I wrote my first piece for PopMatters.com, and it’s about The Shaggs.
Like so many songs of my early childhood in the late 1970s, “Slip Slidin’ Away” became part of my pre-linguistic sensory experience. Instrumentally spare even for a Paul Simon recording, it nevertheless has the distinction of being a song I experience in my chest as some form of synaesthesia, of sound made into sensation. To a two-year old, lyrics are obviously irrelevant, so it’s a testament to the magic of Paul Simon’s voice and the distinctive “and three” percussion that the song makes an impression at all on someone whose cognitive abilities are limited.
It’s tempting to interpret the tune as a lullaby, but even then I knew the song was not telling me that everything would be alright. I understood the words in the title at least, and I knew it meant loss of control, of being slowly moved in some unintended direction.
Released in late 1977 as a bonus track for Simon’s Greatest Hits, Etc., the song went to #5 on the Billboard charts. It’s one of the few situations I can think of where an unreleased song was appended to a hits collection and actually became a hit itself. It didn’t make the cut onto Still Crazy After All These Years, so it seems as though Simon is saying “here’s this thing I didn’t want to tell you about.” Maybe he wasn’t sure it was good enough, or maybe he thought we wouldn’t understand or be prepared for the message.
Because the song was encoded in my memory as a sensation rather than a song, I never took the time later in life to comprehend the lyrics. I absorbed it as I do most songs – music first, lyrics last, if at all. Only within the last few years did I get around to comprehending the verses. A lot of Paul Simon’s tunes have a certain sadness laced with hope, but this one doesn’t offer much in the way of consolation. It simply presents the world as it is – a man too much in love, a woman with lowered (realistic?) expectations from life, a father who doesn’t explain himself, and then the final verse, the knock-down blow:
God only knows
God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man
We’re working our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away
It’s a dark truth that we are, for the most part, not in control, much as we may think we are. Maybe it’s just the timbre of The Paul Simon Voice that softens the punch, but the song manages not to be completely depressing; instead it transmits a feeling of being at peace with an uncertain universe. As children, our lullabies are either unreasonably rosy (“you make me happy when skies are grey”) or strangely horrid (“the cradle will fall?” WTF, mom?), so “Slip Slidin’ Away” might make a good middle ground. It’s the kind of message children would benefit from hearing more often. Somehow I think it was beneficial for me.
UPDATE: I realized recently that the most likely definition of “Slip Slidin’ Away” is death. I was reminded of a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh (and adapted by Chroma Key into a piece called “When You Drive“) wherein Han says, “we have the habit energy of wanting to arrive. That is why we want to go as quickly as possible…but we arrive at every moment…If we abandon the present moment, our final destination may be our death. You don’t want to arrive there.” So with that in mind, we really do think we’re gliding down the highway when in fact we’re just getting closer to death.
Recently I was informed that an old acquaintance of mine had died. Fred was a salesguy at the now-defunct Sigler Music Center in Little Rock who made me a great deal on my trusty Fender Eric Johnson strat. I bought it at their going-out-of-business sale, which reminded me of all the great guitar shops in Central Arkansas that are no more: Boyd Pro Sound, Atomic Guitars, Stonehenge (I & II), Starr’s Guitars, Music City, Maumelle Music. I thought it might be good if I wrote down a little about each of them while the memories are still relatively fresh.
Boyd Pro Sound. The oldest, the best. This was Little Rock’s hometown music store for decades. In addition to guitars and band instruments it was the main repair shop and PA store. My history with the store is limited; I don’t think I ever bought any guitars there, but I know that it was the hub for all the gigging musicians, church groups, and audio production people. I fondly recall impressing Mr. Boyd once with my guitar rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Hoe Down.” He was a traditional pianist of some renown and I got the feeling he had an uneasy relationship with the young guitar monkeys in his store.
The circumstances of the store’s demise still seem strange to me – Mr. Boyd closed up shop to sell the space to a nearby church, then opened up a branch of Sigler Music Center a year or so later. Alas, the store opened at nearly the precise moment Guitar Center arrived, so it only lasted a few years.
