Thursday, September 18, 2014

Girls Just Want To ... Sing Sappy Aerobic Rock Ballads?

After just one song, did the world think it knew Cyndi Lauper? Well, Cyndi had other ideas. Or rather, maybe that was the idea all along. According to Wikipedia, "Initially Epic Records wanted 'Time After Time' as the album's lead-single. However, Lauper claimed that releasing a ballad first defines an artist in a certain way, noting that she could have been known as a balladeer and that it could have killed her career." The irony being, of course, that after She's So Unusual, Cyndi ended up primarily becoming known as a balladeer, but at least it was her choice.

Nonetheless, I'm still on the fence over how well her idiosyncratic vocal style, so suitable for dance-pop, works with balladry. For instance: when she sings "And darkness has turned to grey," the word "grey" almost sounds like "crack," and just another couple of lines later, the word "OK" almost manages to have three syllables in it. Also, usually when I say that a song sounds "incredibly, inescapably '80s," that's the highest praise in the world, but because, simply as a composition, "Time After Time" feels so much like a classic pop standard, I kind of wonder if the production, particularly the overpowering, synthesized bass line that sounds like it flowed right out of Giorgio Moroder's bowels, does the song a bit of a disservice. I almost wish I could hear what "Time After Time" would have sounded like if it had been been recorded by the Beatles. But that's probably true of any song. Well, maybe not "The Macarena."



Based on the opening minute of the video, it might be fair to say that Cyndi herself still had reservations about coming off too "sensitive" and "touchy-feely": she's lying in bed in a trailer, mouthing every word to the Marlene Dietrich film The Garden Of Allah, apparently clutching a giant porcelain dog. But once the song starts, things get a little squishy: she imagines seeing her mother in a doorway (the same real-life mother from the "Girls" video), fights with her boyfriend (after he teases her for getting a haircut that looks like she accidentally fell on a grate), and finally gives a dramatic train station goodbye that could have come straight out of an old Hollywood tear-jerker. According to Wikipedia, Cyndi's tears were real. By the end of it all, this video is actually kind of genuinely ... sad. Like, for reals.
Although it was the final hit off She's So Unusual, I have to say that "All Through The Night" kicks just as much fluorescent bracelet ass as the other three. The original version, by its songwriter Jules Shear, sounds like some sort of klezmer polka karaoke number, but somehow Cyndi heard a hit in there. Beginning with a sparkling synthesizer arpeggio (I'm pretty sure that's what it's called, and if it's not, well, that's what it's called now), the single quickly establishes an introspective, late night, after-party vibe, with a touch of the same slightly reggae flavor that "Girls" utilized. As opposed to the original version, Cyndi maximizes the power of the chorus by 1) keeping the verses really spare and percussion-free, and 2) letting a male voice join her on the chorus, almost turning the song into a duet. Then, at about the 2:10 mark, we're treated to a synthesizer solo that was apparently played by Pac-Man (or possibly Mrs. Pac-Man - my sources differ).


I suppose her singing is strident and affecting, but again, thanks to her interesting pronunciation choices, at times it's just so ... unusual. Some examples:
  • She turns the word "crying" into "kwy-ing."
  • In the line, "And it goes running," she puts the stress on "it." Seriously, who puts the stress on "it"?
  • For years I thought the word "meter" was actually "needle" and she simply just inserted a rogue "t" in there.
  • I thought "we won't reach back" was "we want respect." Was Rodney Dangerfield supposed to do this at some point?
  • I thought "same without saying" was "sadness outside." Still kind of works.
  • I thought "what by day they lack" was "what binding they lack." Why was the need for binding so urgent? God, if they only had some binding!
However, smart choice to let the chorus repeat an extra time (around 3:10). It's like the sound of a couple that just wants to let the magical evening linger a little longer before they have to say goodbye. It's like when you "fall back" in Daylight Savings Time and you realize that even though you'll still have to go to work in the morning, at least you get to stay up an extra hour and play video games.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Uptown Girl": Auto Shops Sure Have Changed Since The '80s

So, there's this guy you know, and for all intents and purposes, he's a lot like you. He's kinda goofy, fun to be around, not too attractive, not too ugly, but you can identify with him. Suddenly, he snags this girlfriend who's like a supermodel. OK, that's nice, good for him, but you don't really want to hear about it too much. However, he can't believe his good fortune and he thinks everyone in the world is as excited about it as he is and it's all he ever wants to talk about. Also, it's 1983. And that guy is Billy Joel.

I guess it's fair that if we ask our artists to turn their suffering into art, then occasionally we have to let them turn their adolescent glee into art. I don't really begrudge Billy Joel too much for Christie Brinkley, since a) for most of his career, he seemed pretty depressed, b) eventually they got divorced and his songwriting dried up, and c) the whole concept of their marriage is pretty funny. Also, I like the songs she inspired.

Amusingly enough, according to Wikipedia, "Uptown Girl" may not have even initially been inspired by Christie Brinkley, but rather by another '80s supermodel Billy had been dating just prior to Brinkley: Elle MacPherson. Oh you have got to be kidding me. If you didn't want to punch him before, you really want to punch him now.

Although Billy conceived "Uptown Girl" as a Four Seasons homage, the final product probably has more meat on its bones than "Sherry" or "Big Girls Don't Cry" ever did. Those old Four Seasons mixes tended to feature extremely wide stereo separation between the rhythm track and the vocals (which was quite prevalent during that era, and which some people hate but I really love). On "Uptown Girl," however, all the instruments are essentially mixed in the center, almost like a mono mix. Well, I guess Billy Joel isn't Lenny Kravitz. But what this means is that "Uptown Girl" plays thicker and louder than any of those early '60s hits, and it may even be catchier (!). "Uptown Girl" has more hooks in it than an annual pirate convention (not sure if those exist, but hey, just go with it). Let's count them:
  1. The initial "Ah-ah-ah-ah"s from the backing vocalists (0:12)
  2. The verse melody (0:20)
  3. The "And when she knows what she wants" melody, which is sort of a bridge or a pre-chorus (except I don't think the song actually has a chorus) (0:49)
  4. The sudden minor key twist of the "She'll see I'm not so tough" section, which leads back into the verse (1:04)
  5. The "Oh-oh-oh" hook, which sounds like a modified version of Hook #3, but is actually a bit different (1:27)
That's five different hooks, all piled on top of each other, and they just keep coming! The interplay between Billy's lead vocal and the backing vocals is very creative as well, somewhat reminding me of the way McCartney and Harrison's backing vocals zig-zag behind Lennon in "Help!" Here's my feeble attempt to write it out:
And when she knows
(And when she)
What she wants
(Knows)
From her ty-yiy-yime
(Wants from her ty-yiy-yime)
And when she wakes up
(She wakes up)
And makes up
(Makes up her)
Her my-yiy-mind
We're not talking beginning level Tetris here.

While the single was a big hit in America, it was ginormous in Britain, hitting #1 for five weeks, becoming the second best-selling song of the year there (behind "Karma Chameleon"), and apparently elevating Billy to a whole new level of UK stardom, dragging his whole back catalog into the charts along with it (much like what Born In The U.S.A. would do with Springsteen a year later). I mean, what was it, specifically, about "Uptown Girl" that made the UK think it had been missing out on all those years of Long Island brilliance?

At any rate, Billy probably figured, "Well, as long as I've got Christie Brinkley lying around, I might as well stick her in my video." The clip for "Uptown Girl" must surely feature the least authentic depiction of a New York City mechanic's shop in celluloid history, with grungy auto workers eagerly breaking out into song. It's like the opening scene from West Side Story: why have I always had the feeling that real-life gang members didn't prance around in leotards and display unparalleled grace and poise? By the same token, I'm pretty sure there weren't too many auto shops with black guys wearing frilly little crop tops, but I could be mistaken. Then again, if Christie Brinkley showed up at my auto shop, perhaps I might have found myself in the mood to sing too.

