Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Year in Shows

No matter how much any of us gripe about year end lists, I suppose that there's no use in having a blog if you don't indulge the tradition. 

And, so, here we go again:


EMA at the U Street Music Hall:

Probably a fair show at best, made into a highlight simply because she played a Danzig song as her encore.  And I kinda felt like I might have been the only person in the crowd who recognized it.  

(And, no, she did not respond to my request for "Twist of Cain").

Lamb of God at the 930 Club:

I would have appreciated this show more if I'd known what Randy Blythe's future held.  

I mostly wonder, however,  how many people in the crowd remember Blythe's promise at the end of the show, that the "Motherfucking Washington Redskins WILL be in the motherfucking Superbowl next year!"

Doesn't seem so silly now, does it?


The Cult at the Fillmore Silver Spring:

The Cult have played much better shows. Several, in fact.  But I sure did have a good time getting drunk with my buddy Brian that night...right up until the time we got kicked out of the VIP reception.  

By the way, Against Me! might be a novelty act, but they were a quite formidable opening band. Kudos.

Washerwomen at the Black Cat:

There's nothing quite like seeing a very good, very young band play to a small crowd in a small room.  One on hand, your heart breaks for them.  On the other, you feel pretty privileged just to be there witnessing it. 

I wish I could find out if these two are still together....if you're out there, can you let me know??


The Drop Electric at the 930 Club:

Oh, the Drop Electric were great.  In fact, at points they gave me chills (by the way, that link will take you to my song of the year). 

But the 930 Club screwed this night up to an extent that I have never before experienced from their otherwise impeccable staff.  

First off, I'm unsure who paired them with patchouli-stank jam band, Papadosio, but that terrible decision was only worsened by shoehorning the concert in after an early show from Ed Sheeran. As a result, the scene in front of the club was pure chaos: teenybopper kids in one line to meet Ed Sheeran, potheads bumbling around in another line to get into the club, and me, feeling square, sober and stupid for not knowing which line I was supposed to be in, or that the damned show had already started.

Bob Mould at the 930 Club:

Home emergency. Missed the show. 

Heard it was great.  Of course.

Japandroids at the Rock and Roll Hotel:

Decided to go to Bethany Beach instead. Sorry to miss the show, but I don't regret the decision.

Show of the Year: Rodrigo y Gabriela at Radio City Music Hall

I've admired this duo for years. In fact, after tripping over their excellent interpretations of various classic metal songs on YouTube, it had long became a goal of mine to see them live.

(Ed: I started linking these videos 45 minutes ago and totally lost myself in the process.  My God, I love these two).

This was supposed to be a fun evening. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet, by the end of the night, I knew my life was about to change. And for real, this time.

As always, there's a long version of the story and the short version.  This is not the latter.


Called up to NYC for the umpteenth time in 2012 for client meetings, I made the decision to book a hotel room and have my wife join me for a Friday night in Manhattan.  Rather than repeating what seemed like an endless cycle of solo pre-dawn Amtrak departures and late night returns home, we'd spend some time together having fun the way we used to -- before I'd begun to associate the Meatpacking District not with overpriced restaurants and boutiques, but with meetings, insane deadlines and enormous amounts of pressure.

We had no real agenda.  It was simply to be a night out together in one of the world's very finest cities.

And things were falling nicely into place.  I got a discounted price for a room at the Standard Hotel.  I wrangled two tickets to a sold-out performance by Rodrigo y Gabriela at Radio City Music Hall.  I even got out of the office before 6:30.  I might have been completely exhausted and well past burnt out at work, but this evening was shaping up to be a very pleasant reprieve. 

We ducked into a diner for a quick meal before the show, which shouldn't have been noteworthy in any way at all.  Yet, no sooner than we had sat down than I'd received a phone call from my manager, demanding my presence in New York first thing Monday morning.  There was a crisis -- a crisis not of my making, nor of my team's -- and it was decided that I would be part of the clean-up crew.

No, there was no budget for a hotel.  No, I could not stay the extra night to save time and money on airfare.  And, no, this was not the first time such a demand had been made of me.  Nor the second, nor the third time.  This was an ongoing sort of situation - years in the making - that clearly was never going to stop repeating itself.

It was the final straw.  As I sat in front of a meal that had instantly become repulsive as my appetite drained from me, it was obvious: I had to leave this career.

Listen, I know that there are many, many people out there with worse jobs, higher stress and greater demands than I faced.  But I was done, and this was not an impulse.  This was a revelation. 

