Random Brushes With Greatness

January 19, 2012

For a decade plus following college, I participated in an extended childhood, existing on the periphery of the music industry, close enough to see behind the curtain, yet not so involved to reap financial rewards that would have sullied the experience.

The time afforded me opportunities to do things and meet people that I would have thought unthinkable as a kid growing up in Sticksville, listening to music and devouring liner notes.

Sometimes I will escape the office and the mind-numbing engagement in capitalistic endeavors to enjoy tobacco.

I’ll set the iPod to shuffle and a song will pop up that will remind me of some cool experience that I’d almost forgotten.

A song by Richard Thompson shuffled up the other day and I suddenly recalled having lunch with the legendary guitarist. Afterwards, he took the small stage at the club and generously performed a handful of songs – including 1952 Vincent Black Lightning – for a dozen or so of us.

How does such a wonderous experience get lost in the shuffle and shoved into some corner of the mental attic?

It might not even have been the most memorable time that I’d spent in that club. Several years earlier, I’d had a chance to see Jeff Buckley perform there and, afterwards, share a drink with us, months before his acclaimed debut was released.

Sometimes I stop when a song reminds me of a chance I’ve had to interact with that artist and tried to imagine what I’d have thought as a fifteen- or sixteen-year old music junkie had I known of what was waiting for me.

We couldn’t even get cable.

So, here are four songs that shuffled up on the iPod for which I was able to draw on some personal experience with the artist…

John Prine – Ain’t Hurtin’ Nobody
from Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings (1995)

I hang my head as I confess that I am not as familiar with the catalog of John Prine as I – or as friends who are devotees of the acclaimed singer/songwriter – feel I should be.

I doubt that I knew more than a handful of songs by Prine when, because of my position as a buyer for a large record store, I was invited to his manager’s office to hear the then-forthcoming Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings.

And, joining the half dozen or so of us for the listening session was John Prine.

(among our group was our receiving clerk, a surly malcontent who had been a road manager for several punk bands in the ‘80s, hated everything, and, yet, often told us that there were Prine songs that reduced him to tears)

I still haven’t explored much more of Prine’s catalog than I knew at the time, a situation that for the past fifteen years I have, despite good intentions, failed to rectify.

A Flock of Seagulls – Nightmares
from Listen (1983)

Long ago I recounted the night that I played pinball with the singer of the first band that I claimed as my own.

And, Nightmares is a nifty number by a band that most folks likely only know for I Ran.

Cheap Trick – A Place In France
from Sex, America, Cheap Trick (1996)

I love Cheap Trick and met them once. For a few brief seconds I thought that it might conclude with me getting my ass kicked by guitarist Rick Neilsen following a discussion of cigarettes and songwriter Diane Warren.

(it ended quite amicably)

As for A Place In France, the song appeared as a previously unreleased track on Cheap Trick’s box set, and though it won’t change your world, it’s a groovy, little rocker and not a bad way to spend four minutes.

The Beatles – Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?
from Anthology 3 (1996)

OK. I don’t have a story actually involving meeting any of The Beatles, but I’ve had near secondhand encounters.

One involved an English co-worker at a record store who may or may not have been tight with the Fabs – as well as Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and The Stones – during the ’60s.

But years before, while in college, my dog’s vet was a friend of Paul McCartney.

(and how a vet in a small, Midwestern town becomes chums with a Beatle is another tale)

During the summer of ’89, McCartney was touring America for the first time in a decade plus following the release of Flowers In The Dirt. Meanwhile, I was studying abroad, ten-thousand miles from home.

And Doc had invited my girlfriend to accompany him to see Paul.

She had recently graduated and intended to decline the offer as she had just started a new job with a high-powered accounting firm.

“You have to go,” I told her from the other side of the world. “You can always get a new job, but this is the chance to meet a Beatle.”

She didn’t go.


Frampton (Be)Comes Annoyed! (But Stays Classy)

July 9, 2011

I was eight years old during the summer of ’76 when Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! set was shattering sales records for a live album.

I have no doubt that I heard Show Me the Way and Baby, I Love Your Way blaring from the car stereos of older kids at the time and I do recall incessantly hearing the title track to I’m In You, the studio follow-up to his iconic breakthrough, the following summer on the bus rides to our swim team’s meets.

However, the hullabaloo over Frampton meant little to me and, as the ’70s became the ’80s and music became an important part of my life, the guitarist with the leonine tresses seemed to be an ancient artifact.

