Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Grade 9, Track15

“Satisfaction (Can't Get No),” DEVO

DEVO was the first rock 'n' roll circus act to dazzle me. Long before I heard them sing a single note I first read about them — in a science fiction magazine profile, cracking wise and even somewhat presciently about the future. Their industrial suits and goggles, the tweaking of retro-kitsch into something that could be seen either as corny or repulsive, depending on the moment, was smarty-pants MAD magazine stuff that held more appeal for me than the blunter aesthetic of their other punk compatriots. Rumors that they weren't at all disinclined to mix it up with disgruntled audience members only heightened their mystique. Like Spike Jones before them, they were deadly serious about their joking around.

So is their perversion of the Rolling Stones' anthem the final word on the so-called counter-culture of the 60s gone mainstream? Is it a jazz approach to rock 'n' roll? Or is it just another act in the ongoing circus, producing infectious fun for all?

All of the above, I think. And I still dig it.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Grade 9, Track 14

“Echo Beach,” Martha & The Muffins

Driving back from a soiree at Grand Beach the summer of 1980, sand in my sneakers and hair, Winnipeg's two pop radio stations were playing this song every ten minutes or so. Seriously — it'd fade out, there'd be one or two different songs, a commercial break, then . . . “I know it's out of fashion, and a trifle uncool . . . .”

Contrary to the opinion being sung, these Toronto hipsters unleashed a lethal one-two punch of cool and CanCon. The guy driving the car and stabbing at the radio buttons was not amused. I thought it was a bit much, too, but I didn't mind.

I can't help it — I'm a romantic fool.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Grade 9, Track 13

Saints' Roller Rink had a blue, nearly plastic finish to their rink floor, and the wax had a distinctively pastel smell to it. The sound of roller bearings and rubber wheels was equally distinctive, as was the odor of spilled Coke and the drugstore perfume that 14-year-old girls resorted to.

But nothing was so distinctive or so gut-wrenching as the advice and dressing up (or down) that I received at the hands of J___. “Adidas track jacket, good. T-shirt, no. Ditch the shirt, keep the jacket. Push up those sleeves, give the girls a bit of forearm. And whattaya got the zipper up so high for? Show 'em your chest, for God's sake.”

J___ was a lad who had clocked in considerably more face-time with girls than any of the rest of us had, so I paid attention, followed every bit of his advice to the (absence of) T, then staggered back onto the rink with my track jacket unzipped to my navel, the better to let the air dry out the acne on my scrawny, hairless chest. I remember a shared clammy hand during a “couples only” skate, and little else, because what else was there to remember about these miserable affairs?

Except this song. Wow, was this ever a weird song. Everything else that pounded through the speakers was related directly to the adolescent libido . . . but this? I had no clue what this song was about, and I'm sure I skated around in that witless clockwise direction with my jaw hanging open, trying to figure it all out.

“Repetitive song, Dad,” says the younger. Yes. Yes, it is. And that's part of its spooky charm. I liked this song, not just because it distracted me from everything I wasn't as a “man” but because it actually seemed to take a perverse delight in that seemingly unbridgeable gap. For about three minutes I could forget this whole business of trying to make myself presentable to the Mysterious Other, and marvel instead at the Mysteriously Foreign Self that was clomping around with heavy feet on a sticky plastic floor.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

Grade 9, Track 12

"Theme to The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie" by Henry Mancini.

Ah, Henry: how was it you were able to convey the glamour of plush shag and chilled gin as the masses gathered in their threadbare living-room sets and cracked open another tepid Bud?


Friday, May 20, 2011

Grade 9, Track 11

"Tightrope," Janelle Monae
No, it doesn't date back to 1979. But I was getting tired of listening to guys who figure they're the cock of the walk, and I figured you might be too.

There's something about a woman in black suit, no? Something a bit Blade Runnery, only happy. Ms. Monae has gone and made the best case of them all for the Detroit Bailout.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Grade 9, Tracks 9 & 10: Disco Sucks! (Except When It Doesn't)

“Miss You,” Rolling Stones
“Stayin’ Alive,” The Bee Gees

Midway through a ringette tournament, between games, I was sipping arena coffee and having one of those passing-the-time conversations with the parents of another player. The dad and I were mulling over how the rock ‘n’ roll scene had, like most forms of entertainment, morphed into an either/or situation where the acts were either entertainment corporations or cottage industries. Corporations don’t mess with The Colonel’s Secret Recipe that got them there, while the cottage industry types continually reformat and regenerate until the road finally wears them down. He and I considered the big names who’d become near-parodies of themselves, performing Greatest Hits concerts to sold-out arenas filled with kids and their shrieking grandparents: KISS, AC/DC, Alice Cooper, The Rolling Stones....

