The Eighth Of December

December 8, 2012

There are a lot of music fans today recalling and recounting the details of their lives when they learned that John Lennon had been murdered.

My memories are hazy and uneventful.

December 8, 1980 was a Monday and a lot of folks had the sad news broken to them on Monday Night Football, but I had gone to bed at halftime and missed Howard Cosell’s announcement.

The next morning, I might have heard the news on Good Morning America . The television was undoubtedly tuned to the show as everyone scrambled about preparing for the day.

But, I don’t recall hearing the news of John Lennon’s death from David Hartman or Joan Lunden as I ate a bowl of Cheerios. It might have been because my usual routine that morning was altered with a dental appointment.

I learned of the death of one of the most iconic figures of the 20th Century from the radio station playing in the dentist’s office as I got my teeth cleaned.

I was thirteen and my interest in music was casual. Of course, I knew the music of The Beatles.

(is there anywhere in the world – where there is electricity – where their music isn’t known?)

But, I have to confess, the news had little effect on me.

I was a passive witness not an active participant.

As the years passed and music became a more important part of my life, as I learned the lore of bands and artists that had ruled the world, John Lennon’s death took on more significance.

On December 8, 1990, I was finishing the final classes that semester for a misconceived degree and the world was headed toward the first Gulf War.

MTV had added the video for an updated version of Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance performed by The Peace Choir, which brought together Yoko, Sean Lennon and an array of artists including Peter Gabriel, Iggy Pop, Cyndi Lauper, Little Richard, Randy Newman, Tom Petty, Duff from Guns ‘N Roses, Wendy & Lisa, LL Cool J, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, and numerous others.

That night, walking home from the record store where I worked, I switched my Walkman from the cassette to which I was listening and channel surfed radio stations. The brightness of the moon illuminated the landscape as it poked through fluffy clouds in the night sky.

It was one of those skies that, in the Midwest, you recognize as heavy with snow.

On the radio, the DJ – like DJs all over the world – was noting the passing of a decade since John Lennon’s death and playing songs of the late Beatle.

I trudged back to my apartment and was greeted by my dog. Those minutes after returning home from work or class (or both) often redeemed the day.

Part German shepherd, part Golden Retriever, Coke – a nickname not affiliated with the drink or narcotic – loved water and, even more so, he loved snow.

I walked around the apartment grounds with him that night, probably pondering the idea of ordering a pizza, watching some college hoops, and becoming one with the couch.

Then, both of us looked up as, suddenly, massive flakes – the size of baby birds – began to flutter from the sky.

Coke spent the next hour or more diving into the rapidly accumulating blanket of snow and trying to dodge and/or catch the snow balls I lobbed in his direction

Once inside, it was nearly midnight, I was too drowsy from being out in the crisp air to do much more then throw on some sweats and a baggy sweater that was a size too big. I lit some candles, put on some Beatles, and Coke and I stretched out on the couch and listened as the snow continued to fall.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band – Give Peace A Chance
from The John Lennon Collection (1982)

The Peace Choir – Give Peace A Chance
from Give Peace A Chance single (1990)

The Monkees And Me

March 3, 2012

I suppose that for someone as fascinated by primates, both of the skyscraper-climbing and planet-ruling sort, as I apparently am, The Monkees should be a favorite band for, if nothing else, their name.

In what passes for my reality, The Monkees have been an act that has mostly been a part of the pop culture landscape with the foursome periodically popping up on my radar such as this week with the news of Davy Jones’ death.

I might have caught The Monkees via their television show during the late ’60s, but as The Monkees initial run ended about the time I was beginning to walk and talk, I suspect I truly became aware of the show, the band, and the music from reruns in the early ’70s.

However hazy those memories are, I do remember watching The Monkees and being quite enamored by their small-screen shenanigans. It was the manic hijinks that was the hook for me as a pre-schooler with the music being something that merely accompanied the zany antics of Davy, Mickey, Mike and Peter.