Stonehenge. The place your metalhead cousin learned to shred. Or play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There were two Stonehenges, one in North Little Rock and one in Little Rock down on Geyer Springs Road. Finding the latter location was initially a process of trial and error for me – I could never remember how to get there. But this was the store with the Ibanez and Jackson guitars. This was the Guitar Monkey Store. This was where I bought my first seven-string, a white Ibanez Universe that languished in the store apparently for years. I bought it around 1995 I think, and it was a 1990 model. Nobody knew what to do with a seven-string back then; Korn hadn’t hit it big yet. A year later their rise to prominence unleashed a tidal wave of seven- and now eight-string guitars onto the market.
Atomic Guitars. My neighborhood shop. I can’t tell you the many joys of a sunny day’s walk of a few blocks from my apartment to Atomic Guitars. Johnny Adams always had the coolest retro/vintage gear, and not just the expensive stuff – he had weird cheap gear as well. I bought a red 70s Kay strat from him for something like $80 once. Good guitar. I gave it to a friend a few years later. I think I also got my Fender Deluxe amp there. Atomic was really the only store that had a funky vibe to it, and that’s a tribute to Johnny’s style and interests – it was his store. It took a few years before I realized how rare that is in this world. Here are some pics from my old photoblog from way back when. Atomic lives on virtually, so visit the website.
Starr’s Guitars. The Money Store. David Starr moved his operation up to Colorado after a few years in Little Rock’s River Market. It was the place to go if you wanted high-end, off-the-beaten path guitars like Godin, Brian Moore, or PRS. If you wanted a limited edition Turner Lindsay Buckingham model, he had one. Starr’s was new when I moved to town around 1999, and David ran ads on KARN Newsradio, where I had my first “real” job, post-college. I remember some mornings the late great Bob Harrison would be on the air with his Hofner Beatle bass in hand, reading ad copy for Starr’s during the morning show. Starr’s also hosted guitar repair legend Tim Quatermous (I’m probably spelling that wrong), who probably worked on every one of my guitars at some point. After Starr’s left, Tim moved over to Romco Drums before he passed away. And for awhile David ran a small music venue next door to the shop – I remember seeing some great shows there by folks like Ed Nicholson’s Outside the Lines and Chapman Stick player Greg Howard.
Music Makers. The suburbs store. They had some good guitars but I don’t have any real strong memories from here. I remember they had a cool Robin guitar for years that was always in the store but always beyond my price range or anyone else’s interest.
Music City. The Pawn Shop. There was a Music City back behind the Brandon House building on 12th at University and I think it eventually became the Music City out in Sherwood, which was really just a pawn shop with a lot of guitars. A lot of awesome guitars; in fact this was probably my favorite store to venture out to because all their inventory was used gear, and used gear is just consistently more interesting to me than new gear. Lots of great 80s relics – I remember almost buying a Steve Stevens Washburn there once. I did buy a $300 Epiphone Joe Pass from them. They’re in a new building in Sherwood by the freeway but every time I go by there, they’re never open. I wonder what the deal is.
Maumelle Music & More. My store. I taught guitar here for a few years between 2000 & 2004. When I moved to Little Rock in 1999, I’d heard a music store had opened up in the bedroom suburb of Maumelle. I went to check it out – it had a big selection of CDs, some t-shirts and they were a dealer for Ibanez, Alvarez and Crate. After picking around on a guitar for a bit, I was asked by the manager, Mike, if I’d be interested in teaching lessons. It worked out really well for me, because my radio gig was part-time. I’d work at KARN from 9 to noon, then teach from 4 to 7. When I left radio, I was part time at Epoch Online before I eventually moved up to fulltime. I still keep up with some of those kids.
Romco Drums. The drum shop with some acoustic guitars. The fact that this store is able to stay open dealing mainly in percussion is impressive. I took jazz guitar lessons there briefly with Perry Israel.
Saied Music. The high school band store. Some decent guitars, but mainly this is the store for the brass and woodwinds.
There was a store up in Sherwood in the early 2000s run by Randy Boyd – anybody remember the name? I used to go up there every so often.
