Thursday, February 24, 2005

Hunter S. Thompson-R.I.P.

In the early 80’s, I watched this wonderful comedy with Bill Murray in it called “Where The Buffalo Roam.” It was based on some writer that I never heard of, Hunter S. Thompson, and I wanted to learn more about him. On the Monday following my screening, I went to the Keokuk Senior High Library and checked out a copy of “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.” It opened my eyes to a new feeling about literature and from there my dissent into provocative lefty rants came into fruition.
The book was recommended to all and soon several high school sophomores began quoting directly from the book. Tales of seeing Hunter S. Thompson speak in Iowa City were tossed around more than recollections of seeing Rose Tattoo live. The two share a thing in common: Angry Andersen, lead singer of Rose Tattoo, puked on stage when the band opened for the Pat Traverse Band in Burlington, Iowa and Hunter S. Thompson, lead singer of Gonzo Journalism, was drunk while lecturing to the collegiate counterculture in Iowa City, Iowa. Rose Tattoo were louder, though.

This just in from a friend who lives close to Hunter’s ranch:
“ It was second-home ownership and Vicious Wolf Realtors that did him in. When things got really wierd all he could do was drink himself to a stupor and reload shells out on the back deck,the one the Mexicans built for him out of sheer gratitude for that time went to the Aspen Town Council and Country Club to fight for them. He would have Raul or Jose' retrieve the targets.......
Yeah-someone will start a class now at Colorado Mountain College-The Literary Works of Dr.Hunter S.Thompson and Their Applications in Modern Society. Now him and Hemingway can shoot together.”
And there are reports that the Dr. wants to be cremated and have his ashes shot out of a cannon. Leave it to Hunter to have the most exciting funeral arrangements.

Friday, February 18, 2005

I Have A Thing For Cat Power

So you’re asking yourself: “Todd, what’s the deal with you and Cat Power?” I suppose the first exposure came with hearing the song “Cross Bones Style” from the album “Moon Pix” shortly after it was released. I took a chance at bought the album and it took a few spins before I could tolerate the haphazard rhythms, repetitive chord progressions and a hair above functional guitar playing. It was Chan Marshall’s voice that kept it in the cd player until I finally felt at ease with the disc. And then I got depressed.
Which is a common thing for any Cat Power listener to have after hearing “Moon Pix” considering the fact that the album’s lyrics, pacing, and husky vocals are all contributors to a very dark theme. Consider the track “Colors And The Kids” which begins dark enough with a repeated piano refrain, and then completely sucker punches you with the lyric “I could stay here/become someone different/I could stay here/become someone better.” Real heart wrenching shit.

I guess you could say that it got me on a Cat Power kick. My ex-wife would get pissed that I listened to the record so much. She was convinced that it had something to do with an attraction to Chan Marshall. The funny thing is that I had only seen one picture of her at that point, and her face was totally obscured by hair. Later on, I got an eyeful as to what Chan really looks like underneath those bangs.
There was an interview I read with her in The Big Takeover that totally pegged her as an unstable character. Her live shows were notorious for being very stressful situations: Chan would sometimes get paralyzed by fear in mid-set and even had fans help her regain composure at one performance. In the interview, Chan would often drift off topic and try to explain strange situations in her life. A story, a myth were now created in my perception.
In Omaha, Nebraska, I told the dread locked black man that I was really digging “Moon Pix” and he made a point to recommend her first e.p. That effort, while rhythmically stronger, is tough to get a hold on and may I admit that if the thing was beyond an e.p. I’d totally get bored with it. The record actually cooled my heals a little towards Cat Power, but I recovered after hearing their incredible cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” I’m being totally serious; it may rival Devo’s version of “Satisfaction” even though it’s world’s apart from it.
From there, I was throwing back “Myra Lee” and “What Would The Community Think” whenever I stumbled into it. Both albums are fine as Chan starts honing her chops and lyrics, laying the groundwork for something special, the album that is “Moon Pix.”
For some reason, I’ve got this who Omaha/Cat Power connection because I was, again, at the same record store with the dread locked dude and it had an ample supply of “You Are Free” for the album’s first week of release. This effort has noticeably better production that her prior efforts, but not to the point where there’s fucking sugar water making the counter sticky. At points, Chan sounds somewhat happy, but lest you forget the entire thing kicks off with a revisiting of Kurt Cobain’s suicide with just four simple words: I don’t blame you.

There’s no real diagnosis on Chan Marshall’s mental state, but she’s functioning enough to keep her head musically. Her allure is this entire “girl in trouble” guise and it seems that she may become one of those cult reclusive after she really starts to feel when the “music is boring me to death.”
She played in Omaha a week after I left. Such timing. The irony is that I was in the area for a funeral when I purchased “You Are Free” and was bummed that I was going to miss the concert. Why couldn’t the silly bastard die a week later?
So now comes word that Cat Power has quietly released “Speaking For Trees,” a two-hour movie dvd and single song music cd. What makes the film unique is that it’s composed of one two hour long shot featuring Chan playing a Danelectro outside among the trees. With wind and crickets as her only accompaniment, she performs a selection of songs, sometimes repeated, in front of a blurred camera. It sounds pretentious in writing, but viewing the performance (admittedly, this is one you won’t be playing frequently) is a very distant affair. The “statement” made is actually no statement at all; this is as personal as you can get with Chan Marshall and playing to the trees seems spontaneous enough (and genuine enough) to avoid the highbrow curse.
The song, “Willie Deadwilder,” will become Cat Power’s “Dark Star.” As actual performances become even more scarce, fans will be able to impress other fanatics with tales of hearing this 18-minute epic in the flesh. It follows no real structure and like the video disc that it shares, sounds extemporaneous, free, and repetitive.
For Cat Power fan, “Speaking For Trees“ retains the mystery of Chan Marshall and it‘s an opportunity to get a very minimalist view of her talent. She clearly is motivated by her own muse and seems determine to follow her own path. “Speaking For Trees“ will not increase any additional traffic on that path, but those willing to travel with her can at least enjoy the scenery.

