Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Belinda's Horrible, Dickensian Childhood Suddenly Makes Me Think Of A Great CCR Song

So Belinda's birth father says bye bye. Makes sense to the rest of us, but try explaining that to a confused little girl:
At seven years old, I simply wanted to know where my dad was and why he wasn't coming home. I also wanted to know why he didn't want to be with us anymore. When he did call, why didn't he want to speak to me? And why did my mom always hang up in tears?

For a while I got into the habit of perching next to the living room window after dinner and staring into the darkness, looking for my dad. I thought that if I looked long and hard enough, I might wish him back and see his truck turn onto the street and pull into the driveway. As I sat there, I used to play his favorite 78s on our stereo, albums by Donald O'Connor and Burl Ives, as if they might help lure him up the driveway and through the door.

They didn't.

My mom let me go through that ritual without explaining that my dad wasn't coming back home. One day I finally threw a fit and insisted on knowing why he didn't want to be with us anymore. She said, "One day I can tell you. One day you'll understand. But not now."
When I read this passage, aside from being tempted to enter it into a "Saddest Memory of All Time" competition, I suddenly thought of Creedence Clearwater Revival's very last single, "Someday Never Comes," released in 1972. Now, what could Creedence Clearwater Revival and Belinda Carlisle's childhood possibly have to do with each other? Plenty, my friends - plenty.

John Fogerty was just about the polar opposite of a confessional singer-songwriter. CCR songs tend to exist in some mythical Southern fantasy world; Fogerty grew up in the East Bay. But when I read Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival, I learned that "Someday Never Comes," written as the band was falling apart, was entirely autobiographical:
"My parents divorced when I was young," John said. "My wife and I separated around that time. We got back together for a long time and eventually did divorce, which is a very sad thing. The song was basically me talking about how it happened to me when I was young, and here I go, doing the same damn thing."

"John had left home," Doug (CCR's bassist) expanded. "He left his family and his little boy. His father left him when he was a child and had a divorce. John felt very guilty about it, and very bad. It was a deep, deep, deep song. It was the most personal song John ever did."
Suddenly, after hearing Belinda recount the "answer" her mother gave her as to why her father left the family, I gave "Someday Never Comes" another spin.

First thing I remember was askin' papa, "Why?",
For there were many things I didn't know
And Daddy always smiled; took me by the hand,
Sayin', "Someday you'll understand"

Well, I'm here to tell you now each and every mother's son
You better learn it fast, you better learn it young,
'Cause, "someday" never comes
OK, these are like the innocent little questions a child asks, such as "Why is the sky blue?" and "Where do babies come from?" and annoying crap like that. Then the questions get a little more painful:
Well, time and tears went by and I collected dust,
For there were many things I didn't know
When Daddy went away, he said, "Try to be a man,
And, someday you'll understand"

But I'm here to tell you now each and every mother's son
You better learn it fast, you better learn it young,
'Cause, "someday" never comes
But now the adult Fogerty realizes he's been had. Someday's here, damn it! Where the hell's my explanation?
And then, one day in April, I wasn't even there,
For there were many things I didn't know
A son was born to me; Mama held his hand,
Sayin' "Someday you'll understand"

Well, I'm here to tell you now each and every mother's son
You better learn it fast, you better learn it young,
'Cause, "someday" never comes
So now he's a father, but he's just as shitty of a father as his father was to him, which leaves the mother with the responsibility of covering up for his absence. She doesn't know what to say (not that a newborn can understand human language anyway, but hey, poetic license), so she essentially tells a lie. But the even older Fogerty of the present day is here to tell you now what his then-wife was afraid of admitting then.
Think it was September, the year I went away,
For there were many things I didn't know
And I still see him standing, trying to be a man,
I said, "Someday you'll understand"

But I'm here to tell you now each and every mother's son
You better learn it fast, you better learn it young,
'Cause, "someday" never comes
So there you have it. Well all like to think that there will come this big great moment when we will suddenly understand human nature in all its contradictory glory. "Well, I don't know anything now, but someday I'll understand," Fogerty says when he's both a child and a rich rock star. Well, now he's a rich rock star, but he still doesn't know any more about life than he did when he was a child!