This is also your chance to watch two people who, I assume, were not particularly adept at dancing (one being a singer and the other being a model) dance for three minutes. Oh, and not only is she better looking than he is, but she's also taller (or maybe it's the shoes?). But who's idea was the hat? Since when did girls from "Uptown" wear black cowboy hats? The whole time I'm thinking, "Hey, Christie, ditch the hat." And sure enough, she does.



Here's how I know I'm getting old: A couple of years ago I was over at a friend's place and he was listening to the radio, which was tuned to an "oldies" station. Suddenly "Uptown Girl" came on. No, no, no. See "Uptown Girl" was supposed to be an homage to oldies, not an actual oldie itself. But the kids, the damn kids, they can't even tell the difference these days.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Drummer Takes Over Genesis, No One Notices AKA That First Intoxicating Taste Of Horse Tranquilizer

Usually, when a band announces that it will be replacing its departing lead singer with its drummer, that is not a good sign.

When Phil Collins became the new front man for Genesis, I'm sure many had their doubts. "Yeah, right, and why didn't Ringo front the Beatles?" It was a plan so crazy, it just might work. Well, as with Pink Floyd after the loss of Syd Barrett, Genesis not only survived, but thrived: while The Lamb Dies Down On Broadway peaked at #10 in the UK and #41 in the US, A Trick Of The Tail peaked at #3 in the UK and #31 in the US, while Wind & Wuthering peaked at #7 in the UK and #26 in the US. It kind of makes you wonder, besides wearing funny costumes, how much Peter Gabriel actually did. I mean, when the Doors recorded those albums without Jim Morrison, you definitely noticed.

The reason nobody noticed is because Genesis, for a couple of albums at least, sounded exactly the fucking same. It may seem odd to say it (after so many years of solo stardom for each of them), but back then, Phil Collins' voice sounded a lot like Peter Gabriel's. Do a blind taste test, and see if you can tell the difference. And again, I'm not trying to be contrarian, but I think I actually like A Trick Of The Tail and Wind & Wuthering more than the Gabriel albums. Seriously! The music sounds more relaxed, more spacious, not quite so busy, not so self-consciously "arty." Yeah, fine, I guess the lyrics aren't quite as "intellectual," but Peter Gabriel can go save his rock operas about Puerto Rican New York street hustlers for someone else; I just want to hear some tasty prog-pop hooks.


Which is not to say that post-Gabriel Genesis didn't have its thematic inspirations. Initially, I assumed the lyrics on Tail and Wind were simply fanciful, fairy tale imagery, but in his disturbingly candid and riveting memoir In The Air Tonight, Collins reveals their surprising origins:
  • "Dance on a Volcano" was actually "Dutch slang for having to take an extra-fiery shit. We used to say, 'Gentlemen, excuse me, I have to go 'dance on a volcano,' if you know what I mean.'"
  • "Entangled" was actually about "a particularly unfortunate bondage session with a 73-year-old deaf woman in Tokyo. See, with S&M, communication is key."
  • "Robbery, Assault & Battery" was "actually about a real robbery, assault & battery. Tony and I were in Jacksonville, huffing Alligator pee, and we robbed a 7-11 with a crowbar and some jumper cables. I beat the daylights out of a clerk with a can of WD-40. Took the two best lawyers in Florida to get us out of that one."
  • "One for the Vine" was about "two little orphan kids my uncle used to keep in a cage in his basement. He'd walk down there and feed them plant food. He used to dangle it from a little dropper, and he'd give a drop to the kids, and then he'd give some to the ivy that was growing all over the wall. So he used to say, 'One for the children, and one for the vine.'"
  • "Your Own Special Way," often referred to as Genesis' first proper love song, was actually an ode to a particularly insatiable groupie with custom-made dentures. "She had her own special way, all right."
  • On the other hand, certain songs with evocative titles were simply products of creative license. "'Blood on the Rooftops,' I didn't get that from anything, I just pulled it out of thin air. No blood, no rooftops."
And so, the little drummer that could became the little front man that could, surprising everyone in the universe, even himself. But if it seems like it was a win-win situation for all concerned, the ugly truth is that the transition came at a price:
Being the drummer was like attending university on a full scholarship. All the perks of adulthood, none of the drawbacks. You could drink all night, shag all day, pound the skins, crash on the floor, and nobody expected any different. Playing with house money. Being the front man was like graduating at 23 and heading straight into a position the bank. The party was over.

Night after endless night, the demands never ceased. "Phil, the equipment's missing!" "Phil, the record label thinks the new album cover is offensive!" "Phil, I'm pregnant with your child, and so is my cousin!" After a while, I just couldn't deal. Like many rock and roll legends before me, I sought out some ... assistance.

At first, it wasn't a big deal. Tony always had a bottle of uppers he used to carry around, just some run-of-the-mill amphetamines. We had a show in Indianapolis and I was wiped out. I took a couple to get through it. That was all right for a little while. One night in Pittsburgh I cut my skull on a hatchet (during some rougher than usual cos-play with a Mongolian call girl), and I could barely crawl out of bed the next morning. They gave me a dose of lidocaine and some valium and shoved me out there. I couldn't understand why the audience was turning into a bunch of toads and badgers, but Mike told me later I was merely hallucinating. Apparently we played well. Funny, I've never read Wind in the Willows.

But still, I needed something to give me that "jolt" I was really looking for. Whatever I tried, it just didn't have that "kick," that certain "dazzle." There was show in Miami. Due to go on in three hours. I'd gotten into a bout of fisticuffs the night before with the father of a 15-year-old cheerleader (she told me she was 19, there was an ostrich involved, etc. etc.). I felt like eight dog turds stacked on top of each other. I was passed out in the hotel lobby when a janitor tapped me on the arm.

"You OK?"

It was a Cuban fellow, with a gold necklace and a tattoo of a cross on his arm.

"Hmm?"

"You look malo, man, muy malo."

"Huuh? What do you want? What is it?"

"You in that group, yes? Los Genesis?"

"Yeah. Got a show in two hours."

He let out a laugh. "You? Show in dos horas? Dos horas? You not ready for no show, man." Suddenly he leaned in and whispered to me. "I got something can help."

"Look, pal, I'll handle it. Just stay out of my business."

"You do concert no problem." He then pulled an opaque brown vial out of his pocket. "These little ninos ... like power from los dioses."

"I don't want it."

"Hey man, is your funeral."

I held out my hand, he dropped a few tablets into my palm, and I groggily slid them into my pocket.

"You need more? You look for Julio." And with that, he jiggled his key ring and headed to the storage closet.

"Smartass," I muttered to myself. But after denting the leather seat for another hour, I stumbled to the bathroom and wiped my face over the sink. I stared into those sunken drummer eyes. "What the hell." I popped two tablets into my mouth and stuck my lips under the faucet.

We were doing a sound check. Just as I began to sing a snippet of "I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)," it ... hit me. This feeling. It was like ... an electricity and gasoline blood transfusion. It was like if sex and death went to college together - and studied the same major. My eyes became laser beams, my arms became jackhammers, my legs became pistons. I thought to myself, "Dear God, I am not a praying man, but I will do whatever you ask, pay any price, suffer any burden, as long as you let me feel this way for the rest of my life."

They say it was one of the greatest Genesis concerts of all time. We played a 96-minute version of "Supper's Ready" - 28 of those minutes consisting of my drum solo. Over the years, at least five different couples have confessed to me that after they returned home from that concert, they conceived a child. From the first note to the last, magic was in the air.

The next morning, I rushed down to the lobby. Where was that blasted janitor? Suddenly I heard a whistling in the hallway.

"Ah, Senior Collins! You do a good show last night! I never see drumming like this, not even in Cuba."

I pulled him into an open closet. ""What is it?" I demanded.

"What is what? Why you whisper, man?"

"What is it?"

"Ah, you mean my little helper friends." He slowly grinned.

"Don't play games, just tell me what it is!"

"As long as it works, why you care?"

"Fine, I don't care, just give me some more."

"Maybe I run out, maybe I don't have no more."

