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» Music

Category ArchiveMusic

Commentary & Music 13 Feb 2015 01:16 pm

Eight great discs


Since reading a Wall Street Journal article a few months back about the BBC’s long-running “Desert Island Discs,” I’ve pondered the eight albums I would take with me to a solitary isle.

According to the November piece by Terry Teachout, the premise of the show is that a new guest each week selects an octet of records. Part of the charm, apparently, is that many guests opine about their lack of musical sophistication, which is often in direct disproportion to their accomplishments in the arts. (The BBC’s website contains a complete list of guests and their choices.)

Not that I’ve had any accomplishments in the arts since a triumphant flutophone performance in the fourth grade (”Stunning!” raved The New York Times; “Eh, it was OK,” opined my mom), but here is my list of “Desert Island Discs.”

“1,” The Beatles — I know that I lose a lot of street cred by starting with a greatest hits album, especially for what is arguably rock’s greatest band. But I’ve always been merely a casual fan of the Fab Four, and this album has just about everything I need, from the raucous “Paperback Writer” to the sublime “Yesterday.”

“August and Everything After,” The Counting Crows (1994) — Mellow, jangly and deep, this album offered up a couple of big hits (”Mr. Jones” and “Rain King”). I’m interested in the more obscure cuts, however, like “Anna Begins” and “A Murder of One.” The musicianship is confident and unpretentious throughout, and lead singer Adam Duritz’s vocals capture both joy and disappointment effectively. Nothing else the band has done has ever topped this, its debut.

“Blood on the Tracks,” Bob Dylan (1975) — Confession: I could have filled this entire list with Dylan albums, but I decided to limit myself to one album per artist. It was a hard call between this and “Highway 61 Revisited,” but I gave “Blood on the Tracks” the nod because of a long, lonely drive I made between Kent and Alliance on a snowy evening about five years ago, with only this disc for company. Every song is a standout, but I especially like “If You See Her, Say Hello” and “Shelter from the Storm.”

“Kind of Blue,” Miles Davis (1959) — Jazz fans will roll their eyes at the obviousness of this selection, the one album that even non-jazz fans call by name. I like the laid-back tone of the songs and the quiet way Davis and company sneak up on each composition. This one gets played often in the small hours when I stare up at the ceiling, pondering past, present and future.

“Physical Graffiti,” Led Zeppelin (1975) — As with Dylan, I could have slotted all my choices with Zeppelin albums. But which to choose? The pounding urgency of Zeppelin II, the classic-rock stylings of Zeppelin IV (with the number-one FM hit of all time, “Stairway to Heaven”), or the more experimental “Houses of the Holy”? Ultimately, I went with “Physical Graffiti” because it’s a double-album, giving me twice as much Led for my head, and because of the one-two punch of “In My Time of Dying” and “Kashmir.” Rock on, dudes.

“Smash,” The Offspring (1994) — Punk rock purists will sneer that this album made the cut over something by the Clash or the Sex Pistols, but for pure listenability, nothing tops it. Fourteen songs in under 47 minutes means the album eschews guitar solos for the most part, offering instead some heavy hooks that bore into you like earworms. Plus, it has “Self Esteem,” one of the greatest punk/grunge/rock songs ever.

“Welcome to My Nightmare,” Alice Cooper (1975) — Perhaps my favorite album of all time by perhaps my favorite artist of all time, “Welcome to My Nightmare” is a phantasmagoric mixture of rock and roll, vaudeville, and horror, all in equal measure. From Vincent Price’s creepy narration on “Devil’s Food” (years before he did the same for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”) to the creepy necrophilic double entendres of “Cold Ethyl,” this one just gets into my player and won’t come out.

