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friday random ten, 1989 edition

I’m still enjoying this return to the old format, but I’m pretty sure I’m repeating myself a lot. In fact, if a song has shown up on a Random Ten before, I’m repeating myself on purpose, using cut-and-paste. Call it Random Ten’s Greatest Hits, and see if you can figure out which are new for this list.

1. k.d. lang and the Reclines, “Pullin’ Back the Reins”. Lang has one of the finest voices in contemporary music. Absolute Torch and Twang was the culmination of her country period, and to this day my favorite of her albums. This is my favorite song from that album.

2. Faith No More, “Epic”. You want it all but you can’t have it. Influential precursor to rap metal, with a killer riff worthy of Jimmy Page. I’ve never quite grasped that this is the same group that recorded “We Care a Lot” with a different vocalist.

3. Beastie Boys, “Sounds of Science”. There are albums you play over and over because of the pleasure they give you … you just have to hear that song one more time. And then there's Paul's Boutique. You could play this album a thousand times and never get to the bottom of it. Partly this is because of the astounding depth of the album, in particular its use of sampling. But what made Paul's Boutique especially unique in subsequent years was Grand Upright Music, Ltd. v. Warner Bros. Records, Inc., aka Gilbert O'Sullivan sues Biz Markie. That decision was handed down 2 ½ years after Paul's Boutique, and effectively ended the bottomless well of sampling as a legal artistic outlet. OK, that's an interesting legal note in music history, that helps explain why you don't hear albums like this anymore. But the prevalence of mashups on the Internet remind us that messing around with sound bytes isn't hard at all … what's hard is getting it right. And no one ever got it more right than the Dust Brothers and the Beasties on Paul's Boutique. While the title "The Sounds of Science" might suggest a confrontation between bratty rappers and mellow-folkie singer/songwriters, in fact the primary source of samples for the song is the Beatles, in particular "When I'm 64" and "The End." Both of those songs are used in a sore-tooth manner, such that you can't quit running your tongue over the spot that hurts. The "64" rip takes two notes from the oboe-y musical intro to the original and loops it over and over … there isn't a baby boomer alive who won't want to scream at the stereo, "PLAY THE REST OF THE LICK, DAMMIT!" There wouldn't seem to be anything more entrancingly aggravating … and there isn't, until they rework a guitar riff from Abbey Road in a similarly annoying way. It's guitarus interruptus, as the first chords of the guitar rave up at the end of Side Two of Abbey Road get repeated over and over and over and over … and they never resolve the moment, so all you can do is listen to the song again, hoping this time they'll finally get to the gee-tars. And they never do ... it's like an old vinyl album that gets stuck. Hurts so good.

4. Indigo Girls, “Closer to Fine”. From the beginning, the Indigo Girls had the great harmonies, and they were cultural icons almost on the level of Martina. They were also prone to heartfelt but awkward lyrics. The link is to a video with a Buffy connection … I know, who’da thought? It’s from a show they did a couple of weeks ago … they are joined by the guys from Common Rotation, who had opened for them. Buffy fans will recognize the one in the vest with his shirt-sleeves rolled up: it’s Warren, the evil bastard who killed Tara. I know, I know … those were fictional characters, not real people.

5. The B-52’s, “Roam”. It occurs to me that the B-52’s are one of the more remarkable pop acts of our time, given their roots, their loyalty to those roots even as the mainstream discovered them, their recovery from the great loss of Ricky Wilson, and their general oddness … despite, or perhaps because of all of this, they are beloved.

6. Biz Markie, “Just a Friend”. Still one of the most endearing rap hits of all time, with a tip of the cap to Freddie Scott.

7. Madonna, “Like a Prayer”. The video for this, my favorite Madonna song, is famously controversial, but I’m far more bothered by the link provided here, to the Pepsi commercial that offered the worldwide debut of the song.

8. Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”. For all of this songs enduring greatness, I still think of the video link when I hear it.

9. Janet Jackson, “Rhythm Nation”. Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis were an historically good team. The Rhythm Nation 1814 album served up seven Top Five singles.

10. Fine Young Cannibals, “She Drives Me Crazy”. They had two nice singles, but were never as good as their predecessors, The English Beat.


what i watched last week

Life Without Principle (Johnnie To, 2011). When in doubt, go to Johnnie To. This wasn’t the first time I was wandering the Internet, looking for something to watch, and opted for a Johnnie To film. Every one I’ve seen has been OK at worst, with Vengeance being much better than that. Life Without Principle lacks the gunplay one expects from To, but that’s only a problem if you fixate on it. The story, about how several “unimportant” people deal with the global financial crisis, grabs you in a different way from the usual, but it is just as gripping. To also uses a subtle narrative technique that was all the more effective for sneaking up on you (this isn’t Pulp Fiction). Life Without Principle can be taken as a straightforward crime drama, but the context (regular people in extreme situations, with greed, personal and global, always in the mix) makes it a movie that is a bit more than a genre piece. 7/10.

Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013). Every year on our anniversary weekend, we check out a movie, usually something mindless. The tradition started on our honeymoon in 1973, when we saw Alec Guinness in Hitler: The Last Ten Days. (Last year was fairly upscale: The Avengers.) We narrowed our choices to a movie with The Rock, the new Star Trek, and another movie with The Rock. As often happens when each of us has their own choice, we chose middle ground, picking a movie we’d never heard of that had Morgan Freeman in the cast. Gerard Butler was the lead, and he was fine and virile as required. The movie was stupid, obvious, and efficient, which is to say, it wasn’t a bad choice given the context. It wasn’t all that good at any particular thing, but it moved along, and Rick Yune did a very good job as the kind of villain you find in James Bond movies (he had practice, of course, being a Bond villain in Die Another Day). It borrowed liberally from other movies (usually better movies, so the comparisons weren’t kind), most notably Die Hard. Worth watching five years from now when you’re sitting at home, bored, and it shows up on TNT. 6/10.


friday random ten, 1982 edition

charol

I’ve posted this picture before. I got my teeth cleaned this week, and when I arrived, the woman doing the cleaning said, “Hello, handsome!” I replied, “You shoulda seen me when I was 28.” I don’t have any pictures that I am sure come from that time, so I’ve posted one from right after I turned 29, and used it to give me a year for this week’s Music Friday post.

1. Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean”. The video link takes you to a live performance of the song from March 25, 1983. It was telecast on American TV on May 16 of that year. You might recall the following day, May 17, 1983, one of the biggest dates in pop culture history. On that date, millions of young people across the country were moonwalking.

2. Au Pairs, “Sex Without Stress”. Wikipedia on Sense and Sensuality, the album on which this song appears: “No singles were released from the album. The album cover wasn't approved by the band. There were errors on the recording, including it being recorded at too fast a speed.”

3. The Weather Girls, “It’s Raining Men”. Co-written by Paul Shaffer. The video is mindboggling.

4. Bonnie Hayes with the Wild Combo, “Girls Like Me”. Hayes and the band were very popular in the Bay Area, and this song’s appearance in the movie Valley Girl brought them some wider attention. For a variety of reasons, they never really broke out. But late in the 1980s, another Bonnie, Raitt, discovered Hayes’ music and recorded two of her songs for Nick of Time, the huge hit that remade Raitt’s career.

5. George Clinton, “Atomic Dog”. Bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yay! I lost track somewhere past 50, but this one has been sampled many, many times over the years.

6. The Waitresses, “I Know What Boys Like”. Released in 1980, made its biggest impact in 1982 as part of the album Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?. Singer Patty Donahue died at 40 of lung cancer.

7. Lou Reed, “Waves of Fear”. Fans of Lou Reed’s guitar work suffered through a lot in the first years of Lou’s solo career. He had some fine guitar on albums like Rock n Roll Animal, but he wasn’t the one doing the playing. Reed gradually began playing again, but he didn’t find a proper guitar companion until Robert Quine joined his band. Toss in Fernando Saunders, one of the finest (and most recognizable bass players) ever, and you had what was probably the best band of Reed’s solo career.

Crazy with sweat, spittle on my jaw
What's that funny noise, what's that on the floor
Waves of fear, pulsing with death
I curse my tremors, I jump at my own step
I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell
I know where I must be, I must be in hell

8. Flipper, “The Old Lady that Swallowed the Fly”. My cousin used to sing this to me when I was a little boy. She was, and is, a beautiful singer. Flipper is not my cousin. (Oft-told tale: when I bought the first Flipper album and put it on the turntable, my wife came from upstairs after a few minutes and told me it was the worst record I had ever brought into her house.)

9. Mission of Burma, “That’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate”. Quoting Wikipedia again: “In 1983, after the release of Vs., the group disbanded due to Miller's worsening tinnitus, attributed in large part to their notoriously loud live performances—during their farewell tour, Miller took to augmenting his usual small foam earplugs with rifle-range earphones onstage.”

10. The Pop-O-Pies, “Truckin’”. I find myself at a loss to explain the Pop-O-Pies. I can tell you that I was a big fan for awhile, and that once I met someone who was friends with Joe Pop-O-Pie. The idea that Joe Pop-O-Pie existed in the real world fascinated me.


ray manzarek and the doors

Ray Manzarek’s death has led to a lot of online discussion about The Doors, who Manzarek co-founded. It’s typical that even in death, Manzarek is overshadowed. And not only does he kick off memories of The Doors, memories of The Doors inevitably turn into discussions about Jim Morrison.

