A Special Circle Of Retail Hell

January 20, 2013

(a rebroadcast from January, 2011…)
The first time that I ever participated in a store inventory was in college. It was a small record store – a dozen of us, max – and it lasted until about two o’clock in the morning.

It was a drag.

Several years later, working in a record store so large that we had a staff of sixty or so to cover the fifteen hours we were open each day, I gained a dose of perspective.

This store took inventory two times a year and each and every one was a unique experience with terrifying surprises and maddening twists.

One was in the winter and, the other, was in the summer. Both were feared and loathed, but I found the one in winter – coming less than a month after Christmas – to be particularly excruciating.

While the store opened at nine, an hour which – for those who worked opening crew – was early but not painful, inventory began at six.

Six translated to three and a half hours past when the bars and clubs had closed.

Six, unlike nine, was both early and painful.

Winter inventory took place over a couple days – yes, days – in January and, at that time of the year six o’clock was also dark and frigid.

Our entire staff – all sixty or so of us – would stumble in and mill about our receiving dock. As certain pairs arrived together, it was a good time for everyone to freshen up their mental lists of who was hooking up with who.

As some of us worked completely different schedules, the event was a bit like a reunion of the living dead and a little like rival prison gangs having a summitt.

Doughnuts would be provided because there’s nothing like adding an impending sugar crash to a lack of sleep and/or a hangover.

And, then, the fun would begin.

Even though it was the ’90s, everything was counted by hand, one rack at a time, written down on paper, and, then, counted again to verify. If the counts differed by more than some nebulous amount, that rack was scrapped and redone.

By mid-morning certain racks had already earned a reputation and were referred to by number much like hills were referred to in a military operation.

Upping the degree of difficulty was that we engaged in this effort while the store was open and customers were shopping and, even on a slow day, we’d do ten grand in business.

It was a two-day death march – rifling through thousands of vinyl imports crammed into understock – with complete hopelessness setting in at the end of the first day, knowing that the next day was more of the same.

Usually, mercifully, the first day usually ended by six in the evening, but, during the mother of all inventories, we adjorned day one at two in the morning – twenty fun-filled hours after we had started.

(one quiet Goth chick actually cracked and quit – I’m surprised no one ever got shanked)

Often, there were must-see shows on that night between that many of us had to see. A dozen or more of us once went straight from inventory to see World Party and 10,000 Maniacs at an outdoor ampitheater.

During 10,000 Maniacs set, we learned that World Party was going to play an unannounced gig at a small club. So, most of us ended up being out well past three and needing to be at work in a few hours.

Somehow it was all far less exhausting than a typical day at the office these days.

Here are four songs by the vastly underappreciated World Party…

World Party – Ship Of Fools
from Private Revolution (1986)

I had immediate interest as soon as I learned of World Party in 1986. The band was, essentially , a solo venture for Karl Wallinger who had been a member of the highly regarded group The Waterboys for two albums.

Private Revolution was, like the music of The Waterboys, literate stuff, but Wallinger infused the music with elements of funk, soul and ’60s pop that gave his debut effort a far less somber vibe. Much of the album was focused on the ruin being done to the planet.

Though not explicitly mentioning the environment, Ship Of Fools warns of impending trouble on planet Earth, but it’s so damned catchy that it could have been Wallinger singing his shopping list and it would stick in the head.

(and it somehow got aired enough by mainstream radio to make it a Top 40 hit)

World Party – Way Down Now
from Goodbye Jumbo (1990)

I had the chance to meet Wallinger at another small, private show and he struck me as a fascinating character – a tiny, slightly impish, rock and roll leprechaun.

He still had a lot on his mind when he released Goodbye Jumbo in 1990 and Way Down Now found him still quite concerned about the future. Whether he’s paranoid or prophetic, it’s impossible not to get sucked into a song so sonically engaging.

World Party – When The Rainbow Comes
from Goodbye Jumbo (1990)

And then, here and there throughout each record, there would be a song like When The Rainbow Comes, a glorious, flower-power blast of sunshine and optimism. Oh, there’s a few grim references like “It’s be-bop-a-lula, then baby you’re dead.” but the sun is most definitely poking through the clouds.

When The Rainbow Comes might be my favorite song by World Party. I dig it’s granola-munching vibe and the guitar that reminds me of George Harrison.