"You've got a boatload of that shit, do I look like an idiot?"

"I no answer that question. But no more freebies, Senior Collins."

"Yeah, OK, whatever you want, we'll figure something out."

In the back of my mind, I still couldn't shake my curiosity. Was it some kind of amphetamine, maybe laced with a narcotic, touched off with a hallucinogen?

"Seriously Julio, where did you get this stuff?"

"You ever go racing?"

"What, like car racing?"

"No, horse racing."

"Once or twice. Why?"

"I have connections, at the race track. My pequeña helper friends ... they not made for people."

Suddenly Julio held his hands out in the air, as if he were holding on to two reins, tilted his head back, and made a whinnying sound.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Unrepeatable Brilliance Of Madonna's First Album AKA Was Madonna ... Aerobic Rock?

I didn't want to talk about Madonna. I swear, your honor. For starters, plenty of people have already written about Madonna. She's an easy subject. Cultural Studies majors have their pick of angles: feminism, sexuality, Kabbalah, cone bras, candle wax experimentation - you name it. I, on the other hand, prefer to highlight the less heralded careers, the critically ignored discographies, the secret treasures of the '80s. Second, I kind of already did write about Madonna. Back in 2010, as something of a precursor to my '80s obsession, I shed some light on the hidden compositional origins of Madonna's biggest hits in my series "Madonna And Michael Jackson: Songwriters?"

Also, personally, I relate to Madonna about as much as I relate to a potted plant. One day at the library, not too long ago, I found myself reading the first part of a Madonna biography. For many of my favorite artists, I feel like the story of the artist is so crucial to the art. You want to know the "story" of Madonna? Here's the story of Madonna. Imagine someone who starts out with a very shallow goal, and manages to achieve that very shallow goal. That's the story of Madonna. Madonna wanted "attention." She didn't seem to care whether it was positive attention or negative attention; she just wanted attention. You know the saying, "There's no such thing as bad publicity"? That could have been Madonna's life manifesto. Granted, it's a bit more complicated than that (her mother died when she was five, which may or may not explain everything), but it's sort of like if Veruca Salt ended up inheriting the chocolate factory.

Basically, I need to say something about Madonna's first album. I need to say something about it because it has got to be, in its own '80s dance-pop way, the most magnificent album ever made. And I need to explain why. I need to explain it not so much for my readers, but for myself.

There once was a brief, shining moment when Madonna didn't actually know she was "Madonna." That moment was on her first album. Ever since then, I feel like I can detect at least the faintest hint of self-consciousness or calculation. "Pure" is not a word one would typically associate with Madonna, but her debut album is pure. It is so entirely of the moment. It is so completely fluffy, so utterly disposable, so blatantly shallow, that, ironically, it achieves a kind of singular depth. No one could consciously set out to make this album. An album this great can only be made by people who aren't actually trying to make a great album.

And the moment Madonna started trying to "think" about her music, her music lost a little bit of its purity. Sure, Madonna released other excellent singles throughout the rest of her career, but they didn't quite have that same ... magic. It's like a rainbow. The moment you try to chase a rainbow, it disappears. You can't find the damn rainbow. Where the hell did the rainbow go? What I'm saying is that Madonna spent the next thirty years trying to chase a fucking rainbow. AMG's Stephen Thomas Erlewine knows what I'm talking about:
Although she never left it behind, it's been easy to overlook that Madonna began her career as a disco diva in an era that didn't have disco divas. It was an era where disco was anathema to mainstream pop, and she had a huge role in popularizing dance music as a popular music again, crashing through the door Michael Jackson opened with Thriller. Certainly, her undeniable charisma, chutzpah, and sex appeal had a lot to do with that -- it always did, throughout her career -- but she wouldn't have broken through if the music wasn't so good. And her eponymous debut isn't simply good, it set the standard for dance-pop for the next 20 years. Why did it do so? Because it cleverly incorporated great pop songs with stylish, state-of-the-art beats, and it shrewdly walked a line between being a rush of sound and a showcase for a dynamic lead singer. This is music where all of the elements may not particularly impressive on their own -- the arrangement, synth, and drum programming are fairly rudimentary; Madonna's singing isn't particularly strong; the songs, while hooky and memorable, couldn't necessarily hold up on their own without the production -- but taken together, it's utterly irresistible. And that's the hallmark of dance-pop: every element blends together into an intoxicating sound, where the hooks and rhythms are so hooky, the shallowness is something to celebrate. And there are some great songs here, whether it's the effervescent "Lucky Star," "Borderline," and "Holiday" or the darker, carnal urgency of "Burning Up" and "Physical Attraction." And if Madonna would later sing better, she illustrates here that a good voice is secondary to dance-pop. What's really necessary is personality, since that sells a song where there are no instruments that sound real. Here, Madonna is on fire, and that's the reason why it launched her career, launched dance-pop, and remains a terrific, nearly timeless, listen.
It's funny to think of an album that sounds so unapologetically '80s as being "timeless," but what is time, really? What is space? Why are we here? Erlewine calls Madonna a "disco diva," but I think the more chronologically appropriate term would have to be "Aerobic Rock diva." Yes, Madonna, you were Aerobic Rock. Let's just face it. You danced in your videos, you wore bracelets, your shirt occasionally slipped over your shoulder ... guilty as charged.

The most impressive thing about Madonna's debut is that it manages to be so emotionally affecting despite the fact that its lyrics consist of the most cookie-cutter, cliche-ridden claptrap you've ever come across in your whole entire life. It makes "Moon/June/Spoon" sound like The Aeneid. A fifth-grader's desk carvings carry more intellectual heft. Here's a sampler:
Don't put me off, 'cause I'm on fire
And I can't quench my desire
Don't you know that I'm burning up for your love
You're not convinced that that's enough

I know you're gonna take your love and run
I know you think I'm the foolish one
I know you're gonna turn around and say goodbye

You say that you need my love
And you're wantin' my body, I don't mind
Baby all I've got is time
And I'm waiting to make you mine

You say you wanna stay the night
But you'll leave me tomorrow, I don't care
All of your moves are right
We can take it anywhere, this

Everybody, come on, dance and sing
Everybody, get up and do your thing
Everybody, come on, dance and sing
Everybody, get up and do your thing

Let the music take control
Find a groove and let yourself go
When the room begins to sway
You know what I'm trying to say

You must be my lucky star
'Cause you shine on me wherever you are
I just think of you and I start to glow
And I need your light and baby you know

Starlight, starbright first star I see tonight
Starlight, starbright make everything all right
Starlight, starbright first star I see tonight
Starlight, starbright yeah
"Starlight, starbright, first start I see tonight"? It's literally a nursery rhyme. But lest you think I'm bothered by the album's lack of linguistic creativity, think again. Here's the central irony of Madonna's career: the more effort Madonna seemed to put into her lyrics, the more I think her songs started to sound contrived. On that first album, she simply just ... was.

The first couple of times I listened to Madonna, I thought there were some hit singles and some filler. Eventually I realized that the whole thing is of a piece. With an album like this, either all of the tracks are filler, or none of them are. In other words, put this album on the turntable at a party and you don't ever have to worry about lifting the needle.

Take "Everybody." "Everybody" is barely even a song. It was, of course, Madonna's very first single, recorded a whole year prior to everything else on the album, and the funny part is, I can tell that it was her first single, but it doesn't matter one bit. What I love about "Everybody" is that it sounds so ... low-budget. It sounds like it was recorded in the basement of a gym with a Casio keyboard and a microphone. But damn, she wants to be a star. Just listen to her hilariously "improvised," wannabe Cinemax come-on at the start: "I know you've been waiting ... yeah ... I've been watching you ... yeah ... I know you wanna get up ... yeah ... come on." Save it for your agent, Madge.

Amusingly, Sire Records promoted the single on R&B stations and did not feature a picture of Madonna on the record sleeve, in an initial attempt to pass off Madonna as black (!). But this short-lived marketing scheme came to swift and sudden end the moment the (equally low-budget) video came out. It looks like it was filmed for a local access channel. Up next: a Gilligan's Island re-run.



