And Then There Was Maude

April 30, 2009

So Bea Arthur has moved on. She was 86 and she had a good run – as good as a human could hope (I would think).

I wasn’t even yet in grade school when she showed up as the title character in the television show Maude. As JB astutely notes, the show did have one of the funkiest themes of all time. Even at four or five, I knew there was something about it.

The show was incredibly topical, or so I’ve read. The subjects that the show addressed – abortion, racism, alcoholism – were not on my radar. I remember watching the show as a kid, but I had little idea what most of it was about.

I’m sure that I was amused by Maude’s brassy persona and sarcasm.

And I do most definitely remember Adrienne Barbeau.

Like Donny Hathaway’s theme and Maude herself, there was something that I found compelling about Adrienne Barbeau (even if I didn’t quite understand it).

So, bon voyage, Bea. You seemed like swell dame.

Some of the songs that were hits when Maude debuted in September, 1971…

Paul McCartney – Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey
I don’t recall hearing this song in 1971. If I did hear it, it didn’t register.

It is a wonderfully jaunty little tune. I mean, would it be considered a shanty?

What makes a song a shanty – a certain musical style or lots of nautical references? And with the Somalian pirates making headlines (or are they losing their audience?), could shanties be the grunge of this decade?

John Denver – Take Me Home, Country Roads
I do remember John Denver on the radio and he was one of the first acts to catch my ear. Of course, those television specials were some of the first music performances I probably viewed. At the age of five, this long-haired fellow in the floppy hat, traipsing around the Rockies with bear cubs and denim-clad hippie chicks was, in my mind, The Man.

I still love Take Me Home, Country Roads. Every time it pops up on shuffle Paloma and I wonder if Emmylou Harris sings on the song (and, each time I make a mental note to research that and, each time, I forget).

The Carpenters – Superstar
Like John Denver, The Carpenters hits in the early ’70s are some of the first songs I vividly remember hearing on the radio. If I had to make a short list of favorites by the duo, Superstar would most definitely be on there.

As someone who listens to a lot of music, I probably should receive demerits for not knowing songwriter Leon Russell’s version (actually, I confess to not really being familiar with Russell at all (although I’m sure I’ve read about him at Whiteray’s blog).

All of that aside, Superstar is pretty glorious.

The Doors – Riders On The Storm
Even though Jim Morrison had been dead for well over a decade, The Doors were one of the bands among most of the students in my high school. The band’s hold was taken to an extreme by two sisters who were rather adamant that they were illegitimate hatchlings of The Lizard King.

Apparently, it was the last song that The Doors recorded as a band, from sessions in December of 1970. Three months later, Morrison would move to Paris.

Riders On The Storm would have to be considered one of The Doors’ signature songs and it is one cinematic trip.

If I’d Known He Was My Neighbor, I’d Have Brought Him Some Haggis

April 25, 2009

For a band that had such minimal commercial success here in the States, Big Country made their one shot a memorable one. In A Big Country is a well-worn touchstone in the world of ’80’s pop culture.

When the Scottish band arrived in the autumn of ’83, there was a lot of enthusiastic press. Big Country fit comfortably aside baby bands like U2, Simple Minds, Waterboys, The Alarm…groups making anthemic (sometimes sweeping) music fused with idealist lyrics which often sought to match (or exceed) the melodies for drama.

At the time, the outcome that U2 would someday achieve global success seemed to be a foregone conclusion. However, I would have offered a rebuttal had I been told that, following their almost self-titled hit, Big Country was headed for cultdom in America.

(I sometimes wonder if there’s a parallel universe where Big Country is doing stadium tours and U2 is known only for one song –say Where The Streets Have No Name.)

I’m not comparing Big Country’s body of work to U2, but their first two albums – ‘83’s The Crossing and Steeltown from the following year – are definitely worth owning.

But after setting a template with their debut album and refining it to near perfection with the follow-up, the band seemed to ebb a bit and tread water from album number three, 1986’ The Seer, and onward.

Big Country would put out albums to be largely ignored in the States for another decade (actually some wouldn’t be released), but it seems that much of the rest of the world had love for them.

I had a chance to see them live in a club that was a converted warehouse in a part of town where there is that transition from neighborhood where you are reasonably safe most of the time to neighborhood which has a slight risk of danger at most of the time.

Several years later, I would also have the chance to meet lead singer/guitarist Stuart Adamson. He lived in my neighborhood and was an acquaintance of a friend.

This friend, who worked for a record label, called me one afternoon, telling me how he was headed over to drop some CDs off for Stuart. Knowing that I was a fan, I was invited along.

Ten minutes later, we’re standing in Stuart Adamson’s front lawn; no more than a ten blocks from where I lived, hanging out with the man on an overcast, spring day.

We weren’t there long. Stuart’s young son was scampering around the front yard. Stuart seemed like a guy at ease with the world, at one point offering the hyperkinetic tyke the fatherly advice that jail was a place best avoided.

That’s about all I remember. I really needed subtitles. The brogue which I had grown up hearing on record was much more pronounced in person.

Sadly, in a year or so, he would be found dead in a hotel room in Hawaii, having lost his struggle with alcoholism.

Some of my more favorite Big Country songs from those first albums…

Big Country – The Storm
I posted The Storm several weeks ago, prompted by a viewing of a show on one-hit wonders. However, I can’t do a post on Big Country without including the song. It might be the band’s finest moment.