“Light My Fire” is a fine example of Manzarek and our relationship to The Doors. It kicks off with drummer John Densmore’s snare shot, after which the band appears, with Manzarek’s seductive, Bach-inspired organ inviting the listener in. After a couple of verses, Manzarek lays out an atmospherically appropriate solo for a few minutes … that’s followed by an equally fine guitar solo by Robby Krieger. Finally, the band returns to Morrison and the song ends. The chorus is catchy … I imagine most people who have heard it know “come on baby, light my fire” by heart. But Manzarek’s opening organ theme is equally iconic.

But his solo (and Krieger’s)? The song was so popular that AM radio stations wanted to play it, so a shorter version was released that edited out the two solos from the middle. Thus, the version many people heard was dominated by Morrison to a much larger extent than was the original.

The 45 version was a big deal in the Bay Area, where “underground radio” was starting. I can remember my older brother telling me there was this new station on FM that I should check out; I also remember him telling me there was this really amazing song on the first Doors album, called “The End”. Thus began my decades-long-and-still-counting obsession with the underground radio of those days. Again relying on memory, once, Tom Donahue said he didn’t want to play “Light My Fire” because it was being played to death on the AM dial. Someone pointed out to him that we no longer listened to AM, so it wasn’t played out for us.

“The End”, like “Light My Fire”, desperately needs what the musicians bring to the table, and Manzarek’s keyboards are essential. But, as was regularly true for The Doors, the musicians’ contributions were overwhelmed by the presence of Jim Morrison. “The End” wasn’t remarkable because of the music, it was remarkable for the Oedipal lyrics from Morrison (“Father? Yes, son. I want to kill you. Mother? I want to …. ARRGGRGAJHGRHHGH!).

The Doors released five more studio albums during Morrison’s lifetime, some better than others. None of them startled us the way the debut did, but that’s always the case with startling debuts. Each album went Top Ten, as did three singles. If anything, the band got better as time went on. But what got noticed was Jim Morrison, with his poetic lyrics and outrageous stage presence. He was arrested several times, he had problems with alcohol and drugs, and about the time he exposed himself on stage, if not long before, it was clear that if you asked the average fan what they knew about The Doors, they would reply “Jim Morrison”. (Anyone who thinks Morrison’s stage shenanigans were over-the-top are invited to check out GG Allin on YouTube. No, I’m not offering any links.) Morrison overdosed, and while the band released another couple of albums, their time in the spotlight was gone. They still pop up occasionally, but not for their music … Oliver Stone’s movie may have been called The Doors, but it never would have been made if Stone hadn’t made Morrison the focus of his film.

And now Ray Manzarek is dead, and people like me offer hundreds of words filled with talk about the Doors, which is to say about Jim Morrison, which is to say, not about Ray Manzarek. But if you listen to the “long” version of “Light My Fire”, you’ll hear Ray. You’ll notice him.


dreams

I’m not much for talking about my dreams. For one thing, by the time I get to posting to the blog, I’ve forgotten the dreams of the previous night. For another, I don’t think there’s much use in analyzing dreams for their subconscious truisms.

Having said that, I have fairly intense dreams almost every night. This hasn’t always been the case, and I suspect it relates to the number of meds I take for my various ailments. By “intense” I don’t mean that they are emotionally draining, but that they seem quite real when they are happening, and that feeling continues briefly when I awake.

In one of my dreams last night, my brother and I were attending an Earthquakes match. We were watching the match on delay, the way you will when you record a game on the DVR for later viewing. So there’s the first sign this was a dream, not reality: we were living as if our lives were DVR recordings. At some point, I started obsessing (in the dream) about the time difference between the match as it happened, and the match as we were watching it (again, not on TV, but at Buck Shaw Stadium, only on delay). I asked my brother, if it started raining at some point during the match, would it rain on us at the equivalent point in the match we were attending/watching-on-delay, or would it have already rained on us at the time the actual rain occurred? I said this was clearly an example of the space-time continuum.

Later, I had another dream when I dozed off while Robin was reading next to me. She says I was talking in my sleep. When I woke up, I immediately wanted to tell her about a new invention. Invention is the wrong word … maybe discovery is better. I was so taken with this that I looked it up online, certain that I had dreamed about something that already existed. But I was wrong. And so, for anyone who writes virus-ends-the-world fiction, I give you my dream invention/discovery:

The Mobius Virus.

This might actually be real, but I’m not going to spend all day trying to find out. My knowledge of cells and DNA and viruses is skimpy at best. In the dream, the Mobius virus twisted human DNA into a Mobius strip. For all I know, that’s how real-life DNA looks. But in the dream, and for a few minutes after I woke up, I felt I’d made a monumental discovery.