Prince

Prince-purple-Rain

A week before Prince Rogers Nelson left this place (hopefully by now he’s already been checked in and comfortably accommodated in the only place he deserves to move onto–I think they call it Paradise) I watched a DVD of The T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 showcase of some truly amazing musical talent that was conceived with the now outdated idea of filming artists actually performing live versions of their hits with musicians actually playing real instruments in real time. The lineup featured artists both black and white performing before an auditorium of integrated Santa Monica teens basically having the time of their young lives. James Brown’s astonishing, athletic and otherworldly performance is the one history correctly lauds as the film’s highlight, but everyone–artists, back-up dancers, kids–is fantastic.

The night of the day Prince died, I switched on VH-1 and caught the tail end of Purple Rain, a low-budget, not-always-good movie from 1984 that almost immediately turned into a box office smash because, well, because it’s packed full of some of the greatest pop songs ever written. The movie ends with a concert scene featuring an enormously talented band comprised of musicians of many different and mixed races playing to a wildly enthusiastic crowd made up of people flashing every shade of skin under the sun. The leader of this band gives an astonishing, athletic and otherworldly performance that justifiably launched him into the very highest reaches of popular culture. He never, ever, came down.

2016 has unleashed upon the American people a grotesque parade of tiny, petty, vainglorious creatures all vying for “control” of this country. These politicians (is there an uglier word in the English language these days?) are, all of them, “dividers.”

2016 has also brought us the deaths of people like Prince and David Bowie and Merle Haggard and Maurice White and even Abe freakin’ Vigoda, who were all, God bless them, “uniters.” It’s been a terrible year.

Prince. You know the man, you know the music–there is nothing I could hope to add to his legacy except to observe that we all lived through his reign TOGETHER, shaking our asses and smiling at each other in wonder at the incredible gifts he gave us.

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Eddie Murphy

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I recently read an online article that ranked every cast member of Saturday Night Live and it took me all of about five seconds to crown my personal choice for #1. The list itself was pretty fun to scroll through, and at the bottom, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that the writer had oh-so-predictably picked John Belushi as the “best” SNL cast member ever. John Belushi is one of those sacred cows of comedy who is long overdue to be butchered and served up as a bunch of tasty burgers for some protein-deficient Appalachian kids. He’s barely an SNL top ten. A funny guy at times, but completely overrated. That’s what happens when you die at 33. Were the “Samurai Ford Pinto Salesman” and “Immigrant Cheeseburger Man” really that funny? I don’t think so. (That being said, I would have loved to see his impersonation of Lena Dunham.)

What’s all this got to do with one Edward Regan Murphy? Well, in my eyes he’s the most talented and brilliant cast member SNL has ever had. From Gumby to to “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” to Buckwheat to “Kill My Landlord,” he absolutely, well, killed. But Eddie was so much more than just a player on some dumb late night TV show. He pretty much owned the decade. I didn’t even like him that much back then–I thought he was “too popular” or whatever, but to watch his 80s body of work now, without the distortion of whatever warped “underground-only” sensibilities I possessed back then–is to watch someone barely out of his teens pretty much taking over the world.

Here we had an unapologetically profane BLACK man (and, Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson be damned, let’s not pretend White America was all into cuddling up with black people back then, especially dudes in hot red leather pants who talked a lot about their dicks) who fashioned himself into the most popular celebrity in America. This doesn’t happen “because it’s time.” It takes raw talent, hard work and a whole heapin’ help of that hard to quantify element called charisma. Eddie had all that and more. There really wasn’t any branch of entertainment he didn’t make his own. It went something like this:

Television: the aforementioned SNL, several HBO specials that helped put that young network on the map, and of course his unforgettable role as a randy “walker” on that very special two-part episode of The Golden Girls.

Movies: If you had to make a basketball team out of 5 movies, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop I and II, Trading Places and Coming To America would be like a starting five of Jordan, Magic, Bird, Dr. J and Hakeem the Dream.

Music: Surely you remember “Party All The Time?”