I can’t say that I favored any of the four over the others, but Davy Jones certainly stood out for both his lack of verticality and his British accent.

Jones also famously caused Marcia Brady to get all googly-moogly and this too made an impression as I watched reruns of The Brady Bunch after school.

(though perhaps not quite as much as if he had won the affection of Laurie Partridge)

Of course, The Monkees were a musical act and, even before I truly became interested in music, I knew more of their music than I likely did by any other group including the quartet that provided inspiration for The Monkees creation.

Like The Monkees themselves, the songs were part of the pop culture landscape, something that had simply always existed. I never owned much of their music, but, if I happened upon one of their hits while surfing the radio dial, I probably paused.

Here are four songs from The Monkees that still make me pause when they shuffle up on the iPod…

The Monkees – (Theme From) The Monkees
from The Best Of The Monkees (2003)

It occurs to me now that the theme song to The Monkees had to have been one of the earliest pop songs to which I knew all the words. It served as an appropriately playful greeting to each episode.

The Monkees – Last Train To Clarksville
from The Best Of The Monkees (2003)

Like The Monkees’ theme song, The jangly Last Train To Clarksville was written by the songwriting duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Years later, in the early ’90s, a couple of friends would occasionally share drinks with Boyce at our favorite watering hole and I’m thinking that I met the songwriter at some point.

The Monkees – Pleasant Valley Sunday
from The Best Of The Monkees (2003)

It’s been rehashed ad infinitum how much credit The Monkees truly deserve for their musical success given that the band’s hits were written by outside writers. The breezy Pleasant Valley Sunday was penned by the legendary songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King.

The Monkees – Daydream Believer
from The Best Of The Monkees (2003)

I’d have to put Daydream Believer on any short list that I might compile of songs that make me involuntarily smile. It’s pure sunshine and about as bouncy a song as I can think of.


September 28, 2011

R.E.M. announced their end last week and it’s taken me until now to ponder that news. That alone is evidence of how much I’d lost touch of a band that, for a good half decade or so, was a fixture in my world.

Now that I do reflect on the career of the Athens, Georgia quartet, I realize that R.E.M. was arguably the ultimate college rock act for me and, like a lot of people from that period of higher education, we simply went in separate directions, unable to maintain a once seemingly unbreakable connection.

I’m unable to place exactly when I was introduced to Michael Stipe and company.

I discovered the modern rock of 97X during the autumn of 1983, six months or so following the release of R.E.M.’s debut Murmur. The station was undoubtedly playing Radio Free Europe and Talk About The Passion and I’m sure that, on those evenings when I could get reception, I heard the songs, but to little effect on me.

I do know that by the following spring, when Reckoning was issued, my buddy Bosco sing the band’s praises and I was reading about the band in Rolling Stone.

Still, R.E.M. and I existed in blissful ignorance of one another.

By the summer of 1985, I had begun to hear R.E.M. on the radio as one of the rock stations I was listening to gave some airplay to Driver 8 and Cant Get There From Here from Fables Of The Reconstruction.

Neither song really resonated with me and neither did the critical adulation. However, it didn’t go unnoticed that my girlfriend’s older brother, home from college for the summer, was enthusuiastic about R.E.M.

A summer later, Lifes Rich Pageant was issued and as I headed to college that fall, R.E.M. had finally connected with me through the songs Fall On Me and Superman, the latter a cover of a song by ’60s band The Clique.

I was hearing the songs in the dorm and at parties, seeing the videos on MTV, and reading about them in each and every music magazine I’d pick up.

Oddly enough, though I was now in college, I didn’t have access to a modern rock station as I had in high school, so my growing interest in R.E.M. wasn’t being nurtured by radio even though the group was a cornerstone of the burgeoning college radio boom of the ’80s.

R.E.M. was definitely a part of my world for the next four years and change as the group broke through to the mainstream with hits like The One I Love and Stand but remained eccentric and enigmatic enough to be cool to me and my college peers.

