If you’re on Facebook, you couldn’t have missed this one. List a bunch of acts you’ve seen live, add one act you’ve never seen, and ask your Facebook friends to tell you which one is the lie. Here was my list, with Music Friday tunes attached:
blondie, gary wright, hootie and the blowfish, ike & tina turner, k.d. lang, malcolm mclaren, orchestral manouevers in the dark, paul mccartney & wings, quicksilver messenger service, sha na na, sun ra, youssou n'dour
Life-changing moments are often recognized only after the fact. The closest I ever came to a real life-changer was back in the winter of ‘72, when I realized in my heart that life could be summarized by Sisyphus as Camus described him in his famous essay. I whipped quickly from laughter to tears and back again, as I made a connection to that man pushing that rock for eternity. I try not to dismiss these kinds of moments in others (usually a religious awakening) because I had the same thing happen to me.
I think by the end of our first Bruce Springsteen concert in 1975 that we knew something had changed. It’s more obvious in retrospect, after 40+ years of concerts and albums and road trips, but there was something special enough about that first show that we came back for more. And more and more.
I did not know, on April 8, 1997, that Dig Me Out, the new album by Sleater-Kinney, would affect me in a similar fashion. Until that point I’d been aware of the band without giving myself over to them. Their previous album, Call the Doctor, had some impressive songs, with my favorite being “Good Things”, but I didn’t love it from start to finish. I liked the band enough to pick up Dig Me Out, though, albeit not on its release date ... I wasn’t hooked yet. I found that album to be more consistent than Call the Doctor, and there were so many great songs I could barely pick a favorite (if forced to decide, I’d go with “One More Hour”).
I saw them for the first time in August of ‘98, when they were still touring behind Dig Me Out. It might have been that night when I understood something special was going on. It wasn’t that they were an irresistible live force, at least not yet ... Corin let her voice make the statements, and what a voice it is, but she was fairly calm onstage. Carrie already had her rock star moves ... she was far and away the most charismatic. More important, they were loud in the classic punk manner, and the sound system was never sufficient, so it took years before I felt I could really appreciate their concerts.
But there was Janet Fucking Weiss. I’ve seen a few great drummers in my day ... Keith Moon was always my favorite, which is why I stopped thinking of the band as “The Who” after he died. Janet Weiss was knocking on the door of the great drummers. Often, the mix at S-K shows was bad enough that the drums were the easiest thing to hear, so I knew right away how great she was. And she had, and has, great drummer hair.
Since that night, I’ve never been able to hear their music without noticing how great she is. It was another step beyond fandom to something else.
They played a song or two from their upcoming album, The Hot Rock, but the Dig Me Out songs (six of them) made the biggest impression.
Something had happened between Sleater-Kinney and me. I saw them twice in 1999, twice in 2000, three times in 2002, and once a year between 2003 and 2006 (it helped that this Portland band played quite often in the Bay Area). By the time of their hiatus, I’d seen them a dozen times, and they fit the cliché of the artist who keeps getting better. They now had a confidence on stage (Carrie’s memoir showed how much that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t tell). Their unique sound combined three idiosyncratic talents, all remarkable, into a whole that was impossibly better than the parts. Corin’s astonishing vocals ... Carrie’s singular guitar work ... and Janet, the most traditional sounding of the group, she sounded like a Rock Drummer, except she was perhaps the greatest living Rock Drummer.
We know now how necessary their hiatus was. With the passing years, my hopes that they would return grew weaker. And, as I have said many times, I pined miserably because I knew at my age, I was unlikely to ever find another artist that would mean so much to me.
Which is another way of saying that they had changed my life. Not just because I missed them, but also because I thought they were irreplaceable. And I knew this in 2006, and in the following “hiatus” years, in a way I could never have imagined in 1997 when Dig Me Out was released.
So OK, it’s just a rock and roll band, and “life-changing” is a pretty big claim. Sisyphus changed my life. In music, Bruce Springsteen did the same. But Sleater-Kinney, great artists that they were and are, looked at the world with a pitiless eye, but also suggested a life worth living. It was rewarding to follow them. Life-changing? Maybe that goes too far. But they were a difference maker.
That the hiatus finally ended, that their new album was as good as what came before, that their concerts are better than what came before (I’ve seen them three times since the return) ... this is more miraculous than you might think. The world is full of artists who came back only to remind us of how good they used to be. Sleater-Kinney came back, and they were as good as they used to be.
