The Carnival Is Over, Let The Carnival Begin

August 28, 2010

There’s a party semi-raging on the ground floor of our three-story treehouse. Paloma and I are sandwiched between it and a couple of Chinese grad students on the top floor.

We won’t be attending.

(I doubt that the Chinese will either)

It isn’t because of the music, though the organ-driven jam band is hardly a selling point. It’s a lot of noodling and the kindest I could be in describing their efforts is symmetrical.

We won’t be attending because there is nothing left that either of us could accomplish at such a scene.

Both of us managed to eke out a good decade or two more out of behaving like rock stars on tour than folks who were relegated to weekend warrior status by their early twenties.

I think we’re still catching up on sleep we didn’t get in the ’90s.

And, we don’t want to end up as carnies.

As if the universe knew of this impending soiree, I received a rare e-mail this morning from Kelso, one of our friends. We had all worked together at a record store in the mid-’90s and he had news of The Drunken Frenchman, who had also worked with us in the same store.

“He’s working in a traveling carnival as a ride operator,” the friend wrote. “He’s a carny. This gives me great pause.”

Such an outcome isn’t really surprising. There are a finite number of record stores in the world – fewer each day – and, even then, The Frenchman seemed destined to work his way through most of them.

I guess he finally did.

And now he’s a carny.

Of course, with his craggy features, hangdog eyes, and gruff, indifferent exterior and demeanor, The Frenchman is well cast in this role.

Paloma – though never having been fond of The Frenchman – was sympathetic, considering his gig with a shudder.

“He gets fresh air,” I offered.

Any of us from that time could have ended up as carnies.

Here’s hoping he finds love with the bearded lady.

It really wouldn’t surprise me.

Here are four songs from fifteen years ago when all four of us – Paloma, Kelso, The Frenchman, and me – were still part of the carnival…

The Verve – On My Own
from A Northern Soul

The Verve just simply wasn’t meant to happen in the States (at least not on the scale of success the band achieved in the UK). First, they were forced by the record label to change their name here to The Verve UK.

Then, in 1998, driven by its use in a Nike commercial, the group notched a mammoth global hit including in the US with Bittersweet Symphony only to see the Stones take all of the royalties in a controversy over a brief sample.

At the time, I thought that The Verve was one of the great rock bands on the planet and – listening again to their scant three albums from the ’90s – I still feel the same.

Radiohead – Fake Plastic Trees
from The Bends

Though it was released earlier in the year, The Bends was an album that was still in constant play for me in August of ’95. The album failed to generate the enthusiasm that Creep had a year earlier from their debut Pablo Honey, but it was immediately apparent after one listen that Radiohead was a force with which to be reckoned.

Sometime in August or September, I caught the band opening for R.E.M. and told the friends I was with that – though I wasn’t sure when it would happen – we had just seen a band that would in the near future be the biggest band on the planet.

(it would happen two years later with the release of OK Computer)

As for the soaring, atmospheric Fake Plastic Trees – it’s quite simply one of the most gorgeous and compelling songs of that decade.

Natalie Merchant – Carnival
from Tigerlily

Ms. Merchant had just embarked on her solo career with Tigerlily following a lengthy and successful run fronting 10,000 Maniacs. Her former group had been a staple on college radio in the late ’80s and Tigerlily brought Merchant to a whole new audience.

That album and the slightly funky Carnival wasn’t much of a departure from her work with 10,000 Maniacs except for being a bit more polished and arriving at a time when mainstream radio was embracing artists once relegated to alternative outlets.

However, my enduring memory from that time is seeing Merchant on a bill with World Party at an outdoor venue with Paloma and the ten minutes during which she interrupted her set to save a moth that had made its way on stage.

Tricky – Ponderosa
from Maxinquaye

Once a member of pioneering trip-hop act Massive Attack, Tricky became a critically-acclaimed force in his own right with the release of Maxinquaye. It was impossible to ignore the clattering, hypnotic rhythm of tracks like Ponderosa.

Four Singles

August 24, 2010

Unlike a lot of music bloggers whom I read, I have no fond memories of going to buy 45s with money earned mowing the lawn.