Parents like to soften the painful blows to their children, but what children like John Fogerty and Belinda Carlisle finally "learn" when they grow up is that not even their parents really know why human beings do the awful things they do.

If you look at it one way, this is sad and tragic, but if you look at it another way, it's beautiful, because human life, in essence, is a great mystery, and those with true wisdom eventually learn, and learn to appreciate, that there will always be many things we can never truly know.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

This Is One Fucked Up Kenny Rogers Song

The majority of Kenny Rogers' early '80s crossover pop hits, such as "I Don't Need You," "Love Will Turn You Around," "Love The World Away" (from the Urban Cowboy soundtrack), the previously discussed Lionel Richie collaboration "Lady," and, dare I forget, the Kim Carnes duet "Don't Fall In Love With a Dreamer," were rather lyrically safe and sedate.

And then, there was "Coward of the County":
Everyone considered him the coward of the county
He'd never stood one single time to prove the county wrong
His mama named him Tommy, the folks just called him yellow,
But something always told me they were reading Tommy wrong

He was only ten years old when his daddy died in prison
I looked after Tommy 'cause he was my brother's son
I still recall the final words my brother said to Tommy:
"Son, my life is over, but yours is just begun

Promise me, son, not to do the things I've done
Walk away from trouble if you can
It won't mean you're weak if you turn the other cheek
I hope you're old enough to understand
Son, you don't have to fight to be a man"
OK, so his dad's a felon and all his neighbors are jerks. Unpleasant, but not so bad yet.
There's someone for everyone and Tommy's love was Becky
In her arms he didn't have to prove he was a man
One day while he was workin' the Gatlin boys came callin'
They took turns at Becky, and there was three of them
"Took turns"? You mean "raped"? Damn it, Kenny, I'm sitting here at breakfast trying to enjoy a nice country song and you just made me spit out my corn flakes.
Tommy opened up the door and saw his Becky cryin'
The torn dress, the shattered look was more than he could stand
He reached above the fireplace and took down his daddy's picture
As his tears fell on his daddy's face, he heard these words again:

"Promise me, son, not to do the things I've done
Walk away from trouble if you can
It won't mean you're weak if you turn the other cheek
I hope you're old enough to understand
Son, you don't have to fight to be a man"
So this guy's choices are 1) let the men who brutally raped your girlfriend go unpunished, or 2) retaliate, but betray your father's dying wishes. This is what you might call a "lose-lose situation."
The Gatlin boys just laughed at him when he walked into the barroom
One of them got up and met him halfway 'cross the floor
When Tommy turned around they said, "Hey look! ol' yellow's leavin' "
But you coulda heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and blocked the door

Twenty years of crawlin' was bottled up inside him
He wasn't holdin' nothin' back; he let 'em have it all
When Tommy left the barroom not a Gatlin boy was standin'
He said, "This one's for Becky," as he watched the last one fall
And I heard him say,

"I promised you, Dad, not to do the things you done
I walk away from trouble when I can
Now please don't think I'm weak, I didn't turn the other cheek,
and Papa, I sure hope you understand
Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man"
Honestly, in this case, I think your father probably would have understood. But I have to wonder: has anyone in this county ever heard of something called "law enforcement"?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kenny Rogers: How Hippie Went Country

We all know Kenny Rogers as that big, grey-bearded country superstar. In another life, he could have been our grandpa. In fact, so many old white men tend to look like Kenny Rogers, there's even a famous website about it: menwholooklikekennyrogers.com.

But there are some dark, rebellious skeletons lurking in Kenny Rogers' closet. For you see, our sweet old grandpa used to be ... a hippie.

Kenny Rogers' career path may have been arguably even more bizarre than Belinda Carlisle's. As the lead singer of the First Edition, Rogers hit the pop charts in 1968 with the hilariously titled "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," a tune primarily known to our generation as "that song that's playing during the Dude's bowling acid flashbacks in The Big Lebowski."

