We Could Have Murdered Him (But That Would Have Ruined Christmas…I Suppose)

December 7, 2011

Over at The Hits Just Keep Comin’, JB notes the reaction of listeners to Mannheim Steamroller’s A Fresh Aire Christmas during a stint DJing at an easy listening station in the late ’80s.

(“You wouldn’t think that the elevator-music audience would use language like we heard on the telephone.”)

I remember A Fresh Aire Christmas being released for the holidays in 1988. I was a junior in college and it was my second Christmas working in a record store, having earned the gig as seasonal, part-time help the year before.

Our manager prodded us to mix in some holiday music to little avail until our assistant manager discovered Mannheim Steamroller’s collection of seasonal music that was whiter than the whitest of white Christmases.

His repeated playing of the stuff drove most of us to a murderous rage.

He was a dimunitive graduate student studying French and had floppy hair and long fingernails. He would stroke his goatee, yammering in a language none of us spoke and then, invariably, launch into an impassioned argument with himself on why Quebec should secede from Canada.

(this diatribe was delivered, unfortunately, in English not that we cared whether Quebec remained part of Canada or not)

In truth, most of us wanted to murder him year ’round, but that December he truly risked death each time he put on A Fresh Aire Christmas.

Here are four songs from albums I recall we favored that holiday season…

Traveling Wilburys – Handle With Care
from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988)

The one word that always comes to mind when I think of The Wilburys is charming. That first record was one that you just wanted to spend time with.

(it actually seemed to ease any tensions amongst the staff when we’d play it in the store…is it even possible to contemplate bludgeoning a co-worker while listening to Nelson, Otis, Lefty, Lucky, and Charlie T. Jr?)

Not that there wasn’t a bit of melancholy around the record with the death of Roy Orbison – Lefty – that December just as the album was becoming a a must-have. And the gorgeous Handle Me With Care is a bit wistful (though not defeated).

Let’s Active – Every Dog Has His Day
from Every Dog Has His Day (1988)

Actually, I doubt that we played Let’s Active in the store. The jangly, Southern power-pop trio never got beyond cult status and a little play on college radio and middle-of-the-night MTV.

I knew a couple of the band’s songs and I certainly knew guitarist Mitch Easter for his production credits including R.E.M.’s Murmur and Reckoning. Years later, I’d realize that I’d grown up with the band’s original drummer

Steve Earle – Copperhead Road
from Copperhead Road (1988)

One of the first celebrities I encountered in the large record store where I worked post-college was Steve Earle. It was pleasant but a bit strange as he came through the doors ten minutes before closing with the lights down, the music off, and us ushering the remaining customers out the door.

He politely asked me if we had his new album, a live set wonderfully titled Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator. As we walked through the dimly-lit aisles to the E section, he lamented that his label hadn’t given him a copy.

The rest of the conversation is long forgotten, though I do remember him seeming to be geniunely appreciative as I handed him the CD and told him how much a lot of the staff dug the record.

“You should make sure they get you a copy.”

Three years earlier, we were digging the tale of the ganja-growing Vietnam vet in Copperhead Road in that college store.

Jane’s Addiction – Mountain Song
from Nothing’s Shocking (1988)

I can’t hear Jane’s Addiction without thinking of my late dog and how he would spring to attention whenever he heard the dog barking at the beginning of their song Been Caught Stealing.

Mountain Song appeared on their full-length debut, though, and it was the first thing I’d ever heard by the iconic alternative rock band. My buddy Streuss threw the song on while I was hanging out with him during his shift DJing on our college radio station and we were duly impressed with the avalanche of sound.

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The Road (There And Back)

November 27, 2011

As a kid, the family usually made at least one trek annually to visit relatives in Western Pennsylvania.

To mitigate the need to navigate traffic, we would often set off on these trips in the wee hours of the night, getting the first couple hours in before the sunrise.

It was thrilling to be up in the middle of the night, at an hour whose existence was wholly unknown to me at the time.

As my younger brother and our mother would be asleep in the backseat, I was accorded shotgun, road atlas perched in my lap and serving as navigator for our father.

I assumed the responsibility of the task with deadly seriousness and a certain belief that any failure on my part might result in us being lost forever, though little navigation was truly needed and the position was essentially honorary.

Thirtysome years later, it’s simply good to that Paloma and I have made our Thanksgiving trek with no difficulties and are safely back in the treehouse with the animals.

Here are four road songs (out of the numerous ones residing on the harddrive)…

John Fogerty – The Old Man Down The Road
from Centerfield (1985)

I was a junior in high school when John Fogerty released his first new music since before I had even begun the educational process. I was hardly enamored with Centerfield or the handful of tracks that were getting airplay, but the album and Fogerty’s comeback was inescapable (especially as my buddy Beej loved the record).

For me, it was a bit too twangy for my tastes at the time, though now I have a much greater appreciation and affection for the ex-Creedence singer’s bayou brew. And, Paloma and I came across a fellow in a roadside McDonald’s that certainly would have been well cast as the titular character.

Talking Heads – Road To Nowhere
from Little Creatures (1985)

As John Fogerty was making a comeback in 1985, art-rockers Talking Heads were making a belated arrival, notching the most commercially successful album of their almost-decade long career with Little Creatures. Sure, the quartet had a major radio hit two years earlier with the übercool Burning Down The House and, though nothing on Little Creatures matched that success, the album had several songs that got a lot of airplay.

One of those songs was the skittish march Road To Nowhere which I heard a lot on 97X that spring and was accompanied by an expectedly eye-catching video that MTV played incessantly.