I suppose I should say a few words about what killed these shops. It would be easy to just say “Guitar Center,” but the Internet and eBay are major factors as well. When any kid can try out a guitar at a store and then go buy it online for a lower price, that really hurts a store. It’s not digital-music-killing-record-stores damage, but it’s the 1 of a 1-2 punch. Punch 2 is Guitar Center, the Walmart of music stores. Any exclusive dealership contract a mom and pop store might have is effectively negated by Guitar Center’s special arrangements with every company. Their corporate pyramid also contains the website/catalog behemoth Musician’s Friend and several instrument companies like Fender (at the top of the pyramid? Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital), so financially it’s the Death Star of retail musical instrument stores. Only the small-town stores will survive (which is why I haven’t mentioned Jacksonville Guitar, still going strong), at least until Guitar Center decides to go everywhere that Walmart goes, or Walmart decides to carry a wider array of musical instruments. Or Walmart eats Guitar Center.
It should be said, though, that music stores are only as good as the people who run them. It’s really about people. A lot of sales guys in Little Rock had no place else to go but Guitar Center, so if I have a buddy at a Guitar Center, I’ll still buy from him if he’s got what I’m looking for (of course, given the choice, I will first order from GuitarSmiths in Harrison, not that I buy much gear brand new). I remember Little Rock’s Guitar Center being fun in the early days – I’ll never forget that time some kid was wailing on “Eruption” and Cody Short picked up the intercom and said “hey kid, can you play ’Eruption’”? Classic.
I’ll miss the Saturdays I used to spend in Little Rock going from guitar store to guitar store, talking to guys like Fred, seeing what’s new and what’s on sale. It’s something our culture will never get back, like retail record stores or cathedrals made by stonemasons. We gain convenience and low, low prices, but for everything we gain, we always lose something.
I decided to do this year’s list by album rather than by song. I had a surprisingly good year for albums in 2011.
Junip – Fields
By far my favorite album of the year. Junip is a new band from Sweden featuring José González, previously known for his several solo CDs of chilled-out semi-bossa-nova songsmithing. Transferred to a full band, González’s songs feel like they’ve moved from black & white to color. The colors are still muted browns and greens, but that’s as it should be. His songs have a sense of suspension to them, so the whole record makes for an immersive experience, great for long drives in the country or long walks in the city. I’ve found it to be one of those rare discs that even my mom likes, so I bought copies for the whole family for Christmas.
Buy Fields at Amazon.com.
Those Dancing Days – Daydreams and Nightmares
The hits keep coming from Sweden. I was sent the video for “Fuckarias” (terrible title given that the song contains no swearing), and as soon as the drums started, I was in love. The drummer is phenomenal. This is the first time an all-girl bland completely floored me. They have two full-length albums, and the songs have a good variety of style – 80s synth pop, post-punk/new-wave, R&B, heavy rock. One minute they’re the Go-Go’s, the next they’re Sleater-Kinney, then OK Go. Yes, I have a crush on them. Shut up.
Buy Daydreams and Nightmares at Amazon.com.
Dennis Olivieri – Come to the Party
This is a discovery from 1968 I made via DJ Shadow and the good people at www.whosampled.com (his song “I Cry in the Morning” is the backing track for Shadow’s “Six Days”). Dennis sits somewhere between Harry Nilsson and Tom Waits at the table of half-crazy songwriters (a table I imagine full of wine goblets, loose women, fine cheese and dead mice) and vocally he sounds like the younger brother of Blood Sweat & Tears’ David Clayton-Thomas. His songs have moments of brilliance but they resist being tied down into one convenient song. Just when you think he’s got a great pop tune, he takes some discursive left turn and you’re in the weeds of weirdness. He’s probably too sane for Captain Beefheart fans and too rambling to be enjoyed by pop fans. I need to find more of his stuff.
Buy Come to the Party on iTunes.