“Who Made Who,” AC/DC (1986) — Kinda/sorta the soundtrack album to a wretched movie called “Maximum Overdrive” (directed by novelist Stephen King), “Who Made Who” offers the catchy title track and two instrumentals as new offerings. Otherwise, it’s a greatest-hits collection of sorts from earlier efforts by the Australian hard rockers. Having “Hells Bells,” “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” and “Shake Your Foundations” in one place was just what I needed my senior year in high school. Heck, it’s just what I need right now.

Honorable mentions: “Eat a Peach” by the Allman Brothers and one of the zillion greatest hits collections from the Rolling Stones (if not “Exile on Main Street”).

Good Readers, what are your “Desert Island Discs”?

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published Feb. 12, 2015, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Music 17 Jul 2014 11:27 pm

She sang what?

For years, I thought Rickie Lee Jones was singing, “Chuck Easy, Love.”

It turns out that the singer-songwriter’s 1979 hit was actually a reference to something I would have had no way of knowing back when I was eleven. Heck, it’s something I didn’t know until this year, when I googled it.

“Chuck” is one of those words with a wide range of meanings. As a kid, I knew it primarily as the second half of “woodchuck,” as in, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.” I also knew it in the sense of “throw,” as in, “Chuck that ball to third base and tag the runner out.”

But “chuck” also had a more bodily — you might even say scatalogical — context, being part of the word “upchuck,” which means “to vomit.” News of somebody upchucking his lunch comes with a strong visual component, whether we want it to or not.

All these meanings made “Chuck Easy, Love” a mystery. Was Jones telling her lover to gnaw on a piece of wood? To toss her a football? Maybe she was holding back her lover’s hair while he or she bent over the porcelain throne, sick from eating too many perogies at the annual church festival. “Chuck easy, love” might be helpful advice to avoid projectile vomiting, in that case. (Hey, it was the ’70s, after all, and “The Exorcist” and its pea-green soup were all the rage.)

Ultimately, I reconciled the cryptic lyrics in my childhood mind by interpreting it as a girl telling a guy to take the relationship slowly. Just chuck easy, love. Sure, it made no sense, but when you’re eleven, nothing adults say makes much sense.

Later in life, when I had time to ponder the title — which was every time I couldn’t turn the dial fast enough to escape the song — I realized it couldn’t possibly be “Chuck Easy, Love.”

Possibly it was “Chucky’s In Love,” which conjured images of the homicidal little doll from the movie “Child’s Play” falling for one of his victims. There might’ve even been a movie called “Bride of Chucky,” but I’m too lazy to check. Plus, since NSA agents are monitoring all my Internet searches, I don’t want them to connect me with any VDTOs — ventriloquist dummy terrorist organizations — that might be lurking along the dark edges of the world, intent on blowing up sock-puppet theaters and ruining the pristine reputation of Howdy Doody.

But I was wrong about “Chucky” in the title too. According to that font of all human knowledge, Wikipedia, “Chuck E.’s in Love” is the official song title. It originated with a friend of Jones’s named — ta da! — Chuck E. Weiss, who moved away from Los Angeles to take up with a woman in Colorado. (This is long before marijuana was legal in the Mile High State, so it must have been true love that motivated him.) When Jones learned the news from her boyfriend, songwriter Tom Waits, he told her that “Chuck E.’s in love.” And so was born one of the most inane songs of all time.

Technically, my bungled lyric is a mondegreen, a misheard word or words in speech or song. Hence, “very close veins” is a mondegreen for “varicose veins,” and “old timer’s disease” is a mondegreen for “Alzheimer’s disease.”

One of the best-known music mondegreens is from the rock classic “Purple Haze,” when many people hear Jimi Hendrix sing, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

So one of the great lyrical mysteries of the last thirty-odd years — “great lyrical mystery” being defined as something that puzzled me and only me — has been solved, albeit in a very humdrum way.

The romantic in me, however, will always hear Rickie Lee offering that sage bit of doggerel that, in a better, purer world, would have become the true motto of the twentieth century. It’s still good advice today: Chuck easy, love.

cschillig on Twitter

Originally published July 17, 2014.

