Killer On The Rampage…Somewhere

February 23, 2013

(rebroadcast from February, 2010, now with added calcium)

I read the news most days.

But, unlike my parents and their generation, I don’t make a point to watch a news broadcast each day, merely pausing on the news channels if something catches my attention.

The other night, as I was watching some basketball, there was a commercial for the local news. It was some perky chick yammering about a murder suspect possibly being loose – or, in the parlance of our legal system, on the lam – in the “mid-state area.”

Details, she assured me, would be provided at ten.

A killer? In our relatively calm, safe, usually unhomicidal neighborhood?

At ten, I actually went into a holding pattern with the remote. Perhaps this was news that I might need.

(of course, if it had been truly vital information, shouldn’t they have told me twenty minutes earlier?)

It ended up being a murder that seems to have resulted from a domestic disturbance. I’m not even sure if the town where the crime had taken place is even in the station’s broadcast area.

Hardly clear and present danger.

Dodgy attempts to attract viewers aside, this station lost any credibility with Paloma and me long ago. One evening, we happened to be watching and there was a report on a murder at a restaurant in the wee hours earlier that morning.

And the visual accompanying the words was of someone dropping a couple of slices of pizza onto a restaurant’s kitchen floor. The camera was focused on the prone pie pieces as the broadcast moved on to Rudy with sports.

We turned to each other and stared. To borrow from the late, great Bill Hicks – our expressions were like two dogs that had been shown a card trick.

Here is a quartet of songs inspired by real-life murderers…

The Boomtown Rats – I Don’t Like Mondays
from The Fine Art Of Surfacing (1979)

San Diego teenager Brenda Spencer shot two adults, killing them, and wounded eight children from her bedroom window in 1979. Her explanation for her deeds was “I don’t like Mondays.”

For The Boomtown Rats, the song was on its way to becoming their American breakthrough when the Spencer family threatened legal action and the label stopped promoting the song.

Thirty years later, the wickedly dark and totally catchy almost hit is rightfully regarded to be a classic from the period.

Die Toten Hosen – Gary Gilmore’s Eyes
from Learning English, Lesson One (1991)

The Dead Pants – that’s the English translation of German punk band Die Toten Hosen’s name.

That was enough to make me snag a promo copy of Learning English, Lesson One one day at work. I was glad I did as it was more fun than killin’ strangers.

Killin’ strangers is what led to Giilmore being executed in a well-publicized affair in the mid-’70s. He requested that his eyes be donated for transplant.

Gary Gilmore’s Eyes is a cover of The Adverts’ original from the late ’70s.

Concrete Blonde – Jonestown
from Mexican Moon (1992)

I was in junior high when the Jonestown massacre occured and over 900 people, at the urging of Jim Jones, drank cyanide-laced Kool Aid. I remember the vivid images in Newsweek magazine and the television mini-series that had me and my friends tripping the next day at school.

I think it was one of my first what-the-@#$%! (international division) moments in my life.

As for Concrete Blonde, I always mentally shortlist them as one of the acts of the late ’80s/early ’90s that deserved a bigger audience.

Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
from Nebraska (1982)

In 1982, I mostly knew Bruce Springsteen for the user-friendly The River from two years earlier. I was bumfoozled when I heard the stark Nebraska.

I was in college when Springsteen released the mammoth Live/1975–85. If you weren’t there, I assure you that the hype surrounding the five-album set was considerable.

Hearing some of the songs live prompted me to really spend some time with Nebraska.

(I quickly understood the praise heaped on it over the years)

Nebraska‘s title song was inspired by the two-month killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in the ’50s.

Those events also inspired the 1973 movie Badlands starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I remember Badlands airing on prime-time television with those parental warnings that only served to make the movie a must-see event to a kid.

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Finding Coelacanthe

February 9, 2013

coelacanthePaloma has, on more than one occasion, wandered into the living room of our treehouse to find me watching an episode of Finding Bigfoot. Her usual response is to shake her head.

She doesn’t share my fascination at the possibility of an unknown species of giant hominids living in the most remote forests on the planet.

(but I still think she’s swell)

I have no expectations that, if the sasquatch does exist, the intrepid quartet of Finding Bigfoot will actually do so during the course of the hour.

No, much of the appeal is the various settings of the show. I’ve not been to the bottom lands of Arkansas or the heights of the Canadian Rockies, but I am able to appreciate the breathtaking, natural beauty of these places where McDonald’s, Starbucks and Wal-Mart have yet to leave a corporate footprint in HD glory.