Steve Earle – Six Days On The Road
from Essential Steve Earle (1993)

Paloma and I didn’t spend six days on the road – two was more than enough for us – so we didn’t quite reach the level of weariness that the protagonist felt in the song that was a major hit for country singer Dave Dudley in 1963.

Nearly a quarter century later, Steve Earle contributed his version of the song to John Hughes’ movie Planes, Trains And Automobiles, a flick that has become a holiday perennial.

Eddie Vedder with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – The Long Road
from Dead Man Walking soundtrack (1996)

Traveling through the Midwest, Paloma and I heard a similar rotation of artists and songs on the (mostly) classic rock stations we’d pull up on the radio. And, there amongst ’70s warhorses like Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Skynyrd was – over and over again – Pearl Jam.

(much to Paloma’s chagrin)

Personally, it reminded me of how much of Pearl Jam’s catalog I have enjoyed over the years. The band certainly has had its detractors (aside from Paloma), but there’s always been something about the grunge icons that has struck me as geniune.

And, over the years, lead singer Eddie Vedder has, like several other members of the band, stepped out on his own as he did in 1996 when he collaborated with the late Pakastani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for the lovely, mournful The Long Road for the soundtrack to the movie Dead Man Walking.


While I Gently Weep For My Guitar

January 2, 2011

I think that I had to be sixteen or seventeen before I ever held an electric guitar.

It must have been a BC Rich as it belonged to the younger brother of my buddy Beej and younger brother was a metalhead who aspired to join Dave Murray and Adrian Smith in Iron Maiden.

The next time I ever held a guitar was a good five years later. A housemate in college, Billy, owned a white ’64 Gibson SG.

Many nights we’d be hanging out in the living room watching some bad movie on late-night cable. Billy would be sitting there mindlessly playing scales and, on occasion, he’d show me a chord or two.

Over time, I’d grab the guitar from its case and monkey around with it when Billy was at work and I was likely supposed to be in class.

(cable and a couch trumps class on a cold winter’s afternoon handily)

I figured out how to play Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more of a rush of accomplishment.

Billy noted my increased interest in the instrument. He told me tales of the guitar’s history, of how it had supposedly once changed hands as part of a drug deal and how it had once belonged to a guitarist in a band called Mike & The Raiders.

(it was all so rock and roll)

Obviously I had no way to know how much was true, but the wear and tear apparent in the nicks and scratches on the guitar made anything seem possible.

Billy also had a bit of an agenda. He wanted a Fender Stratocaster.

And so, for a pittance of the SG’s worth, the guitar became mine.

I’d like to tell of how I played it ’til my fingers bled, put a band together, and that I now have a mansion and a yacht. I have no doubt that, in some parallel universe, that is exactly how it played out.

In this universe, the guitar was stolen from our house less than six months after I bought it.

I caught a few breaks, a canary sang, and I tracked the perp – a high school student – to his hometown four hours away.

The police, the attorney of the kid’s parents, and a co-worker that had done six years for armed robbery became involved, but, in the end, the guitar had been destroyed.

(or so I was told)

In some parallel universe, the co-worker did decide to go after the kid and shanked him.

I reaquired the SG, played it ’til my fingers bled, put a band together, and I now have a mansion and a yacht.

Here are four guitar songs…

The Jayhawks – Miss Williams’ Guitar
from Tomorrow The Green Grass

Paloma and I spent innumerable hours listening to Tomorrow The Green Grass, the fourth record by the alternative country-rock band The Jayhawks. Though the group never really broke beyond having a devoted grass-roots following and a slew of swooning critics, the Minneapolis quartet was beloved at the record store where we worked at the time.

Miss Williams’ Guitar had everything we’d come to expect from The Jayhawks – stellar songwriting and musianship delivered in an exuberant mixture of country, folk, and roots rock.

Tomorrow The Green Grass would be the final album that featured the glorious harmonies of vocalists/guitarists Mark Olson and Gary Louris as the former would leave the band and marry folk singer Victoria Williams, the subject of this song.

Steve Earle – Guitar Town
from The Essential Steve Earle

The title track from Townes Van Zandt-protege Steve Earle’s debut album captures the wanderlust of life on the road with humor and twang.

It all rings true when delivered in the rough-hewn vocals of the hard-living Earle and makes the fact that the artist shared bills with Dwight Yoakam and The Replacements at the time seem totally appropriate.

Radiohead – Anyone Can Play Guitar
from Pablo Honey

Though it lacked the distinctiveness that caught the attention of listeners with Radiohead’s more offbeat breakthrough hit Creep, Anyone Can Play Guitar is still a wonderful alternative pop song from the band’s debut.

Mainstream Interest in Radiohead waned in the States following the initial excitement of Creep, but the band remained a favorite of our record store’s staff with the brilliant follow-up album The Bends.

Then came O.K. Computer and Radiohead again – and deservedly – became the “it” band of the late ’90s.

John Cougar Mellencamp – Play Guitar
from Uh-Huh

Growing up in Indiana, any new album from John Cougar was going to get a lot of play on radio.

But, as American Fool had sold millions and been one of the biggest albums of ’82, the release of its follow-up in the autumn of ’83 was treated by local radio as an event. Stations teased the arrival of Crumblin’ Down, the first single, for weeks before its premier.

Though Uh-Huh wasn’t quite the commercial juggernaut that American Fool had been, the singer was now a homegrown institution no matter what his moniker might be and radio latched onto – and played into the ground – almost every cut on the record including the raucous and rebellious Play Guitar.