Her second single, "Burning Up," is some serious, serious Aerobic Rock, complete with raunchy pseudo-heavy metal guitar and tacky vocal effects ("I'm on fih-ah" in particular gets mangled by a robot). As for the video, I guess they had a little more budget money for this one. They were able to afford: a Grecian bust with glowing eyes; a goldfish bowl; a blue convertible; a laser that catches hats like a pole - it goes on. They got their hands on some state-of-the-art equipment too. First, she gets trapped in a little diagonal rectangle a la Superman II. Then there's a dissolve more mind-blowing than that shot in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the bone turns into a spaceship: Madonna leans against a door and finds herself ... in a boat! The jet-setting quasi-European dude even drives the convertible through water! Then they realized they could "freeze" the frame, turn it black and white, and make it "flip" like a photo album. Maybe it's cool the first time, but by the fifth time I'm like, "OK, show me what else you got." At 3:20, she almost rips off her white dress, but the director was probably screaming, "Madonna, wait, that's half our budget!" The quasi-European guy then appears to hit Madonna head-on, but in the next shot ... she's now driving the convertible! According to Wikipedia, this is a moment of incisive socio-political commentary:
Author Robert Clyde Allen in his book Channels of Discourse compared the video with that of "Material Girl". According to him both the videos have an undermining ending, while employing a consistent series of puns and exhibiting a parodic amount of excess associated with Madonna's style. The discourses included in the video are those of sexuality and religion. Madonna's image of kneeling and singing about 'burning in love' performed the traditional ideological work of using the subordination and powerlessness of women in Christianity to naturalize their equally submissive position in patriarchy. Author Georges-Claude Guilbert in his book Madonna As Postmodern Myth commented that the representation of the male character becomes irrelevant as Madonna destabilizes the fixing and categorization of male sexuality in the video.
Or maybe it was just a throwaway gag?



"I Know It" works the same retro-girl group territory as Blondie and the Go-Go's, albeit using a tacky drum machine instead of a genuine band, with Madonna effectively replicating the "girl we just found on the Brooklyn street corner and brought into the studio on a whim" quality that all the great girl group records boasted. Is it just me, or the chorus sound like it's a bridge? And does the fluttery synthesizer sound like it was lifted from the theme for Reading Rainbow?



Before I forget, gotta give a shout-out to "Think Of Me" and "Physical Attraction," which both manage to sustain the album's precious atmosphere of seeming vapidity. Still, as delectable as all these cuts are, they are not the songs that truly send this album into that rarefied dance-pop air. You know which three songs I'm talking about. Aw, fuck, they need a post of their own. Guess I'm not done talking about Madonna.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Belinda And The Brazilian Drug Lords, Part II AKA When Rod Stewart Doesn't Get His Beauty Sleep

And so, in January 1985, young Belinda Carlisle finally found herself in the Brazilian coke dealer's mansion. Would she make it out alive? Would she become further and further ensnared into the Rio de Janeiro criminal underworld? Most importantly, would she score that ever-elusive $5.00 per gram coke? From Lips Unsealed:
I couldn't tell who was in charge and didn't want to look around because I immediately saw a couple of guys holding guns and knew better than to see more than I had to. In fact, I had a very strong feeling that I shouldn't have ever gone into that place, and I would have excused myself and left if a guy hadn't stepped forward and in broken English asked what I wanted.

What I wanted was not to get shot. But I didn't say that.
Smart move.
Actually, I didn't say anything. I was too scared.

"How much do you want?" the guy asked again.

"A gram," I said.

He glared at me with disdain and disbelief.

"We don't sell grams," he said.
"A gram? A gram? What kind of a dog and pony show do you think we're running here, lady?"
I decided it was best not to explain that I had heard you could get grams for five dollars, and that's why I was there. I thought about how much I should buy. I didn't feel like asking what the minimum amount was they did sell. Apparently he didn't feel like waiting for me to figure out something to say. He asked if I wanted half an ounce.

I said okay and paid whatever he said it cost, which wasn't much given the amount I was taking with me.

I wanted to hug the cabdriver for waiting when I saw his car still out front. I was thrilled when we pulled in front of the hotel, and I gave the driver a generous tip. I stood in the lobby for a moment and took several deep breaths.
So, children, the moral of the story is, if you make an ill-advised trek to a Brazilian drug dealer's mansion, everything will work out just fine.
I went up to my room and took the coke out of my purse. I couldn't wait to look at this package that could have cost me my life. I opened it and saw more coke than I had ever seen. I set it on the coffee table. It was like a little white mountain. I couldn't believe it.

I did several lines and thought it was the purest, smoothest coke I'd ever put up my nose. Seconds later, I felt a strong, familiar jolt that erased the scare of men with guns and put me in a better frame of mind.
Mmmm, that's the stuff. Menacing drug dealers? What menacing drug dealers? That little white mountain can turn all your troubles into rainbows and leprechauns. So I guess the other lesson here is: You want the good stuff? You ain't gonna get it from your Santa Monica landlord.

Wait, weren't we in Rio from something else? Oh, that's right, the Rock In Rio Festival! How was Rod the Mod doing?:
As the sun came up, Rod was irritated that he had not gotten any sleep because he had a show that night. He said he had never stayed up all night, never, which I found hard to believe, considering his reputation ... That night, the thirteenth, we played the first of our two shows ... Afterward, we were sweaty and spent, and intending to go back to to hotel and clean up - that is, until Rod sent for me, along with Kathy, and insisted we sit on the side of the stage as he performed. He wanted to, he said, be able to look over at me and see that I felt as tired and miserable as him.
Lest you think she's making this up (as I did), check out the 37:45 mark of this clip, where, before launching into a supremely Rodified cover of "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay," Stewart declares, "And this is for the Go-Go's, my mates here! The Go-Go's, this is dedicated to them." The audience seems confused, indifferent, or both. (Note: don't worry, I did not watch all 76 minutes of this clip, but merely managed to magically slide to the relevant location).


In the meantime, Charlotte was partying so hard that she got kicked out of Ozzy Osbourne's dressing room. It was a story that became legendary among rockers, and years later Charlotte, who got sober, famously remarked, "How bad do you have to be to get kicked out of Ozzy's dressing room?"
The implied answer: pretty fucking bad!


Personal problems aside, we had another problem that was bigger than all of us. The Go-Go's just wasn't fun anymore. I had felt it when we had rehearsed in November and December for Rio, and I knew it when we finally went onstage that first night. I didn't feel any more spirit either on the eighteenth when we played our second show, which found us between two incredibly enthusiastic, inspired bands - the B-52's, whose set included guests Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz from the Talking Heads, and the closing act, Queen, who, with Freddie Mercury out front, dazzled the worldwide audience.




And to think: only a decade earlier, little Dottie Danger had been running around in an L.A. hotel hallway with Lorna Doom, Darby Crash, and Pat Smear, like an obsessed teenage fan, trying to catch a glimpse of the man with whom she would now share a stage. But if she was worried that she couldn't compete with her hero ... well, she was probably right:
By comparison, I felt like the Go-Go's played without a heartbeat. One thing about rock and roll - you can have the best songs in the world, but if you don't bring passion to the stage you might as well not show up. We came to that realization. It just took a little time.
Oh come on, they couldn't have been that bad. Ah, but thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can see for yourself just how bad the post-Jane Go-Go's were. I mean here they are, in front of the biggest worldwide audience the Go-Go's would ever have, an entire continent having heard for so many years about L.A.'s legendary all-female rock band, millions of listeners eager to discover for themselves what all the fuss is about, and ... they get this?:



Woof! This has got to be the most lethargic Go-Go's performance I have ever seen. First of all, is Belinda auditioning for the circus? Or maybe she just got back from painting her apartment? Then it took me a couple of seconds before I realized, hold on a minute, there is no Jane. It's like a Where's Waldo illustration where there really is no Waldo. The "hush my darling" bridge is sung by ... Paula? It's mixed so quietly, I can't even tell, but you know, when the rest of the band sounds this shitty, it doesn't even matter. Most stunningly of all, Gina can't even keep a steady tempo; she's dragging everything down when she usually propels everything forward. No, not ... not Gina too! Dear God. Just put the poor creature out of its misery already.