And, there is the possibility of an unknown species of giant hominids living in these isolated locales.

When Paloma expresses her doubt, I say one word.

Coelacanthe.

For the ichthyologically uninclined, the coelacanthe is a gigantic fish believed to have gone extinct during the Cretaceous period some sixty million years ago. Then, in the late 1930s, fisherman began pulling living coelacanthes out of the waters off the coast of Africa, proving the existence of an animal that had existed as nothing more than local folklore.

In college, one of my buddies knew of a door to the biology building that often remained unlocked. Late one night as we were downing one last round, he suggested a trek across campus to take advantage of this access.

We wandered the dimly-lit hallways of the massive building which I had rarely had reason or need to visit. And there, imprisoned in a glass tube in a display case was a fully preserved coelacanthe, five-foot long and covered in scales resembling armor.

We stood there for a moment staring at a creature who had not changed since a time when its ancestors swam the seas while dinosaurs roamed the land.

Here are four random songs that shuffled up on the iPod from bands that might be considered extinct…

The La’s – There She Goes
from The La’s (1990)

The La’s long ago secured their place as one of the more bizarre tales in the history of rock music. One album, despised by lead singer/songwriter Lee Mavers who bad-mouthed the critically-acclaimed album in interviews, minimal sales and scant attention.

Then, nothing. For twenty years there has been little more than rumors of new music and strange stories about Mavers’ perfectionist ways scuttling the arrival of new music.

Now, The La’s are kind of a cool secret.

Most people are likely familiar with The La’s music from Sixpence None The Richer’s cover of There She Goes, but that version pales in comparison to the chiming goodness of the original. The La’s echoed the classic pop of the ’60s with the ringing guitars and effortless choruses and that lone album is now, like its influences, timeless.

Eurythmics – Missionary Man
from Revenge (1986)

Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox’ decade-long run as Eurythmics seemed to come to a close following 1989’s We Too Are One. Since then, the duo have reunited periodically but their only new release has been Peace in 1999 and, according to an interview with Stewart last year, there are no plans for future collaborations.

Eurythmics were coming off of the highly-successful Be Yourself Tonight – which had included Would I Lie To You? – when they issued Revenge in the summer of 1986. Missionary Man was one of the pair’s most mainstream rock efforts and provided the two with their last significant hit singles in the States.

Concrete Blonde – Caroline
from Bloodletting (1990)

Concrete Blonde was one of my favorite discoveries while in college and I quickly snagged each and every album the trio released, though most of their records were uneven.

Bloodletting was their momentary breakthrough with Joey becoming a hit and the title track getting some airplay on modern rock stations, too. For me, the wistful Caroline was one the band’s finest songs and featured some riveting, serpentine guitar courtesy of James Mankey.

The group wasn’t able to sustain the momentum and split in 1997 before reuniting for a couple albums in the early 2000s. And, like the coelacanthe, Concrete Blonde might not be entirely extinct as the band’s website lists some live dates from December of last year.

INXS – The Stairs
from The Greatest Hits (1994)

INXS was introduced to us in the States with 1983’s Shabooh Shoobah. Several friends were impressed, but aside from the brilliant Don’t Change, I was mostly indifferent. However, one of those friends was compelled to purchase INXS’ two previous albums as pricey, Australian imports and, thanks to his incessant playing of the band’s music, I became a fan.

Within five years, INXS was one of the biggest acts in the world with 1987’s Kick selling millions and spawning hits like Need You Tonight, Devil Inside, and Never Tear Us Apart. Kick‘s successor, X, arrived in 1990 and managed to be moderately successful, but the band’s commercial fortunes continued to decline in the ’90s.

INXS seemed to be done with the death of lead singer Michael Hutchence in 1997, but reality television intervened and the group had a brief reunion almost a decade later.

(of course, as anyone familiar with Stephen King’s Pet Sematary knows, sometimes dead is better)

The Stairs initially appeared on X and, though not a hit, other than Don’t Change, it might be the best thing that INXS ever did.


Love For The Band Whose Debut Was One That “No One With Ears Would Give A Second Listen”

October 8, 2011

It was some time in early autumn of 1990 when I read that assessment of Concrete Blonde’s self-titled debut in a copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide.