The tracks from Frampton Comes Alive! continued to be radio staples and – during my senior year of high school – Frampton even had a mini-comeback with the song Lying (which one of my friends loved).

But, Peter Frampton was never really a part of the musical landscape for me.

By the mid-’90s, I was the head buyer for a very large record store and our manager decided to add some pizzaz to the bins by adding comments – usually trivia-based – to the leader cards for the artists.

Stocking product one day, I headed to the Fs with an armful of titles.

As I mindlessly filed away CDs, I noted the plastic divider card for Peter Frampton on which, beneath the artist’s name, our manager had added some commentary…

Frampton Comes Alive! was one of the best-selling albums of the ’70s…yeah, we don’t get it, either.

Our location – in a city that was a major center for the music industry – meant that amongst our customers each day were some of the acts whose work was sitting in those racks and bins.

And, I knew that Peter Frampton not only lived in a suburb of the city but frequented a high-end eyeglass store across the street.

Months later, I was again on the main floor stocking product, when I headed toward the main counter to retrieve more CDs. As I approached the counter, I could see our administrative assistant talking to some well-dressed fellow who had his back to me.

In my friend’s hand was a leader card.

And, slowly, as I walked up to the pair, I realized that the person with whom my buddy was speaking was Peter Frampton, the leader card was his, and I was suddenly in the middle of the conversation.

During one of my first shifts at this store, I had to contend with some songwriter of little note who had come completely unhinged on me as we had not had a copy of the album containing their one claim to fame.

(the damned thing was out of print)

But Frampton was an absolute gentleman about the affair. He politely asked if we could simply replace the card with one that merely had his name on it.

(which I summarily did)

All of these years later, I wouldn’t describe myself as a fan of Peter Frampton’s music, but if my former manager had questions as to how or why Frampton Comes Alive! was one of the best-selling albums of the ’70s, I might just chalk it up to – if nothing else – good karma.

Here are four songs that I might have heard on the radio during this week of July in 1976 – had I been listening to the radio – as Peter Frampton was dominating the musical landscape…

Starland Vocal Band – Afternoon Delight
from Super Hits Of The ’70s: Have A Nice Day

If there is one song that I do remember from that summer, it is most certainly Afternoon Delight. Though I had no idea what the song was about at the time, I loved the song and found the wooshing sound effect to be magical.

JB over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ wrote at length about the song earlier this year. It’s a good read and it’s also why now (and forevermore), when I hear the song I will also think of his quite accurate assessment that Starland Vocal Band’s Bill Danoff outkicked his coverage.

Starbuck – Moonlight Feels Right
from Super Hits Of The ’70s: Have A Nice Day

Starbuck’s soft rock smash always puts a smile on Paloma’s face and the marimba-laden hit makes me think of hearing it at the pool, blaring from the radio that entire summer.

The Beatles – Got To Get You Into My Life
from Revolver

I had to do some quick research to find out why The Beatles were hitting the Top Ten in 1976 with a song from an album released ten years earlier and six years after the band had broken up.

Apparently Capitol Records felt that the band needed to be introduced to music fans that had come of age since the break-up and opted to issue the driving, upbeat Got To Get You Into My Life as a single from the compilation Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.

(and, then, two years later Earth, Wind & Fire hit the Top Ten with their take on the song)

Bobbie Gentry – Ode To Billie Joe
from 20 Original Country Greats

Like The Beatles, singer/songwriter Bobbie Gentry was on the charts in 1976 with a song from nearly a decade before with Ode To Billie Joe. In her case, the song had already been a hit, reaching #1 in 1967 and earning Gentry a couple of Grammy Awards the following year.

In 1976, the song – in a rerecorded version – reached the Hot 100 in conjunction with the release of a movie based on the track. I remember the film playing at our town’s theatre, but I’ve never seen it.

But I totally dig the song with its palpable sense of dread, mysterious vibe, and a narrative so strong that it’s easy to imagine that you’re actually sitting at that dinner table and listening to the conversation.


The Day My Universe And Sting’s Collided

January 22, 2011

I’m not absolutely sure, but, I think the first band whose entire catalog I owned was The Police.

Music was just beginning to be an obsession for me when the trio relesed Ghost In The Machine in the autumn of 1981. All I knew of the band were the hits – Message In A Bottle, Don’t Stand So Close to Me, and De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da – but I loved everything I had heard.

By the early summer of 1983 – with the arrival of The Police’s fifth album Synchronicity – my friend Beej, a Police obsessive, had caught me up on the four previous albums, dubbing me copies of them from his older brother’s vinyl.