Truth be told, the audience doesn't even seem to care. I mean let's be honest, was the Go-Go's' performance any less lethargic than Rod Stewart's? Either way, I think this just goes to show that, when all is said and done, that little white mountain can only get you so far in life.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Yeah, Well, I Just Saw A Don Henley Sticker On A VW Bus

There's a great passage in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter S. Thompson, clownishly stumbling through the bitter and jaded hangover of the '70s, describes his memory of San Francisco in the '60s:
San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle - that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting - on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark - the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" is the sound of that wave rolling back. Well, a couple of foamy droplets at least. It is an aching requiem for the lost dream of the '60s. Or maybe it's just a slightly mournful love song with a chic video. Either way, it is Henley's Yuppie Rock piece de resistance, although, to be fair, it looks like he benefited greatly from the assistance of Tom Petty's guitarist Mike Campbell. Maybe Henley and Campbell met up after one of the sessions for Bella Donna and thought to themselves, "Hey let's cut out the middleman (middlewoman?) and really go for the glory!" As AMG's Stewart Mason writes:
Upon its release in late 1984, after the prolonged and dispiriting end of the Eagles, a period of personal turmoil, and a somewhat unfocused solo debut, "The Boys of Summer" not only reestablished Don Henley as a major star, it accomplished something he'd never had before in his entire career: rock critics, uniformly, absolutely loved this song, even those who had spent years gleefully making sport of the Eagles' excesses. It's not hard to do, really. The tune -- written and almost entirely performed by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers -- is melancholic and gorgeous, and Henley wisely dials down his histrionic tendencies to deliver the most low-key vocal performance of his career, singing the verses in a quiet near-monotone that perfectly counterpoints the beseeching chorus.
Two points: 1) I actually like I Can't Stand Still more than Building The Perfect Beast, and 2) my sense is that "Hotel California," at the very least, is almost universally admired by those whose job it is to admire such things, but yes, "The Boys of Summer" does seem to be the go-to Yuppie Rock classic that's "OK" for critics to like these days. "The Eagles were shit, but man, that 'Boys of Summer' ... you've gotta give him that one." Here's how much rock critics love "The Boys Of Summer": Rolling Stone put it at #416 on their "500 Greatest Songs Of All Time" list, and even Pitchfork bothered to make room for it on the Pitchfork 500, sandwiching it between U2's "Bad" and Paul Simon's "Graceland." Of all the sleazy Yuppie Rock songs in all the former '70s country-rockers' solo careers in all the world, they walked into Henley's. Did they, like Henley, long for that elusive lover of the past, destined to never return? Did they yearn for an age when, as Lou Reed once put it, "poets studied rules of verse and ladies rolled their eyes"? Did they share Henley's Yuppie guilt and/or shame at having completely, utterly sold out to the Man? You wanna know something, taste-makers? Don Henley didn't need your belated praise. What he did need, however, was a pair of scissors, so that he could cut out all those gushing magazine clippings and surreptitiously slide them into Glenn Frey's mailbox.

Let's paint the scene: You're cruising down Sunset Blvd. The sound of faded dreams and festering memories echo across Laurel Canyon like a tacky drum machine. Out of the desolation, a bluesy guitar cuts through the suffocating air. Now the percussion starts to surround your sweaty, hungover skull like flies. A synthesizer hovers above you in the oppressive California heat, the guitar mocking your struggle, teasing your complacency. A couple of hideously inorganic bass notes later, and there's nowhere to hide:
Nobody on the road
Nobody on the beach
I feel it in the air
The summer's out of reach
Empty lake, empty streets
The sun goes down alone
I'm drivin' by your house
Though I know you're not home
Note to Henley's ex: might be time for a restraining order. Ah, but just as you're thinking Don's going to stick with this resigned, barren, Last Man On Earth vibe, he turns it on for the chorus:
But I can see you
Your brown skin shinin' in the sun
You got your hair combed back and your sunglasses on, baby
And I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone
Oh smack. The man's digging deep. This chorus is like a hymn to all the lost loves that ever were and ever will be. More specifically, there's this great suggestion on the part of the singer that his love is somehow more powerful, more meaningful, and more heartfelt than the supposed "love" from all those boys his former flame is tearing through. "Baby, you can have your fun, but what we had was real." Yeah, he probably won't win her back by expressing that love, but at least he might win a kind of inner moral victory in an alternate dimension.

Suddenly, around 2:44, Henley and Campbell are attacked by what sounds like a flock of vengeful seagulls. I hope they found a phone booth nearby. But then comes arguably the most infamous line in in the storied annals of Yuppie Rock: "Out on the road today, I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said, 'Don't look back, you can never look back'."

A Deadhead sticker! On a Cadillac! It's like seeing mayonnaise ... on a hot dog! It's like seeing a black person ... at a Republican rally! It simply beggars belief. Given that no other lines in the song are quite so humorous or so culturally specific, one might be tempted to believe that Henley simply tossed it off or didn't mean very much by it. But this is Don Henley we're talking about.

First of all, I always assumed the line had no basis in tangible reality, but according to Wikipedia, Don claims to have actually seen an actual Deadhead sticker on an actual Cadillac, telling the NME in 1985, "I was driving down the San Diego freeway and got passed by a $21,000 Cadillac Seville, the status symbol of the Right-wing upper-middle-class American bourgeoisie – all the guys with the blue blazers with the crests and the grey pants – and there was this Grateful Dead 'Deadhead' bumper sticker on it!"

Were they blasting "Touch of Grey" inside? But hold on, the man wasn't finished insulting his own generation. Here's more from a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone:
Kennedy was president and everybody thought it was Camelot, but look at what we did. We raised all that hell in the Sixties, and then what did we come up with in the Seventies? Nixon and Reagan. The country reverted right back into the hands it was in before. I don't think we changed a damn thing, frankly. That's what the last verse of "The Boys of Summer" was about. I think our intentions were good, but the way we went about it was ridiculous. We thought we could change things by protesting and making firebombs and growing our hair long and wearing funny clothes. But we didn't follow through. After all our marching and shouting and screaming didn't work, we withdrew and became yuppies and got into the "Me" Decade.
Yep, the Boomers sold out. They sold out big time. Ah, it's always fun to pile on mangled corpse of Baby Boomer idealism.  Let's do this again some time. Also, keep in mind these words are coming from the man whose own band almost single-handedly created late '70s corporate rock, but that's neither here nor there, because ultimately, "The Boys Of Summer" is about so much more than cultural regret. As Mason writes, "Although much was made of the yuppie-baiting line about a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac (although one rather doubts that Henley was driving a beat-up Datsun at the time himself), the song's overall feel is much more personal and intimate than that soundbite suggests." Arguably the most poignant moment in the song comes, not with the Deadhead sticker, but a few seconds later, when Henley sings, "I thought I knew what love was/What did I know?/Those days are gone forever/I should just let 'em go but..." But what, man, but what? Just say it. "I can seeee yew.." The dude just can't let it go! She's still got the brown skin shining in the sun, Wayfarers on, the whole works! And so, like Orpheus and Lot's Wife before him, despite being commanded not to look back, he does it anyway.


Don Henley - Boys Of Summer by jpdc11

And of course, there's the video, consisting of stolen footage from a Chanel No. 5 ad, with Henley's image spliced in via editorial magic. Nothing screams out "art" and "sophistication" like black and white cinematography, but while that directorial choice might earn snark from bloggers such as myself, it was probably the right call; like Duran Duran's "The Chauffer," this is one '80s video that has aged quite nicely. And here's how you know the Yuppies in this video are rich: their sliding glass doors and bedroom walls can double as projector screens! There's even a post-modern denouement that will make you question every imitation Fellini shot that came before. Just as guilt-ridden Baby Boomer critics lined up to kiss Henley's feet, MTV drooled all over this clip:
The video won the Video of the Year at the 1985 MTV Video Music Awards (leading Henley to comment at the Awards the following year that he had won for "riding around in the back of a pickup"). It also won that year's awards for Best Direction, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography. The Best Direction award was presented to [Jean-Baptiste] Mondino by Henley's then-former Eagles bandmate Glenn Frey.
"Oh, hey Glenn, how nice of you to make it."