Comic books & Commentary & Media & Movies & Music & Television & education & technology 13 Feb 2014 08:38 am

Stomping out all signs of fun


If you’re a kid who’s ever been told that texting will rot your brain or pop music is immoral or video games are turning you into a zombie, you need to read “Bad for You.”

If you’re a parent, teacher, minister or some other well-meaning adult who’s ever told kids that texting will rot their brains or pop music is immoral or video games are turning them into zombies, you need to read “Bad for You.”

Subtitled “Exposing the War on Fun,” the book, by Kevin C. Pyle and Scott Cunningham, looks at popular fads and new technologies throughout history and exposes some depressing similarities in the way some people respond.

For instance, the book quotes one sarcastic critic as saying that, as a result of a popular new form of entertainment, “There is now very little danger that Americans will resort to the vice of thinking.” Is he referring to heavy metal music? Xbox One? The Flappy Bird app? None of the above. Writing in the 1920s, he was expressing concerns over radio and, separately, “incredibly frightful” jazz music.

One by one, Pyle and Cunningham examine hiccups in the social psyche down through the centuries, including printing presses (a pundit in 1494 noted that paper was less permanent than parchment), telephones (which allow children talk to undesirables against their parents’ wishes), Elvis Presley (derided as “deplorable” by that paragon of virtue, Frank Sinatra), Dungeons and Dragons (believed to cause an increased risk of suicide), and Harry Potter books (feared by some to promote witchcraft).

Text-messaging is examined in depth. As a teacher who believed that goofy abbreviations and jargon used in “text speak” would somehow worm their way into students’ more formal writing, I was abashed to learn how wrong I was. According to some researchers, kids who use “textisms” often have a better understanding of spelling and grammar — and larger vocabularies, to boot.

Rather than being corrupted by “IMHO” and “ICYMI” (google ‘em), kids can easily “code switch” between different registers of language — in this case, between informal text messages and more formal school essays.

To which I can only say: OMG.

But it’s not until the end of the book that Pyle and Cunningham really win me over. In a chapter called “Bad for You: Thinking,” they examine American schools. The section covers the history of education in the U.S. and how schools were influenced by the efficiency movement or “factory model” popular during the Industrial Revolution.

One result of this model is the discovery that workers are more productive with periodic breaks, which led to the idea of recess in public schools. Today, however, recess is under fire as a waste of time, eliminated or reduced in 40 percent of American schools to allow children more time to prepare for standardized tests.

Also cut in favor of standardized-test prep is access to the arts, history, and music.

Standardized testing, which measures convergent thinking (the ability to select one correct answer), is practically a relic in today’s high-tech world. What is needed, experts argue, is more emphasis on divergent thinking (the ability to find more than one answer or solution to a problem), something that can be aided by the very activities being trimmed from the school day — including recess.

“Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun” is written for kids but can be just as rewarding for adults. A word of warning: It’s laid out like a comic book, another form of fun that has come under fire in the past. In the first chapter, the authors look at the hysteria over comic books in the 1940s and ’50s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee was convened to study their insidious effects and comics were burned by concerned parents.

As a comics-obsessed kid in grade school, I can remember teachers who wrinkled their noses at my preferred choice of literature, immune to my belief, even then, that comics were teaching me more vocabulary and reading skills than anything in their classrooms.

I don’t remember if my teachers ever told me that comics were rotting my brain, immoral, or turning me into a zombie. If they did, I wish that Pyle and Cunningham’s “Bad for You: Exposing the War on Fun!” had been around to set them straight.

Chris Schillig, who is still a self-diagnosed comic-book addict, can be reached at

chris.schillig@yahoo or @cschillig on Twitter.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2014, in The Alliance Review.

Commentary & Music 20 Sep 2012 10:23 pm

Ageism is blowin’ in the wind

Bob Dylan is still fighting for equality, but maybe senior citizens should be his new oppressed group.