When he wasn't singing about acid, Rogers was singing about paralyzed Vietnam vets whose wives were cheating on them (and they couldn't stop their wives from leaving the house because, well, they were paralyzed):
It wasn't me that started that old crazy Asian war
But I was proud to go and do my patriotic chore
And yes, it's true that I'm not the man I used to be
Oh, Ruby... I still need some company

It's hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed
And the wants and the needs of a woman your age, Ruby I realize,
But it won't be long I've heard them say until I'm not around
Oh Ruby, don't take your love to town

She's leaving now 'cause I just heard the slamming of the door
The way I know I've heard it slam some 100 times before
And if I could move I'd get my gun and put her in the ground
Oh Ruby, don't take your love to town

Or, he was singing about friendly old black people who got shat on by their fellow Southern townsfolk:
Reuben James
All the folks around Madison County cussed your name
You're just a no count sharecropping colored man
You'd steal anything you can
And everybody laid the blame on Reuben James

Flora Graves
The gossip of Madison County died with child
And although your skin was black
You were the one that didn't turn your back
On the hungry white child with no name, Reuben James

But eventually, like so many of his generation, Kenny must have grown disillusioned with the squandered promise of the Age of Aquarius. Either that, or the hits dried up. The point is, our former counter-cultural rebel re-emerged in the late '70s as the Kenny Rogers we know and love: older, wiser, and blander.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Country Goes '80s

Millions of mid-western housewives might disagree, but for me, "real" country music ceased to exist right around the time I was born. What's been called "country" ever since is basically, in my opinion, Adult Contemporary rock with a twang and a truck.

What's the official distinction? To me, it's this: before 1980, country music was made, predominantly, by people who had, at some point in their lives, actually lived in the rural American countryside. Country music used to be exactly that: music made by people who lived in the country. Gradually, throughout the '50s, '60s, and '70s, American society became more and more urban, to the point where hardly anybody genuinely lived in the "country" the way they did before.

What I love about pre-'80s country music, or the best of it at least (because there was always a hilariously fake, corny side to the genre that was obnoxious), is that it was music about hard living. And I don't just mean "drinking" and "fighting" and some sort of lame macho stereotype. I mean struggling for survival: being poor, watching your siblings die young, having a flood destroy all your crops, and yes, your dog dying. It was music about suffering. But it was often music about the beauty of suffering.

And sure, by the '60s and '70s the average American was doing a lot better, and hardly anybody actually lived on a farm anymore. But the country stars of the '60s and '70s had at least grown up in that earlier world. These people had lived through the Depression, and World War II, and even though they were now living in mansions in Nashville, they still held a genuine connection to that older era and that older way of life. But country musicians who were reaching their twenties by 1980 had never really known that world, and didn't really have that sort of experience from which they could draw. How can you sing about suffering when you grew up in the suburbs?

There was a fundamental change in that side of American culture. You couldn't just keep making country music because you liked it. In my opinion, "real" country music could only have existed in a certain time and place, and once that time and place disappeared, you couldn't make it anymore. You could make something that might have the surface elements of that older music, but it wouldn't mean the same thing to its creators. It wouldn't serve the same function. I see country as essentially a dead genre. And it died right around the time of my birth.

I killed country music.

The thing is, I think for a little while at the dawn of the '80s, people kind of realized that "true" country music was dead. And they were OK with that. They thought, "You know, we could just have country-tinged rock and country-tinged AM pop and we'll be all right."

Exhibit A: Urban Cowboy. In 1980, the film Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, appeared in theaters. I haven't seen the movie, and I'm probably not about to, but if your idea of a good time is watching John Travolta ride a mechanical bull, then you should probably watch this movie.

But see, what the hell is an "urban cowboy" anyway? By definition, a cowboy should be rural. An urban cowboy is just some guy in a hat. An urban cowboy is nothing.