Needless to say, the experience threw a wet blanket on the show that evening.  I probably spent the first 30 minutes of the show on the verge of tears and nausea, knowing that I was ruining the evening for both myself and my wife, but really unable to focus on almost anything other than just how much I'd grown to hate my job.

And, yet, Rodrigo y Gabriela won me over.  Because in the face of my career implosion, there was absolutely nothing more painfully beautiful to witness than two people who are (1) doing what they love, and (2) great at what they do.   

I was inspired by their complete exuberance, but also left in a place of total self-pity, questioning why on Earth I'd devoted my time and energy these past several years to something I didn't love as completely as these two beautiful musicians loved their craft.

And it wasn't long after that point that I began to appreciate what I was witnessing.  Because, let's face it, Rodrigo y Gabriela are unique talents, and Radio City Music Hall is a phenomenal venue, and I was lucky to be there.

Moreover, I challange anyone not to fall in love with Gabriela just a little bit after seeing her perform live.  Whether she's clumsily bouncing around the stage in her half-jump, half-running-in-place dance; throwing the goat; or professing her love for thrash to the crowd in her adorable broken English, the woman expresses a total lack of self consciousness on stage, which becomes particularly sexy when you realize just how uncommon this is among performers (male and female alike).

Speaking of thrash, while the duo didn't perform any of their famed metal covers, Gabriela did take the mic to introduce two guest stars for the evening: drummer John Tempesta, of White Zombie and Testament fame (double bonus: he also played with the Cult when i saw them this year); and Testament guitar hero, Alex Skolnik, the latter of whom joined in what appeared to be a totally unrehearsed free form jam. It was one of those moments that you read about on blogs far more often than you get to witness in person, and it was pretty awesome.


I walked into that show utterly distraught.  But I can't say that I wasn't inspired by the time I walked out.  In fact, I knew exactly what I was going to do, and I felt willful for the first time in years.

Two months later, I walked out the door of my office for the very last time.  Six months later, I was back in a band.

It was a very good year.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The 2012 Halloween Playlist

We don't get a whole lot of Web hits around here, but for some reason, Halloween always sends me a few strays.  So, in continuation of this tradition (as well as the more recent tradition of link-dumping to YouTube), here's this year's playlist of songs that make me scared enough to poop my pants.

Led Zeppelin - No Quarter

What is this song about?  Hobbits or some shit, I guess.

Why is it scary?  Because of the coke-fueled vignette from The Song Remains the Same.  And because of everything else about it.

Summer Breeze - Type O Negative

What is this song about? A hippie coming home to the wife after a long day at work, or a psychopath stalking your house?  Fine line, really.... 

Why is it scary?  Because covering hippies is justice: beneath the facade of free love, an awful lot of hippies were evil, misogynistic sociopaths.  Plus: you know, the tritone.

 Billion Dollar Babies -- Alice Cooper


What is this song about? Awesome drums, playing with dolls, and....killing children?  

Why is it scary?  Because someone let this guy on the Muppet Show, whereupon he made a joke about being in the service of Satan.

Hamburger Lady - Throbbing Grizzle

What is this song about? I'll put it to you this way: I wish I'd never looked up the lyrics.

Why is is scary? It's a fucking nightmare. Plus, that's a dude singing.

God of Emptiness - Morbid Angel

What is this song about? Satan, Christianity, etc.

Why is is scary? It is still the single most frightening music video I have ever seen.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

To Fight the Horde, Singing and Crying

Ok, since I totally bummed myself out yesterday with that footage of Axl Rose having an ischemic stroke/choking on an jalapeno popper during the Bridge School Benefit Concert, here's something a little more inspiring. 

This is Enslaved beating the hell out of "Immigrant Song." To take nothing away from Page, Plant, Jones and Bonham, I suspect that this might hit a little closer to what it actually sounds like when a bunch of 6'6" Vikings show up on your shores for your land and your women. 

(If it doesn't do anything for you, jump to the 2:00 mark, where things get a little ROCK).

And, yes, I nabbed this off of Metal Sucks, just like I did yesterday. And, no, I'm not trying very hard these days. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Watch it Bring You to Your ShanananananaKnees (...knees)

Ok, kids: thanks to the tip from Metal Sucks, I want to make sure that everyone gets a good look at the clip below (and don't fuck this up; I have a feeling it won't be around much longer).

Warning: this is really hard to watch:

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Oh, oh, oh, Eddie's Crying: The Folly of Eddie Trunk's Crusade

This year's nominations for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced this past week, and that means one thing:

Eddie Trunk is whining about heavy metal being disrespected again.