MAMA – Get Later
What can I say about Lenny Bryan? The Ho-Hum frontman still lives in a musical world of his own creation, and it’s not a world I entirely understand – I can’t trace the roots, I don’t know where the borders are, or which direction is up. But when on “We Became Untouchable” he sings “I just realized I’m never gonna be a star,” I’m plugged in, because every musician in their 30s needs to realize this at some point, so that’s not only familiar ground but Important Stuff. This is music that can’t be made by famous people; it’s a perspective that cannot be represented by the music industry as we used to know it. And it is a message that is Necessary to so many. It might even beg for a sequel song that tells ambitious twentysomething rockers “99.9% of you will fail to become rock stars.” And so the chorus of “You’re a friend of mine / And you’re the best kind / You’re a drink of wine / You’re a Valentine” serves as a nice tonic to that sad realization. Maybe it’s a consolation prize to all the would-be rock stars to know that, despite their failure to become famous, they still have a lot of friends.
Buy Get Later at Amazon.com.
Keith Horn – Rock Scissors
I met Keith at Dweezilla camp last year, and had no idea at the time that he was a Mad Scientist Genius. He knows all the Steely Dan chords. Combine that with all the Frank Zappa rhythm changes and tortured melodies, and you’ve got a unique hybrid that satisfies the needs of a wide variety of music nerds. He’s also a monster guitarist, not that I recall him revealing that to anyone at camp. So the guy is humble, too. Bastard.
Buy Rock Scissors at Amazon.com.
David Mead – Dudes
The title track makes a nice companion piece to Lenny’s “We Became Untouchable.” The opening line is “You’ve got bills and bouncing checks / Nothing’s right and nothing’s left to lose / But you got Dudes.” It’s a lesson from a guy who had two major-label albums and is still struggling to make a living with music, but who finds himself with the consolation of having a lot of friends. It should be noted that this album was financed by a Kickstarter campaign to which I was a hefty contributor (I got to visit the studio!), so it’s good to have Dudes.
Buy Dudes at Amazon.com.
Parov Stelar – The Paris Swing Box EP
Finally someone is doing for old swing records what Moby did for old blues tunes. This is the first of two albums on this list that I found via a television commercial (Cosmopolitan Hotel of Las Vegas – by the way, why is one hotel in one city running national ads? Is that a first? How many guests can one hotel really take with nationwide exposure?), which I guess is the new MTV. Parov is really an Austrian DJ named Marcus Füreder, and not all of his stuff is as great as “Booty Swing” so kudos to the Madison Avenue wizard who put that tune in the commercial.
Buy The Paris Swing Box EP on iTunes.
The Asteroids Galaxy Tour – The Golden Age
Here’s our other TV commercial song (for Heineken – thanks, Shazam app!) that harkens back to an earlier time and genre. A product of Denmark, TAGT may have one of the more unwieldy and confusing band names I’ve ever heard – how do they name their tours, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour American Tour? Great tunes, though.
Buy The Golden Age at Amazon.com.
T-Ride – Unreleased
This summer I came across several tunes from T-Ride’s unreleased second album, via their guitarist Geoff Tyson. T-Ride was a Bay Area trio with devastating musical skills – three-part vocal harmonies and instrumental technique beyond belief. Geoff’s guitar playing on “Serial Killer” is as close as I’ve heard metal come to jazz and still be a song without any real soloing. Like much T-Ride’s material, the virtuosity came not in the form of guitar solos, just maddeningly difficult riffs and fills. How they sang and played that stuff I have no idea. Drop me a line if you want to hear the other tunes.
Tori Amos – Night of Hunters
Finally a curveball from Tori, who hasn’t really thrown the world a curveball since 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel. This album not only features a more classical/chamber music sound, but also an instrumental (see below)! Her daughter sings with her on several cuts, which would count as nepotistic self-indulgence from anyone but the citizen-queen of Planet Tori.
Buy Night of Hunters at Amazon.com.
Tedeschi Trucks Band – Revelator
Does anybody make greasy soul blues rock from the South anymore? I’m just glad this band exists.
Buy Revelator at Amazon.com.
Animals as Leaders – Weightless
Math rock, prog, jazz fusion and metal have finally converged. This trio led by guitarist Tosin Abasi is one of the only groups out there still pushing the boundaries of genre and technique. They are making the impossible possible with music that is as heavy as it is brainy. It would be easy to dismiss them as shred nerds if their rhythms weren’t so relentlessly brutal and their compositions so statistically dense.
