Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Grown Man Named Taco Is Telling Us How To Dress

Little could Irving Berlin have suspected, when he composed "Puttin' On The Ritz" in 1929, that one day it would be performed, with synthesized backing, by a grown man going by the name of Taco.

Taco is not his stage name. His full name is Taco Ockerse. He was born in Indonesia, claims to be Dutch, and began his career in Germany. Didn't we all!

The lyrics in Taco's version are actually the second, revised lyrics. According to Wikipedia, "the original version of Berlin's song included references to the then-popular fad of flashily-dressed but poor black Harlemites parading up and down Lennox Avenue." Try this on for size:
Have you seen the well-to-do
Up on Lennox Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air
High hats and arrowed collars
White spats and fifteen dollars
Spending ev'ry dime
For a wonderful time

If you're blue and
You don't know where to go to
Why don't you go where Harlem sits
Puttin' on the Ritz
Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns
From down the levee
All misfits
Puttin' on the Ritz

That's where each and ev'ry Lulu-Belle goes
Ev'ry Thursday evening with her swell beaus
Rubbing elbows

Come with me and we'll attend
The jubilee, and see them spend
Their last two bits
Puttin' on the Ritz
Progressive? Racist? I couldn't even begin to claim enough cultural context to tell you. Don't expect any analysis from Clark Gable:

Fifteen years later, "for the film Blue Skies (1946), where it was performed by Fred Astaire, Berlin revised the lyrics to apply to affluent whites strutting 'up and down Park Avenue'." Now it went like this:
Have you seen the well-to-do
Up and down Park Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air
High hats and arrowed collars
Wide spats and lots of dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time

If you're blue and you don't know
Where to go to, why don't you go
Where fashion sits
Puttin' on the Ritz
Different types, who wear a day coat
Pants with stripes, and cut away coat
Perfect fits
Puttin' on the Ritz

Dressed up like a million dollar trooper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper

Come, let's mix where Rockerfellers
Walk with sticks, or umber-ellas
In their mitts
Puttin' on the Ritz
I can see Taco now: "Hmm, this song isn't bad, but you know what it really needs? Synthesizers." In his delicate hands, Berlin's Depression-era show tune got the Inspector Gadget treatment, complete with wobbly synth lines that would have been too cheap for a late night horror film, and creepy robotic backup singers hissing "Super-duper."

Then there is the video. Taco may have gone with the more politically correct lyrics, but he certainly didn't abandon political incorrectness:
The music video for Taco's version became controversial because of its blackface dancers. An edited version was released which replaces these dancers with a picture of Gary Cooper (except in the last part where the video zooms in focusing on Taco). In the instrumental dance part, it shows the feet of the blackfaced dancers and later places Taco dancing inset.
Nothing like a little blackface to bring back that old timey feel. Here's the original clip:

Now here's the edited version [Edit: Looks like it's not on YouTube anymore]:

That is some impressive '80s editing my friends. I can almost see the conversation in the MTV break room now: "Bob ... I'm gonna need to you take this video, and, without filming any new footage, cut around all the shots of people in blackface - you know ... a little zoom here, some cropping there ... you can figure it out."

In the end, blackface may have been the least disturbing facet of this video. How about the homeless people surrounded by flames, the creepy mannequins, the glowing cane, or even the mouse? And then there is Taco himself, who has been compared in the YouTube comments to everyone from Tim Curry to "Booger" from Revenge of the Nerds. Here are some other winners:
He looks like that dummy who came to life in the twilight zone ventriloquist episode

He looks as weird as he sounds...the last two seconds of this video were particularly disturbing.

Best dressed Jedi ever.

I dont know bout all you guys...but this mother fucker looks creepy as fuck....especially when he does his little head motion after he says "coat perfect fits" .....dude creeps me the fuck out.

the video get weirder as it progresses

I preferred his earlier collaborations with enchilada.

Blackface is sexy.

As a Martian I am offended by the pianist's blatant racism of Greenface.

This song is on repeat in hell.

I enjoy this version because Taco is the physical manifestation of everything that fuels my nightmares.