I went back and purchased much of the band’s catalog.

We all but played the life out of those albums in the record store where I worked. When I worked a shift with my friend Jess, it became Pavlovian for us to catch each other’s eyes when Stipe reached “Leonid Brezhnev” in It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).

We might be on opposite ends of the store, but that lyric never failed to crack us up.

The classic Out Of Time reached the store in 1991. I can still, vividly, picture the rainy spring day that I took home the CD, sprawled out on the couch of my last college apartment, and listened to it for the first time.

By summer, Losing My Religion had helped Out Of Time become the R.E.M.’s biggest-selling album and I, having graduated the previous December, had relocated, the cassette probably in the Walkman.

Automatic For The People was a deservedly feted album and a cassette dubbed from the CD spent a lot of time in my Walkman as I trudged to work in late 1992, but it was clear that the relationship had changed in some undefinable way.

It was like the friendships with college friends that were reducing to phone conversations which were less frequent, more brief, and increasingly disconnected.

I hung with R.E.M. through Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but, when Up arrived in 1998, I was living in London with little money and I didn’t even bother.

I’m not sure what I’ve missed in the past decade from R.E.M. Reviews I’ve read lead me to believe that the years that the band has soldiered on without drummer Bill Berry and me have been a mixed bag.

R.E.M. and I weren’t destined to grow old together. Like most of my college friends, it was meant to be a brief relationship, providing more than a few songs to the soundtrack of that time.

I can’t say I’ve listened to much R.E.M. in quite some time aside from a track popping up on shuffle. I was a bit surprised to find that I had near two hundred songs from the band.

It might be time for a reunion.

Here are a half-dozen that caught my eye…

R.E.M. – Radio Free Europe
from Murmur (1983)

I had to have heard Radio Free Europe on 97X, but I can’t recall. If I try to imagine what I would have thought of the song as a fifteen-year old kid, I’m picture myself shrugging, puzzled.

Of course, Michael Stipe’s vocals and/or lyrics were oft noted as being indecipherable and inscrutible. Radio Free Europe is an excellent example, but the song bristles with garage rock energy and I find myself singing the words that I do know.

R.E.M. – So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)
from Reckoning (1984)

The jangly, mysterious So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry) has long been a must on any R.E.M. compilation and I’ve always loved the lyric “Go build yourself another dream, this choice isn’t mine.”

R.E.M. – Superman
from Lifes Rich Pageant (1986)

R.E.M. performed a lot of covers during their career – everyone from Leonard Cohen to Cyndi Lauper – but it was their take on a song by a far more obscure band from Texas called The Clique that provided the band with one of its best-known early songs.

Bass player Mike Mills took the lead vocals on Superman, and though the lyrics were as moody as their originals, the music was ridiculously upbeat and catchy.

R.E.M. – Orange Crush
from Green (1988)

Orange Crush was about Vietnam, the title a reference to Agent Orange. The political overtones of the song allowed a lot of us at the time to feel politically active by listening to the groovy, rocking song which featured some cool, jagged, chiming guitars courtesy of Peter Buck.

It was a win/win.

R.E.M. – Belong
from Out Of Time (1991)

Probably my favorite of all R.E.M. songs, Belong was the song that caused me to hit repeat the first time I listened to Out Of Time. The song drew me in.

It’s a dreamy, spoken-word fable with thumping bass, ringing guitar and soaring, wordless harmonies.

R.E.M. – Fretless
from Until The End Of The World soundtrack (1991)

Fretless was included on the soundtrack to the little-seen Until The End Of The World, a fascinating and flawed, futuristic road trip of a movie from the director of the classic Wings Of Desire.

A stellar array of alternative acts contributed songs specifically written for the film, resulting in one of my favorite soundtracks. For their part, R.E.M. bestowed the lovely, downbeat Fretless .