Thursday, April 26, 2007

480 words about New Order's "Age of Consent" live '84

Well, playing shirtless is always ill-advised. It seems like a cheap rock star move. And looking at Bernard I can't help but think about how that guitar strap would chafe his pasty bare skin. And if he's sweating (if he's not, why'd he take the shirt off?) and if that strap is leather, then it's gonna be a slimy, smelly mess by the time they get to the "Ceremony" encore.

And he's wearing white pants too. Always a mistake in my book. I hope, at least, that it's not past Labor Day 'cause he might be engaging in an even bigger fashion faux pas. But he's a Brit performing in Spain, so I guess different rules apply anyway. If you look closely, below the belt, you'll notice he's making rhythmic pelvic thrusts to keep the beat.

Three cheers for Steven fuckin' Morris. He's an absolute powerhouse on the drums. He's the rock steady counterweight to Barney Sumner/Albrecht/Dicken's shaky antics. I get tired just watching Morris. And the unrelenting nature of his beat is accentuated by the synth tom pad/treatment. Each hit sounds sort of like a labored exhalation, sort of like when Glass Joe gets hit on Mike Tyson's Punch-Out.

Peter Hook doesn't get nearly the amount of close-up time that he deserves for this song. I mean the man flawlessly plays the melody on his bass while half the time Bernard is just standing there getting prepared to play his guitar, or just letting it hang there Elvis style as he sings. A certain tentative nervousness pervades all of Mr. Sumner/Albrecht/Dicken's performances. He never seems to be comfortable or having any fun I often get the sense that getting him on stage is like pulling teeth. He can't seem to multitask (i.e. play guitar AND sing at the same time.) And based on the other New Order live clips I've see on youtube, he only hits the right notes with a 60-70% accuracy. Sure he can play guitar better than me, but he's a professional I don't get the sense that any of his parts are even that complicated. Peter Hook is usually the lead "guitar" and Barney just gets to do rhythmic flourishes. Admittedly, though, Bernard's angry near-Gang of Fourish guitar slashing at 2:38-2:54 is quite effective and indispensable to this version's success.

Being a Deadhead ("laugh it up, fuzzball") I can't help but compare Bernard to Bob Weir. Both seem to play with a consistently tentative approach despite having played some of their material for 10,15,20 years. Both seem to be a bit nervous trying to fill the shoes of dead bandmates (Ian and Jerry respectively) and seem like the weakest links in their bands. You can see it in Bernard and Bobby's faces. They don't quite know what's going on around them. You always expect them to turn to their bandmates with a bemused look and say "hey, woah, what key is this one in again?"

A good example of this apparent incompetence is a live 1984 in-studio version of "Age of Consent" on youtube.

Bernard completely blows the guitar intro. He starts hitting wrong notes and then just gives up...though he later makes up for it with his raw, passionate scratchy guitar solo around 2:01. Again, people make mistakes, and Bernard's a better guitar player than I. But come on! The guitarist of the band who released the best-selling 12" single in British history ("Blue Monday" 1982) should at least be able to play guitar with 90-95% accuracy (then again, does "Blue Monday" even have a guitar part? Apparently not, as is evidenced by this uber casual, passionless performance also from the '84 in-studio:

...I guess it was originally a radio-only broadcast...) But occasionally, Bernard's tentative, introspective, faltering performance style is an asset. It's one of the main reasons I love this 1981 version of "Ceremony" (in addition to Steven Morris' ridiculously powerful drumming.)

"Ceremony" is Ian's last song. So a year after his suicide, it seems fitting that Bernard should be mournfully uncomfortable singing it. Yet since it's a beautiful piece of melancholy and Ian's last testament, it does seem like Bernard has a certain obligation to sing it.

Unfortunately, there's not much to say about Gillian's keyboard part in the Barcelona "Age of Consent" except she's too low in the mix and completely inaudible during her one close up at 0:57. Why is it that keyboards are either blaringly loud or inaudible in live performances?

Randomly: I'd love to see Hooky and Morris face off against Sly and Robbie in an ultimate bass and drum new wave vs. dub battle for sonic supremacy. Bernard could just put down the guitar on a short skirt, grab some pom-poms and stick to the sidelines as a cheerleader

Monday, April 16, 2007

549 words about REM's "Boxcars" live on Nickelodeon

First of all, the host of the show looks like some overgrown Aryan Hitler Youth in the midst of some "Traditional Rhineland Pageant." He's wearing suspenders, and a waist-down view would surely reveal his lederhosen.

The incongruous host just adds to the absurdity of R.E.M. appearing on Nickelodeon(!) And since they're playing a cut from the Chronic Town EP here, I wonder if this was even before the Murmur LP was released? What preteen Nickeleon-watching kid in 1983 would care about, or even know of R.E.M.? Was the programming director for this "Live Wire" show just really cool? Getting paid off to promote this new "jangle-pop" by IRS (the record label, not the government bureau you're supposed to send your taxes to BY TOMORROW)? Or was the show simply unable to afford a 1st tier 1983 act that preteens of that year would be into, such as....hmmm....what were preteens of 1983 listening to anyway? I'll turn that question over to any dear readers born in the 1st half of the 70s. Feel free to post in the comment section bands that your 11 year old self was into back then. I'm ignorant because I was 3 in '83, so I was listening to PRE-pre-teen stuff such as Disney musical compilations, Big Bird Meets the Orchestra, and my mom's Hooked on Classics discofied orchestra medleys.