World Party – Is It Like Today?”
from Bang! (1993)

Is It Like Today? was another pretty stellar number. The music has always made me think of a slightly more pop Don’t Go Back To Rockville by R.E.M, jangly and twangy, tinged with regret as it chronicles mankind – “out in space, hey, fixing all the problems” – meeting God.

God, understandably, expresses concern.

Even Rock Stars Need A Hug Sometimes*

August 29, 2012

It surely doesn’t suck to be a rock star.

You get to travel to exotic locales, demand waffles at any hour, and stay up as late as you want, as often as you want.

You also get a helicopter.

Having had the chance to meet or speak with some successful musicians, it’s still an abstraction to me to think of them dealing with the things – trivial or not – that we mere mortals must.

But even successful musicians, obviously, do have friction in their lives.

In 2002, I had the opportunity to interview Louie Perez of Los Lobos, coinciding with the band’s then new album Good Morning Aztlan. It was the perennially critically-acclaimed act’s third straight album on a different label.

Mammoth Records, which was issuing the release, would fold a couple years later.

Los Lobos had fifteen years separating them from their brief period of mainstream success with the music from the bio-pic La Bamba.

Since their last album, three years earlier, band member Cesar Rosas’ wife had been abducted and murdered.

As I interviewed Perez, he was courteous and pleasant, giving well-considered answers, but something seemed not quite right. I think I flat out asked him if he was OK.

He noted some of the adversity that the band had endured.

He sounded worn.

“But you’re in Los Lobos, man.”

(I think I actually said “man”)

“How cool is that?”

“Yeah, it is pretty cool,” he agreed, seeming to be re-energized at the thought.

It’s not every day you get to cheer up an integral part of a truly great band.

Impossible to pigeon-hole, here are four songs that hardly scratch the surface of the breadth of Los Lobos’ catalog…

Los Lobos – Will The Wolf Survive
from How Will The Wolf Survive? (1984)

I remember knowing of Los Lobos through the glowing reviews when How Will The Wolf Survive? was released in 1984. And I remember hearing Will The Wolf Survive on Q95, an album-rock station which was among my staples at the time.

I didn’t get it.

(some years later, I would finally catch up)

Los Lobos – Kiko And The Lavender Moon
from Kiko (1992)

Children of immigrants, Los Lobos cut their teeth, in the words of All Music Guide, “playing parties, wedding receptions, restaurants, bars, and anyplace else where someone might pay them for a gig” for a decade before finding success.

Drawing on the music of their Latino heritage, the band incorporated traditional folk, country, R&B, and rock into the mix with virtuoso musicianship.

In 1992, Los Lobos released Kiko, their collaboration with noted producer Mitchell Froom, and proved that they could do experimental rock as well as any of the modern rock bands of the period.

Los Lobos – Tony Y Maria
from Good Morning Aztlan (2002)

With the upcoming election, there will no doubt be folks hopping mad over illegal immigrants. Of course, there would be no work for illegal immigrants if the CEOs of companies hiring them would be held accountable, but that won’t happen.

The lovely Tony Y Maria details the struggle of the titular characters, a couple wanting nothing more than a life together and to provide for their children. It’s a simple, plaintive song that is a reminder that, at the heart of the arguments and debates, there are real people.

Los Lobos – The Word
from Good Morning Aztlan (2002)

Good Morning Aztlan found Los Lobos working with producer John Leckie, known for his work with bands like XTC, Radiohead, and Stone Roses. Not that the soulful The Word would remind a listener of any of those bands.

Instead, The Word simmers and soars, with a groove and socially-conscious lyrics that evoke the spirit of early ’70s R&B.

It’s intoxicating, thought-provoking, and altogether glorious.

I Mother Earth

June 2, 2012

“Take this home and listen to it.”

The request was made by my boss who really wasn’t my boss as I was an unpaid intern.

Leaving the label’s office, I studied the sleeve of the cassette.

It was five-song demo, some band named I Mother Earth.

I popped it into my Walkman and listened on the forty-five minute trek to the record store where I was working a closing shift until midnight.

It was tribal.

It was percussive.

It was riff-heavy rock that was aggressive, trippy, melodic, funky, psychedelic, hypnotic and “oh so sonic.”