Fashion: 5 trillion Mumford Phys. Ed. Dept. T-shirts sold!

Things have been, how shall we say, “uneven” ever since. But what major star has ever avoided this? Unless you go and run your Porsche 550 Spyder into a big old Ford coupe or die freebasing in some rented West Hollywood chateau, it’s all part of the celebrity arc. Nobody stays #1 box office champ forever. Still, the man remains capable of raking in hundred of millions of dollars for his studio–things like Shrek and The Nutty Professor practically minted money–as well as delivering critically-acclaimed work in films like Dreamgirls and Bowfinger. He’s also been involved in a lot of truly abysmal efforts moviegoers avoided like you would a bum relieving himself into a San Francisco Examiner box. But he’s still around, and I believe he has some good work left in him. Time will tell. But the 80s, man–the guy was untouchable.

The Psychedelic Furs

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Not for the first time, it was the USA Network’s Night Flight that shined the light on “something new” for me. I owe that show a lot. One late Saturday night they played the video for “Dumb Waiters.” It was about one a.m. or so, and I should have been sleeping after a night of break dancing in the center oval at the local roller rink with four-pound wheeled boots laced to my feet, but that wasn’t the case. Fourteen year-olds have something called LIFE running through their veins that moves like a particle through the Hadron Collider, while adults must make do with the lower-cased “life”–a cholesterol and plaque-riddled sludge that moves through the body like peanut butter through a straw. It’s unavoidable, really.

In any case, the music and visuals grabbed me like a school truant officer collaring some delinquent down at the pool hall. A saxophone groaned over a plodding beat while twin guitars churned like a couple of Evinrudes in brackish water.  And yes, even my green ears could hear that the singer owed a lot to Bowie, but what the heck is wrong with that? It’s better than watching a band with a singer who owes a lot to Christopher Cross, don’t you think?

The very next day, I tagged along with dad on a trip to a hardware store situated in a four block long strip mall that also happened to contain a retail outlet called Oasis Records. They had what I was looking for, an LP called Talk Talk Talk. Its their best record. The first, self-titled one is pretty good, but not the never-to-be-surpassed peak certain deranged Psych Furs “purists” would have you believe. They were still finding their footing on that one, like Cocteau Twins on Garlands. Forever Now is just shy of Talk Talk Talk’s greatness–Todd Rundgren was an inspired and salutary choice as producer. Mirror Moves is listenable, but a big step down–the AOR disease Simple Minds would also succumb to is creeping in fast. Midnight to Midnight I can’t really tolerate, although I do love the synth horns on “Heartbreak Beat.” They were a spent force by then, even stooping to re-record “Pretty in Pink” for a John Hughes movie soundtrack, and it’s a travesty. (The re-recorded song, not the flick) Whatever happened after that I don’t know about.

If you go watch the original “Dumb Waiters” video on YouTube, you’ll see that it only has about 24,000 views. This seems criminally low to me, a neglect I really don’t understand. I saw a Richard Butler-led hodge-podge version of the Furs perform Talk Talk Talk in its entirety in 2011 to a packed house at Slim’s in San Francisco and it was exhilarating.  It’s a record that still ranks in my top 50 even today.

Big Black

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When you’re young, hey, money’s tight, and the “act” of buying a 6 song EP was physically a hard thing to do. The darn EPs were only a couple bucks cheaper than buying an LP, some of which, if they happened to be named What Makes A Man Start Fires? could contain as many as 18 songs. So to pay “almost as much” for far less songs seemed a right bit of foolishness. But Big Black was a band name that conjured up everything its inventors wanted, Racer X was a cult hero recognized immediately by those with an undying love of 70’s mid-afternoon Japanese cartoons, and the cover art (which has seemingly been supplanted by something 1/100th as good on all the reissues) caught and held the eye like a bikini-clad Christy Canyon showing up at a 7th grade swim meet. And maybe, somewhere in the gentle hum of your day to day life you’d heard some “good things” about this band.