Maybe there's a good reason or interesting story about R.E.M.'s appearance here, recounted in some biography of the band. But again, I'm ignorant. I've only read Niimi's 33 1/3 volume on thr making of Murmur. Again, if you know more than I, post a comment.

Anyway, even without a back story, this clip is just great. There seems to be a bit too much reverb/echo that enters the mix halfway through Stipe's first line, but you can now look at this as foreshadowing of the arena era R.E.M. of the following decade. Not only is the band looking youthful and sounding energetic, here but the young studio "audience" makes it easy to imagine that this clip was actually R.E.M. playing at some high school homecoming gym dance: The jocks move out of the way, feeling out-of-place with nary a Journey power-ballad to fondle their favorite cheerleaders by. And suddenly all the socially awkward "indoor kids" move to the front, finding comfort and grace within the Bill Berry beat.

Well, actually the kids in the studio look a little too cool to be dancing this passionately to R.E.M. I'm sure they're getting paid. And they probably all had aspirations of getting "discovered" and then getting signed up for a small role on Dallas and then moving onward, upward to Hollywood. But to get noticed they had to shake all they had to.....ewww.. an underfed band from the backwoods of Athens, Georgia!?....puh-lease! I could see these kids maybe dancing sincerely to New Order (you could splice their dance moves into the club scenes of the "Confusion" video) but R.E.M. just doesn't seem like their thing.

Fashion seems very important to these kids in the studio. Shoes are especially important. 0:41-0:47 is literally all shoes. And there's a nice close up of white low-cut boots at 0:57 to match a white headband up top.

The kids in the studio are doing "the 80s Dance." I don't know if this relatively free-stepping "to the left then to the right" style actually has a name. And I don't know if kids in high school in the 80s actually danced like this. All I know is that kids in 80s high school movies certainly danced like this (eg the Karate Kid, TeenWolf, Pretty in Pink, Better Off Dead.) And I aspired to dance like this one day, but by the time I actually made it to a gym dance, it was already the early 90s. And the only moves that us guys seemed to do were the hands-in-pocket-against-the-wall and the '"save room for the Holy Spirit/I'm not sure I actually like girls' 'November Rain' slow dance with arms straight ahead against the girl's waist" move. But maybe if R.E.M. was there in the gym, we could've lost our self-consciousness and danced like this.

Back to the studio dancers: the girl up front in black with a feathered hat looks like she just got out of a 1940s funeral, but she's determined to win that spot as the waitress serving JR on Dallas. Just look at how her knees bend back and forth around 1:30. Is that even physically possibly? Can you only move like that if you're double jointed? You get another glimpse of her flexing legs as the credits roll around 2:40-2:45.

The one thing that really doesn't work in this video is Stipe's costume glasses. They make him look like he had to be begrudgingly pulled away from his copy of Finnegan's Wake just to sing this song. Still, I'd take the bespectacled professorial Stipe over the skinhead post-Monster Stipe any day!

The clip cuts abruptly, but I think thats more just a fault of the taped-from-tv VHS source. Even slightly truncated, this is a gem. And watching this makes me very thankful to my old central Jersey friend, Doug K. He popped the cassette of Chronic Town into his car's tape deck as he took the turn a bit too fast onto Brown Rd. to drop me home after a 1995 high school day. Previously, I'd known only "Nightswimming" and "Everybody Hurts" and was lukewarm. But on that sunny afternoon, the speeding car and the Buck-ensian jangle seemed perfectly complementary.

And so began my love of REM.

Friday, April 13, 2007

588 words about a Neutral Milk Hotel live youtube clip of "Song Against Sex"

this happened somewhere nine years and one day ago:

I posted the words to this song in an earlier Space blog without any explanation. I included no additional comment because the words pretty much speak for themselves. I posted them because "Song Against Sex" also speaks for me. If you could open up my head and peered inside, it would resemble this song.

And the first one tore a picture
Of a dead and hanging man
Who was kissing foreign fishes
That flew right out from this hands
And when I put my arms around him
I felt the blushing blood run through my cheeks
And an eeriness surrounded when his tongue began to speak
And he said...Oh boy you are so pretty
Enough to wrap tight in rice-paper string...
And when I finally kissed him the whole world began to ring
Lost like a bell that's tipping over
With two cracks along both sides
And I knew the world was over so I took a look outside
And watched the fires that were reaching
Up to the weather vane and the tops of trees
And the waiting scene and the sunday dream
They're all waiting here for me