Upfront, let's be clear about something:

Eddie Trunk is probably a good guy.  There's no reason to think he's a bad husband or father.  Lots of musicians seem to like him, and his allegiance to a generally unfashionable era of music says that he is - if nothing else - a guy who values loyalty.  That tends to be a fairly good indication of a person's character.

But that doesn't mean he isn't an insecure fool.

For years now, Trunk has been using his pulpit on VH1, XM Satellite radio, his Website and on Twitter to demand that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame pay greater respect to heavy metal music. One might be forgiven for assuming that this is some sort of ratings schtick by Trunk to attempt to elevate his own name into these annual mainstream music media discussions. (In fact, given the guy's penchant for egomania, it would seem to be entirely fitting).

But any witness to his annual barrage of tweets following the Hall of Fame inductions provides a frightening glimpse as to just how personally Trunk takes this crusade, and the extent to which it bothers him.

Why is this foolish? 

Because the argument is not only futile, but irrelevant.  And more to the point, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is irrelevant.

Make no mistake: the museum is a top-notch tourist attraction.  Top. Notch.  

(Fact: ten years ago or more while on a road trip out to Ohio to attend my older brother's wedding, my younger brother and I literally got in a fight in the middle of the museum because I wanted to stay another half hour and check some more exhibits, despite the fact that it would undoubtedly make us late for the rehearsal that evening. 

I lost the fight and we made it on time).

But the institution?  It means absolutely nothing.  PARTICULARLY to those of us who identify ourselves as lovers of metal.

Metal has always been outsider art.  No kid ever really got into heavy metal because he wanted to fit in... not for long, at least.  Because no matter how beautiful, powerful or technically advanced the genre is, it has also typically been uglier than pop, angrier than rock and less articulate than punk. For so many of the fans, this serves as a metaphor -- both painful and comforting -- about who they are and who they will probably never be.

In short, metal has never fit in.  

And that's fine.  Because outsider status has forced the metal community to find its validation from within, and not from corporate institutions. By this point, everyone should know that mainstream popularity was very bad for hard rock and heavy metal.  It created extreme motivations for nominal artists to make terrible art, and - worse - it advanced an overall aesthetic sensibility that discredited even the best of the genre's output in the late 80's and early 90's.

(For God's sake, no wonder Metallica and Slayer refused to make videos for so long).

As a result, in the years following grunge -- when big label hard rock became less popular and more popularly maligned -- the metal community arguably became stronger and more self-assured. Independent labels flourished and a plethora of extreme metal niches matured.

Eddie Trunk wouldn't know anything about this, however, because he's still mad at Nirvana.  And Geffen.  And MTV.  And Steve Jobs, for dying before he could invent an iTime machine to take him back to 1991.

But most of all, he's mad at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for shunning his buddies.  Which seems akin to a high school misfit sitting at home seething at not being invited to some huge party held by the exact same jocks and rich kids who pick on him each day. 

It is a completely foolish use of his efforts, particularly at a time when there are entire generations of actual metal bands (as opposed to semi-retired classic rock acts) that would benefit from just a little bit of love from Trunk.

And that's the real shame of Eddie Trunk's mission: while the guy channels his efforts into bellyaching about disrespect towards KISS, Deep Purple and Rush, and about how this feeds into some kind of worldwide conspiracy to discredit his favorite type of music, the genre of metal has actually flourished all around him.

Think about this for a moment: twenty-five years ago, metal was nearly foreign outside of its own community.  Today, it is pervasive.

In 1988, the Monsters of Rock tour failed to sell out RFK Stadium.  In 2010, the Big Four tour was an international juggernaut.

In 1988, I had never once heard Metallica on the radio.  This weekend, I simultaneously heard them as I flipped between two different mainstream rock stations.

In 1988, most metal programming on MTV was confined to "The Headbangers Ball" and the "Hard 30."  Today, Eddie Trunk and his two slob buddies have their own talk show on VH1.

In 1988, punk rock kids and New Romantics generally mocked heavy metal.  Today, these same aging hipsters love nothing more than to be seen in their retro Slayer tee shirts.  (In fact, for a few years now there has been a downright troubling hipster fascination with black metal, perhaps best exemplified by NPR Music's highly improbable decision to hire a metal correspondent).

The sad - and obvious - irony is that Eddie Trunk's dream of a day of respect for metal has come true.  

Unfortunately, it happened while he was raging against the machine on behalf of people who made their best music 20 or more years ago.....people who had several days in the sun, and undoubtedly sucked every ounce of marrow from that bone in the forms of fame, money, gear, cocaine, groupies and sales.

