Which Way To Cool?

April 28, 2011

Having no older siblings, I had no older siblings to influence my musical tastes or to bequeath me their albums.

My parents would play albums by Roy Orbison, Ray Price, and The Statler Brothers on the wood-grained, late ’60s cabinet console stereo in the living room.

The radio in the kitchen would be tuned to the station in our small town which was ’70s light rock (and, by the ’80s, country), but it was mostly for news and weather.

The earliest memories I have of music is from hearing it on the car radio and the acts that come to mind are ones like The Carpenters, America, Jim Croce, and The Fifth Dimension.

(apparently by the time my folks hit thirty, they had already settled in with light rock)

We had music class in school, but it was a kind of random class that popped up when least expected and never seemed to progress beyond an explanation of quarter notes and measures.

There were scattered moments during those years that music made it into the classroom.

A third-grade teacher was obsessive about Alice Cooper. Though I don’t think she ever played the stuff in class, she sure as hell blathered on and on about him.

(undoubtedly the source of my abstinence from Cooper’s music for many, many years)

A teacher in fifth-grade would play Jethro Tull on occasion.

(I still can vividly picture the album cover to Heavy Horses)

In seventh-grade, we spent several days in one class – religion, if I recall – listening to sides from Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants and I remember being fascinated.

By that time, I knew who Stevie Wonder was and could likely name a song or two. I was starting to listen to the radio and the station of choice for this new world was a Top 40 station out of Cincinnati that was popular with my classmates.

The friends with the older siblings quickly moved on to the cooler album rock stations.

Without such direct influence I made some dubious missteps – believing Asia to be one of the greatest bands in the history of humankind in ’82 – but I also didn’t have someone so close scribbling on my blank slate.

And, along the way, there’s been a lot of music – good and not so good – and a lot still resides on the iPod. So, here are four mostly random songs from shuffle…

Los Lobos – Peace
from Kiko

Los Lobos has a rich catalog of genre-defying music far beyond their smash cover of Richie Valens’ La Bamba. With 1992’s Kiko, the group, collaborating with producer Mitchell Froom, issued what might be their finest album.

Kiko is truly an album best enjoyed as a whole and I didn’t immediately recall the shuffling Peace, but I’ve come to realize that I never listen to a song by Los Lobos and feel it’s been time misspent.

Fossil – Josephine Baker
from Fossil

Paloma gets credit for discovering Fossil, pulling their lone, 1995 release from the stacks of promo CDs I had in my apartment at the time. It’s quite possible that we listened to that self-titled album more than anything else for months on end.

There’s little info out there on the quartet, though the band was apparently signed to a management deal by Hilly Kristal after two gigs at CBGBs. Not that Fossil sounds like any of the bands that come to mind when I think of that famed New York City venue.

Instead, Fossil had an otherworldly, alternative rock vibe, melodic yet quirkly. On the lilting Josephine Baker the lead singer pines for the famous dancer, imagining the pair as the toast of 1920s Paris.

Blondie – One Way Or Another
from The Platinum Collection

Now, Blondie is more what I think of when I think of CBGBs. I wasn’t listening to much music in 1978, but I did know and love Blondie’s shimmering Heart Of Glass and though One Way Or Another was the follow-up single and a Top 40 hit, I don’t really remember hearing it at the time.

I don’t think I heard the frantic song until a copy of Blondie’s The Best Of Blondie arrived in the mail. It was one of my initial dozen selections from the Columbia Record & Tape Club and it quickly became a favorite.

Styx – Half-Penny, Two-Penny
from Paradise Theater

Paradise Theater was one if the first cassettes I owned and one that I definitely wore out back in 1981. I knew it backward and forward.

(but mostly forward because, you know, it sounded more legible that way)

And near the end of side two was the muscular Half-Penny, Two Penny. The song just sounded so wicked with the guitar heroics, anthemic chorus, and James Young’s gruff vocals.

Nothing Says Easter Like Ravenous, Rampaging Rabbits, Mushrooms And Extra Cheese

April 23, 2011

It’s Easter weekend and people all over the globe will, to paraphrase the late, great visionary Bill Hicks, commemorate the death and resurrection of their professed savior by telling children a giant bunny rabbit left chocolate eggs in the night.

Forget the hunt for pastel-colored eggs. the ceremonial carving of the spiral-cut, honeybaked ham, and religious observances. Several years ago, Paloma and I opted for a more unique way to do Easter – snagging a carryout pizza and watching Night Of The Lepus.

For those of you unfamiliar with this cinematic opus, Night Of The Lepus was born out of the nascent groundswell of environmental consciousness of the early ’70s, a movement that provided inspiration for a number of science fiction films at the time.

I must have been six or seven, when I first saw the movie, sitting in the dark of our living room, on the CBS Late Movie. As the credits appeared on the screen, I asked my dad, “What the @#$%& is a lepus?”

(actually, my vocabulary was less sodium-based at the time and it’s likely all I said was “huh?”)

But, despite my father’s surprising reply to my lepus query, I knew the CBS Late Movie to be a cornucopia of B-movies shown after the local news in the ’70s which often featured nature run amok.