In a compilation of reviews for Dylan’s newest album, “Tempest,” Randy Lewis of the L.A. Times notes the many reviewers who mention the singer’s voice, which sounds like he’s been gargling with Drano and rock salt. Lewis might just as easily have counted the critics who reference Dylan’s age — virtually all of them — and those who marvel that a 71-year-old still can make potent music in the third act of his life.

A not-so-subtle ageism is at work here. Amid all the five-star write-ups of a solid Dylan album is an undercurrent of amazement that somebody over the age of 60 can do more than sit in a corner and mumble incoherently about days gone by.

Singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole, in a positive review of “Tempest” for Salon, writes that he wept tears of joy that Dylan, at his age, could still pen lyrics like, “Last night I heard you talking in your sleep,/Saying things you shouldn’t say,/Oh baby, you just might have to go to jail someday.”

First of all, in the annals of Dylan lyrics, those don’t rank with anything from “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Blonde on Blonde” or “Blood on the Tracks.” They’re not bad, by any means, but they certainly aren’t the second coming.

Secondly, why is it remarkable that somebody in his 70s could write this? Because Dylan dallied with drugs so much that each coherent sentence is a miracle? Or is Cole shocked that a 71-year-old still has somebody to sleep with, and, by implication, is still sexually active? I don’t know. But Cole ends his piece marveling that Dylan still loves his day job, which he again links to his age and finds “great.”

Bloomberg’s Mark Beech isn’t quite as high on the album, but notes, “Still, it’s good that, at 71 years of age, Dylan still is writing, touring, recording some fine music, growling away and probably not caring what anyone else thinks.” Guess it’s better than a nursing home. A headline in the Wall Street Journal asks, “Can Your Non-Retirement Rock Like Bob Dylan’s?”

Maybe this age shock among critics is because popular music these days — and by “these days” I mean both before and after Dylan changed the landscape of pop music forever — is primarily made by the young and for the young. In an ever-moving treadmill, callow artists glide into the limelight, crank out a few hits, then recede backstage to finish their careers in obscurity, playing state fairs and bar mitzvahs and maybe releasing an album of cover tunes every few years. Only a handful remain in the public eye for any length of time, and of those, only a small fraction remain relevant.

Nicholas Delbanco, author of “Lastingness: The Creative Art of Growing Old,” studied the lives of several artists whose creativity continued later in life, among them Impressionist painter Claude Monet, who was in his 80s and practically blind when he painted his masterpiece “Water Lilies”; author John Updike, who continued writing and publishing into his 70s and still found the blank page “a site of hopeful possibility”; and Giuseppe Verdi, who composed operas well into his 80s.

In a 2011 interview, Delbanco told National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel that many more masterpieces throughout history have been created by the under-40 than the over-40 set. “I mean, if you’re a baseball player or a ballerina, you kind of know that your career is over by the age of 40, and you certainly wouldn’t begin in at that point,” he said. “But in terms of subject matter … there’s no intrinsic reason why an artist couldn’t grow with age. But it’s happened so relatively rarely that I thought I would puzzle it out in this book.”

Delbanco notes that life expectancy and health issues impact the issue considerably. Now that people live longer and healthier lives than previous generations, more people accomplish major milestones at ages that would have raised eyebrows only a few decades earlier.

Witness any number of septuagenarians and octogenarians who celebrate milestone birthdays by skydiving or riding motorcycles. In April, the world’s oldest marathon runner, Fauja Singh, retired after completing the London Marathon in under eight hours. He was 101.

In a world where senior citizens regularly work years after retirement age, volunteer prodigiously, serve the public in elected positions, golf, bicycle, cartwheel and hang-glide, shouldn’t we all be offended when somebody’s accomplishment — be it album, quilt, samba or statute — is accompanied by surprise over his or her age?

I hope Dylan keeps delivering records well into his 80s and 90s, and that as he does, critics judge his singular music on its own merits, without filtering it through a calendar. The times, they are a changin’, indeed.