All I can think of is a picture of Vladimir Putin's face on a ritz cracker. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gary Numan: More Than "Cars," But How Much More?

Here is what most Americans probably think of Gary Numan:

"Ha ha! 'Here in my car'! 'Driving my car'! So funny! He's singing about cars!"

Here is what most Brits probably think of Gary Numan:

"Pop music legend."

Well, maybe not "legend." But in America, Numan was a one hit wonder. In the UK, Numan was a superstar. And in Little Earl's mind?

Eh, somewhere in between.

Gary Numan is like late '70s David Bowie without Brian Eno. Or without David Bowie. He's got the sound nailed, all right; he just needs something worthwhile to sing about. He makes Bowie seem like a heart-on-his-sleeve, confessional singer-songwriter by comparison. Somebody should have just sat down and told him, "Gary, buddy, you can make cool futuristic robot music, but at some point you're going to need to come up with some lyrics that aren't a total deadpan sci-fi joke." Maybe he can't help it, according to this quote from Wikipedia:
Polite conversation has never been one of my strong points. Just recently I actually found out that I'd got a mild form of Asperger's syndrome which basically means I have trouble interacting with people. For years, I couldn't understand why people thought I was arrogant, but now it all makes more sense.
Numan first entered the public eye as the leader of a band called the Tubeway Army, which was essentially Numan's show (their singles now appear on his compilations as if they were originally "Gary Numan" releases anyway). As the Tubeway Army, Numan had a UK #1 hit with "Are 'Friends' Electric?" which sounds to me like some kind of vague reference to Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" I think I might prefer this song to "Cars"; it's a little less gimmicky, a little bit catchier. "Less gimmicky" is certainly not a term that could have be applied to Numan's appearance, which was something like a cross between an albino and Keir Dullea from 2001: A Space Odyssey, although it was apparently not the result of some master plan:
According to Numan, this was an unintentional result of acne; before an appearance on Top of the Pops, he had "spots everywhere, so they slapped about half an inch of white makeup on me before I'd even walked in the door. And my eyes were like pissholes in the snow, so they put black on there. My so-called image fell into place an hour before going on the show."
Hey, and Johnny Cash originally wore black because his band needed to buy matching suits, and black was the cheapest color they could find, not because he wanted to represent the stark suffering of humanity. But you grab onto that image, Gary. You grab onto that image and you run with it.

Numan's first release under his own name was The Pleasure Principle, featuring song titles such as "Metal," "Complex," "Films," and "Engineers." I know about the late '70s gas shortage, but I wasn't familiar with the late '70s song title shortage. Speaking of gas, here's what Numan says about the origin of "Cars":
I was in traffic in London once and had a problem with some people in front. They tried to beat me up and get me out of the car. I locked the doors and eventually drove up on the pavement and got away from them. It's kind of to do with that. It explains how you can feel safe inside a car in the modern world... When you're in it, your whole mentality is different... It's like your own little personal empire with four wheels on it.
With insights like that, Numan could have been the Jack Handey of New Wave. Also, Numan and Trent Reznor are apparently best friends, with Reznor saying that Numan's music has been "vitally important and a huge inspiration," and Numan claiming that "Closer" is "his favorite hit single of all time." I'll bet they're a big hit at parties.

So, "Cars." When I first heard "Cars" in college, it did not sound to me like the work of an artist who may have recorded other worthwhile material. That I believe Gary Numan has indeed done so is his small moral victory, I suppose.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Come Off It Eileen

I'd heard the title "Come On Eileen" long before I heard the actual song. It was supposed to be one of the ultimate '80s one hit wonders, some would say the ultimate (it topped VH1's 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders of the 80s list, for example). Snarky writers would drop its name when attempting to summarize the frivolous and unpredictable nature of '80s cultural taste. I remember thinking, "Wow, all these people keep talking about 'Come On Eileen,' it must be a really great song!"

I imagined that the band was female. Dexys Midnight Runners could have been anybody. Even though the title of the song appeared to depict a person speaking to someone named Eileen, I just heard "Eileen" and thought, "female." And when I finally heard the song, I still thought the band was female.