And amok it runs in Night Of The Lepus in the form of rabbits the size of Volkswagens who have developed a taste for humans. Actually, they seemed disinclined to consume the terrified townsfolk, instead gnawing on them as though they were large, pale carrots.

Paloma and I had tentatively planned to make a tradition of a viewing of Night Of The Lepus on Easter, but, alas, one viewing of the film seems to have been enough for her.

So, this year, it’s Chinese take-out and Watership Down.

Night Of The Lepus was in theaters in 1972, so I must have seen the movie for the first time the following year. Here are four songs that were on the Billboard singles chart in late April of ’73…

Lou Reed – Walk On The Wild Side
from Transformer

How can a listener not get drawn into Lou Reed’s tawdry tale of life in the dirty city?

Is it possible to not hear Walk On The Wild Side and not have the colored girls singing “doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo” in your head for the rest of the day?

But, when I think of Lou Reed, I can’t help but remember a summer afternoon in 1986 when I was hanging out with my high school girlfriend, lounging in the den, watching MTV. Her great-grandmother, visiting from the Phillipines, was sitting there with us when the video for Reed’s No Money Down came on.

Great-grandmother had paid little attention to the television until, midway through the song, Reed began to claw at his face as he sang, tearing the skin off and revealing his skull as the old woman – now watching the proceedings for which she had no cultural frame of reference – freaked out.

War – The Cisco Kid
from The World Is A Ghetto

On the mental list which I keep of songs that I’d rather not hear ever again is War’s Low Rider. There’s just something about the song that is like a popcorn kernal caught between my molars.

But the south of the border groove of The Cisco Kid is always welcome.

Stevie Wonder – You Are The Sunshine Of My Life
from Song Review: Greatest Hits

Some love songs are dramatic.

Some love songs are gooey.

And then, there is the occasional love song that captures a feeling of contentment which I would offer as the most accurate vibe of the emotion. Well done, Mr. Wonder.

Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly With His Song
from The Best Of Roberta Flack

Most of the music I was hearing in 1973 was courtesy of the car radio. So, there are hits from the time that I actually remember hearing and ones with which I would become familiar during the ensuing years as I grew older and music became a part of my life.

Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly With His Song is one of the former and, as it was one of the year’s biggest hits, I recall hearing it often. Though it would be toward the end of the decade when I truly became interested in music, there was something about the song that drew me in even in ’73.

Elvis Vs. Rain Man

April 20, 2011

It all began with Paloma wondering about a co-worker at the record store where we met.

A bit of sleuthing and I had stumbled on a cybertrail that included Scandanavian Elvis impersonators, Presley’s optomitrist, a dodgy German politician, and a military general from Southeast Asia.

The bizarre cast of associates of our former associate has left me bumfoozled.

As I examine the sketchy characters in my mind, it almost makes sense. I can imagine this former co-worker getting involved in some scenario resembling a movie by the Coen brothers.

And each time I’ve sat down to write, I wonder how it all might connect.

It’s a mental hiccup that I can’t shake.

But, fortune smiled. I happened across the movie Rain Man on cable the other morning and I remembered an I idea I had.

Eighteen months or so ago, I was inspired by a viewing of the flick as it is set and was filmed in areas near where I had grown up. Rain Man also features a cameo from my favorite childhood radio station – the late, great 97X.

(““97X, Bam! The future of rock and roll.”)

I decided to remember the station with four random songs from an early ’80s 97X playlist I’d created each time I stumbled across Rain Man on cable.

I thought it might be a semi-regular feature here as I seemed to find the movie while surfing every couple months.

(or so I thought)

And, yet, it’s apparently been a year and a half since such a run-in occurred.

So, as the idea of Elvis impersonators running guns or former co-workers interacting with the leader of some military junta bounce around in my head, here are four random songs I might have heard on 97X, circa ’84, ’85…

The Cure – Let’s Go To Bed
from Greatest Hits

By 1985, I would be well acquainted with The Cure as my buddy Streuss had become damn-near obssessed with the band. At that time, the British act was just beginning to get attention in the States with their album The Head On The Door, but Streuss quickly acquired the rest of their catalog as pricey imports.

I also heard plenty by The Cure on 97X. Let’s Go To Bed wouldn’t make any list I’d make of favorite songs by The Cure (who I do think made a lot of fantastic music), but the surpringly perky track got played incessantly on the station.

Beat Farmers – Happy Boy
from Tales Of The New West

Ninety seconds of pure goofiness, hubba hubba hubba hubba hubba.

X – Burning House of Love
from Beyond And Back: The X Anthology

I want to like L.A. punk legends X.

I really do.

But it hasn’t really happened. I think Exene and John Doe are cool, but the songs that resonate with me are scattered throughout the band’s catelog and tend to be the twangier ones like the stellar Burning House Of Love.

Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come
from In Concert: The Best of Jimmy Cliff

97X was the first place that I think I ever really heard reggae on the radio – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear…even stuff from Musical Youth that wasn’t Pass The Dutchie.

The station also played Jimmy Cliff’s ebullient The Harder They Come. The song is the title track to the ’70s cult movie with Cliff starring as an aspiring reggae singer.

I saw the movie years ago and honestly have no recollection of whether I liked it or not, but the song is a keeper.