Originally published Sept. 20, 2012 in The Alliance Review.

Music 20 Apr 2012 06:33 am

No real rebels in rock hall

An Open Letter to Axl Rose:

So, you didn’t come to Cleveland last Saturday to accept your induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and you would have preferred that the museum not honor you at all.

That’s cool. It didn’t sound like your written refusal was dissing Cleveland or the Rock Hall in particular but that the whole schtick was just part of the ongoing feud with your former bandmates. That battle’s been raging for decades, after all, maybe from the time the first chords of “Welcome to the Jungle” rang out through stereo speakers across America, heralding the arrival of Guns N’ Roses. Contention and dissent are powerful muses, and the original G N’ R — either because of or in spite of them — logged some energetic, highly influential songs before “creative differences” tore the band apart.

Back then, you were the quintessential rock and roll lead singer — pushing boundaries, raising Cain, and often opening your mouth before engaging your brain.

You were one of the first rockers I ever heard who sprinkled expletives like seasoning salt throughout your lyrics. “Out ta Get Me” was so raw it made Roger Daltry’s single, muffled f-bomb in “Who Are You” sound like a nursery rhyme by comparison. You wore your addictions and not your heart on your sleeve. Other artists had monkeys on their backs, to be sure, but you were the first one to connect the beast to a chain and play music for it like an organ grinder. (I was naïve enough back then that I thought “Mr. Brownstone” was about an old man who liked to dance and not a reference to an illegal substance. Imagine my surprise.)

Of course, like anybody whose public persona hovers perpetually too close to the line, you sometimes tripped over it. Your racist rant on “One in a Million” is shameful, and your recording of Charles Manson’s “Look at Your Game, Girl” was ill-advised. (Even worse, it’s a bad song.)

Then came your 15-year absence from recording amid continual promises of “Chinese Democracy,” the long-gestating, often-delayed sixth studio album that finally arrived in 2008 as a Best Buy exclusive (not very dangerous, that) and sounded about as much like G N’ R as a Chipmunks Christmas album. Maybe that’s because your feet-dragging over that decade and a half drove off the other original members, making this in effect an Axl Rose solo album, which is how it should have been billed.

I’m not one of those fans who believes that creative types owe the public anything beyond the best work they can produce. As far as I’m concerned, you fulfilled all obligations to me each time you delivered a good album in exchange for my hard-earned money. So I don’t care if you ever reunite with guitarists Slash and Izzy or the rest of the classic lineup, something which, based on your rambling letter last week, will happen right after graves yawn open and give up the bodies of John and George to reunite with Paul and Ringo for a Beatles tour. But if you do, I’d buy that record. Or CD. Or digital download.

If anything, your letter proves you still have plenty of rock and roll street cred. I mean, rock is all about rebellion, and nothing is less rebellious than being inducted into a museum, right? It’s like the old Groucho Marx quote, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Besides, refusing the Rock Hall’s induction puts you in rarefied company. The Sex Pistols refused the honor when they were inducted in 2006, referring to the Rock Hall as “urine in wine” and wondering why so many subversive artists feel the need to ask “How high?” when the museum says jump.

Hey, controversy with Pistols and now Guns. Maybe the Rock Hall should stop inducting groups with weapons in their names.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to your next album in 2021. By then, China might actually be a democracy. All the best.

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally published in The Alliance Review on April 19, 2012.

Commentary & Media & Music & Television 05 Apr 2012 08:50 pm

Play that air banjo

I shocked my wife recently by performing the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme song from memory.

This included a passable vocal rendition of the Earl Scruggs banjo solo. Scruggs was in the public eye last week because he died, an extreme way to trend on Twitter, but effective if you’re willing to sacrifice.