Meanwhile, the metal community went ahead and did their thing without him.  The spoils of fame may be thinner today, but the artistic integrity for bands like Katatonia, Pig Destroyer, At the Gates, Cathedral or Morbid Angel* speaks for itself.  

* Morbid Angel may be up for debate these days.

In the process, the metal community got their respect on their terms, while Eddie continues to demand his respect on someone else's.

That's the problem with living in the past: you miss everything great about the present.

It is a true shame.  Trunk has built a pretty decent brand for himself.  Even people who can't stand him still watch his VH1 show regularly (I admit that I'm one of them).  But he is either horribly out of touch, ignorant or disinterested in what is happening in metal today.  And as long as he continues to call his time-warp TV show "the one stop shop for all things hard rock and heavy metal," he'll always be unwittingly pushing the genre into relic status.

But if you want to take on the man, go for it, Eddie. See how it works out for you, and while you're at it, let me know exactly what changes for struggling young metal bands once you get fucking KISS inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

Just remember, that one band that you incessantly push on the rest of us had a pretty good lyric that you may remember:

Under your feet grass is growin'
Time we said goodbye

"Lights out," indeed..

Monday, September 24, 2012

Rock Star Encounters, Vol II: Nikki Sixx

So, this one time, I met Nikki Sixx.  And it got me thinking:

Motley Crue is awesome.  And Motley Crue is crap.  And since 1985, I have been in something of a state of flux between these two viewpoints.

I was first exposed to the Crue in sixth or seventh grade, via the posters in my buddy, Kevin Moran's, bedroom.  And to say that those guys looked unseemly - with their pentagrams and their tattoos their hair and their leather - would be an understatement. By the time I finally got around to hearing their music, I was more or less convinced that the band might actually be evil. As Chuck Klosterman put it in his brilliant Fargo Rock City:

"I was a myopic white kid who had never drank, never had sex, never had seen drugs, and had never even been in a fight. Judging from the content of Shout at the Devil, those were apparently the only things that the guys in Motley Crue did."

Over the next few years, America got a lot more familiar with the Crue: their videos made them MTV darlings, Tommy Lee's romance with Heather Locklear catapulted him into stardom in his own right, and Circus magazine provided ceaseless coverage of the band's exploits.  Long before Nikki Sixx's infamous near-death experience, the mainstream success of "Dr. Feelgood" or the band's various best-selling sex tapes, Motley Crue was unquestionably the poster boy for all that was awesome and all that was crap about the LA hard rock scene.

Think about it: 

  • Two of the guys in the band (Lee and Mars) are awesome musicians.  The other two (Neil and Sixx) are crap, getting by - often just barely, in Mr. Neil's case - on style. 
  • Nearly every promo shot the band did in the 1980's is giggleworthy today. And yet for kids like me (and several tens of thousands others), their image was a genuinely shocking and very effective celebration of rebellion, excess and deviance.  Was it crap?  Yes.  But it sure was awesome.

That's the mystery of the Crue: they're either better than they deserve to be, or they deserve to be better.  But no one really knows which.

Personally, I thought the band was great. And, yet, by the time I was a senior in high school, I had turned on them.

Not because they were overexposed.  Not because they'd become a mainstream hit machine.  Not because they were now the favorite band of the teenage douchebags, prom queens and jocks who had never before shared my music preferences.
But for a far more petty and shallow reason: because they'd become my little brother's favorite band. And the idea that he and I could share any of the same interests was absolutely unacceptable to me. 

That's all it took.  In my mind, the band went from "awesome" to "crap" at that moment.

Because, unlike my own older sibling, I was not a charitable big brother.  I did not encourage. I did not teach.  I did not share.  I resented, and I distanced.  

It was an insecure basis for my tastes, but I should mention that in the years following high school, the band went out of their way to vindicate my opinion.  Bumbling and fumbling their way through the 90's, the Crue swapped out singers, introduced dreadful solo projects, and went on occasionally ill-fated reunion tours.  Like so many inferior hard rock acts of their generation, the Crue officially became a joke.

Regardless as to whether their legacy is one of awesomeness or crap, the one undeniable fact is that Motley Crue is irrepressible. Several lifetimes of arrests, car accidents and drug overdoses are certainly proof enough of this. But their resurrection in 2002 more or less proved it for once and for all. 

That was the year Motley Cure released The Dirt, a biography so completely vile, depraved and tell-all that it became the gold standard for everyone from Aerosmith, to Marilyn Manson to various members of Guns N'Roses to mimic. The book was fantastic for both its bombast and its honesty, and it provided an excuse for fans like myself to fall back in love with the group.