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Brian Wilson-Smile

Over the Christmas break, a friend of mine picked me up in a rental and I immediately took noticed of the selection of music in the car’s cd player. It was Brian Wilson’s “Getting’ In Over My Head,” the first of two cd’s Wilson released in 2004. Now this particular friend is fairly partial to jam-based rock and it wouldn’t have surprised me to find Govt. Mule or the like to be spinning in that factory GM disc player. But no, it was that wack job Brian Wilson.
I say “wack job” because I’ve seen the film “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” and saw for myself the mental fragments of a man who had finally imploded after years of physical abuse at the hands of a father, years of psychedelic drug intake, years of over-bearing “guru”-types taking financial liberties, and of course, years of having to deal with Mike Love. That alone would make anyone a wack job.

The rumor, or at the very least, the story as I remembered it, was the thing that finally pushed Brian Wilson over the edge was trying to top the Beatles’ “Revolver” with The Beach Boys’ “Smile” album. So here’s the deal: Brian got a little nutty, Mike Love wanted to know why Brian wanted them to sing all “this weird shit,“ Brian lost a lot of self confidence and released “Smiley Smile” instead, Paul McCartney stopped by one day a played Brian a new track called “A Day In The Life” which pretty much destroyed Wilson from then on out as he realized he may have actually had a shot at finally one-upping the Beatles.
I heard “Smiley Smile” in college once as was completely blown away. I was blown away at how Beach Boys enthusiasts always cited “Smile” as the unreleased masterpiece. Hell, from what I heard on “Smiley Smile,” shelving “Smile” was the last sane thing Wilson did. It had a song about vegetables (complete with chomping celery as percussion), some shit about Woody Woodpecker, and a song about a girl going bald. I only made it through side one, and I didn’t hear anything near “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” Beatles win. Fuck the Beach Boys.
So years later, Brian Wilson makes a comeback and I video tape a small portion of his appearance on The Tonight Show. His mouth is contorted and he looks insane. Leno walks over to him and I fully expect him to give Brian some juice and cookies before someone injects a sedative into him. Leno makes a remark about having Brian come back soon and Brian wants to know when. I can’t remember if Jay understood what he was dealing with, but if I were him I’d make sure the security was on high alert; one never knows what a crazy man is capable of.
In the fall of 2004, I was walking through Best Buy’s “w” section and stumbled across “Smile.” I immediately considered the purchase in an uncanny “must purchase” fervor, but for some reason decided not to buy it. I was a bit relieved when I later learned that it wasn’t the classic recording of “Smile,” but instead a re-recording done by Brian some 37 years later with a bunch of Pet Sounds disciples. Things changed a bit after I heard a few selections from the album I passed on. Even in a limited format like MP3, I could tell that every last bit of detail went into the sessions and, hell, even the version of “Good Vibrations” sounded passable.
But my Brian Wilson buddy snickered when I mentioned in the rental car that Wilson’s version of “Smile” sounded pretty good, asking me if I liked all of that shit about vegetables. To be honest, I completely forgot about the subject matter and became lost in Brian’s meticulous arrangements.

The fact that Wilson demanded retro equipment during the recordings is a nice antidote, but the reality that the thing was recorded in a something like two weeks demonstrates that Brian is in complete capacity of his mind if it regards music. And the fact that he was (apparently) able to recreate all of this sonic marvel live, on stage for a few selected dates, points to the idea that he’s feels so convinced the time is right to release his masterpiece that he debuts the event like it’s an achievement. It is an achievement, but it just misses the challenges and timing that made “Pet Sounds” such an important album. One has to consider how important this album might have been had Wilson found the courage to complete it then.
Regardless, the impressiveness of this album today should not go unnoticed, as should the efforts of Brian’s backing band. They’re so well-versed in Brian’s history that they make the execution of this record sound legitimately accurate. I’m convinced that one could add some tape hiss to any one of the tracks, call it a bootleg or recording session, and have a true Beach Boys fan disagree. This album would not have made any impact in the hands of lesser musicians, but in this case their significance is noteworthy.
This is clearly Wilson’s baby, and he directs the arrangements with a genius precision, creating vocal harmonies as beautiful as anything produced in the past 40 years. If music has become Brian’s therapy than we are all very fortunate to be able to listen in on the healing process. The subject matter is nowhere near the league of The Beatles, but then again, it almost sounds like Wilson was attempting to create a very American album. I guess the album was also intended to be a statement for children and, admittedly, I can see a small child even taking to this album. It may take him 37 years to finally figure out how important this album is. At least that was the case for me.