At this point his wife made a face and said, “The Rolling Stones, wow, I dunno: there’s definitely something creepy about those guys.” Her hubby and I glanced at her, our conversation momentarily coming to a full stop. To my mind, the entire band might as well dress and perform like addled pirates, given the extent to which their “creepy” factor has been replaced with camp. But somewhere in this woman’s psyche was a profoundly unhappy memory — probably courtesy of a cute but cretinous little shit who failed high school shop class — that haunts her decades later.

Her opinion was so emotionally genuine it seemed prurient to press her on it, so I left it alone. But as I mulled it over, it occurred to me that if any entertainment corporation has willingly messed with The Colonel’s Secret Recipe, it’s been the Stones. And nowhere is this willingness more apparent than in the 70s, when they dutifully trotted out several disco tunes that, bizarrely enough, don’t sound at all like they were dutifully trotted out.

How is it possible? The back-beat for “Emotional Rescue” and “Miss You” is so tightly strapped down, it actually sounds like Charlie Watts managed to add another button further up the collar of his dress shirt. Ronnie Wood gets his sole moment in the spotlight during “Emotional Rescue” and chews up the scenery for all he’s worth, while Keef slouches off for an extended smoke break (I’m convinced he can actually be heard sneering at Mick and Ronnie’s fannying about during the saxophone solo). For “Miss You,” Richards snuffs the butt and wearily reclaims his guitar, which is why I chose this song, and not the former, even though “Emotional Rescue” is the creepier of the two songs.

But they are both creepy songs, without question. As closely as they adhere to the rigid form of white disco, à la the Bee Gees, they also seem to subtly mock it: Mick by grotesquely aping the freaky white boy falsetto, Keef by strumming so far behind the back-beat it sounds like he’s already defying gravity in the coconut trees of Tortuga. Then there’s the lyrical business of laying claim to a reluctant lover. There’s none of the expected, “Aren’t we all just having a time?” dream-building going on. Nor is anyone getting “wooed” here; “enchanted,” maybe, if only by the dark specter of a Casanova who’s solely in love with himself. These songs are both celebrations of a very particular self-acknowledged egoism. The listener either gets with the program, or leaves the floor.

ANYWAY. The Bee Gees set the template for white disco; the Stones deliberately twisted it with their uniquely dark warp and woof. You get both — in reverse order: because the Bee Gees’ template is the generous one — the one people are still riffing off.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Prayer and Parable: Stories by Paul Maliszewski

Prayer and Parable: StoriesPrayer and Parable: Stories by Paul Maliszewski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having followed Paul Maliszewski’s estimable forays as a critic and journalist-essayist, I was excited to explore his just-published collection of short fiction, Prayer and Parable. Readers already know Paul as hip and super-smart, a keen observer and a rigorous writer who resists the lure of pat summary and probes instead for the pertinent detail that brings a singular light to his chosen subject matter.

No surprise, then, that his fiction exhibits the same precision of attention. Paul’s style is lean and self-aware, without being show-offy and distancing. The settings of his “prayers and parables” range from the concrete “real” to the genuinely surreal, yet I found that every story conjured an almost dreamlike state for me, a place of quiet unease. Whether he’s exploring the jutting facets of social awkwardness in a seemingly civil setting, or the emotional confusion that comes with recognizing the fragility of life, Paul’s stories do indeed have an invocational quality to them that left me with the same sense of the sacred on display that I get at the better art galleries. While the panicking publishing industry generates ever-larger catalogues of lurid hyperbole, this book quietly slips in as a welcome gift of sane, devotional focus.

View all my reviews

Friday, May 13, 2011

Grade 9, Track 8

“Neon Knights,” Black Sabbath

It could be persuasively argued that the Ozzy years gave Sab its staying power in the hearts and ringing ears of the public. But I have to admit I was unabashedly chuffed by the musical rearrangement Ronnie James Dio brought to the party, back in '79. Dio's wordplay sounded like Robert E. Howard had listened to Bob Dylan and decided the future was in Heavy Metal. Throw on a satin shirt with droopy sleeves, inject a little enthusiasm into that powerhouse voice, and you've got quite an engine to hook your music to. The band seems chuffed as well, if the pace and polish of the song is any indication. Note: this was the first song on the disc to get the girls' toes tapping.

RIP, Ronnie James Dio.


Monday, May 09, 2011

Welcome To Grade 9, Track 7

“The Zoo,” Scorpions

I'm not much of a cross-country skier, but I do own a pair — bought from the local thrift store. The last time I strapped them on (two winters back) I noticed they were, “Made In West Germany.”

Wild, but true: the world I grew up in had two Germanys, West and East, and Berlin, their former capital, was similarly divided — by a formidable wall and countless stories of desperate people who tried and mostly failed to cross it. The place was lousy with troops and nukes from the US and USSR, waiting to flame the place like yesterday's newspaper. My grade 9 classmates were convinced World War III would start right there.

I'd read John LeCarre novels in my bedroom, trying to imagine this place I'd never seen. And I'd groove to this song by the West German band Scorpions, which described (I thought) a strip of decadent nightclubs somewhere in West Berlin. Today I discover it's really about a strip of decadent nightclubs in New York City — proving yet again that we each have our uniquely foreign muses.