It was a great moment for the band, earning the Crue - if only for their death-defying longevity - the kind of respect from the mainstream music media that they never received at the ridiculousness of their peak. 

But it was also a terrible moment, because that flash of attention convinced the band that they were not only legendary, but that they were once again relevant.  And this can be a dangerous thing for any artist.  Because an artist striving for relevance will take very different chances with their art (and with their career) than one who believes that they have earned relevance, and, thus, has permission to take chances. 

That's how Tommy Lee ends up embarking on gigs as a DJ and a rapper.

That's how Nikki Sixx gets himself a goofy radio show, a barely readable Twitter feed and a stable of tatted up c-list celebrity girlfriends young enough to be his granddaughters.  

That's how Vince Neil gets booked on reality TV shows.  

(To that end, you've really gotta give it up for Mick Mars).

And its how the Crue ends up touring again.  Touring, I assume, to success, but not without their sad insistence that they're still the gunslingers that they were in 1987.

I don't at all begrudge them the success that they've had on their second go-round, but it's a tough thing to watch.

For the record, none of this high-minded snobbery stopped me from seizing my moment to meet Nikki Sixx.

The occasion was the book tour behind Sixx's "The Heroin Diaries", whereupon he would make an appearance at the Barnes & Noble in Georgetown.

Now, yes, I know that book tours are stupid. And I know that it's a sad take on a rock star chance meeting, no "right place, right time" ("I was doing blow in the bathroom of the Ritz Carlton in Five Points, when who walks in but fuckin Udo Dirkschneider!!")
....just a silly use of time spent purchasing a book and standing in line all night for the privilege of meeting the author. 

But my intentions were good. Because the book signing took place four days before my little brother's birthday, and I thought that nothing would excite his inner 15 year old more than receiving an autographed copy of Nikki Sixx's book for his 30th birthday.

I wanted to make it right for being such a jerk to him when we were in high school and for being a judgmental prick about his musical tastes, which were in no way worse than my own.

And, so, after work that evening, I jetted on down to Georgetown, purchased the book, and waited in a line that snaked throughout the entirety of the expansive, three-story shop.

I think that I was there for three hours. I know I was more than halfway done with the book by the time I got towards the front of the line (and that I'd already deemed it a contrived, mostly-fabricated heap of monkey shit).

None of this mattered. This was all about getting a gift that would cement me as the greatest big brother ever.
And, with the passage of time, I finally made it to the front of the line.

So, let me tell you what you notice when you meet Nikki Sixx up close:

He's really good looking.

Seriously, the guy looked good. He looked healthy. He looked friendly. He looked pleased to be there.

I'm not saying that he isn't cosmetically one pushing 50 has a full head of hair quite that shade of jet black. And no former junkie has ever had teeth that glow quite that radiantly.

But the point is that Nikki is aging well. His skin seemed to have a natural ruddy tan to it. His eyes were were sharp, accented not only by a dash of eyeliner, but also by a set of crows feet that somehow flattered him. Clothed comfortably in designer blue jeans and a loose fitting black collared shirt, the impeccable body art that adorns his neck, upper chest, arms and knuckles was all tastefully on display.

More than anything else, though, he looked sober. He was both alert and engaging, but also calm in that way that you only really are when you're well-rested.

As I reached the front of the line, an assistant grabbed the books out of my hand (one for me, one for my brother), opened them to the front cover, and quietly told Nikki the names "Tom" and "Kevin".

Nikki looked up at me and did a half-grin.

"Are you Tom or Kevin?"

"I'm Tom. Kevin is my brother."

He started signing away, and the silence made me uncomfortable.

"My brother was a really huge fan when we were younger and I'm getting this for him." I was spasticly spitting the words out in that ridiculous way that I do when I'm nervous.

"Cool man. Good to meet you, Tom," he said as he shook my hand and handed me the books.

"Man, thanks.  My little brother is going to be excited. I hope I can mail this to him in time for his birthday."

"It's for his birthday?" Nikki paused. "Do you think I could write him a note?"

"Oh man, that would be awesome," I blurted, as I handed him back the books.  Both of them, for some reason.  "Of course you can. Thank you so much." I think I kept on talking and talking while he scribbled "Hey Kev, Happy B-Day" on the book.

"Dude, that was really nice of you. Thanks. Seriously, thanks." I became aware that I was holding up the line, so I shook his hand again and moved out of the way.

"Hey, Tom?"

 I turned around.  Nikki Sixx was calling for me?

"These are yours."

He was smiling, holding the fucking books, which I had left on the table in my nervous excitement.