So you buy it and and haul it home and drop the needle and Roland starts making noises like a small colony of Sasquatch doing a square dance, some singer for a band with a goofy name called Naked Raygun starts thrumming his bass like each string on it weighs about 40 lbs, and then some skinny fanzine writer starts mumbling about the Speed Racer family and some of the domestic travails they suffered through. Fine, and then what? Well, and then two guitars start slicing and dicing their way from speaker to earhole and they never, ever stop. This was the signature, no matter how many trailer park-level tales of woe Steve Albini saw fit to confabulate. It was always about those goddamn guitars. Big Black was the only group ever able to construct the actual Whirling Hall of Knives The Butthole Surfers once mentioned and they did it with their guitars.

The whole shebang was a slam dunk, a golazo, a hole-in-one on a 233 yard par 3 that carries over sewage water. It was everything you ever wanted and by the time they pulled the plug on themselves, just like Budd Dwyer did, by breaking up immediately upon the 1987 release of Songs About Cuddling, they were at a peak few bands would/will ever reach. A perfect band.

Haha, and Alien Jourgensen, who lived in the very same town, for God’s sake, still has the prevaricating temerity to say he “never heard of dose guys.” Roland himself should plant a nice big kick drum boot in that dude’s nutsack.

Tones On Tail

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As I flip through the nice booklet that comes with the two disc CD compilation rather unimaginatively titled Everything!, I see that Tones On Tail played Peabody’s Down Under in Cleveland, Ohio on October 15, 1984. I wasn’t there. This still rankles me to this day, in fact it’s a veritable pine cone in my shoe with every step I take, even so many years later. Why wasn’t I there? Well, not because I didn’t have “gas money” to get up to the Mistake By The Lake from my own Mistake By The Mahoning River 60 miles south, not because I was grounded for bad grades, not because I “blew it off” to watch the debut episode of Murder She Wrote (you remember the one–Lou Ferrigno plays a mentally-deficient, green-skinned monster who throws a small girl picking daisies into a babbling brook.)

It was because I didn’t know the group existed at that point.

Sometimes you discover things a few years late. I think I first heard “Rain” on WUOG pretty much the first week of school and almost fell off the childish Brady Bunch-style bunk beds UGA provided their matriculating young adults smack onto the floor. Because it was such a hauntingly beautiful song. The next day I went over to Ruthless Records and bought a copy of Pop on vinyl. With a handwritten check. But whatever. What’s important is that Tones On Tail were darn near perfect. Every single track they laid down was great, even that “Heartbreak Hotel” cover that sounds like it was recorded underwater. And for the entirety of their career, they were barely a real group. It was all just a bunch of dicking around. A silly, frivolous lark in between the two “important” bands Bauhaus and Love & Rockets. That’s too bad, because I like Tones On Tail better then both of those quite worthy groups.

In an era lousy with Sunset Boulevard metal “dudes who looked like ladies” Daniel Ash boasted a fetching pair of impeccably-painted lips even the straightest high school jock wanted to kiss. I’ve actually been told this by several former NFL football players! Kevin Haskins was the Topper Headon of the Goth set–the guy could play any style Danny Boy threw at him, and that was quite a lot because they laid down 25 tracks in pretty much 25 different styles. Finally, bassist Glenn Campling did just fine for a guy whose hair was the color of straw. (That is, I think it was the color of straw–these guys never once allowed themselves to be photographed with color film–it may have been Warhol-white.)

Did I say I liked this band a few sentences ago? I meant to say LOVE.

Blondie–Eat To The Beat

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Okay. This was released at the tail end of the 1979 but it’s my blog and Autoamerican and The Hunter kinda suck, so we’re going to let the decade drift backwards a couple months. “People” (our human collective, not the grocery store checkout line magazine) pretty much all agree that 1978’s Parallel Lines is the perfect pop album. It may even be, actually. But this one is even better. Because for once the group inject a little hard rock into those precious, arty LES veins of theirs.

I’m not a big fan of reviewing albums tracks by track, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, so let’s go!