As with so many "one hit wonders," Dexys Midnight Runners weren't one hit wonders at all - in England. They were, however, two album wonders. Their first album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, featured the UK #1 single "Geno," a tribute to Geno Washington, an American soul singer who had only been successful in Britain.

That's Dexys Midnight Runners in a nutshell. The band were extremely British, with the sort of ungodly concoction of imitation Memphis soul and Celtic folk that only a British band could generate, and only a British audience could love. What's surprising, then, isn't that they had only one hit in America, but that they managed to have any hits in America at all.

Hard to say what my fellow countrymen saw in this particular British single over anything by, say, The Jam or The Specials, but there you have it. Lead singer Kevin Rowland's voice is the kind that tempts you to stick your dripping wet fingers into the nearest electrical socket, but other than that, he's not bad. One instrument that really did not need to make a return in pop music was the banjo, but Dexys Midnight Runners obviously thought otherwise.

I mean, really? This is the legendary '80s hit I was missing out on all those years? Give me Billy Ocean any day. Still, although I find the song irritating, I will concede it has that certain intangible something - silliness mixed with enthusiasm? A thousand tempo shifts? A banjo? The bottom line is this: my new love for '80s music is so all-encompassing, I think I'm starting to like songs that I don't actually ... like.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Forming Of The Go-Go's, Robert Hilburn, and ... Kurt Cobain?

So the legendary Go-Go's, the first all-female rock group to have a #1 album and take America by storm and break down the barriers for all the female rockers to follow and just plain generally kick ass, knew, right from the start, how significant they were going to be, yes?

Not exactly.

To quote Belinda from a recent interview: "We were friends, we were sitting on a curb ... and everybody in that scene was in a band and they were terrible, and we thought, 'Well, we can be in a band and be terrible too.' "

It's not something that every successful band is willing to admit. But the Go-Go's, to this day, are not shy about admitting one thing: when they started, they were terrible. Couldn't play. Couldn't sing. Couldn't even set up their instruments. But they were punks, they were girls, and when they hit the stage, everyone thought they were hilarious. As Belinda put it in another interview, "We were drinking beer and ... it was like, 'Let's form a band.' 'OK, what do you want to do?' I had never sung before, but it didn't really matter back then because you didn't need to have any experience to be in a band. In fact, that was sort of a pre-requisite, not knowing how to play." Fame, fortune, hit records - you must be talking about someone else, right?

Those two friends sitting on a curb drinking beer with Belinda were Margot Olaverra, the "Pete Best" of the Go-Go's, and one Jane Drano, otherwise known as Jane Wiedlin.
Our first rehearsal was at Margot's apartment off Robertson Boulevard. We were pretty scattered and lost. We didn't even know how to start; we barely figured out how to set up our instruments. We banged around, tried to write songs, and then went to Denny's for dinner.

We rehearsed in the basement at the Canterbury, then shuttled between there and one of several tiny rehearsal rooms at the Masque, which we shared with other bands, including the Motels and X. Both bands gave us pointers. With our purple and fuchsia hair, we were a sight as we wheeled our amps down the street from the Canterbury to the club, which was beneath the Pussycat porn theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