Nonetheless, Urban Cowboy did for country music what Saturday Night Fever did for disco. But the soundtrack album, featuring artists such as the Eagles, Bob Seger, Jimmy Buffet, Linda Ronstadt, and Boz Scaggs, was basically a rock album. Even some of the more country-leaning artists, such as Mickey Gilley, Anne Murray, and the Charlie Daniels Band, all had crossover appeal.

If someone could tell me the concrete difference between the country music and pop music of this era, please do so. It seems to me that a song was mostly "country" because some record label exec said it was, not because of any particular stylistic touch or instrumental choice. When you listen to the songs I highlight in Country Goes '80s, you will see what I mean. You wouldn't know these were "country" songs unless somebody told you. For about two or three years, country music was just soft rock without any R&B - and sometimes it even had R&B!

Then some enterprising souls found a bunch of artists whom no "pop" fan would want to listen to, and "country" music as a separate entity somehow made a strange, but somewhat inauthentic, return. There wasn't much crossover appeal to Alabama, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Randy Travis, and The Judds. No siree.

This series will not venture into that side of country music. No, this series is about that odd, brief moment where country music was huge, but huge precisely because it was hardly country at all.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Belinda's Horrible, Dickensian Childhood

In a sense, we are all born into a world of pain and suffering. But some more so than others. John Lennon was literally born during a World War II air raid.

Belinda Carlisle found herself in a war of a more personal kind. Hers is the classic case of two parents who simply didn't have any clue what the hell they were doing. I find her succinct, evocative description of her early childhood quite affecting. For better or worse, it reminds me of my own.
When I was five and a half, we moved to Thousand Oaks, fifty-mile drive northwest over the hills from out Hollywood apartment. It got us out of the city and into a fairly rural area with dairy farms and post-Korean War housing developments. Our neighborhood was the low end of working-class and we were among the poorest of the poor, though at my age I didn't know rich from poor.

We moved into a small, pink and brown 1950s tract home at the end of a cul-de-sac. The street was lined with trees; I thought it was beautiful. The backyard was a hardscrabble mix of grass and dirt with a cheap metal swing set lodged in the middle that was like an island of fun. The problem was getting to it. My dad had an extremely territorial pet rooster that roamed the yard with an ogrelike temper and threatened us kids whenever we went back there.

My dad had a similar temperament. He didn't threaten us, but he left no doubt that he ruled the roost. Even on good days, there was always an undercurrent of tension. I know my parents could barely afford the house, but that was only one of their problems. My mom didn't trust my dad, or his explosive temper. Sadly, I felt the same way after I was literally caught in the middle of one of their more physical arguments, with one of them pulling my legs and the other my arms until it seemed I might split in two pieces.
Sounds great!
Our move into the Valley coincided with my dad working at the GM plant in Van Nuys, though he didn't last there long before he started a carpet-cleaning business. I don't know whether he left or was laid off. I remember my mom hand-painting a logo on the side of his van. It was like the christening of an ocean liner because after that he spent most of his time on the road.

As part of the change, my mom sought comfort and companionship with the handsome carpenter who lived across the street, Walter Kurczeski ... He was at our house for dinner and often still there in the morning. He was more of a companion to my mom than my father was. I grew used to him being around without really thinking about why he was there. Of course, in retrospect, I know why. My mom and dad had split. I don't know if they had officially separated or divorced, but they weren't together anymore ... My mom never mentioned it. Walt's presence was assumed. He continued to show up after we moved to Simi Valley, and then to a rental in Reseda, and yet again to an even smaller home in Burbank ... Just as we were never given an explanation of Walt's presence, my brother, sister, and I were never told why we were constantly moved around.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I asked my mother for an explanation and she finally gave me one. She told me that her split from my father was volatile, and she felt the need to hide us while she tried to work things out with him.
Heaven may be a place on Earth, but that place is probably not Thousand Oaks.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ye Olde Slate Explainer Questions

In honor of Whitney Houston's sudden passing, I have opted to not post about '80s music for one day. Concerning the diva's untimely demise, I don't have much to say other than that she wasn't exactly in the prime of her career - but when she was big, she was big.

