Cat D’État

January 29, 2011

Paloma and I killed most of a Saturday afternoon several years ago sucked into a Discovery channel marathon of the series Survivorman.

For the uninitiated, the show starred a fellow named Les Stroud who would place himself in precarious situations – stranded in remote, Canadian wilderness or adrift, alone, in the ocean – and videotape his efforts to not perish.

Then came Man Vs. Wild starring Bear Gryllis, with a similar premise.

Paloma immediately championed Bear mostly as he could be her brother’s doppelganger.

(the only difference between the two is, essentially, a British accent)

I preferred Les.

Bear was some British ex-Special Forces character. His country had invested considerable amounts of cash to train him to survive dangerous situations and perform feats of derring-do.

But Les…Les was everyman.

I couldn’t relate to Bear’s skills, panache or accent, but I could empathize with Les as he failed to trap a rabbit to eat or had a tantrum, bitching about his self-inflicted predicament.

(of course, Paloma and I were both puzzled by Les’ need to take his clothes of in almost every episode no matter how frigid the conditions)

There were moments when I’d watch Les and think that I wouldn’t be surprised if he failed to live up to his show’s ambitious title.

I’ve been thinking of Les the past couple days as, in essence, I am in the midst of a personal Survivorman situation.

Paloma has taken a trip to visit her mother and Bear Gryllis-doppelganger brother, leaving me to fend for myself. It’s the first time we’ve been apart in quite some time.

Now, I’ve often lived on my own, so there is little likelihood that I will have to snare a rabbit as there are a number of pizza places a mere seven digits away who will bring me sustenance.

I will have to make coffee and, I must confess, the coffee maker baffles me, but I should be able to manage.

No, the concern is our animals, four cats – Sam, Pizza, JuJu, and Ravi.

I am fond of this feline quartet and they are fond of me.

However, the four of them hang on each move Paloma makes. If, for some reason, she isn’t here when they expect her to be, chaos ensues.

(chaos consisting of much confused milling about)

Oh, it might seem like a peaceful protest, but these things have a tendency of late to mushroom and I have the proof as I watch the images being beamed from Cairo.

I have legitimate concerns that, when nightfall arrives and Paloma is absent, things could get ugly.

It is said, though, that music soothes the savage beast and Paloma has long insisted that Sam, the eldest in the menagerie, has a fondness for ’70s light rock (especially the trio America).

So, here are four songs from Billboard magazine’s easy listening chart for this week in 1978 that I hope will quell any uprising…

Player – Baby Come Back
from Super Hits Of The 70s: Have A Nice Day Volume 21

I had to check Player’s Wikipedia entry to see if I even knew another song by the group aside from the mammoth Baby Come Back. I did recognize their other Top Ten hit, This Time I’m In It For Love from later in ’78.

The breezy Baby Come Back is the one that everyone remembers, though, and the song has gained new life in recent years through its use in television commercials.

David Gates – The Goodbye Girl
from Super Hits Of The 70s: Have A Nice Day Volume 21

I didn’t see the movie The Goodbye Girl, though I did recognize Richard Dreyfuss in the television commercials as Roy Neary from Close Encounters Of A Third Kind.

Mostly, I remember seeing Quinn Cummings, a child actress who was my age, on some afternoon talk show – Mike Douglas or Dinah Shore – promoting the movie and being quite smitten.

Billy Joel – Just The Way You Are
from The Complete Hits Collection: 1973-1997

I’m strangely ambivalent about Billy Joel. If you asked me if I liked Billy Joel, I’d probably shrug and say something like, “He’s OK.”

But when I do hear one of his songs, I’m surprised at how often I pause, mentally list his songs in my head, and realize that the guy does have some truly fantastic tracks in his catalog. The smooth Just The Way You Are wouldn’t be on my list of favorites by Joel, but it’s pleasant enough.

Yvonne Elliman – If I Can’t Have You
from Disco Classics

Such a phenomenon was the movie Saturday Night Fever and its accompanying soundtrack that it was one of the few albums I owned at the time. I had little interest in music in ’78, but someone had given it to me as a Christmas gift.

Of course, even though I hadn’t became interested in music, yet, I was still quite familiar with the handful of Bee Gees’ hits from Saturday Night Fever. I was also familiar with the dramatic If I Can’t Have You which, though sung by Yvonne Elliman, was penned (and produced) by the brothers Gibb.

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A Special Circle Of Retail Hell

January 27, 2011

The first time that I ever participated in a store inventory was in college. It was a small record store – a dozen of us, max – and it lasted until about two o’clock in the morning.

It was a drag.

Several years later, working in a record store so large that we had a staff of sixty or so to cover the fifteen hours we were open each day, I gained a dose of perspective.