We came up with two songs, "Overrun," a fashionably angry romp that I wrote, and "Robert Hilburn," a tongue-in-cheek ode to the Los Angeles Times's rock critic written by Jane, who from the outset revealed herself to be an incredibly prolific and clever songwriter, something that was even more impressive considering she didn't know anything about writing songs and learned the guitar chords by putting masking tape with numbers on our guitar frets.
Ah, yes, "Robert Hilburn." During a recent interview with the A/V Club for their Set List series, Jane was asked about "Robert Hilburn":
The A.V. Club: The Go-Go’s had a whole life, and repertoire, before the Beauty And The Beat era. There are bootlegs of you playing at the Whiskey A Go Go as far back as 1978, including several songs that never saw the light of day. Do you remember “Robert Hilburn,” which slagged off the music critic of the Los Angeles Times?
Jane Wiedlin: Oh, nice one! Of course. I remember all those songs. I mean, I had just become a songwriter. The Go-Go’s were like my first babies. Robert Hilburn was a sort of L.A. legend. He was a rock-music critic. “Robert Hilburn” was a scathing song about him. It’s kind of a dumb move for a young band trying to get somewhere, to actually criticize Robert Hilburn, but I don’t even know if he ever heard about it. Or if he did, by the time he heard about it, we were doing so well that he didn’t dare not like us.
AVC: What did he ever do to you guys?
JW: No, no, he didn’t ever do anything to us, I think it was more me observing as an outsider. It wasn’t that he actually criticized us. I was just saying he was a poser—which, back in the ’70s, was the biggest insult you could put on someone.
AVC: You also called him old, which is just as bad.
JW: Well, the first line of the song is “Robert Hilburn wants to be young.” [Laughs.] It was “Robert Hilburn wants to be young/Robert Hilburn has his tongue-in-cheek pose down real pat, wonders what it’s like to have fun.” That was the first verse. Can you believe I just pulled that out? Come on.
AVC: That’s impressive. I had to look the lyrics up on the Internet, since they’re hard to discern on the bootleg.
JW: There are lyrics of it on the Internet somewhere? That’s awesome.
Little does Jane Wiedlin know, but Robert Hilburn did ultimately hear about "Robert Hilburn." And you wouldn't believe how.

Hilburn has recently published a memoir called Cornflakes with John Lennon, in which he talks about not only eating corn flakes with John Lennon, but also interviewing Elvis, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and every other major artist of the rock era. But when I saw the book in the library, I didn't care about any of that. Oh no. The first thing I wondered when I saw his name was, "Hey, I wonder if he says anything about that song the Go-Go's wrote where they made fun of him." I flipped to the index, and sure enough, he did mention the song in his book. But I was astounded when I realized just under what circumstances he mentioned it.

Little could the young Go-Go's have known, when they wrote "Robert Hilburn," that one day Robert Hilburn himself would be discussing the song during an interview with a man who was, at that moment of the interview, the most famous and significant rock star in the world:

Kurt Cobain.

It was 1993. Nirvana were wrapping up the recording of In Utero, yet to be released. When Hilburn showed up to Cobain's house for the interview, Kurt was wearing a dress. Hilburn was probably hoping to chat about Nirvana's generational significance, the band's musical influences, etc. etc. But it turns out that Kurt Cobain was thinking exactly the same thing I was thinking. From Hilburn's book:
Around midnight, we were talking about some of the songs on the new record when he suddenly stopped and - out of the blue - asked me if I had ever heard the record the Go-Go's had made about me. When I said no, he looked a little sheepish - as if he was suddenly nervous. I had heard the band wrote a sarcastic song about me during its early days, but I'd never actually heard it. He said he'd go see if he could find it. He seemed so defensive that I felt he was afraid the record might offend me, and I guessed he was going to say he couldn't find it. But after a few minutes he yelled from the other room, "I've found it. Come listen." Sure enough the record poked fun at me. I was a fan of the Go-Go's and got a kick out of the single. When I laughed, it seemed to trigger a feeling in Kurt that I was an okay guy - that he could trust me.
No, wait, really? OK, this is awesome in about twenty different ways.

First of all ... Kurt Cobain was a fan of the Go-Go's? From what I've read, Kurt could have very strong opinions about music. He was known to call certain bands "fake" or "phony." Underground credibility was a "thing" to him. It wasn't all just fun and games. Well, let's just say that Belinda Carlisle's career and "underground credibility" go together like oil and water.

On the other hand, he was also known to like a lot of music that wasn't necessarily "hip" in the alternative community. He was worried that his fellow grunge musicians would find a song like "About A Girl" too wimpy and jangly and R.E.M.-ish for that scene (of course, anybody who would have thought that would have been an idiot). He also had an extreme fondness for amateurish female bands such as the Raincoats, Shonen Knife, and the Vaselines (well, the Vaselines were only half female, but they certainly were all amateurish).