Anyway, I summoned my best bass to imitate singer Jerry Scoggins and launched into “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which spent 20 weeks on the country charts in 1962, six years before I was born. “Come and listen to a story about a man named Jed, a poor mountaineer barely kept his family fed,” it begins, and takes the audience (in this case, my long-suffering spouse, desperately rolling over in bed to ignore the lunatic lying next to her, who was belting out lyrics and playing the air banjo — my air guitar’s in the shop for repairs — with reckless abandon) through the rags-to-riches tale of food-shooting, oil-finding Clampett, who moves his family from the hinterlands to swank Beverly Hills. Chances are good you’re singing it now — “bubbling crude,” “black gold” “Texas tea” and all.

For a guy who just last week wrote about how his memory for names is shot, I’m happy to report my recall for ephemeral nonsense is as strong as ever. In addition to “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme, I can rattle off principal actors in “Leave It To Beaver” (Barbara Billingsley, Hugh Beaumont, Tony Dow, “and Jerry Mathers as The Beaver”); the number of consecutive issues that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby collaborated on the Fantastic Four (102), and the names of all 10 Led Zeppelin studio albums (to be fair, the first is self-titled, two and three are Roman numerals, and the fourth is runic shapes that are loosely transcribed as “ZOSO”).

Yet ask me what I had for dinner last night or how many years I’ve been married (my pat answer to the latter, “All of them,” doesn’t play well) and I’m at a complete loss.

We live in the golden age of pop culture because virtually everything is available to us — in print, on disk or online. Want to read “Gulliver of Mars,” the book that inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs to create John Carter, which inspired Disney Studios to make the biggest bomb in its history? Twenty years ago, you had to haunt used-book stores or order sight unseen through the mail. Today, it’s free online.

Around 1987, I took a movie appreciation class where the biggest problem was how to watch any movies. A few students had VCRs in their dorm rooms, but almost nobody had pre-recorded videos. We begged and borrowed movies — not necessarily good movies — just to have something. I ended up working with a group to analyze special effects in “Alien,” not because we particularly liked it, but because it was the only movie we had.

Today, that’s as alien to younger film fans as the title character was to those crew members who watched it pop out of a man’s chest.

Want to relive “King Kong,” “Casablanca,” “Double Indemnity,” or other Hollywood hits? You no longer have to stay up until 2 a.m. and receive a fuzzy signal through a rabbit-ear antenna from some station in Outer Mongolia, only to doze off five minutes before the movie starts and wake up as the final credits roll. Chances are good the movie is available for purchase, rental or loan on DVD, Blu-Ray or instant download to scratch the cinematic itch on your schedule.

The same holds true for music, poetry, drama, art — you name it, you can likely find it.

Today, the hardest part of pop culture is making time to enjoy everything that interests you. Or maybe it’s finding a way to step out of its path and connect with the real world outside your door and not the one on the omnipresent screen in front of you.

In previous generations, people like Jed Clampett knew dozens of ways to catch food, mix roots and herbs, and live off the land. Today, people like me know dozens of tunes and trivia about characters like Jed Clampett.

I guess that’s progress, as long as the banjo you’re hearing is the theme from “The Beverly Hillbillies” and not “Deliverance.”

@cschillig on Twitter

Originally printed in The Alliance Review on April 5, 2012.

Commentary & Media & Music 16 Feb 2012 08:32 pm

Death be not poor

My column from today’s Alliance Review:

I have no idea how Whitney Houston’s album sales are this week, but it wouldn’t surprise me if her music shot straight to number one.

The best thing any artist can do to revive a flagging career is to die. Musician after musician proves it. Kurt Cobain. Tupac Shakur. Amy Winehouse. Michael Jackson. And now Houston.

Yet our ghoulish fascination with celebrity demise extends beyond singers. Would “The Dark Knight” have been as big a phenomenon if Heath Ledger hadn’t died shortly before the movie’s release? Might Marilyn Monroe’s mystique have been less magnetic if she had lived to, say, Betty White’s age? Is the memory of James Dean — leaning rakishly against a wall, one thumb hitched through a belt loop, red leather jacket identifying him as a rebel without a cause — indelibly burned into our collective subconsciousness precisely because he left us so young?