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Making Movies: Yuppie Heartbreak Never Felt So Good

When rock critics wax eloquent about all those great guitar-based bands to come of out late '70s England - all those D.I.Y. groups who honed their chops in small pubs and clubs across the British Isles - they're probably not talking about Dire Straits. Although Dire Straits rose to prominence in the same era, and even in much the same fashion, they weren't punk, and they weren't even New Wave. Despite the destitute-sounding name, Dire Straits ... were Yuppie Rockers.

While punk bands tended to possess rudimentary instrumental skills (and be quite proud of it), Mark Knopfler, on the other hand, could play guitar like the devil himself. Mark Knopfler played guitar like Zeus made love. I'm not terribly impressed by instrumental virtuosity, but when I hear that solo on "Sultans Of Swing," I think, "Yeah, that's pretty good." The trick is that Knopfler paired virtuosity with soul. He wasn't just showing off; his playing actually made the song better. But it helped that he was a good songwriter too.

Apparently when "Sultans Of Swing" came out in 1978, a lot of people thought, "Wow, I didn't know Bob Dylan was about to release such a great new single!" (Among those people, as many have remarked, must have been Dylan himself, who swiftly hired Knopfler to play on one of his infamous "born-again" albums, Slow Train Coming.) Sure, like Dylan, Knopfler could be prone to speak-singing, but I think he wore his heart a little more on his sleeve than Mr. Zimmerman did - although not too much more.



"Sultans Of Swing" and the eponymous debut album brought the group instant success, but the sophomore effort, Communique, kind of sounded like an inferior copycat and suggested a band that might have already run out of ideas. Little did those doubters know that, once the calendar turned to 1980, Knopfler was about to drop a bomb on y'all. Brothers In Arms may have grossed the GDP of a small Latin American nation, but in my humble opinion, Knopfler hit his artistic peak a couple of albums prior. Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you my favorite Dire Straits album: Making Movies.

Making Movies is the album Bruce Springsteen would have made if he'd ever bothered to learn more than three chords and had ever bothered to expand his linguistic vocabulary beyond the eighth grade. Making Movies is like if Eric Clapton became a progressive rocker. Mostly, Making Movies is one of the most beautiful "break-up" albums ever. It's such a beautiful break-up album that I almost want to get into a relationship with someone and then break up with her, just so I could go and listen to this album. From Stephen Thomas Erlewine's AMG review:
Without second guitarist David Knopfler, Dire Straits began to move away from its roots rock origins into a jazzier variation of country-rock and singer/songwriter folk-rock. Naturally, this means that Mark Knopfler's ambitions as a songwriter are growing, as the storytelling pretensions of Making Movies indicate ... And Making Movies is helped by a new wave-tinged pop production, which actually helps Knopfler's jazzy inclinations take hold.
Ambitions? When your opening track is eight minutes long, you know you mean business. The very opening of the opening track is actually a quote from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel, and from the looks of it, the Rodgers & Hammerstein estate demanded that Knopfler include a note next to the song title stating "Extract from 'The Carousel Waltz' by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III." So fuck Rodgers & Hammerstein, that's what I say. Hell, at this point, they needed Mark Knopfler more than he needed them. Anyway, the piano starts tinkling (ironically, courtesy of the E Street Band's very own Roy Bittan), the drums take over, and when that smoldering guitar comes in at 0:30, this rickety old carousel has turned into a vintage Chevy and you have just stepped on the gas my friend.

Knopfler even uses the same tunnel of love metaphor that Springsteen would use seven years later, but Knopfler's usage is so much more ... better. The lyrics read to me more like a collection of evocative images than a proper story, but I think here's the gist of it: deserted carnivals, desolate highways, curling cigar smoke, and lost love. He may be inviting this girl on a ride through the tunnel of love, but it doesn't sound like a very fun ride. Why was she "a victim of the night"? What the hell is a "torture tattoo"? And which "Spanish city" is he talking about? Madrid? Barcelona? Or maybe the Spanish City pizza parlor in Newark? Actually, according to Wikipedia, "The Spanish City in the song was a fairground located in Whitley Bay, part of the North Sea coast to the north-east of Newcastle upon Tyne, one train stop along from Cullercoats as mentioned in the song." Wikipedia, spoiling all my fun. But what does he mean by "when we were kids"? Has he known this girl since childhood? Or maybe he's talking to us, his listeners - "back when we were all kids"? So many questions.
Getting crazy on the waltzers but it’s life that I choose
Sing about the six blade, sing about the switchback, and a torture tattoo
And I been riding on a ghost train where the cars they scream and slam
And I don’t know where I’ll be tonight but I’d always tell you where I am

In a screaming ring of faces, I seen her standing in the light
She had a ticket for the races, just like me she was a victim of the night
I put my hand upon the lever, said let it rock and let it roll
I had the one arm bandit fever, there was an arrow through my heart and my soul

And the big wheel keep on turning, neon burning up above
And I’m just high on the world
Come on and take a low ride with me girl
On the tunnel of love

It’s just the danger when you’re riding at your own risk
She said you are the perfect stranger, she said baby let’s keep it like this
It’s just a cakewalk twisting baby, step right up and say
Hey mister give me two, give me two, cause any two can play

Well it’s been money for muscle, another whirligig
Money for muscle and another girl I dig
Another hustle just to make it big
In Rockaway, Rockaway

And girl it looks so pretty to me, just like it always did
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids
Yeah girl it looks so pretty to me, just like it always did
Like the Spanish city to me when we where kids
For a band with such a sense of wit, taste, and elegance, you'd figure Dire Straits' videos would be fairly interesting, and the videos from the Making Movies era are, but not in the way one might think. It seems as though they were all filmed on a sound stage, and they all have this oddly artificial, "pop-art" feel that may not match the style of the music, but is very distinctive nonetheless. For example, the humans in the clip for "Tunnel of Love" exist in a universe free of any sort of wallpaper or furniture, as they simply move around in empty rooms with bare white walls. Some of the shots are amusingly literal (like the entire section paired with "She took off a silver locket, she said remember me by this/She put her hand in my pocket, I got a keepsake and a kiss/And in the roar of dust and diesel I stood and watched her walk away/I could have caught up with her easy enough but something must have made me stay"), other shots simply abstract (a man rolling a coin across his knuckles?).



But all this is just window dressing for the outro. Look out, 'cause here comes the outro. Right around the five minute mark, Dire Straits take things down a little, the song becoming so quiet it almost feels like you can hear the earth turning. Knopfler repeats the bridge about the Spanish city, and starts jamming ever so minimally. But if you're thinking this is the fade-out, you are underestimating the majesty of Making Movies. Because this is where it gets epic. See, Knopfler can play fast, but he knows that he doesn't have to. He's like a coiled snake, waiting to strike. And the solo just builds, and builds, and builds, until he really lets it rip right around 7:25 and it's like the sound of every broken heart in the history of Western Civilization all rolled up into one fucking solo.

Well, your bruised and battered heart doesn't even have time to recover, because the album's second track, "Romeo And Juliet," is even more aching and vulnerable than "Tunnel of Love" is. In the hands of Dire Straits, Shakespeare's perennially referenced tragedy becomes a more one-sided affair, with Romeo caring a hell of a lot more about the relationship than Juliet, it seems. While Romeo wonders with incredulity, "How can you look at me if I was just another one of your deals?," Juliet says dismissively, "Oh Romeo, yeah you know I used to have a scene with him." "A scene? You used to have a scene with me? But Juliet, when we made love, you used to cry. Cry! Doesn't that mean anything to you anymore???" Although that line is brutal, particularly with the way the drums come in behind it, I think my favorite line would have to be "And all I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme." Think about it. Think about it.
A lovestruck Romeo sings a streetsus serenade
Laying everybody low with me a love song that he made
Finds a convenient streetlight, steps out of the shade
Says something like, "You and me babe, how about it?"