So yeah, I just spent 700 words shitting all over Motley Crue.  But truth be told, not only was Nikki Sixx amazingly polite to me, but he also took it in stride that I totally threw my panties in his face for the 40 seconds I got to meet him.


The following morning, I made sure I got the book in the mail, sent USPS Priority Mail so that it would arrive at my brother's house in time for his birthday.  

And then I waited, hearing nothing from him.

Two days after his birthday, I finally picked up the phone to wish him a happy birthday.

"Hey, I got the book.  Thanks."

Nothing in his tone expressed any impression of surprise.

"Yeah, it's a pretty funny story how I got it."

"Oh yeah," he asked.  He seemed nearly disinterested.

"Um, did you open the book yet?"


"You should."

There was a silence, as he found the book and leafed through it.

"Cool."  His tone had become awkward. I could nearly hear him asking himself what the fuck else I wanted from him.

"Look at the inside front cover," I finally asked.  (Or insisted.  Whatever....)


He was surprised, but didn't exactly seem impressed.  As I told him the whole story of waiting in line and embarrassing myself, he seemed less surprised (and certainly less impressed).  As we got off the phone, I was struck with the feeling that my awesome gift wasn't really all that awesome.


What does this prove?

That I was wrong for being such a jerk about the Crue.  And that whatever decisions Nikki Sixx made with his career, he seems to treat his fans well, and that's an important indication of at least one aspect of his character.

And it proves that I need to stop feeling bad about being mean to my brother all those years ago.  

Man, fuck that guy.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Woe is Me, I Feel So Badly For You" - How I Came to Realize that Aerosmith Sucks

So, I came across the following clip on YouTube, and you should check it out.  What you will find is Steven Tyler doing an artist's lecture on songwriting, featuring an impromptu performance of one of his (and my) favorite Aerosmith songs, "Seasons of Wither."

The track is relatively obscure but it is a gem. With its eerie intro, eerier tuning and woeful vocals, it has always captured for me that moment of lucidity you have when you find yourself surrounded by nothing but unhappy people who are doing nothing but bad things.  God knows that it doesn't feel very rock and roll to realize that these new friends of yours are all completely self-destructive and terminally sad and that you need to get the fuck away from them, but apparently it is a thought that might have crossed Mr. Tyler's a time when he was setting new standards in crazy behavior. 

And we all love when we identify with a song, right?  So have a listen:

What's great about this clip is that it reminds me so clearly of why I used to love Aerosmith -- which has an awful lot to do with the street-sensibility of the band's songwriting and performance, sometimes clumsy, but always either just a little bit sinister or fatalistic -- to the point that I can nearly overlook the fact that it was performed at Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp (ugh). And that brings me to my next point:

I do not hate Aerosmith.  I simply hate what they've become.  What I've been having trouble figuring out is when they became something that I hated.

There is an astonishingly large contingent of incredibly lazy music fans who consider Steven Tyler's participation in "American Idol" as the turning point.  The truth is that it goes back much further than that.  And I'm going to try and pinpoint when.

Begin at the Beginning

I have a friend who is about ten years older than me. He grew up in the 70's and 80's, and is someone that I consider to be a total authority on music.  (In fact, he's the one who cultivated the opinionated jackass of a music snob in me).  This guy claims that Aerosmith was always terrible, and that their albums were never much more third-rate American rock.

This is simply wrong.  "Get Your Wings", "Toys in the Attic" and "Rocks" are each outstanding -- particularly when you take into account how little great American rock was being made or bought between 1973 and 1975.

(A quick and certainly incomplete bit of research reveals that there were, in fact, excellent American hard rock records released during this period by the likes of the New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, Iggy and the Stooges and Lou Reed.  Sadly, however, I don't believe that the combined sales of them all would equal the numbers behind even one completely boring record by Steely Dan).

((And, yes, I am conveniently forgetting about KISS.  And Springsteen.  One is cool, but artistically irrelevant.  The other is genius, but irrelevant to anything concerning hard rock)).

(((And we are not going to discuss the mighty ZZ Top at all, as their inclusion would at least partially sink my defense.  Because they're, like, way better than Aerosmith))).

Sucking in the 70's?

After 1975, however, Aerosmith began to release a string of not-very-good albums, half-assed live products and throw-away greatest hits offerings. Drug problems, line-up changes and a generally self-destructive streak resulted in a terribly underachieving period for the band, at a time when far inferior American rock bands were becoming stars.

And yet, I don't hate this period of Aerosmith. In a way, I kind of love it....even the universally-panned "Rock and a Hard Place" at the very least generated a charmingly sleazy cover of "Cry Me A River" and the gorgeous "Joanie's Butterfly".  The albums may not be good, but I find them to be somewhat redeemed by even these one or two great moments.