OK, big deal, you're saying, so Kurt Cobain liked the Go-Go's. But you don't understand. Nobody who had a bootleg version of "Robert Hilburn" from the Go-Go's' early punk days would have been just some casual admirer. Hilburn mistakenly calls it a single, but it was never a single. It was never even officially released. It's not even on YouTube. No, to have "Robert Hilburn," Kurt would have had to go out of his way to get some obscure bootleg, probably on cassette or whatnot. And he had it lying around in his house?

Sometimes I'm hard on you, Kurt Cobain. I read your interviews and disagree with a lot of the things you say. I don't care if music becomes extremely popular. I don't care if bands compromise. I don't share your nihilistic attitude. I don't think you were the be-all and end-all of '90s rock. I resent that my American peers elevate you over your British contemporaries, whose music I prefer.

But sometimes, Kurt, you're all right.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Men At Work: Sneaking Some Bitterness "Down Under" A Goofy Surface

"Ha ha, we're Australian!" That's pretty much what the appeal of this song seemed to be to the people who I caught listening to it. Friends in college would play "Down Under" and get this little grin on their faces, as if to say, "Remember these silly guys from Australia who had a couple of hits and they were from Australia and wasn't that really funny?" Sorry, but I tend to look for more from my music.

Then I actually read about the song on Wikipedia. Here's what singer Colin Hay says:
The chorus is really about the selling of Australia in many ways, the over-development of the country. It was a song about the loss of spirit in that country. It's really about the plundering of the country by greedy people. It is ultimately about celebrating the country, but not in a nationalistic way and not in a flag-waving sense. It's really more than that.

It's ironic to me that so many people thought it was about a specific thing and that really wasn't the intention behind the song. If you listen to 'Born In The USA,' it's a similar song in that there's a lot of nuance missed because people like drinking beer and throwing their arms up in the air and feeling nationalistic. It's ultimately a song about celebration, but it's a matter of what you choose to celebrate about a country or a place. White people haven't been in Australia all that long, and it's truly an awesome place, but one of the most interesting and exciting things about the country is what was there before. The true heritage of a country often gets lost in the name of progress and development.
Hmm. Well ... now I kind of liked it! Let's look at some of these lyrics:
Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover
It's not particularly honorable to "plunder," is it? People might hear "plunder" and think, "oh, like pirates, cool!" But maybe they meant "plunder" in a more critical sense, like how white people "plundered" the Aboriginies and "plundered" the country's natural resources. Some of the song's slang was probably lost on American ears. For example, to "chunder" is to vomit. In that sense, to sing "I come from a land down under/Where beer does flow and men chunder" is to not be as blindly celebratory of your countrymen as one might have otherwise assumed. And why is there thunder? Why do we need to "run" and "take cover"?! Sounds more ominous than patriotic if you ask me.

Now after listening more carefully, I realized the song was a bit darker than I had assumed. Instead of "We come from Australia, which is so weird and quirky," it's more like, "We come from from Australia, and we're supposed to feel kinship with complete strangers just because we share these weird and quirky things, but that's just the surface crap that sells to the foreigners, and maybe we really do have things in common, but those sorts of things, like a history of exploitation and our origins as a giant penal colony, aren't as appealing in a brochure." Just what does it mean to really come from a land down under? Eh, Crocodile Dundee?

So basically, it's a good song that was misunderstood and happened to appeal to stupid people. Or, to put it another way, Men at Work were expressing ambivalence about the selling of Australia, but the selling of Australia is exactly what made the song a hit in the first place, and exactly why people in America still like it. The only lyric anyone actually quotes is "I come from a land down under/when women glow and men plunder." Who cares what they're really trying to say.

Makes me want to go and stick my head "down under" a toilet. And when I do, it better flush in the right direction.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Huge '80s Hits That I Don't Actually Remember Hearing In The '80s

Many is the time I have posted my eloquent observations on a classic '80s song, expecting the world to shout in wonderment and exclaim "Thank you, Little Earl, for your incomparable, inimitable analysis," only to see a comment stating something to the effect of "OMG! LOL! I can't believe you'd never heard that song before!" So in honor of my recently discarded '80s pop ignorance, I thought I would provide Herr Zrbo with that cheap sense of superiority he so desperately craves (and needs), and inaugurate a series I would like to call "Huge '80s Hits That I Don't Actually Remember Hearing In The '80s."