Juliet says, "Hey it’s Romeo, you nearly give me a heart attack"
He’s underneath the window, she’s singing, "Hey la, my boyfriend’s back"
"You shouldn’t come around here singing up at people like that"
Anyway what you gonna do about it?

Juliet, the dice was loaded from the start
And I bet, and you exploded in my heart
And I forget, I forget the movie song
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?

Come up on different streets, they both were streets of shame
Both dirty, both mean, yes and the dream was just the same
And I dreamed your dream for you and now your dream is real
How can you look at me as if I was just another one of your deals?

When you can fall for chains of silver, you can fall for chains of gold
You can fall for pretty strangers and the promises they hold
You promised me everything, you promised me thick and thin
Now you just say, "Oh Romeo, yeah you know I used to have a scene with him"

Juliet when we made love you used to cry
You said I love you like the stars above, I’ll love you till I die
There’s a place for us, you know the movie song
When you gonna realize it was just that the time was wrong, Juliet?

I can’t do the talk like the talk on TV
And I can’t do a love song like the way it’s meant to be
I can’t do everything, but I’ll do anything for you
I can’t do anything except be in love with you

And all I do is miss you and the way we used to be
All do is keep the beat and bad company
All I do is kiss you through the bars of a rhyme
Julie I’d do the stars with you any time


The video takes place in the same geometrically simple landscape that the video for "Tunnel of Love" took place in, and is in some spots even more bizarre, particularly the scene around 2:28 where a room full of spectators dressed in Roaring Twenties garb appear to be watching a screen test of "Romeo" and "Juliet," and the projector burns a hole through the film, but the assembled viewers simply walk up and leave as if this happens every day. Making Movies? How about Making Movies Melt?

Monday, August 11, 2014

But These Days, Isn't It Kind Of Square To Be Hip?

Let's go back, you and I, to a simpler time. I remember the days (was it really all so long ago?) when "Hip To Be Square" used to be a cheesy '80s pop song, and that was it. No more, no less. My brother and I would sing along to it in the car while giggling. It was such a weird concept for a song. Obviously, people who were square were not hip. That much seemed clear to me, even at the tender age of seven:
I used to be a renegade, I used to fool around
But I couldn't take the punishment, and had to settle down
Now I'm playing it real straight, and yes I cut my hair
You might think I'm crazy
But I don't even care
Cause I can tell what's going on
It's hip to be square

I like my bands in business suits, I watch them on TV
I'm working out most everyday and watching what I eat
They tell me that it's good for me, but I don't even care
I know that it's crazy
I know that it's nowhere
But there is no denying that
It's hip to be square

It's not too hard to figure out, you see it everyday
And those that were the farthest out have gone the other way
You see them on the freeway, it don't look like a lot of fun
But don't you try to fight it, an idea who's time has come


Shrugging celebration of '80s materialism, or satirical analysis of '60s idealism gone sour? I mean, if it's "hip" to be "square," then what does "hip" even mean? What if I always tell the truth, but I also tell you I'm a liar? If an '80s song falls in the woods, and there's no one there to hear it, does it make any sense? Perhaps not even Huey himself knew the answer to that, but here's one thing he did know: the man had a hit on his hands. This lazy musical regurgitation of the Capitols' "Cool Jerk" (featuring 49ers Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott on backing vocals!) peaked at #3 in 1987, and quickly faded in the cultural memory. Then a funny thing happened.

It all started with a book. In the words of Patrick Bateman:
...side one (or, on the CD, song number five) ends with the masterpiece "Hip to Be Square" (which, ironically, is accompanied by the band's only bad video), the key song on Fore!, which is a rollicking ode to conformity that's so catchy most people probably don't even listen to the lines, but with Chris Hayes blasting guitar and the terrific keyboard playing - who cares? And it's not just about the pleasures of conformity and the importance of trends - it's also a personal statement about the band itself, though of what I'm not quite sure.
Despite his deficiencies as a rock critic, I will agree with Bateman on one point: this is a relatively crappy video. It looks like it was filmed on an early prototype of the iPhone, and makes me feel like the protagonist of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," where all my senses are far too acute and the act of simply watching people play music is like some horrible microscopic nightmare. At any rate, maybe in certain Greenwich Village literary circles, Bateman's analysis led to an ironic reassessment of this Yuppie Rock cornerstone, but come on, who reads books anymore? If it doesn't have a hobbit on the cover, forget it. Nobody in America pays attention to books ... unless they're turned into movies.

I saw American Psycho when it first came out in the theater. Sure, I thought it was clever and entertaining, but it didn't exactly speak to the inner torment in my soul. It sort of felt like a "stunt" movie rather than an actual movie. I didn't feel like I learned anything about the world and my place in it beyond "I guess yuppies keep a lot of secrets." It was funny in the way that Fight Club was funny: macho and sarcastic but kind of impersonal. Yes, I did laugh at seeing the apolitically vacuous hits of my childhood appear in such an unexpected context, but on the other hand, I can get that kind of laugh out of two minutes of Family Guy. Also, Christian Bale gets on my nerves. Still, like any good young American, ever since that day, I've never been able to hear "Hip To Be Square" without smiling slightly to myself in twisted glee.

Could it be that a mere cinematic reference has managed to turn a square song into something ... hip? Just look at the comments under the song's YouTube video; at least nine out of ten are jokes about American Psycho. Arguably, the funniest part of the scene isn't Patrick's critical commentary, but the minute or so afterwards, where he just sits there in his spotless Manhattan apartment, drenched in blood, casually lighting a cigar, the song simply playing in the background, peppy and chipper as ever.



Still, every now and then I've asked myself a question I'm sure every viewer of American Psycho has asked himself at one point or another: what did Huey Lewis think about all of this? In a recent Rolling Stone interview, the master of Yuppie Rock finally separated the myth from reality:
Correct me if I'm wrong, but I've always heard that you weren't happy with American Psycho at first. Is that true?

No, no, no, no. Thanks for asking that. I'm so glad to correct that. I read the book and it had three pages on Huey Lewis and the News. It was spot-on. The guy [Bret Easton Ellis] was clearly a fan. He knew what he was talking about. I said, "Wow, that's uncanny." It was like the best review ever. The guy really knew his stuff. He also wrote a great piece on Phil Collins and Whitney Houston.
Uh, Huey, you do realize that there was a strong element of satire in American Psycho, right? I mean sure, Ellis may have possessed a genuine affection for your discography, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was a proper "fan."
When the movie came around they wanted to use "Hip to Be Square." Willie Dafoe was in the big picture, and I'm a huge fan of his. I said, "Sure, go." We knew it was violent and all that, but who cares? It's art. We're artists. No problem. They paid us for the song, and boom. Now a week before the movie premieres my manager calls me and says, "They want to do a soundtrack album." I said, "Really? What would that look like?" He goes, "'Hip to Be Square,' a Phil Collins tune and a bunch of source music." I said, "Well, that's not right, is it? Our fans have to buy this record for one song? Can we politely decline?"

We politely declined, and they generated a press release the day before the movie came out and sent it everywhere. It was in the USA Today and everywhere else. It said, "Huey Lewis saw the movie and it was so violent that he pulled his tune from the soundtrack." It was completely made up. So I boycotted the movie from there on. I refused to watch it. That's it. I didn't poo-poo it or anything. But when we did the Funny or Die video I saw the scene. I thought it was great.
So wait, you mean to tell me you boycotted the movie because of some misleading press release? What did any of the cast and crew have to do with some obnoxious studio executive? Sounds to me like Huey was just looking for an excuse to get his panties in a bunch.
You still haven't seen the movie?