I tucked the book back onto the shelf and, as I left the bookstore, reached up and felt the sides of my head.

I had ears – I needed somewhere to put my ear buds – and, in my backpack, I had cassettes that contained all three albums by the trio of Los Angelenos.

I’d missed Concrete Blonde’s Trouser Press-disapproved debut from three years earlier and the 1989 follow-up, Free, had also gone unnoticed by me.

(though I had seen – and taken note of – the video for God Is A Bullet a few times on MTV’s 120 Minutes)

I finally became hip to the apparently unhip band with Bloodletting and that discovery was also made watching 120 Minutes late one Sunday night with the video for Joey.

Joey, a plea to an alcoholic, became an unexpected hit single – reaching the Top Twenty on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 in the US – and Bloodletting, a spectral brew of gothic-tinged, punk-influenced alternative rock, was a fixture in my Walkman throughout the autumn and winter.

The two earlier albums were soon added (and enjoyed) though neither Concrete Blonde or Free got listened to as much as Bloodletting.

(few albums were listened to as much that winter as Bloodletting)

I remained a devotee of Concrete Blonde up through 1993’s Mexican Moon, on which there was a windswept, Southwestern vibe, and was bummed out when the band split shortly thereafter.

(though I did have the good fortune to see them live)

Pretty & Twisted, which saw Concrete Blonde lead singer Johnette Napolitano join with ex-Wall Of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland, offered an enjoyable fix with their lone self-titled album.

And then, unexpectedly, Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey united with Los Angeles-based Chicano punk band Los Illegals for 1997’s Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals before vanishing again.

Napolitano and Mankey have reunited a few times since, but I haven’t heard much aside from Group Therapy a decade ago and that album didn’t really pull me in.

I spent a lot of time in the ’90s with the music of Concrete Blonde.

There are still stretches of a few days, every so often, during which I will dial up some of the one hundred and fifty-some Concrete Blonde tracks on the iPod.

And Trouser Press be damned, I can’t help but think that Concrete Blonde was one of the more underappreciated alternative rock acts of their time and much of their music still sounds pretty cool two decades on.

Here are a pair of songs each from a quartet of Concrete Blonde albums…

Concrete Blonde – Joey
Concrete Blonde – Tomorrow, Wendy
from Bloodletting (1990)

The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles often provided a backdrop as well as the film noirish characters to populate Concrete Blonde’s songs as in Joey, their best-known song which addressed addiction. The mid-tempo track was highlighted by Napolitano’s raw vocals and Mankey’s serpentine guitar.

On Bloodletting, the band conjured an atmospheric vibe that was almost dreamy and no song was more haunting than Tomorrow, Wendy, a song about a woman dying of AIDS and written by another ex-Wall Of Voodoo member, Andy Prieboy.

Concrete Blonde – Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man
Concrete Blonde – Les Cœurs Jumeaux
from Walking In London (1992)

Following up their greatest success, Concrete Blonde returned with the eerie Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man, a song driven by Mankey’s twangy guitar as Napolitano recounts a tale of spectral seduction that, apparently, was based on an experience she’d had at The Driskill Hotel in Austin.

Les Cœurs Jumeaux is a bit of a departure for the band, a lush, romantic ballad partially sung in French that conjures up the feel of a walk along the Seine on a moonlit night.

Concrete Blonde – Mexican Moon
Concrete Blonde – Heal It Up
from Mexican Moon (1993)

As much as the urban vibe of Los Angeles provided inspiration for the music of Concrete Blonde, the band also incorporated elements of Hispanic music and culture – subjects of particular interest to Napolitano – into the mix. Rarely did this fusion prove more effective than on the shimmering, evocative title track to their 1993 album.

Heal It Up strips things down to a straight-ahead, snarling rock song delivered with some ferocious vocals from Napolitano.

Concrete Blonde – Everybody Knows
Concrete Blonde – 100 Games Of Solitaire
from Still In Hollywood (1994)

Concrete Blonde performed a lot of cover songs during their career, mining the work of acts including Cheap Trick, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Cave, and Bob Dylan, putting their distinctive twist on the material.

Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows found the band in fine form as the trio turned the song into a brooding rumination on the darker aspects of human nature.

A previously unissued B-side, 100 Games Of Solitaire is an ode to wanderlust where “any place with a bar and a bathtub’s all right.” Twangy and grungy, you almost feel the need to shake the dust off your boots by the song’s end.