When I hear a song from the '80s that I heard in the '80s, I know it. It's an instinctive feeling. An '80s song is like a cherry blossom in summertime, or a child's laughter, or the cold morning breeze. Sometimes I can call to mind a specific memory of listening to the song. Sometimes there is no specific memory, rather only a vague sensation. But I can sense it in the core of my being. I heard this song in my childhood. I don't know precisely when, or precisely how, but I do know that I heard it. Music can be funny like that.

It is very possible that some of the songs in this series are songs that I did truly hear in the '80s. But I don't remember hearing them in the '80s, and that's all that matters here. Maybe the radio stations in the Bay Area didn't play these particular songs very often. Maybe they were bigger hits elsewhere. Maybe my parents didn't like these songs and always changed the station whenever they came on. This may explain why I don't remember hearing much hair metal, or synth pop, or a single Prince song.

At some point - maybe high school, maybe college - I would be hanging out with friends, reminiscing over '80s songs. Most of the songs I knew, and some I even remembered better than my friends did. But then there would be certain songs where they would all say, "Oh man, who remembers this song?" Maybe it was "Hungry Like The Wolf." Possibly "Our Lips Are Sealed." Could have been "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" Let's call it the Tomb of the Unknown '80s Mega Hit. And everyone was supposed to laugh at the awkward residue of our shared cultural heritage. But I honestly may not have ... remembered it.

The shame burned deep inside me. I laughed and smiled just like everyone else, pretending I understood. But I said nothing.

I thought those days were long over - until a couple of years ago. As I attempted to explain to Zrbo earlier, there is a difference between a huge '80s hit I don't remember hearing in the '80s but ended up hearing at some point in the '90s, and a huge '80s hit I don't remember hearing until my recent obsession with '80s music began. I thought of splitting these songs up into two different series, but in the end I am going to lump them all together. Ignorance is ignorance. Why split hairs?

I know what I am going to get. Someone, and I am not saying who, is going to leave comments such as, "You mean to tell me that you'd never heard ____?? I heard that song all the time!! I can't believe your ignorance of '80s music runs that deep, WTF, LOL!"

Well not anymore, my friends. Not anymore.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Commodores Have A Hit - Without Lionel Richie! But Only Just One.

When Lionel Richie left the Commodores, they should have been done. I mean, that's like the Supremes without Diana Ross. That's like Black Sabbath without Ozzy Osbourne. That's like Van Halen without David Lee Roth. That's like Pink Floyd without Syd Barrett!

Wait a second.

The point is, by the time he left, Lionel Richie pretty much was the Commodores. Quick, name another Commodore. That's what I thought. It must have come as a complete (and mostly pleasant) surprise, then, when the band sans Lionel suddenly came out of nowhere with "Nightshift."

The remaining members had special emotional motivation to write a great song, beyond simply proving their worth to the masses. "Nightshift" was a tribute to two R&B legends who had recently passed away: Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson.

It might sound like Marvin Gaye's father did something really horrible when I tell you that he fatally shot his son, but from what I understand, the reality is that Gaye picked a nasty fight with his father and probably assaulted him as well, somewhat egging his father on, and he knew his father would try to kill him if he did this, so in a sense, Gaye's death was sort of a roundabout suicide. But when the news broke, I don't think too many people cared about the exciting details. Gaye had just released his "comeback" single, "Sexual Healing," roughly a year earlier, and now he was dead.

While less known these days than Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson was also a dynamic and influential soul singer. The critical line on Wilson is that his studio recordings rarely captured his performing talents. Still, he had several big hits, such as "Lonely Teardrops," "Baby Workout," and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher." In 1975, he suffered an on-stage heart attack, fell into a coma, and was essentially an invalid until he finally died in 1984.