Or take John F. Kennedy, in the news again recently as more allegations of extramarital shenanigans come to light. Despite the profusion of stories indicating he was as morally bankrupt as any number of contemporary politicians whose dalliances have destroyed their careers, JFK remains our golden boy, leader of a mythical Camelot. Why? Because he had the misfortune of dying young, in office and by violence, a trifecta for immortality of the reputation. His death may have been bad for his person, but it was great for his persona.

In Jackson’s case, a surcease of heart beats is all it took to erase the lingering stigma of child molestation. To mention it now is to earn the wrath of people who believe, mistakenly, that we should not speak ill of the dead. But if the dead did ill when they were alive, why should we stop speaking of it now? Death, it seems, provides the ultimate do-over.

Our fascination with whatever resides beyond that final curtain through which we must all pass before making our final bow extends into every facet of our culture. The English language is awash in it. “You’re killing me,” we say when we laugh; “I could have just died,” when we are embarrassed; and “I could blow my brains out,” when we’re upset.

We dress up death the same way we would a poor relative of whom we are secretly embarrassed but who must come with us to dinner, nevertheless. Our loved ones seldom simply “die.” Instead, they pass away or pass on to their eternal reward. They meet their maker, succumb, go the way of all flesh, depart or go home. (For what it’s worth, I’m OK with “died.” Call it what it is.)

Then there are the humorous descriptions: Sleep with the fishes, dirt nap, kick the bucket, buy the farm, cash in their chips, croak. Feet are an important descriptor: Extremely sick people have one foot in the grave, where it presumably waits for its companion before the entire body goes 6 feet under, and to die with one’s boots on is considered a compliment. (Since I haven’t owned a pair of boots until recently, I’ve been effectively immortal.)

In one of our strangest customs, we gather around a dead person’s body and offer compliments, saying all the words that might have meant something to the person had we bothered to share them while he or she was still around to hear.

(Mark Twain nailed it perfectly 136 years ago when he had Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn eavesdrop on their own funerals. They are so complimented that they almost regret letting loved ones know they’re alive.)

So it should surprise nobody if Houston’s record sales spike this week, as people who haven’t listened or cared about her in years suddenly decide she’s the greatest thing since … the last celebrity who died.

Death is merely a final marketing technique, a relaunching of one’s career. In the case of Whitney: Houston, we have liftoff.

Commentary & Music & education 27 May 2011 04:51 pm

‘School’s Out’ is rock-and-roll classic

I had my junior Advanced Placement students write analyses of books, movies or songs for their final exam. They did a great job. Because I believe in recycling everything, below is my sample analysis of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” which seemed appropriate given the time of year.

What do you get when you mix four guys who can barely play their instruments, a raspy-voiced singer with a penchant for subversive lyrics, and a producer who knows how to wring the best performance possible from a young band?

In the case of “School’s Out,” the title track on the Alice Cooper album of the same name, you get a classic.

The song opens with a simple three-chord riff that has, since the time of its original release in 1972, become instantly recognizable to generations of listeners, an anthemic announcement of the end of another school year. When front man Cooper begins to sing, his is the voice of youthful anarchy, speaking out against drudgery imposed by parents, teachers, principals, and school boards:

Well we got no choice
All the girls and boys

Makin all that noise

‘Cause they found new toys.