Buy Weightless at Amazon.com.
Megadeth – Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? 25th Anniversary
I don’t think any band in the genre of metal has ever combined ferocious intensity with such precision and madness as is exhibited on the live album that accompanies this special edition of Megadeth’s classic. Guitarist Chris Poland and drummer Gar Samuelson were hopeless heroin addicts and Daves Mustaine and Ellefson were their usual messed up selves, but the band manages to be tight and loose at the same time. This is as close as the raw energy of punk ever made it to its magnetic opposite of rock guitar wizardry. Metallica might have been faster, Slayer might have been scarier, but Megadeth were the craziest. They were the mad ones.
Dream Theater – A Dramatic Turn of Events
They’re back with a new drummer and an increased willingness to just go batshit crazy on guitar/keyboard unison lines. Welcome back, guys.
DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, The Better
I haven’t yet warmed up to all of Shadow’s new disc, but “Stay the Course” featuring Posdnuos and Talib Kweli is definitely the standout, along with “I Gotta Rokk” featuring a few samples from none other than Yngwie Malmsteen. Finally a convergence of hip-hop and metal I can get excited about.
This year I also discovered this really nice little George Harrison demo, a bonus cut from “Gone Troppo”.
On a sad note, one of my all-time favorite bands pretty much called it quits this year, The Softlightes. Please go buy everything they ever did as The Softlightes and as The Incredible Moses Leroy.
There are any number of reasons why King’s X were never as huge as the bands they influenced (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden) went on to become: Christian themes, a mohawked black guy for a lead singer, a sound too heavy for pop and too poppy for metal (Vocal harmonies and stratocaster crunch? Who wants that in their metal?). So their appeal was left primarily to the only groups of people who really care deeply about pure music: nerds and musicians. Unlike hair metal, King’s X weren’t selling a lifestyle to the bored; unlike thrash or death metal, they weren’t selling a sense of strength to the powerless; unlike punk or alternative rock, they weren’t reactionaries against a mainstream. They were just another band from Texas, that vast crossroads where musical outlaws run roughshod across the borderlines of genres. Perhaps the primary thing, though, that made them so unmarketable was the simple fact that there has never been anything cool about sincerity.
Their painful sincerity is in full flower on “Goldilox,” the second cut on their debut album. It’s immediately recognizable to every nerdy boy who can’t talk to girls as their Theme Song. “I can’t believe summer’s
almost here / I made it through another year even if alone” is, in some shape or form, written in the diary of every socially awkward teenager. Couched in different timbres, it would be twee indie rock. But sung by a soul singer (did I mention the mohawk?) fronting a heavy rock trio on an album named after a C.S. Lewis book, it has some barriers to entry for normal folks. But that’s who they were: three misfit Christian kids (who met each other in Springfield, Missouri!) who liked the Beatles and hard rock.
The King’s X Marketing Predicament continues to the present day. They are forever the best kind of cult band, though: still making records, still accessible to their fans (Doug signed my bass!), still writing honest songs. It should also be noted that “Goldilox” is the closest thing to a conventional love song the band has ever written. After 15 albums, they’ve managed never to write anything resembling a ballad. They got it out of the way early on side 1 of their first album.
Buy Goldilox (LP Version) at amazon.com
1.) Strip away all theatrics and fashion from popular music and you generally won’t find most teenagers. You’ll just find nerds, musicians and adults.
In The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, Buckaroo’s guitarist Perfect Tommy asks why he must give his coat to a lady, to which Buckaroo responds, “Because you’re perfect.”
The Mike Keneally Band is perfect like that. I dream of a world where musicians simply play the music that’s in their hearts, unaffected by the compromises and limitations of imitation, commerce, ego, and idolatry – a place where no one is trying to be anyone else and everyone is attempting only to be the best at being themselves. So far, to the best of my awareness, the sole citizens of such a place are the Mike Keneally Band.
They’re too irreverent for jazz, too smart for rock, and too silly for fusion. Everyone else has to compromise somehow, consciously or unconsciously, either by adhering to the dictates of genre or the needs of a given audience. As a natural consequence, the Mike Keneally Band are understandably obscure, but thanks to the Internet they’ve connected to enough like-minded listeners to sustain themselves.
