving Austin, Johnson performed on her own local radio show, “Janelle Sings,” an impressive accomplishment for a teenager. “She also sang with some big bands in the area, if I’m not mistaken,” Dolenz says. “And then she headed west with her mom and her brother, packed up an old Ford coupe and came out to Hollywood to be a star, and so did my dad.”

Although Janelle Dolenz appeared in a few plays and a couple of minor films, she largely gave up performing to raise her family. She died on Dec. 2, 1995, her 72nd birthday.

— Wes Eichenwald

The Monkees in October 1966. Clockwise, from top left, are Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith. Jones died of a heart attack in 2012; the three remaining members are on tour.

The Monkees in October 1966. Clockwise, from top left, are Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith. Jones died of a heart attack in 2012; the three remaining members are on tour.

The Monkees summer tour included a Boston show. Mike Nesmith skipped many of the previous Monkees reunions but is back on stage with Dolenz and Tork.

The Monkees summer tour included a Boston show. Mike Nesmith skipped many of the previous Monkees reunions but is back on stage with Dolenz and Tork.

Mike Nesmith today, back on tour with the guys.

Mike Nesmith today, back on tour with the guys.