Deli markets with their flower stands
Pretty girls and the burning men
Hanging out on the hooks next to the window displays
And I took out my tongue twice removed from my face
Across a bridge and across the mountains
Threw a nickel in a fountain
To save my soul from all these troubled times
And all the drugs that I don't have the guts to take
To soothe my mind so I'm always sober
Always aching, always heading towards
Mass suicide, occult figurines
And wasted gas-station attendents
Attending to their jobs
And a nice drive in the country
Finds a nice cliff to drop off
Oh when this world just gets so grating
All the grittiness of life
But don't take those pills your boyfriend gave you
You're too wonderful to die

And the last one tore a picture
From a pornographic page
But all the pleasure points attacking all
The looks of love were staged
And its a lie that you've been giving it hurts
You everyday so why should I lay you naked
When its just too far away.
From anything we could call loving
Any love worth living for
So I'll sleep out in the gutter
You can sleep here on the floor
And when I wake up in the morning
I forgot to lock the door
Because with a match that's mean and some gasoline
You won't see me anymore

I know of no other songs that come so close to capturing the simultaneous feeling of anxiety, doom, wonder, and fun I have on a daily basis. The song also captures in words, a belief that I hold and hope to have proven wrong some day: that the ultimate joy of sex is really just a lie. As the lyrics state:

"It's a lie that you've been given/It just hurts you everyday/So why should I lay here naked/When its just too far away/From anything we could call loving/Any love worth living for/ So I'll sleep out in the gutter/ You can sleep here on the floor."

In the end, sex and all its after affects seem more about anxiety and isolation than ecstasy and feeling as close to another person as possible.

So far, as I've experienced it, music is our true communion. It is with music and through experiencing and/or playing music together that we feel closest to one another. And this raw, joyous Neutral Milk Hotel clip is a prime example of that closeness.

Jeff Magnum and his band seem squeezed together on a stage that seems barely big enough to hold them. "Song Against Sex" comes across as chaotic, even in the studio original. And the sense that everything could fall apart is increased by the of claustrophobia of this live setting. The band is physically close to each other on the small stage , and playing their instruments together in song form requires mental and emotional closeness as well.

The band is mashed together, Jeff knocks into the bassist seemingly as an outlet for his punkish nervous energy and because there's simple no room to move around otherwise. Meanwhile, the crowd is mashed against the low stage and is pogoing and dancing and seems like it could rise up and envelope Magnum and Co. at any moment, if the stage holding the band doesn't collapse first under its weight, bringing the band and crowd together into one sweaty pit.

The lyrics are of fire and the apocalypse and yet also of whimsical things such as kissing fish and throwing a coin in a fountain. This contradiction is underpinned by the sliding trombone that comes in around 1:05, turning the world's end funeral into a New Orleans (pre-Katrina) style event. And Magnum's wordless vocals at the end of the verses encompass joy and pain and EVERYTHING else intense.

And that's a summation of my own life: a feel of intensity. And the experiences of intense joy/pleasure and pain/sorrow have a similarity to them, as if the extremes of positive and negative emotion meet at their ends like a Mobius strip.

Watching this video I feel a kinship with the bassist. I don't know his name, but he reminds me of myself. He's tall and thin and carries himself in a hunched over way that's similar to my own posture. Also he has a shaggy hairstyle that looks a lot like my own did before I decided to start growing it long. And while I've never played bass, I've been fascinated with its sound and place in rock music since my teens. In high school I wanted to be a bassist in a punk band because it seemed like the bassist was essential to the driving rhythms and breakdowns of punk/hardcore . And yet it also seemed that the bassist never played anything too complicated and only had to reckon with four strings. So with my limited skill, aspiring to be a bass player seemed a lot more realistic that becoming a guitar player. I also liked how in the live setting, a non-singing bass player could often hang towards the back end of the stage, feeding off the crowd's energy but feeling little pressure to be a showman himself. The bass was often only conspicuous when absent. The bassist seemed like he could get lost in the music. He could lock in with the drummer and just ride the sound waves.

In a notebook dating from the summer of '95, there's a sketch of myself with a bass guitar slung over my shoulder. In the picture, I'm wearing the big JNCO jeans and long-with-narrow-graphics t-shirts popular in the mid 90s among the skate punk crowd of Somerset County, NJ---though I never wore clothes like this in reality. Above the drawing is the text. "I Want to Be a Bass Boy!"

Becoming a bass player never happened. Instead I just stuck to French horn and lived vicariously through my friend Allie. She lived near my neighborhood, played bass in a band called Dilemma and wore the JNCOs and long t-shirts I so admired.

Still, it's easy for me to imagine that Magnum's bassist in this clip is me. He carries himself with an awkwardness I can relate to. On the small stage, he doesn't have much room to move around , but also doesn't seem comfortable just standing still amidst the high energy melee. For the first minute, he looks for a place to go that isn't there. And then he just settles on walking around in a small circle, subjected to the nearby spazzing of Mr. Magnum himself. If I were on that stage I'd probably settle on a similar pattern of movement. This song has a fair amount of dark imagery. But in the end, I come away from this live clip with a sense of catharsis and a smile. It's a bunch of people together playing and experiencing the music that they love.

Life has got a lot of lows and worries, but sometimes it feels great to sing about them or to hear someone else sing about them for you .