This store took inventory two times a year and each and every one was a unique experience with terrifying surprises and maddening twists.

One was in the winter and, the other, was in the summer. Both were feared and loathed, but I found the one in winter – coming less than a month after Christmas – to be particularly excruciating.

While the store opened at nine, an hour which – for those who worked opening crew – was early but not painful, inventory began at six.

Six translated to three and a half hours past when the bars and clubs had closed.

Six, unlike nine, was both early and painful.

Winter inventory took place over a couple days – yes, days – in January and, at that time of the year six o’clock was also dark and frigid.

Our entire staff – all sixty or so of us – would stumble in and mill about our receiving dock. As certain pairs arrived together, it was a good time for everyone to freshen up their mental lists of who was hooking up with who.

As some of us worked completely different schedules, the event was a bit like a reunion of the living dead and a little like rival prison gangs having a summitt.

Doughnuts would be provided because there’s nothing like adding an impending sugar crash to a lack of sleep and/or a hangover.

And, then, the fun would begin.

Even though it was the ’90s, everything was counted by hand, one rack at a time, written down on paper, and, then, counted again to verify. If the counts differed by more than some nebulous amount, that rack was scrapped and redone.

By mid-morning certain racks had already earned a reputation and were referred to by number much like hills were referred to in a military operation.

Upping the degree of difficulty was that we engaged in this effort while the store was open and customers were shopping and, even on a slow day, we’d do ten grand in business.

It was a two-day death march – rifling through thousands of vinyl imports crammed into understock – with complete hopelessness setting in at the end of the first day, knowing that the next day was more of the same.

Usually, mercifully, the first day usually ended by six in the evening, but, during the mother of all inventories, we adjorned day one at two in the morning – twenty fun-filled hours after we had started.

(one quiet Goth chick actually cracked and quit – I’m surprised no one ever got shanked)

Often, there were must-see shows on that night between that many of us had to see. A dozen or more of us once went straight from inventory to see World Party and 10,000 Maniacs at an outdoor ampitheater.

During 10,000 Maniacs set, we learned that World Party was going to play an unannounced gig at a small club. So, most of us ended up being out well past three and needing to be at work in a few hours.

Somehow it was all far less exhausting than a typical day at the office these days.

Here are four songs by the vastly underappreciated World Party…

World Party – Ship Of Fools
from Private Revolution

I had immediate interest as soon as I learned of World Party in 1986. The band was, essentially , a solo venture for Karl Wallinger who had been a member of the highly regarded group The Waterboys for two albums.

Private Revolution was, like the music of The Waterboys, literate stuff, but Wallinger infused the music with elements of funk, soul and ’60s pop that gave his debut effort a far less somber vibe. Much of the album was focused on the ruin being done to the planet.

Though not explicitly mentioning the environment, Ship Of Fools warns of impending trouble on planet Earth, but it’s so damned catchy that it could have been Wallinger singing his shopping list and it would stick in the head.

(and it somehow got aired enough by mainstream radio to make it a Top 40 hit)

World Party – Way Down Now
from Goodbye Jumbo

I had the chance to meet Wallinger at another small, private show and he struck me as a fascinating character – a tiny, slightly impish, rock and roll leprechaun.

He still had a lot on his mind when he released Goodbye Jumbo in 1990 and Way Down Now found him still quite concerned about the future. Whether he’s paranoid or prophetic, it’s impossible not to get sucked into a song so sonically engaging. This one always reminds me of The Stones.

(I think it’s the “woo woo[s]”)

World Party – When The Rainbow Comes
from Goodbye Jumbo

And then, here and there throughout each record, there would be a song like When The Rainbow Comes, a glorious, flower-power blast of sunshine and optimism. Oh, there’s a few grim references like “It’s be-bop-a-lula, then baby you’re dead.” but the sun is most definitely poking through the clouds.

When The Rainbow Comes might be my favorite song by World Party. I dig it’s granola-munching vibe and the guitar that reminds me of George Harrison.

World Party – Is It Like Today?”
from Bang!

Is It Like Today? was another pretty stellar number. The music has always made me think of a slightly more pop Don’t Go Back To Rockville by R.E.M, jangly and twangy, tinged with regret as it chronicles mankind – “out in space, hey, fixing all the problems” – meeting God.

God, understandably, expresses concern.


The Day My Universe And Sting’s Collided

January 22, 2011

I’m not absolutely sure, but, I think the first band whose entire catalog I owned was The Police.

Music was just beginning to be an obsession for me when the trio relesed Ghost In The Machine in the autumn of 1981. All I knew of the band were the hits – Message In A Bottle, Don’t Stand So Close to Me, and De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da – but I loved everything I had heard.