Enough! Instead, let's bask in the glory of Slate's annual Unanswered Explainer Questions column. Chew on these:
* Are the blind sleepy all the time? I was under the impression that your brain signals it's time to sleep when it gets dark. I, for one, can't stay awake when I close my eyes and meditate!

* Whatever happened to dandruff? That's my question, basically. As a kid, there were so many commercials about it, and I remember seeing people who had dandruff. Neither ever seems to happen anymore.

* Why don't roaches live in cars more often? There seems to be plenty of food in many cars to support them. Do they get motion-sickness?

* When I fry bologna (for a fried bologna sandwich, of course) it always forms a big greasy bologna dome. None of the other meats I fry do this. What's going on in bologna to make that weird dome shape?

* Odd to say the least, but why do so many of our states end with the letter a? Way too many to be happenstance—there must be a reason.

* I’m a tall guy. So when I pee, sometimes there’s a splash that exceeds the height of the bowl and lands on the floor. What is it that splashes? Is it water from the toilet or is it pee? I’m guessing it’s water from the toilet because the momentum of the pee takes it down and for it to splash out would defy the physics of liquids.

* I've got a mosquito bite on my tattoo. Did the mosquito get a little dose of ink along with my blood?

* You know how when you burp, you taste something that you ate recently, but it isn't always the thing you ate most recently? Or if you ate a bunch of things around the same time, your burp will taste like one of those things, but not all of them? What determines which food your burp will taste like?

* Why does it take 45 minutes for the pharmacy to get your prescription ready—even when no one else is waiting?

* We are taking my daughter to Disney World. I remember as a kid being a little scared and intimidated by the huge characters. Why are they so big? Is there a psychological study that finds this to be the appropriate size for fantasy characters; does it make them more fantastical? I think quite the opposite. It almost breaks the illusion and calls out the fakery.

* Why aren’t there any topless casinos in Las Vegas? There are plenty of casinos and plenty of strip clubs in Vegas but there aren’t any combinations of the two. It seems like someone would create a casino where the dealers were topless.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Culture Club Were So Wimpy?

Culture Club were one of those bands, like Duran Duran, that people always mentioned when they started waxing nostalgic about '80s music, but I never heard any of their songs until long after the '80s. I was reading an article in the '90s where the author said something like, "Well, if you've forgotten about the '80s, let me just say these words: "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?' " And I didn't understand what the hell he was talking about. Hey, I didn't want to hurt anybody.

Funny, then, that I still knew who Boy George was, even though I couldn't have hummed you a single one of his songs, and I knew that he was some really weird-looking guy. I did know that much. I think Boy George was trying to out-do Annie Lennox in the freak show department. Whether or not he succeeded I will leave up to you.

But in my sweeping effort to re-acquaint myself with '80s New Wave, I downloaded a Culture Club greatest hits album. What struck me most about their music was that it was kind of ... wimpy. I don't need all my music to rock, but I didn't expect their sound to be so, I don't know ... gentle. It was like this strange reggae/Philly soul/Caribbean hybrid. I'm surprised it achieved the popularity it did. I like ballads as much as the next guy, but Culture Club were like a band that could only make ballads. Culture Club are like all the weird dub tracks on Sandinista!, without any songs like "The Magnificent Seven" or "Police On My Back." Even their "uptempo" songs sound like ballads.

But the weird thing is, Culture Club were not only popular - they were kind of hip. Was it because Boy George looked like Oscar Wilde on LSD? From my end, their music, although not bland, does not seem terribly ... exciting. Culture Club is not what I would have been desperately waiting to hear my whole life.

Whatever. It was the '80s. I give up.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Annie Lennox Wasn't A Lesbian?

Whenever a brief Eurythmics clips would come on TV in the '80s, my father would always say, "You know, I can't figure it out, is she some kind of lesbian or something?" Imagine being seven years old and having no idea what a lesbian is. Not sure why my father felt like asking his children this question.