What makes "Nightshift" an especially successful eulogy, to me at least, is that it is a very subtle eulogy. For years I didn't even realize it was a eulogy. I must have heard this song a thousand times late at night, and I always just assumed it was a pleasant tribute to Quiet Storm radio. Just look at the video. There is not a single clue or hint in the video that betrays the nature of the lyrics. It could be about two cab drivers named Marvin and Jackie, for all we care.

Then one day, I actually listened to it closely. By the time I did, I knew who Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson were, and I knew how and roughly when they had died. I recognized the references to "What's Going On" and "Baby Workout." This pleasant song about late night radio suddenly blossomed into something kind of stunning.

Other tributes to deceased singers usually have hackneyed references to "heaven" and "Jesus" and God knows what else. "Nightshift" conjures up an image of the afterlife as being one big eternal R&B station, where classic songs play forever and never die. Sure, the image of Marvin and Jackie "singing proud" and "pulling a crowd" in heaven's night club could have come off as a little hokey in the wrong hands. That's where the music comes in.

The mere sound of "Nightshift" is so graceful and ethereal, it's almost as if the song is coming down from heaven itself. In other words, do you realize how easy it would have been to fuck this up? And after the particularly brutal nature of Gaye's and Wilson's deaths, fans probably needed to hear some reassuring voice saying that everything was actually going to be OK, and that their depressing deaths wouldn't overshadow the beauty of the music they made in life. "Gonna be a long night/It's gonna be all right/On the night shift." Yeah man.

There's another factor that makes the song powerful: the underdog factor. It's not just moving because it's a non-embarrassing celebrity eulogy song, but it's also moving because the Commodores managed to come up with a terrific hit, even after Lionel Richie left! The tribute sort of combines with the underdog story of the leftover Commodores grabbing one last moment of glory and it just makes the song even sweeter.

But then the Commodores were done. For real. Although, if it makes them feel any better, the hits dried up for Lionel just a year or so later, as well. Soon they were both has-beens. Everything worked out.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Jane Wiedlin: The Second Most Famous Go-Go

Jane Wiedlin will forever be known as "the second most famous Go-Go." Whether she likes it or not, that is just how it's going to be. Odds are, if you can name two members of the Go-Go's, they are Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin.

Now you might think, since Jane Wiedlin is less famous than Belinda Carlisle, that she was somehow a less important member of the Go-Go's. But you would be wrong. Unlike Belinda, Jane could actually, you know, write songs and, um, play an instrument. Compared to Jane, Belinda didn't actually ... do anything. But life, as they say, is unfair, and for reasons both clear and mysterious, Belinda became the focal point of the band in the eyes of the public. As Jane once put it, "Belinda was like ... a superstar, and we were like ... cable TV stars."

Jane's career, by most metrics, should be considered rather zany and memorable. But in this case, it has been badly out-zanied by the career of her band mate, which happens to be the zaniest career of all time. Nevertheless, some tidbits worth mentioning:

1) Jane played Joan of Arc in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. I have watched the film several times, without knowing this. Not once did it occur to me that the woman playing Joan of Arc would have been anyone other than some relatively unknown character actress. In truth, I was watching a Go-Go.

2) Jane played the "singing telegram" in Clue: The Movie.

3) Jane has created a comic book called Lady Robotika, concerning "the adventures of a woman being abducted by aliens and turned into a cyborg superheroine." Oh, one of those.

4) Jane is an ordained minister who officiates under the title "Reverend Sister Go-Go" through the Universal Life Church, "a mail-order religious organization that offers anyone semi-immediate ordination as a ULC minister, free of charge."

5) Jane is also an animal rights activist and an enthusiastic bondage fetishist; the two usually go hand in hand.

Who knows? In an alternate universe, I could very well be doing an '80s blog series titled "Adventures With Jane Wiedlin." But that is not the particular wormhole our time-traveling telephone booth has found itself gliding through. No, for our purposes, Jane Wiedlin is Belinda's pixie-haired little buddy. Every great heroine needs a great sidekick, and Belinda has her Jane.