By the early summer of 1983 – with the arrival of The Police’s fifth album Synchronicity – my friend Beej, a Police obsessive, had caught me up on the four previous albums, dubbing me copies of them from his older brother’s vinyl.

I taped Synchronicity from the radio on Frog’s Midnight Album when it was debuted prior to its release and weeks before I could get into Cincinnati and to a record store to buy a copy.

And for a period of time, Sting was one of the coolest cats on the planet and The Police were as big as almost any act of the rock era.

In high school, The Police might have been the only band for which there was a consensus among all demographics.

And then they were gone.

Sting went on making music as did Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland.

(I might be one of the few people that owned both albums by Animal Logic, Copeland’s short-lived band in the late ’80s/early ’90s with bassist Stanley Clarke and singer Deborah Holland)

I hung with Sting’s solo career into the mid-’90s and though there were some moments that matched the brilliance of The Police – the gorgeous Fragile from …Nothing Like The Sun comes to mind – the music didn’t resonate as much as the stuff he’d done with Andy and Stewart.

Then, sometime in 2002 or so, I was doing some freelance work for Billboard and the editor contacted me about doing something on a new group’s debut album.

The interview with the band’s singer, Joe, began slowly. He was polite but there was a lot of silence coming from the other end of that trans-Atlantic call.

Then, I noted that one of the songs – titled Listen To My Babe – was, if you listened closely, not about a girl but a pet.

“Good man,” he said. “Good man.”

He seemed geniunely pleased and a bit surprised.

(apparently most reviewers had missed it)

Near the end of the call, I told Joe that, while doing some research, I had discovered that his father was Sting. which hadn’t been in the press material the publicist had sent to me.

He politely expressed not wanting that to have that be the focus and I assured him that, though I had to mention his father, I was writing about his band.

So, I was mortified when I read the piece in print.

The editors, who titled my submissions, had affixed a headline that mentioned Sting’s name but not that of the band.

Perhaps worse, a line had been added, one which I hadn’t written that – as I read it – stressed the advantage of having a well-known musician father in getting a record deal.

I felt horrible, but there was nothing to be done.

No more than a week or so later, I was speaking with a woman who, as the owner of a large yoga studio, had a number of famous clients. I knew her casually from a piece I had written on her years as a DIY musician in the ’80s.

I’d asked what she’d been up to and it turned out that she had just returned from some time visiting Sting and his wife in France.

She then informed me that she had mentioned to them that I had written about a reissue of one of her albums as well as about Joe’s band.

This news had, apparently, piqued Sting’s interest and – I was told – he proceeded to ask a number of questions about me.

Cool.

Not cool.

I realized that it was entirely possible that Sting had read or would read what I had written about his son’s band.

The man who had once been one of the coolest cats on the planet and whose lyrics I knew backwards and forwards when I was fifteen might actually have read something I had written.

And, if he had, he probably thought I was a douchebag.

I’ve always believed that The Police had an almost perfect career – five stellar albums that each sold millions released over five years and an exit from the stage as the biggest band on the planet.

Here are four tracks by The Police that just seemed right this morning…

The Police – Walking On The Moon
from Reggatta de Blanc

Sparse and chilly, with a reggae vibe that was elemental to the sound of The Police, Walking On The Moon indeed captures the mood that I can imagine would be fitting for a stroll on the lunar surface.

If the next human to set foot on the moon is a music fan who lived through the ’80s, will they be able to do so and not have this song playing in their head?

The Police – De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
from Zenyattà Mondatta

Three albums in and the British trio broke through with Zenyattà Mondatta which took them to the Top Ten on the album chart as well as the singles chart with the deceptively insightful and ridiculously catchy De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.

The Police – Invisible Sun
from Ghost In The Machine

The Police had begun to address political issues on Zenyattà Mondatta with songs like Driven To Tears and Bombs Away. With the moody, darkly tinged Invisible Sun, Sting’s lyrics broached the subject of the strife in Northern Ireland.

The Police – Synchronicity II
from Synchronicity

Like a lot of listeners during the summer of ’83, I wore out my copy of Synchronicity which spawned four hit singles including the aggressive Synchronicity II which gave guitarist Andy Summers an opportunity to cut loose.

I have to admit that, at the time, I found the song a bit jarring within the context of the album and – aside from manic squall of Mother – it was my least favorite song on the record.

(and, personally, I don’t think I knew anyone that liked Mother)

But, over the last twenty-five years, Synchronicity II has grown on me because it is so wickedly aggressive and apocalyptic.

Also, the lyrics resonate more as I now can relate to things like “every single meeting with his so-called superior” being “a humiliating kick in the crotch” and the depiction of the rush hour as a “suicidal race” amongst contestants “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes.”