Many of these bloggers are capable of recounting with remarkable precision the details and circumstances of the first single they ever bought.

I can’t.

I can tell you that the first album I purchased (on cassette) was Christopher Cross’ debut.

And my first live show was seeing a band on a tour that would be infamously remembered and still discussed almost three decades later.

Sure, like most kids, I mowed acres of lawn, but I never bought more than a handful of 45s.

For one thing, I eased into a relationship with music, taking a good eighteen months or so from the point where I was turning on the radio to the point where music was beginning to consume the bulk of my budget.

Also, I had a tape recorder and would rudimentarily tape the songs I wanted from the radio onto crude mix tapes.

The sound quality was charmingly primitive but – as I was taking my time committing to the relationship – it didn’t matter. When I finally went all in, it was with full-length albums on cassette.

So, I mostly missed the experience of the 45.

However, just because I didn’t buy 45s doesn’t mean that I didn’t have any of my own. As a young kid, my mom would purchase a single for me now and again when a certain song would catch my fancy.

I sifted through the contents of my head and – more or less – retrieved the first singles that I ever owned. Though a couple were on radio in late 1972, all of them were on the charts during the first half of 1973…

King Harvest – Dancing In The Moonlight
from Have A Nice Decade: The ’70s Pop Culture Box

It was sometime in autumn of 1972 when I started hearing Dancing In The Moonlight on the radio. The song still changes the atomosphere for me to a crisp October day as it might have been when I was four and would heard the song on the car radio.

I’m not exactly sure what it was about the song. It is ridiculously catchy and it made me suspicious that I was missing some happening communal event that occurred well after my bedtime. I pictured Max and the Wild Things from Where The Wild Things Are having their rumpus under the full moon as the song would play.

And it’s still groovy beyond belief. Is it possible to not be put in a better headspace listening to this song?

In fact, I nominate Dancing In The Moonlight as our global anthem.

Albert Hammond – It Never Rains In Southern California
from It Never Rains In Southern California

I doubt that I really considered the dire straits in which the protagonist of It Never Rains In Southern California found himself at the time. Again, I was four years old.

I did like sunshine, though and – as it was the dead of a Midwestern winter – the idea of a place where it was always sunny and warm sounded positively magical.

John Denver – Rocky Mountain High
from John Denver’s Greatest Hits

I seem to recall that Rocky Mountain High also served as a title for one of John Denver’s television specials at the time. I also seem to recall negotiating a cease-bedtime treaty to watch.

There he was – granny glasses, floppy hat – traipsing around in the mountains communing with nature, animals, granola-munching girls in bell-bottomed jeans with long, straight hair…

I was impressed with his style.

Jim Croce – Bad, Bad Leroy Brown
from Bad Bad Leroy Brown: The Definitive Collection

I was also impressed with the style of one Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, especially after seeing the cartoon that accompanied the song on Sonny & Cher.

So, two of the first, male role models I had – aside from my father and grandfather – would have been John Denver and a cartoon version of Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.

(and things didn’t end well for either of them)

Jim Croce is another artist that I keep intending to explore further than the dozen or so songs I know. Even if I don’t get around to doing so, both he and Bad, Bad Leroy Brown will forever occupy a special place in my heart.

Once The Future Of American Music…

August 21, 2010

In late ’83. MTV wouldn’t be available to us for another six months or so, but we did have Night Flight on USA Network, which aired music videos on late Friday and Saturday nights and into the next morning.

Actually, our family didn’t have cable, but my buddy Beej had Night Flight and I had Beej’s second-hand accounts of the bands he had seen and heard, bands which usually didn’t get played on radio.

(at least not on the radio available to us)

One which I remember him mentioning was a video for a song called The Walls Came Down by a band named The Call.

I don’t think I would actually hear the song for several more years.

But I knew the name and I would hear plenty of The Call three years later when the quartet released Reconciled in early 1986. The rock stations to which I was listening gave a lot of airplay to that album’s I Still Believe (Great Design) and Everywhere I Go.