Nope. But I will, one day.

It's funny, because when you say your name, many people immediately think of that movie.

I'm fine with that, and I have no problem with the movie.
You mean to tell me Huey Lewis has gone all this time and never seen American Psycho? I mean, wouldn't you at least become a little bit curious? This reminds me of an interview I once saw with Peter O'Toole where he said he hadn't watched Lawrence of Arabia all the way through until about 20 years after its release (but upon doing so, admitted, "I really liked it!").
This term "yuppie rock" has been applied to you over the years. How do you feel about that?

"Hip to Be Square" was a joke that not everybody got. People thought it was an anthem for square people. That hurt us a bit. If I have any regrets, it's not writing that song in the third person. That's how I originally had it. But whatever.
Yes, America - whatever.
When Funny or Die called you about reshooting that scene with Weird Al, you were totally down for it?

Yeah. I said, "It's gotta be bloodier, though. I need more blood." I wanted to use, like, a Gatorade bucket of blood. I wanted it completely over the top. It was a very funny thing shooting with those guys. There were probably 15 people there, all of them in their twenties. It wasn't funny at all. It was serious. I was like, "Jesus, I'm trying to crack a joke here, guys." They were like, "Uh, Huey, can you . . . " I was like, "All right, all right." But they were great, and it was a great experience.
Wait, Funny or Die? Hold on a second. Yes, that's right. After having spent decades letting the bitterness and resentment over Weird Al's "I Want A New Duck" fester inside of him, Huey Lewis has finally gotten his sweet, sweet revenge:



Just, for a brief moment, try to wrap your head around this clip: it is a parody, featuring Huey Lewis, of a film that satirized Huey Lewis, which was based on a book that satirized Huey Lewis, and the clip also features Weird Al, a man who once recorded a parody of a Huey Lewis song. I think this proves, once and for all, that even though his music may have never been particularly hip, or if at all, only in the current "ironic hipster" sense, the man himself is definitely no square.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Belinda And The Brazilian Drug Lords, Part I AKA When They Called It "Rock In Rio," That's Not What They Meant

Ah, the Rock In Rio Festival - a chance to soak in the South American sunshine, learn how to say "I love you" in Portuguese, climb that silly Jesus statue? For most tourists, I suppose. But for a certain female New Wave performer, the same old Rand McNally sightseeing itinerary just wasn't going to cut it. Nope, the Jesus statue would have to take a back seat to a much more important goal: scoring some outrageously cheap coke.

Now, in this series, you may have been hearing a lot about Belinda Carlisle and cocaine. "After the show I did some coke." "I met Jonathan Demme and I did some coke." "I went outside on a crystal clear evening, gazed at the majesty of Jupiter through a telescope, and did some coke." But when, you've been asking yourself, when are we really going to see some serious coke? Let's just say that when Belinda showed up at the Rock In Rio Festival, she had a different kind of "rock" in mind. (Yeah, I know, "rock" generally refers to crack, but it was too good to pass up).

If I said, "Music festival from 1985," you'd probably start thinking of Live Aid. Well, little did you know, but earlier that year there had been another large music festival, and my hunch is that the performers in this festival might have been a little less concerned about the starving children of Africa - perhaps none less so than the lead singer of the newly-configured Go-Go's:
In early January 1985, Paula finally got an eyeful of what it meant to be a Go-Go when we traveled to Rio for the largest modern-day rock festival ever. It was a ten-day event that included Queen, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, Rod Stewart, the B-52's, Iron Maiden, Yes, the Scorpions, and more than a dozen other acts.
According to Wikipedia, she left out Whitesnake, James Taylor, George Benson, Al Jarreau ... and who can forget Lulu Santos, and Os Paralamas do Sucesso?



In the end, for our mischievous narrator, one performer stood out in particular:
Rod Stewart organized a fancy, expensive dinner party one night and invited all of the Go-Go's because, as we were told, he wanted to meet us. It was almost too fabulous for all of us to comprehend that this rock icon wanted to fete us. There was just one small problem. I told the girls not to be mad at me, but I was going to be a little late to the party because I wanted to venture out in the city to find cheap coke ... I had heard cocaine was only $5 per gram compared to the $100-a-gram cost in L.A., and that was too much of a lure.
I mean, how can you pass that up? Five dollars per gram? That's like downloading music ... for free!
So as the other girls got ready for Rod's dinner, I hopped in a taxi and gave the Portugese-speaking driver simple instructions: "Cocaine, por favor."

He gave me a puzzled look in the rearview mirror.

"Coca," I said. "I want coca."
Here's a tip to any aspiring Brazilian cab drivers: when the little white girl says she wants cocaine, she wants cocaine.
He sped away from the hotel and through the city until we were far away from the nice hotels and cruising through the underbelly of the city's dangerous and impoverished ghettos. I didn't know whether I should press my face to the window and stare or hide myself in the back, a young, white American traveling where she had no business.
Uh, maybe you should have thought about this before you told the cab driver to find you cocaine Belinda.
I had no idea where we were or where my driver was headed, but enough time passed without us making any progress that I told the driver to turn around and take me back to the hotel. I didn't want to miss Rod's party ... I mingled for a while, getting introduced to members of Rod's band and various music industry people when I started talking with the daughter of a prominent local politician.

I told her that I had explored the city a bit in a taxi, which amused her for a moment - until she heard my description of the city, realized I had been in the slums, and asked where I had been going ... she gave me a funny look, then leaned close and told me she was tight with some major dealers. A moment later, she escorted me downstairs, put me in a cab, and said something to the driver - the address, I presumed - and I was off.
OK, now we're talking. Let this be a lesson to those you planning to score coke in Rio someday. Don't ask the cab driver; ask the politician's daughter.
The driver stopped in front of a modern condominium building near Ipanema Beach and communicated that he would wait while I went inside. I have no idea if he knew what I was doing there, but I hoped and prayed he would wait while I went inside and, as instructed, up to the penthouse. I gave a hesitant knock on the door, and waited. No one answered. I knocked again. This time the door opened a bit, and a dark-haired man looked at me. It was not a friendly, welcoming look.
What was she expecting? "Oh, what a surprise, it's Belinda Carlisle! I have all of your albums, you know, Vacation is my favorite."
I mentioned the name of the girl I had met at the party and explained she said it was okay for me to come. Before I finished, he opened the door and I stepped in. I assumed he already knew why I was there, and he did. From what I saw as I glanced around, I realized there was only one reason anyone would be there. There was coke everywhere. It was stacked in bricks, and there were several tables where some guys sat in front of scales, dividing piles of coke into smaller amounts.
And this, I think, was the sound that she heard:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Where in the World is Bryan Adams?

Ladies and Gentlemen, please do not panic, but it appears that Canada's answer to Tom Petty, one Mr. Bryan Adams has gone missing. No, no, not missing missing, but missing from that most holy of websites/texts: the All Music Guide.

I tell you the truth. Having just read the A.V. Club's piece on Bryan Adams' 90s slow-dance classic/Robin Hood tie-in "(Everything I Do) I Do it for You" I decided to see what Mr. Adams had been up to by visiting his entry on AMG. I had trouble finding any sort of entry for him. I certainly couldn't give a rats ass about Ryan Adams - no, that would not do - I wanted nothing short of a Bryan. Strangely, I couldn't find his entry. So I began searching for him by song. I found an entry for a cover of "Summer of '69" but couldn't find the original. Clicking on his name in the songwriting credits repeatedly took me to an error page. Using the only tool immediately available, I did a cursory Google search for allmusic.com and Bryan Adams and the incontrovertible truth that had been staring me in the face became a reality: Bryan Adams... had gone missing! He's just. Not. There. Several forum posts make it sound that his lawyer specifically asked AMG to pull down their reviews of his work. But... why?  Perhaps this so-called "lawyer" has absconded with Canada's flannel shirted sweetheart. I'm not sure, but if you have any evidence as to what's going on here, please let the authorities know. This is a mystery which must be solved.