The lyrics are childlike, the rhymes and near-rhymes simple and predictable. In the next verse, which also starts with a repetitive “well,” he sings,
Well we can’t salute ya

Can’t find a flag

If that don’t suit ya

That’s a drag

By combining “salute,” “flag” and “drag” with the idea of rude kids who don’t respect their elders’ authority, Cooper taps into the gooey center of the generation gap, both in his time and ours. Adults almost always see kids as lazy and disrespectful, but framed in the anti-Vietnam sentiment of the early ‘70s, this verse implies that kids are unpatriotic, as well. “Drag” creates a negative connotation with cigarettes and illegal substances, further winning over kids while alienating all the right adults, the ones who think that school should be year ’round and that kids should be nothing more than tiny adults.
For the band, it’s not enough that school is out for summer. It has to be out “forever” and “blow to pieces,” a vicious little sentiment that has taken on a more sinister meaning in this post-Columbine era. In contrast, the group next offers a kiddie choir intoning the classic schoolyard ditty: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks,” a nostalgic reminder of a simpler time.
Punning always plays a part in Cooper’s lyrics, and in “School’s Out,” he offers great examples, trading on dual meanings in the lines, “Well, we got no class/And we got no principles” before delivering the perfect follow-up, “and we got no innocence/We can’t even think of a word that rhymes.”
Producer Bob Ezrin, who would go on to work with Pink Floyd on Another Brick in the Wall, keeps Glen Buxton’s guitar solo short and fuzz-ugly and adds a distinctive distortion effect to the climactic ringing bell before allowing it to wind down like a record on the wrong speed. At three-and-a-half minutes, the song is a polished little rock-and-roll gem that grows more lustrous with each passing school year.

Ultimately, Cooper and his original fans have grown older than the adults who were originally outraged by the group and its onstage antics. Instead of a source of outrage, “School’s Out” is now a piece of Americana, a throwback to the “good old days” of the ’70s.

There is irony in watching Cooper, now 60-plus years old, perform a song about reckless, youthful abandon, but he can still sell it. Maybe that’s because no matter how old and jaded we become, inside each of us is still that little kid sitting on the edge of his seat some fine, final school day in late May or early June, waiting on a bell that signals the start of grand summer adventures.

Media & Music 02 May 2011 08:55 pm

Remember the Coop

love-it-to-death schools-out

Courtesy of a big bin of $5 CDs at Wal-Mart, I picked up two releases from the original Alice Cooper band: Love It to Death and School’s Out. I’ve had the first one on vinyl for years (and maybe on cassette, too). I’ve never had School’s Out in any format, although I certainly have the title track on any number of greatest hits compilations.

Of the two, 1971’s Love It to Death has the stronger material and rocks much harder, with two of my favorite songs, “I’m Eighteen” and “Ballad of Dwight Fry.” The latter is a homage to creepy character actor Dwight Frye (the band intentionally misspelled his name to avoid legal hassles), who appeared in Universal Studios’ Frankenstein and Dracula in the 1930s.

School’s Out, which came out just one year later, already shows the group (or at least lead singer AC) veering sharply toward a more Broadway, almost self-parodying sound. The title track is a thunderous anthem that holds up even after decades of heavy rotation (especially this time of year), threatening to eclipse the rest of the album. I also like “Luney Tune,” “Gutter Cat vs. the Jets,” and “Public Animal #9.”

The smallish dimensions of the CDs makes me nostalgic for the days of vinyl, especially in the case of School’s Out, with a carved-desk cover that has to look incredibly cool at full size.

I did some more bin diving at Wal-Mart, hoping to scare up copies of Killer, Billion Dollar Babies, and any other 70s-era Cooper material, but no such luck. Get ‘em while they’re cheap.

Books & Commentary & Movies & Music & Television 20 Dec 2010 10:33 pm

It’s Not Christmas Until …

… I hear “Father Christmas” by the Kinks ….


… read the classic Carl Barks’ comic-book story “Christmas for Shacktown” …


… hear Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore in their rendition of A Christmas Carol from the golden age of radio …


… read, see, or listen to some version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (with the exception of the rotten live-action movie from a few years back) …


… listen to one (or all) of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas CDs (but the original, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, is still the best) …


… and of course watch movies It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story and Holiday Inn, but I’m too tired to dig up images to go along with them.

Anybody else have any favorites?

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