As one of those people, having followed Mike’s career since the early 90’s, I have to say that what he does excites me to play music but not in an imitative way because Mike’s music is so idiosyncratic that it wouldn’t seem right to take his statements as my own. Most of my heroes play music generic enough to be consumed and absorbed by society at large, and their ideas are just original enough to give them a unique voice within the confines of a particular genre, but Mike exists only in Mike Land. He only makes me want to be original.
While it’s certainly true that the songs flow from the mind of Mike, several words need to be said about Bryan Beller, Joe Travers, Rick Musallum and newcomer Griff Peters. These guys are obviously Special Forces-grade musicians but they are dedicated to Mike’s cause and not to their own aggrandizement. They’re not mercenaries because Lord knows there’s no money in originality or virtuosity. Beyond that, they have achieved a level of unit cohesion that allows them to operate as a single entity. Every band wants to be what they are.
For their steadfast and more than a little Quixotic dedication to originality and creativity, for their mind-boggling musical skills, and for their refusal to be egotistical or bitter about the industry that doesn’t care about them, the Mike Keneally Band deserves to be called Perfect.
1.) Frank Zappa comes close, but Frank was forced to make his compromises with commerce and audience, so he was continually playing an artistic game of Twister — one foot in rock, one foot in classical, one foot in Frank Land.
In the 80’s there was a brief media to-do about backmasking, the encoding of evil messages in heavy metal records, accessible by playing certain albums backward. If only they’d known about the coded messages of De La Soul. If America’s parents in 1989 had any idea what “Jimbrowski must wear a cap, just in case the girl likes to clap” really meant, they’d be more afraid of De La than Judas Priest.
For any small-town kid in, say, Arkansas, listening to a De La record might as well have been a starter course in cryptography. In addition to the usual hip-hop slang, De La went further to fashion their own inside references and characters: “Jenny,” “buddy,” “Derwin,” “chestnuts.” Factor in Prince Paul’s curatorial approach to sampling, and you’ve got the makings of an album that rewards repeated listening across decades. Every time I catch up to a DJ like Prince Paul by discovering the source of a cut, or untangle the rhymes of MCs like Dave and Pos, I feel like I’m slowly graduating to their level of awareness.
But it’s not all knotty linguistics or DJ science on this tune. This one ain’t about bragging or sticking it to the ever-present threat of sucka MCs. This is the band stepping back and letting their friends Q-Tip, Monie Love, and the Jungle Brothers join the fun, and the effect is something like stepping into a summer barbecue in a Brooklyn neighborhood of the mind. So maybe it’s fine that the parents don’t know who Jimmy is or why he needs a hat.
>> Buy 3 Feet High & Rising at amazon.com
If aliens came to me and asked me to play them one song to represent humanity at its best, I would play “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & the Drells for them. It is distilled joy.
If this song does not make you at least a little happy every time you hear it, then you may be a heartless robot. This song is as irresistible as a basket full of puppies and kittens on Christmas morning. It has the most perfect bassline. It has the happiest two-chord progression ever. Even its brief, mellow bridge makes one smile. The fact that it has no real lyrics to speak of is immaterial. The fact that the song was ostensibly written as a companion to a dance no one knows is irrelevant. It remains the simplest, most elegant musical construct man has yet devised.
If I were L. Ron Hubbard, I would have designed a religion around this song instead of a lame sci-fi story. It is a testament to the ability of music itself to spontaneously generate joy. Perhaps the secret to its magic is that is has no melody. It is simply a groove. The happiest groove ever written. Melodies lose their luster with overuse, but grooves never die. A fat groove is a joy forever.
As an added bonus, if you listen to it with headphones on, you can hear all sorts of extra voices in the studio. It’s like you’re there with them, making this thing up as they go.
>> Download Tighten Up Pt. 1 (LP Version) from amazon.com.