So when did things go totally wrong?

I was always convinced that the tipping point was the release of 1993's "Get A Grip" (more on that later).  And I think that I may have been wrong all of this time.

This requires a step back to the 1980's.  

Like a lot of kids my age, my first exposure to Aerosmith was the Run DMC collaboration on "Walk this Way."  And, yes, it may sound cliche, but it did change music.  I was twelve years old in 1986, I had never heard anything like it. Yet, it didn't sound strange to my young ears.  It seemed natural and very, very cool.

I'm well aware that Aersosmith didn't change music with the collaboration.  All they did was write the song and then have the good sense to answer the phone when Rick Rubin called up eleven years later. But it sure made them look (and sound) awesome.

Next came the release of "Permanent Vacation," complete with a string of huge hits and totally fun music videos for "Dude Looks Like a Lady", "Rag Doll" and "Angel" (the last of which provides the soundtrack to an absolutely vivid memory I have of a very special summer night in high school. I was out in one of those big groups that dorky kids run in at that age, when I was first introduced to a classmate who I'd somehow never met.  Wasting time with her and my friends in the parking lot of a McDonalds on University Boulevard, I can remember every millisecond of the moments when I first developed a deep, months-long crush on her, which would progress absolutely nowhere over the course of the summer and the following school year.  I would later find out from a good friend that this same girl (or, actually, maybe it was her sister...I forget) had become a home wrecker well before the time she was out of college.  Apparently, unlike Steven Tyler and myself, this young woman was not content to be "sleepin' in this bed alone").

So, yeah, "Permanent Vacation" was a big hit, and I have fond memories of it, so this clearly couldn't have been the initial suck-point for Aerosmith.

After that, you've got "Pump," which was pretty much the biggest album in the world (or at least in my world) back in 1990 and 1991.  It was a majestic moment for the band, marking arguably the single greatest comeback of any rock band ever. The tour was tremendous, the album had fantastic energy, the list of singles was never-ending, and it was impossible for me not to love everything about them: I loved their legend. I loved their commitment to sobriety.  I loved the teenaged ribaldry of Steven Tyler's lyrics.  And I really, truly loved the MTV "Making of Pump" documentary, which I taped and watched pretty much constantly the entire summer of 1990.  This era of Aerosmith seemed inspired, focused and triumphant to me.

So, again, big hit, happy memories.  So, this also couldn't have been the moment, either, right?

Then we come to "Get A Grip," which, incidentally, my college buddy, Drew, and I ran all the way into Center City Philadelphia to purchase on its release date. After a rush back to the dorms and a first listen, we kind of knew that the album was just plain bad. Sure, the ballads were strong, but the rockers simply didn't rock very hard, and there was something funky about the songwriting....the songs were terribly inconsistent both in their style and their quality, which I later realized might have something to do with the presence of EIGHT co-songwriters on various tracks.

Moreover, it seemed as though this was the moment when Tyler's clever double-entendres became less of a schtick and more of a in a walking stick.  (Also known as a crutch).  Despite an earnest attempt at social commentary in the lead single,Tyler seemed to fully ensconce himself in the type of wordplay that initially seems clever, but might be more accurately described as lazy as the pattern repeats itself over and over and over through the years.

At the time, I chalked it up to a disappointing album -- searching high and low for reasons to like it.  But, truthfully, I moved on from Aerosmith after that.  Never bought another album.  Never saw them live again.  It was sort of like eating bad matter how much you used to enjoy them, after that last stinky night of burning disappointment, you know you'll never again spend your hard earned money on them.

(I'm not going to give time to the albums after "Get A Grip", other than to say that the singles alone are completely embarrassing.  Go ahead and listen to "Pink" or "Fallin in Love Is Hard on the Knees" if you need a reminder.......though I would be dishonest not to admit that I think that "Jaded" might be the single redemptive moment from this era).

I never stopped listening to the old albums, however.  In fact, songs from "Get Your Wings" have found themselves on an abnormal number of my iTunes playlists.  But I divorced myself pretty thoroughly from the later era stuff.

Coming Back to the Comeback

That time away from the band seems to have given me some clarity.  Because I've recently gone back and given a listen to "Permanent Vacation" and "Pump" -- commonly thought of as the comeback albums -- and I have to admit that neither is actually very good at all.

In fact, both albums sound all wrong.  I mean, completely wrong.