Friday, May 06, 2011

"Forbidden Zone" Excerpt

Look who traveled to Japan's nuclear ghost-towns, and lived to write about it:

William T. Vollmann, eh? There's something about the guy (his prolificity and perspicacity, for starters) that I find admirable/intimidating/frightening.

Welcome To Grade 9, Track 6

“Marseille,” The Angels

Back in the 90s I got minorly hooked on the UltraLounge series, which served up platters of musical cheese from the late-50s, early-60s — tunes my parents recalled with a cringe. One of the more respectable collections was Wild, Cool & Swingin', which featured such semi-respectable hip-cats as Bobby Darin, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole along with a couple of members from the Rat Pack. “Sinatra looms large over this collection,” read the liner notes, addressing the elephant in the room who clearly did NOT want to be associated with this rabble, “even in his absence.”

Similarly, you could argue that AC/DC looms large over this collection. In 79-80 there was no escaping their one-two punch of Highway To Hell and Back In Black. Thirty years' on, it seems you can't drop a puck or let the daycare out for the weekend without hearing the title tracks of the Mutt Lange albums. So no (more) AC/DC from me.

You'll get their touring compatriots instead. The Angels were Aussie, and appear to have been on good terms with the tiny terrors. As with Acca-Dacca, they frequently defaulted to a simplified Chuck Berry riff. But, college lads that they were, they couldn't help dressing it up just a tad. Thus singer Doc Neeson garnishes his pining for France's own Sin City with a little pidgin French, directed toward an unsuspecting “Mademoiselle” on the promenade. It slays me every time I hear it — rather like Mrs. Miller, that way.


Thursday, May 05, 2011

Welcome To Grade 9, Track 5

“And The Cradle Will Rock,” Van Halen

Bearing no relation whatsoever to Orson Welles' notorious socialist play of the Dirty Thirties, this tune is about a hoser deadbeat, whom the spandex-clad David Lee Roth exhorts to, “Rock on.” Dumb, dumb song. But back in Grade 9 we fellas used to crack each other up by parroting his mock-stern question during the song's bridge: “Have you seen Junior's graaaaades?”

Yep. That's all it took to get a larf out of yer chums, back in 1980. But back then we used to find all sorts of inexplicable stuff funny. Dan Ackroyd “impersonating” Jimmy Carter; a play-doh castrati getting squished by “Mr. Hand,” etc., ad nauseum. Simpler times, for simpler minds.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Welcome To Grade 9, Track 4

“Hair Of The Dog,” Nazareth

Ah, but the Scots have all the righteous brawling songs.

True story: the younger daughter, while listening to this song, commented, “Girls don't get much of a break, do they, Dad?”

“How do you mean, sweetie?”

“Well, if you want to call someone something bad, it's usually goes back to a girl, even if it's a guy. Like, 'Son of a bitch' or 'bastard.'”

Sad but true. On the other side of that token, however, the surest way to wound a fella is to deride his so-called “manhood.” The emotional frailty that lurks behind that comical flap of skin couldn't possibly be overstated.

A lesson for a little later, perhaps.


Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Welcome To Grade 9, Track 3

“Raise A Little Hell,” Trooper

I hate this song.

In my Grade 9 class there were two music options: Band or Guitar Band. If you couldn't muster the chops to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on plastic recorder, you were consigned to Guitar Band.

The only way to deal with a room filled with stoners, burnouts and goons of both sexes was to concede to their musical taste. Once he got the class settled enough, Mr. P__ cued up Thick As Thieves at top volume. The first power chord chimed, and 30 pairs of eyes squinted at their music stands in an attempt to discern what to do next. “People, it's 'A' — right? Remember 'A'? Pointer finger across the three center strings? That's your basic 'A' chord. Basic, because it's easy to remember . . . .” etc.

I witnessed this spectacle the first time I tiptoed out of Band class for a washroom break. I snickered and crept on. Little did I know this song was destined to be a year-long project for the band, so that by Spring a group of 30 or so slackers with cheap acoustic guitars could assemble for their begrudging parents and strum along to the record “in concert.”

“Raise A Little Hell,” echoing down a polished school hallway every day of the week for a year? Even a 14-year-old kid gets weary of that.

Welcome to grade 9.


Monday, May 02, 2011

Welcome To Grade 9, Track 2

“My Mistake,” The Kingbees

I'm an easy mark for rockabilly revivalists — Stray Cats, The Blasters, and most recently Nick Curran have all coaxed a few “hard-earned bucks”* from my wallet over the years. I believe that all began in 1980, with this snappy single penned by Jamie James (born in Toronto, making this the first bit of CanCon on this disc).

*Dave Alvin would close a Blasters' concert by thanking the crowd, “For comin' out and spending your hard-earned bucks.” Classy guy.

Next song...