OK enough with the quietly introspective songsmithery; it’s time for some adrenaline-soaked, mach-10-with-your-hair-on-fire, sonic bombast rock and roll. If this song doesn’t make you want to get in a car and drive fast with the windows down, then an important part of you is missing and needs to be recovered from maturity’s dustbin. Or maybe you have no use for boisterous immaturity, maybe you don’t still enjoy yelling into the wind every so often. That’s OK; you’re a better adult than I am.
“Addicted to That Rush” is, to my mind, the single greatest audio approximation of what it means to be 14 years old. There were plenty of things wrong with hair metal – the boneheaded lyrics, the posing, the lifestyle excesses – but the one thing it did exceptionally well was provide high-energy fun. I’ve said my piece on this before (on the blog David Slade and I started but never got around to maintaining) but I’ll continue to speak up for the joys of vulgarian exhilaration that loud, fast music provides.
There is a helium-inflated flotilla of rock critics and indie rock hipsters out there who will tell you that fast guitar solos = soulless masturbation. This metaphor, while occasionally accurate, misses an important point about music: it doesn’t have to be art. It can be whatever its audience wants it to be. It can be sports – a viscerally exhilarating contest of physical feats. It can be speech – a means of simple communication. Can a sporting event be said to have a soul? Are the Olympics inherently masturbatory? Of course musicians should aspire to be more than athletes, but the performance of a truly great athlete is still worth experiencing, and that’s what we have here in Paul Gilbert and Billy Sheehan of Mr. Big.
Music contains multitudes. I’ve heard people say music is a language, but it’s actually something that sits in parallel to language, and is roughly the same size because it contains within it all the various forms and dialects of what individual cultures consider music to be. Humans are often as guarded and belligerent with each other about their music as they are about their religion. We need individual religions and languages to have discrete boundaries and rules, but there are no rules on Music itself, just musical genres. Nor, really, are there rules about Language and Religion – you can make up your own language or religion today if you want. It’s yours for the taking.
All of this is far more mileage than I ever expected to get out of the hair metal shredfest that is “Addicted to That Rush.” My attempts at philosophizing will always fall short of expressing the sensation that this song gives me. It gets me energized; it provokes a significant physical and emotional response. Isn’t that what the best songs do?
For many years my perpetually adolescent outlook on life had led me to view with deep suspicion all acquired tastes. If a taste had to be acquired, I thought, what good was it anyway? At some point in my late 20’s I realized the answer: because sometimes things are more complex than you are. Only by surrounding yourself with something unfamiliar and being exposed to it on a regular basis can you crack the necessary codes to understanding it.
Not that it happens all at once. I willed myself into jazz based on the trust I had in the musicians I admired who acknowledged its musical supremacy, and that process took a few years. Jazz really is the most advanced musical artform from the standpoint of rhythm and harmony, so it naturally turns a lot of people off. For many people raised on rock music, it is the textbook definition of “acquired taste.”
So, for me, was Neil Finn. In the late 90’s, I was still recovering from guitar addiction and transitioning into the pomp and fanfare of Jellyfish. Neil Finn just seemed like another guy singing songs, nothing particularly impressive from the standpoint of timbre or instrumentation. It wasn’t until the early 2000’s when I heard “She Will Have Her Way” in an episode of Sports Night that I knew I needed to revisit Neil and Crowded House.
Neil’s lyrics manage to be simultaneously direct and vague. He’ll alternate something structured and coherent like “I’m so sore that I could cry” with an abstract photo-lyric like “always in the night lay your tired arms.” His chord progressions often take a left turn on the second or third time through a verse. He can also write lyrics that don’t rhyme but you never notice it. Like The Weepies, he writes songs that can put you in your own movie, but it’s always a movie directed by Neil Finn, where the sky is always cloudy but the grass is usually green.
Whatever your interpretation of this song’s lyrics, the title makes clear that the woman gets her way. For as many love songs as exist in the pop universe, I found this topic of relenting to the will of the woman to be surprisingly underrepresented (“Baby’s Got Sauce” by G. Love notwithstanding). Not many men like to admit their lack of control in a relationship, and the resignation in Finn’s voice speaks to the underlying assumption that no matter how smart or in control a guy thinks he is, there’s usually a woman out there smarter and more complex than him.