The Call seemed to be on the verge of stardom. Their sound was widescreen and the themes were big. The Call’s lyrics had definite spiritual and political overtones delivered with a bit of fire and brimstone courtesy of lead singer Michael Been’s husky vocals.

More than a few folks connected the dots across the Atlantic to Ireland and U2 who were a year away from their breakthrough with The Joshua Tree.

Peter Gabriel had supposedly referred to The Call as “the future of American music” in the early ’80s when he chose them to open for him.

It didn’t quite happen.

During the autumn of my freshman year of college, The Call released Into The Woods, a challenging record that wasn’t as immediate to me as Reconciled had been.

The only time I heard a song from Into The Woods on the radio was when a DJ friend of mine aired the odd track – usually the moody, gospel-tinged In The River – on his weekly campus radio show.

The Call almost broke in 1989 when the anthemic title track from Let The Day Begin almost reached the Top 40 in the States, but a year later the band would go on a decade-plus hiatus following the release of Red Moon.

I owned everything from Reconciled to Red Moon and thought that The Call should have had more widespread success.

It didn’t seem as though I was alone.

The Band’s Garth Hudson played keyboards on the group’s first three albums and his former bandmate Robbie Robertson guested on guitar on another.

Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, Bono, T-Bone Burnett, and even actor/musician Harry Dean Stanton appeared on records by The Call.

I haven’t listened to some of those songs in twenty years, but reading of Michael Been’s sudden death in the news Friday morning prompted me to revisit most of them.

Touted by many as one of the more underrated bands of their era, The Call certainly deserved a wider audience. Here are a quintet of songs from The Call…

The Call – The Walls Came Down
from Modern Romans

The song that first garnered The Call widespread attention and a minor hit single thanks to a video that popped up on various outlets, the punchy The Walls Came Down alluded to the biblical as well as then-current events. It was a fusion of images and ideas that would be a trademark of the band.

Thirty years later, only the names have changed.

The Call – I Still Believe (Great Design)
from Reconciled

Anyone who was going to the movies in the late ’80s likely is familiar with I Still Believe through its use in the movie The Lost Boys. In the movie (and accompanying soundtrack), the song is performed by the muscled, shirtless saxophonist Tim Capello, who was – at that time – a member of Tina Turner’s band.

For The Call, the resilient song with its determined, chugging melody got a lot of radio play for the band.

The Call – The Morning
from Reconciled

Reconciled was not only The Call’s most commercially successful release, it also might have been the group’s finest moment musically. Maybe it’s the knowledge that Been and drummer Scott Musick were from Oklahoma, but I always pictured the band playing in a raw, windswept, Dust Bowl setting with everything in sepia tones (particularly on Reconciled).

Leading off Reconciled was the thumping The Morning which recalls Simple Minds’ Waterfront whose lead singer Jim Kerr provided backing vocals – along with Peter Gabriel – on the album’s Everywhere I Go. On The Morning, Robbie Robertson provided guitar.

The Call – Let The Day Begin
from Let The Day Begin

More than a few politicians – most notably Al Gore in his 2000 presidential bid – have appropriated the dramatic Let The Day Begin as a campaign theme. It’s understandable as the dynamic track is an infectious and rousing call to action.

The song was a rock radio staple during the summer of 1989, but it might have been a missed opportunity. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I was told that the song’s success took their record label by surprise and – as the song was clicking with listeners – there wasn’t enough product in stores to meet demand which stalled momentum.

The Call – What’s Happened To You?
from Red Moon

The ’90s began with U2 as one of the biggest bands in the world and The Call, who had drawn comparisons to the Irish band, confined to a cult following. The two acts intersected when Bono guested on vocals for What’s Happened To You?

Though less raucous and more rustic than previous albums, Red Moon was no less impassioned. The self-assured What’s Happened To You? bristles with a joyous sense of self-discovery and personal growth.

Red Moon would serve as a close on The Call who wouldn’t record together for another decade and, then, only issue one more album of new material. Michael Been – who had portrayed the apostle John in Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ – would do a bit more acting and pursue a solo career that found no more success than The Call had.

Nonetheless, the group left behind a rich catalog that, unfortunately, many listeners will only be discovering in the wake of Been’s death.