“Dreaming” is dreamy–the best song they ever did. The group say hello to the 80s by having Clem Burke go berserk the minute the needle hits the first groove, while Debbie evokes such palpable saudade on top of the whole shebang you can’t help but wish she was “right there with you” as you listen.

“The Hardest Part” is either about robbing an armored car or a clumsy first-try at backdoor sex, but whatever the point is, it’s driven home just as forcefully as William Jefferson Clinton pushed Gennifer Flowers face into the cushions of a love seat somewhere in the antechambers of the Arkansas State House that very same year. It is a rock song.

“Union City Blues” is so good they made a movie out if it.

“Shayla” may or may not be about some Rosie the Riveter-type being swept up into a spaceship. Whatever the case, it’s real purty, as Michael Stipe once graciously described my lower middle appendage as we stood side by side in the men’s room of the 40 Watt Club.

“Eat to the Beat” yanks the listener forward as if on a chain once again, as that well-coiffed Brit drummer hits everything in sight in perfect syncopation and the lyrics lay out the blueprint for MF DOOM’s Mm..Food.

“Accidents Never Happen” and “Die Young Stay Pretty” are just Blondie being Blondie–a world class pop group treating hooks like they grow on freaking trees. For some, they do.

“Slow Motion” is pretty darn sublime, as Ms. Harry actually makes us laypeople believe we can “play with time” through sheer vocal timbre.

The next track brings us to the heart of the matter. “Atomic” piles on the atmospherics like a multi-colored dream coat and if it lasted four hours instead of four minutes, I’d be down with it. The soundtrack to a spaghetti western filmed deep inside the inner recesses of the Crab Nebula. Which is exactly where I’ve always wanted to dwell.

“Sound A Sleep” isn’t the most satisfying song, but it dozy pace leads neatly into the galloping “Victor,” which is basically a bunch of dicking around in the studio but the band pulls it off with no problem thanks to Debbie’s epically needy moans and a guitar solo that flashes like heat lightning.

“Living In the Real World” is a middle finger raised to our very existence and the band’s earned a little tetchiness by this point. Maybe they knew even then that they would only survive the first three years of the new decade, limping along most of the way.

In short, a great band at their peak!

Journey

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There are YouTube video clips you (or anyone, really) can watch wherein jettisoned Journey vocalist Steve Perry uses some goofy hand towel to lead an entire baseball park of unbearably smug start-up yuppie bros, socially hopeless programming nerds and reeking, sidewalk-shitting homeless zombies in a rousing rendition of his former band’s FM radio staple “Lights.” By the “end”–meaning when it’s time for the pitcher to start the next half inning by throwing a pitch, meaning that the person running the PA is required to stop the music, he’s basically going berserk, desperate for the song, his song, not to end. It’s easy to see how much he misses it. The adulation, the cheers, the attention.

Meanwhile, his former buddies–still legally permitted to go out on tour using the instantly recognizable brand name “Journey,” are off somewhere at a casino theater or State Fair or outdoor package tour alongside bands like REO Speedwagon and April Wine and Bang Tango ROCKING OUT for hours at a time–driving people into a frenzy using electrified musical instruments and microphones and light shows and hell, maybe even scoring a quick BJ from some fiftysomething groupie after the show while being paid actual real money to do so. All this while Steve’s got maybe 90 seconds tops on the Jumbotron, waving around that hideous black and orange scrap of cloth in one hand while psychotically brandishing his Giants baseball cap in the other like it’s his very own ticket through St. Peter’s gate, his face a mask of neediness, his damaged soul already bracing itself for that terrible moment when the music cuts off like a light switch and that aforementioned pitch brings everyone back to the business at hand of World Series baseball–forgetting en masse almost immediately the pathetic sideshow he’d so briefly been the focal point of. It must be hell on earth for him. But such self-torture may, indeed, be poetic justice, because just think of the hell on earth both he and his now estranged mates subjected ALL OF US to for so many years back in the 80s.