Big Country – Fields Of Fire
Sometimes lost in the attention given to the effects-laden guitars of Adamson and Bruce Watson, was that the band had a formidable rhythm section. Bassist Tony Butler has played with The Pretenders, Roger Daltrey, and Pete Townshend

Drummer Mark Brzezicki has an equally impressive array of credits. He also had one of the largest wingspans of any human I’ve ever seen (or so it seemed). Seeing him play live was mesmerizing – like watching the Hindu goddess Kali behind a drum kit.

Fields Of Fire was the follow-up single to In A Big Country that most people missed.

Big Country – Wonderland
Sandwiched between Big Country’s debut and follow-up was a four-track EP which arrived in the spring of 1984. The highlight was the bracing Wonderland, which was actually a (very) minor hit in the US and got a fair amount of airplay on the alternative radio station I was listening to at the time.

Big Country – Steeltown
The title track of their second album, Steeltown has a thunderous cadence reminiscent of In A Big Country. It’s bone-rattling.

Lyrically, it chronicles the struggles of the working class. On Steeltown, the themes were grittier and the band had an authenticity concerning such matters. In that respect, I’d describe Big Country as Scotland’s answer to Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band.

Big Country – Flame Of The West
Like In A Big Country, a sense of wanderlust pulsates throughout Flame Of The West. The first song on Steeltown, it kicked the album off in high gear, galloping along at a breakneck pace.

Big Country – Come Back To Me
Also from Steeltown, Come Back To Me closed the first side and showcases a different side of Big Country. Its tale revolves around a widow and a fatherless child with Adamson singing from the point of view of the former (hearing him deliver the line “I have your child inside me” is a bit jarring and always makes me imagine him as a seahorse).

Seahorses and male pregnancy aside, it’s a lovely, poignant song.

It Would Have To Be Pretty Cool To Hit The Links With Alice

April 23, 2009

To paraphrase The Shaggs, the skinny people want what the skinny people’s got and the fat people want what the skinny people’s got. That seems to explain actors and actresses as well as athletes who, having gained notoriety in their field, often take a stab at music.

And, there have been musicians who have opted to treat us to their skills as thespians.

However, I was pondering notable musicians who might have once held promise or harbored dreams of being a professional athlete.

This question marinated in my head while I was watching part of an NBA playoff game. In the late ’70s/early ’80s, I was a devout fan of professional basketball, something that was not always easy to do before Bird and Magic entered the league and put games into American households on a regular basis.

(I distinctly recall tuning into games during the ’78 finals between Washington and Seattle at 11:30pm as they were slotted into those late-night times as tape delayed offerings)

Anyhow, now I rarely watch pro hoops aside from catching some of the playoff games. The one the other night proved unspectacular enough to hold my interest.

I picked up a Jim Carroll album which Paloma had recently purchased. Carroll, best known for his song People Who Died, had seen his journals published as The Basketball Diaries, which chronicled his double life as a high school basketball star/heroin addict.

It spurred me to wonder what other musicians might have considered or had the ability to pursue an athletic career.

It’s been told of how when touring Bob Marley & The Wailers much of their down time was spent playing football. Had the stars aligned differently might Bob or Peter Tosh have led a Jamaican national team to glory in the World Cup?

I remembered that Fountains Of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger had been a minor league baseball player and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich had been a ranked tennis player as a teen in Sweden.

It made me wonder if Tom Petty had been a natural at shortstop in junior high and is, perhaps, still a force on the softball field when his clan gathers for family reunions.

It amuses me to think that the members of Cheap Trick might be the nucleus of a hoops juggernaut, dominating all-comers at some rec center in Rockford – Robin Zander running the point, Bun E. Carlos down in the low post, and Rick Nielsen manning the wing.

A few songs by acts who I know have had some connection to sports…

Fountains Of Wayne – Radiation Vibe
I remember how popular (or, at least how critically acclaimed with critics) Radiation Vibe was back in the mid-’90s. I suppose most people best know Fountains Of Wayne for Stacy’s Mom, but that one wore thin with me rather quickly.

Each time Radiation Vibe pops up on shuffle, I make a mental note (which I promptly lose) to delve deeper into Fountains Of Wayne’s catalog.

Blue Oyster Cult – Perfect Water
I could have sworn I had People Who Died on some compilation disc (but I don’t) and I haven’t yet ripped the Jim Carroll record Paloma bought…

However, I seem to be on some subconscious wavelength to ensure the world gets its RDA of BOC. The last album of theirs I bought was Club Ninja in ’86. It was not a good album, but Perfect Water was one of the few songs that were worthy and it was written by Mr. Carroll.

Chris Isaak – Somebody’s Crying
I’ve always thought Chris Isaak’s music to be pleasant and good-natured and he always seemed to be pleasant and good-natured. He wandered into a record store where I worked once and he was, yeah, pleasant and good-natured.

He was also – and uncharacteristic for most musicians I’ve met – a big guy. It was quite easy to envision him as a Golden Gloves champion (which he was).

Alice Cooper – School’s Out
My all-time greatest arch-enemy had to have been my third-grade teacher. More days than not, the two of us were at odds. I was (mostly) indifferent to music and she was an Alice Cooper fan.

I’m not sure if that was why I never bothered with Alice Cooper’s music or rather because during the ’80s – my musically formative years – he wasn’t on top of his game. Since Paloma and I have been buying vinyl, one of my favorite revelations has been how very, very good Cooper was in the first half of the ’70s.