And for me, it all started 20 years ago today, when Dig Me Out was released.
Here they are at 924 Gilman, a month-and-a-half after the album was released:
Had dinner last night at Pizza Moda, and had a great conversation with owner Jeff Davis, who has been around the music business for many years. Jeff is a wonderful raconteur with plenty of stories about the biz, and this time the talk made its way to Jaan Uhelszki, the legendary rock critic who goes back to the days of Creem. Jeff and Jaan are friends, and Jaan is married to Matthew King Kaufman, who started Beserkley Records. This took me back to the label’s early anthology, Beserkley Chartbusters Vol. 1. Here we go. (Whenever possible, I’ve chosen the version that appeared on this particular album.)
Earth Quake, “Friday on My Mind.” Cover of the Easybeats’ song. We saw Earth Quake open for Lou Reed in 1974.
Greg Kihn, “All the Right Reasons.” By the time Kaufman shut the label down, Kihn was the only artist still on the roster. He is probably the second-most famous person to record for them.
The Rubinoos, “Gorilla.” They once filed a plagiarism lawsuit against Avril Lavigne. It was settled out of court.
Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Captain Lou Albano plays her dad in the video. This led to the “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection” that culminated at the very first WrestleMania, when Wendi Richter won the Women’s World Championship while managed by Lauper.
Joe Cocker, “Delta Lady – Set 2.” Honestly, it’s hard to separate all of the Mad Dogs releases at this point. “Delta Lady” always sounds good, though.
Rod Stewart, “You’re My Girl (I Don’t Want to Discuss It).” Rod Stewart’s first albums were so good, some of us never forgave him for what he became. I saw him live in 1977, and when he sang a snippet of “Every Picture Tells a Story”, I thought truer words were never spoken.
Blondie, “Hanging on the Telephone.” In their early days, I often said Debbie Harry was the Diana Ross of punk/new wave. I didn’t mean it as a compliment. I was stupid. Although when I saw Blondie in 1979, they were blown off the stage by their opening act, Rockpile.
Elton John, “Love Song.” Speaking of dumb opinions, back in the 70s I thought it was easy to find the good Elton songs from the bad ones. The good ones were the rockers.
Ramones, “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The first track from their first album. They were kinda like Rod Stewart, in that their first four albums were so much better than the rest. I didn’t hate them for it, though.
Heart, “Crazy on You.” I cheated a bit here. Spotify gave me the Dreamboat Annie version, but this one from Midnight Special is too good to pass up. If you ever wondered why Heart got tagged with the “female Led Zep” label, here’s why. Makes sense that they were chosen to do “Stairway to Heaven” at Led Zeppelin’s Kennedy Center Honors. What the heck, here’s that one ... this is the edited version, where the edits are hard to hear, so it’s no big deal. You can hear the full version on an audio-only YouTube video, but the visuals are too important to leave out.
It is entirely appropriate that a Chuck Berry song was launched into outer space in the mid-70s, so that distant civilizations would better understand America. Elvis may be the greatest rock and roll artist, but Chuck Berry is the one about whom you say, "without him, there is nothing." He was the first poet laureate of rock and roll, and he gave us our best-known anthems. Elvis lived the story of "Johnny B. Goode," but Chuck Berry wrote it ... and there's an alternate history of rock and roll hidden beneath the fact that Berry originally wrote the song about a "colored boy named Johnny B. Goode" but changed it to "country boy" to broaden the song's appeal.
On a personal note, Chuck Berry also headlined the first rock concert I ever attended, playing the Fillmore along with Eric Burdon and the Animals and the Steve Miller Blues Band. Miller's band backed up Berry for his sets, part of which ended up on Berry's album Live at the Fillmore Auditorium. It's not a bad way to introduce yourself to rock and roll shows, watching Chuck Berry.
I recently called this the greatest debut album in the history of rock and roll.
“No one ever even notices this, but right in the middle the drums stop ... No one ever thinks about the drummer, they're all worried about the guitar sound and stuff, and nobody's thinking about the drummer. Well, as soon as it got loud and fast I couldn't hear anything. I couldn't hear anybody. So I stopped, assuming, 'Oh, they'll stop too and say, 'What's the matter, Moe?' And nobody stopped! So I came back in.”