I taped Synchronicity from the radio on Frog’s Midnight Album when it was debuted prior to its release and weeks before I could get into Cincinnati and to a record store to buy a copy.

And for a period of time, Sting was one of the coolest cats on the planet and The Police were as big as almost any act of the rock era.

In high school, The Police might have been the only band for which there was a consensus among all demographics.

And then they were gone.

Sting went on making music as did Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland.

(I might be one of the few people that owned both albums by Animal Logic, Copeland’s short-lived band in the late ’80s/early ’90s with bassist Stanley Clarke and singer Deborah Holland)

I hung with Sting’s solo career into the mid-’90s and though there were some moments that matched the brilliance of The Police – the gorgeous Fragile from …Nothing Like The Sun comes to mind – the music didn’t resonate as much as the stuff he’d done with Andy and Stewart.

Then, sometime in 2002 or so, I was doing some freelance work for Billboard and the editor contacted me about doing something on a new group’s debut album.

The interview with the band’s singer, Joe, began slowly. He was polite but there was a lot of silence coming from the other end of that trans-Atlantic call.

Then, I noted that one of the songs – titled Listen To My Babe – was, if you listened closely, not about a girl but a pet.

“Good man,” he said. “Good man.”

He seemed geniunely pleased and a bit surprised.

(apparently most reviewers had missed it)

Near the end of the call, I told Joe that, while doing some research, I had discovered that his father was Sting. which hadn’t been in the press material the publicist had sent to me.

He politely expressed not wanting that to have that be the focus and I assured him that, though I had to mention his father, I was writing about his band.

So, I was mortified when I read the piece in print.

The editors, who titled my submissions, had affixed a headline that mentioned Sting’s name but not that of the band.

Perhaps worse, a line had been added, one which I hadn’t written that – as I read it – stressed the advantage of having a well-known musician father in getting a record deal.

I felt horrible, but there was nothing to be done.

No more than a week or so later, I was speaking with a woman who, as the owner of a large yoga studio, had a number of famous clients. I knew her casually from a piece I had written on her years as a DIY musician in the ’80s.

I’d asked what she’d been up to and it turned out that she had just returned from some time visiting Sting and his wife in France.

She then informed me that she had mentioned to them that I had written about a reissue of one of her albums as well as about Joe’s band.

This news had, apparently, piqued Sting’s interest and – I was told – he proceeded to ask a number of questions about me.

Cool.

Not cool.

I realized that it was entirely possible that Sting had read or would read what I had written about his son’s band.

The man who had once been one of the coolest cats on the planet and whose lyrics I knew backwards and forwards when I was fifteen might actually have read something I had written.

And, if he had, he probably thought I was a douchebag.

I’ve always believed that The Police had an almost perfect career – five stellar albums that each sold millions released over five years and an exit from the stage as the biggest band on the planet.

Here are four tracks by The Police that just seemed right this morning…

The Police – Walking On The Moon
from Reggatta de Blanc

Sparse and chilly, with a reggae vibe that was elemental to the sound of The Police, Walking On The Moon indeed captures the mood that I can imagine would be fitting for a stroll on the lunar surface.

If the next human to set foot on the moon is a music fan who lived through the ’80s, will they be able to do so and not have this song playing in their head?

The Police – De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
from Zenyattà Mondatta

Three albums in and the British trio broke through with Zenyattà Mondatta which took them to the Top Ten on the album chart as well as the singles chart with the deceptively insightful and ridiculously catchy De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.

The Police – Invisible Sun
from Ghost In The Machine

The Police had begun to address political issues on Zenyattà Mondatta with songs like Driven To Tears and Bombs Away. With the moody, darkly tinged Invisible Sun, Sting’s lyrics broached the subject of the strife in Northern Ireland.

The Police – Synchronicity II
from Synchronicity

Like a lot of listeners during the summer of ’83, I wore out my copy of Synchronicity which spawned four hit singles including the aggressive Synchronicity II which gave guitarist Andy Summers an opportunity to cut loose.

I have to admit that, at the time, I found the song a bit jarring within the context of the album and – aside from manic squall of Mother – it was my least favorite song on the record.

(and, personally, I don’t think I knew anyone that liked Mother)

But, over the last twenty-five years, Synchronicity II has grown on me because it is so wickedly aggressive and apocalyptic.

Also, the lyrics resonate more as I now can relate to things like “every single meeting with his so-called superior” being “a humiliating kick in the crotch” and the depiction of the rush hour as a “suicidal race” amongst contestants “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes.”