Now that I'm older and I know what a lesbian is, I also know that not only was Annie Lennox not a lesbian, but her band mate, Dave Stewart, had actually been her ex-boyfriend. In fact, Annie Lennox has been married twice (to men), and has even given birth to two children (with men). So, OK, she's not a lesbian. But it's safe to say that she was probably trying to look like a lesbian. Annie Lennox was like David Bowie, but from the other direction.

She also kind of sounded like a lesbian, with that deep contralto voice of hers. As Wikipedia puts it, synth pop "was often associated with all male groups and somewhat clinical, emotionless music. Eurythmics (particularly with Lennox's vocal stylings) brought a soul music twist to the electronic sound, which proved popular with broader audiences." Oh, those broader audiences!

But they weren't terribly popular at first. "Love Is A Stranger" was a flop on initial release, only to become a hit in the wake of "Sweet Dreams"s success. I'd never heard the song until recently, but I enjoy it as much as their two big radio staples. I like how Lennox deftly weaves two completely different vocal parts against each other. I also like Dave Stewart's little grunts and groans in the background:
It's savage and it's cruel
And it shines like destruction
Comes in like a flood
And it seems like religion
It's noble and it's brutal
It distorts and deranges
And it drenches you up
And you're left like a zombie
I love her pronunciation of "brutal," as if she's taking elocution lessons from Henry Higgins, and then she says to hell with elocution and drops a big "zombaaaaaaaaayy" on us.

AMG's Stewart Mason writes that the song "sounds like a sop to the charts, a way to soften up radio for the more extreme 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)' " before adding that, "Ironically, in the US, the latter song was a hit first."

It's funny to think of "Sweet Dreams," which Mason describes as "decidedly minimalist, downright skeletal" as something "extreme" that needed to be "softened up," because I've always lived in a world where it was a massive, seemingly inevitable hit. The lyrics are evocative without seeming either too specific or too abstract. Wait, who wants to use who again? Who cares? And notice, once more, what an excellent a job Lennox does of singing with herself.

The video probably didn't hurt its sales. I'd seen bits of it here and there, but a couple of years ago I finally watched the complete clip on YouTube. This is one of those '80s music videos where the sharpness of the images and the rhythm of the editing really do justice to the recording. Lennox appears to be singing from the board room of a Bond villain's corporate hideout. Hopefully there was a fire extinguisher around, in case somebody needed to put out her hair.

I've always thought of "Here Comes The Rain Again" as "Sweet Dreams Part II." It has the same sort of beat and a similar melody. Sometimes I would even hear it on the radio and think, "Hey, it's 'Sweet Dreams!' Oh wait, it's that other song." But there is one key musical difference: the addition of swirling strings. According to Wikipedia:
"Dave Stewart revealed that the lyrics to the song came into being after an argument between himself and Lennox while they were doing some songwriting in New York City's Columbus Hotel. The basic melody had already been written and Lennox looked out the window after their fight and noticed it was starting to rain. She announced, "Here comes the rain again."
Hey, just the thing to cheer them up - the composition of a smash single! Stewart elaborates:
" 'Here Comes The Rain Again' is kind of a perfect one where it has a mixture of things, because I'm playing a b-minor, but then I change it to put a b-natural in, and so it kind of feels like that minor is suspended, or major. So it's kind of a weird course. And of course that starts the whole song, and the whole song was about that undecided thing, like here comes depression, or here comes that downward spiral. But then it goes, 'so talk to me like lovers do.' It's the wandering in and out of melancholy, a dark beauty that sort of is like the rose that's when it's darkest unfolding and blood red just before the garden, dies. And capturing that in kind of oblique statements and sentiments."
Or maybe it's just catchy?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Who Wants to Dance and Make Love for the Highlander Marathon?

Herman Cain apparently does.  If you haven't already seen these Bad Lip Reading videos making the rounds I highly recommend watching them.  They're often hilarious, but I think of all of them the one for Herman Cain takes the cake, just watch out for the extra fatal lady shimmer.