I had just begun to have the opportunity to hear demos and most I couldn’t truly hear, but this one was obvious.

I heard Jane’s Addiction, The Doors, and Santana.

I was completely and totally smitten.

The next day, my buddy asked if I’d listened to the tape and – as much as an unpaid intern could make demands – I demanded we sign the band.

It was not to be.

He explained that he’d gotten the demo from a friend at Capitol, the label that had won a bidding wore between several major labels for I Mother Earth.

(who, if I recall, had only played a dozen shows and none outside of the quartet’s home in Toronto)

For the next eighteen months I pestered our Capitol rep on his weekly visit to our record store for news on I Mother Earth and when their debut release would arrive.

Finally, two years after I’d taken that demo home, Dig was released and, from the opening notes, it proved to have been worth the wait.

Not long after Dig‘s release, the band came through town for a show and the label rep took me to lunch with the band. For a band that had been so seriously courted by the major labels, the foursome were surprisingly down to earth and polite.

(hell, for any band, they were down to earth and polite)

I still remember Bruce, the bassist who looked like he was sixteen, asking the rep if he enjoyed shepherding bands around on promotional visits.

“Well, right now it’s great,” he replied. “The album is finally out and you’ve just started the tour, but, in six months or so, you’ll come back through town.”

“And?” one of them asked.

“Either the record will be massive and you’ll be assholes or, the record will have missed, you’ll blame the label – and me – and be assholes.”

(Tom, the rep was a good guy and a straight shooter)

I went to the show that night at the club which was packed to capacity and the band delivered what is still possibly the most ferocious live set that I’ve ever witnessed.

Afterwards, I hung out with the band in their dressing room, drinking free beer and knowing that I would boast years later of hanging with one of the biggest rock bands on the planet.

Six months or so later, I Mother Earth did come through town again.

The album had – at least in the States – been summarily ignored.

(in their native Canada, Dig spawned several hits, gone platinum, and won a Juno)

Oh, it got a bit of attention, but the label, possessing the wisdom that could only come from middle-aged, white guys in suits, had inexplicably pushed the band as a metal act at the height of the grunge era and sentenced them to obscurity.

(well done, Capitol, well done)

I don’t know if the band had become assholes. I bumped into Edwin, the lead singer, and had a brief conversation with him.

He seemed stressed.

When the follow-up to Dig was released, it was issued in January, 1996. I knew that if the label was putting the album out in January there was no intention of promoting it.

Scenery And Fish was undeservedly headed for the cut-out bins by summer, though it was even more successful than the debut in Canada, going double platinum and scoring the band another Juno nomination.

By the time the ensuing tour ended, it was announced that Edwin was leaving I Mother Earth.

I Mother Earth put out two more albums with a new lead singer that weren’t even released south of the border and I didn’t care enough to seek them out as imports.

I had fallen hard for the band that afternoon twenty years ago when I first listened to that demo, the raw music of a band that I knew would be mammoth.

I was disappointed that the world had missed out.

It was not to be.

Here are four songs from I Mother Earth…

I Mother Earth – Not Quite Sonic
from Dig (1993)

If I recall, Not Quite Sonic was the first song on the I Mother Earth demo and the opening – slightly reminiscent of the opening to Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Welcome To The Jungle – drew me in.

And, if I recall, I rewound the tape and listened to Not Quite Sonic again before moving on to the next song.

I Mother Earth – Rain Will Fall
from Dig (1993)

I don’t believe the hyperkinetic Rain Will Fall was on the demo, so I didn’t hear it until Dig was released and, then, it quickly became a favorite.

I Mother Earth – Levitate (acoustic)
from So Gently We Go single (1993)

The version of Levitate which appeared on Dig rumbled along with a heaviness that belied its title. The stripped-down, acoustic take on the song was an interesting change of perspective and accentuated the psychedelic vibe of its lyrics.

I Mother Earth – One More Astronaut
from Scenery And Fish (1996)

Though Scenery And Fish wasn’t quite as impressive as the band’s debut, it still deserved a far better fate than it received (at least here in the States).

The surging One More Astronaut took the vantage point of the titular protagonist, a working man isolated in space lamenting the boredom and isolation, “the powdered food and piss bags.”