The Great White North

December 10, 2011

Long ago I noticed that there seemed to be a significant portion of visitors to this outpost of mental noodlings arriving from the upper Midwestern US and parts of Canada.

I’ve also realized that I often frequent the writings of folks from from those same parts of the planet.

Having grown up in the American Midwest, I suppose that there is some common ground – similarities in temperment and mindset – that makes for more likely connections. Scientifically speaking, birds of a feather…

During our most recent trips to my homeland, I have noted to Paloma that the locals, who usually impress her with their considerate manner, are “charmingly bland.”

Before the hate mail arrives, by charmingly bland I mean that there is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense vibe that I find refreshing and endearing. Everyone’s temperature seems to be set a bit lower.

I’ve not been to places like Minnesota or Wisconsin, but based upon the folks I’ve known from these locales, that vibe seems to be even more profound, more deeply engrained and pronounced.

And the Canadians I’ve known through the years have mostly lived up to their nation’s reputation of being affable and good natured to the point of arousing suspicion.

So, if I truly am drawing a disproportionate amount of traffic from those residing north of the 42nd parallel, I’ll take that as keeping good company.

Of course, the image above isn’t an actual representation of the places to which I refer, but a good buddy from college who hails from Brainerd has told me that he and his fellow Minnesotans like to perpetuate the myth of their homestate as an Arctic tundra.

“It helps keep the riff raff out.”

I’ve often sung the praises of music from Canada, so I thought that I’d see what acts hail from Wisconsin and Minnesota. I knew that there were plenty from the latter – even if you limit it to ones from the ’80s – but I was surprised tha there were also a surprising amount from the former.

So, here are a two pair of songs from acts with ties to those states…

First, Wisconsin…

Robin Zander – I’ve Always Got You
from Robin Zander (1993)

After a commercial resurgence in the late ’80s, Cheap Trick’s career was in another lull which is why most folks likely never heard lead singer (and Wisconsin native) Robin Zander’s self-titled, solo debut from 1993.

That’s unfortunate. Though Robin Zander isn’t in the same league as classic Cheap Trick albums from the ’70s, it is Robin Zander, the man my buddy The Drunken Frenchman once dubbed the “second best rock singer” (after Eric Burdon) and I’ve Always Got You is a bit of catchy power pop.

Garbage – Stupid Girl
from Garbage (1995)

In 1991, Butch Vig had made his way from Viroqua, Wisconsin to become the toast of the rock music universe as the producer behind Nirvana’s landmark album Nevermind and Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish.

Though he continued to be an in-demand producer, he soon put together a new band of his own (following earlier short-lived efforts with Spooner and Fire Town.

I’d adored Blondie in my teens and, a decade later, Garbage filled a void that had been left when Blondie split up, becoming one of the finest alternative rock acts of the ’90s. I quickly embraced Garbage’s debut and loved their first few albums before losing track of them.

And now, two for Minnesota…

The Jayhawks – I’d Run Away
from Tomorrow The Green Grass (1995)

Paloma and I spent innumerable hours listening to Tomorrow The Green Grass, the third 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.

I’d Run Away has always had special meaning to us and 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.

Bob Dylan – Dignity
from Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 3 (1994)

The parents of one of my best friends in high school had attended the University of Minnesota and claimed to have known Hibbings-native Bob Dylan during his brief stint at the school.

(closer to now, Paloma’s mom gets giddy at the mention of the troubadour)

As for Dignity, supposedly the shuffling song was inspired by the late, great Pete Maravich.

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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.


Dark Night

April 1, 2009

So, Paloma and I participated in Earth Hour over the past weekend. For those of you who missed it, ignored it or simply don’t live on Earth, the rules entailed turning off all of the lights for one hour.

(not that the Earth has ever done the same for me, but…)

So, there we were, sitting in near darkness with only the reassuring glow of the television to comfort us through the perils of the unilluminated, nocturnal world.

(much like our ancestors did thousands of years ago)

In a seemingly fortuitous twist of fate, the movie 10,000 B.C. had arrived from Netflix. I hoped to pick up a few coping skills.

Time became meaningless as seconds turned to minutes and minutes turned to more minutes. It could have been the movie which left me with possibly the most vacant feeling a movie ever has. It was kind of like the cinematic experience of eating Chinese food.

(personally, I’ve never found a shred of truth in that cliché)

Even Straight To Hell left me humming some songs and puzzling over what I had just seen.

10,000 B.C. completely flat-lined me.

Stuff happened. More stuff happened. Some cave people wandered a desert. I think that the good guys triumphed.

It was like Quest For Fire without the personality.

(I quite liked Quest For Fire)

I looked up at the clock once to see that we had only doused the lights forty-six minutes earlier. I was certain it had been an hour.

Either it was an incredibly boring flick or sitting in the dark had bent the time space continuum or induced some psychosis due to light deprivation.

I think it was likely the former.

The Jayhawks – Stumbling Through The Dark
During the twenty years or so that they’ve been releasing records, The Jayhawks have hardly reinvented fire, but while they might not be groundbreaking, they certainly do what they do quite well.

Whenever one of their songs pops up on the iPod’s shuffle, I know that I’m likely set for three minutes or so of something quite breath-taking.

The Police – Darkness
The hits of The Police were so effortlessly melodic, it was often easy to miss that much of their lyrical content was quite dark.

Darkness isn’t one of the best tracks on their Ghost In The Machine album (I’d have to go with Spirits In The Material World or Invisible Sun), but it’s hardly filler, either. Stewart Copeland wrote the song and its theme of the drudgery of day to day life makes it a cousin of sorts to Sting’s lyrics for the title track to The Police’s next record, Synchronicity.

The Blasters – Dark Night
I want to like The Blasters. I’ve read wonderful things, they seem like the genuine article, and I have liked the handful of songs I know. Unlike The Jayhawks, when shuffle pulls up a song by The Blasters, I always seem to look at the screen for the title of a song I don’t recognize, see that it’s The Blasters, and hit next.

It simply seems as if each and every time I’m presented with the chance to check them out, I’m not in the mood for their sound.

I loved Dark Night from the first time I heard it during the closing credits of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. As I was in a theater, I couldn’t fast forward and, besides, the song was perfect for that flick.

Blue Oyster Cult – After Dark
I rarely am able to pass up a chance to post something by Blue Oyster Cult. After Dark was on their Fire Of Unknown Origin. That album might not be noted as a seminal moment in the history of music, but – from the moody title track to the eerie closer Don’t Turn Your Back – it is a fantastic rock record (and the cover artwork is a favorite)

(and doesn’t it seem like everyone knows Burnin’ For You even if they might not know who sings it?)

However, if pressed, I might point a finger at After Dark as the weakest link on Fire Of Unknown Origin. It’s still an engaging track, though.