They're entirely too *huge* for Aerosmith -- a band that always thrived within a very loose, but driving, blues-based minimalism.  The snare drum booms on nearly every track.  The crash cymbals are mixed right up front for maximum impact. And the guitars and chorus vocals often feel multi-layered and clarified to the point that any and all sleazy, sloppiness found on "Rocks" or "Toys" is simply absent.  (Forgive me, Joe Perry, because your solo on "Rag Doll" is totally awesome).  

This is to say nothing of the majestic choruses on all of those ready-made singles, most of which bear the unmistakable stamp of professional hit-makers like Desmond Child and doofus A&R execs like John Kalodner.  (Forgive me, also, Jim Vallance, as "Magic Touch" is a quite fine song).

To that end, both records often feel closer to being a Bon Jovi album than an Aerosmith one.  Which is at least partially to say that while the albums were all wrong for Aerosmith, they were alright for the late 80's.  (To prove my point, give a listen to "Let the Music Do The Talking", a single off 1985's total dud, "Done with Mirrors," and you'll find the both the songwriting and the production sound much truer to Aerosmith's sound than "Girl Keeps Comin Apart", from the massively successful "Permanent Vacation").

To an extent, it seems unfair to group "Permanent Vacation" with "Pump," seeing as how "Pump" is a completely superior album.  But the two records are necessarily bound together in my head no longer as the time at which a newly sober Aerosmith got their act together, but more as example of the point at which the band simply embraced a lesser aesthetic.  (I'll stop short of saying that Aersosmith sold out, because they so clearly burnt out the first time).

And that puts the birth of the suck right at 1987, with the release of "Permanent Vacation".

It rubs all wrong, doesn't it?  But hear me out:

This album represents a fundamental shift in the Aerosmith brand, no longer serving the disaffected stoner kids, but instead directly targeting well-adjusted suburban youth such as myself.  

Gone was the hazy, drug-feuled aura surrounding the band, the live videos of Tyler and Joe Perry sweating out bucketfuls of toxins onstage as they leaned on one another to remain upright.  In its place were big smiles, exhausting puns, and constant over-the-top nods to sex that were anything but subversive or confrontational (unless, of course, you consider borderline incest fantasy music videos subversive, in which case I declare point: Tyler).  

Out with the slurred lyrics, in with the the monkey-chatter "A-CHA-CHA-CHA-CHA-CHA" technique for which Tyler has since become famous.

Never again would Aerosmith play the villains in a completely crappy rock opera.   Moving forward, they would star in their own children's video games instead.

Of course, it seems ironic -- and absolutely cliche -- to insist that Aerosmith started to suck as soon as their albums started selling. 

And, once again, we face that word, "unfair."  It seems so unfair to chastise Tyler, especially after watching that video that clearly shows that Steven Tyler is somehow still in touch with that seemingly-long-lost songcraft of his. 

And I guess it also seems dishonest, considering that "Permanent Vacation" and "Pump" were my gateways to the band.  I really loved those two albums, and no matter who shared the songwriting credits, there are still quite a few tracks on both records that I personally think are pretty damned good.  Even if they're all "wrong."

But somehow, this actually brings things full circle.  Because the entire thesis of this blog is that its perfectly ok to love stuff that sucks, as long as you're honest about it.  

So, I suppose that I do.  And I suppose that I am.

But more importantly, Aerosmith sucks.

Monday, August 13, 2012

You See Me Crying: 10 Songs that Mess Me Up

So, in my last post I made mention of something that had brought me to tears, and I guess it caught the four people who read this blog by surprise.

The truth is, I'm kind of a crier.

I'm not a bawler.  But it's pretty common for me to indulge a creeper in the corner of my eye at the end of Slumdog Millionaire. Or Philadelphia. Or Hotel Rwanda. Or  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  Or Its a Wonderful Life.

(The above list excludes probably my second most shameful crying episode: that time when my wife and I had just started dating, and we went to see Together.....a film that should probably be required viewing for anyone who had ever desired--or regretted their decision--to play music.  I won't spoil the ending, but the climax of the film happens to coincide with its very sudden ending.  And this means that there's no time at all to compose yourself should you happen to burst into tears as the story comes full circle.  

So, unless you can convince your then-new girlfriend that you like to sit through the entire credits of foreign films -- even if you both know you don't speak a word of Mandarin -- well, then, big guy, she's gonna see you cry for the first time.)

((The most shameful crying episode?  Oh, that was when I was in fifth grade, and I saw some  goddamned TV ad, featuring a kid leaving for college as his dog watches him drive away, the poor mutt's tail slowly stopping its wag as a tennis ball drops out of his mouth and rolls down the driveway. For reasons I cannot express today, this broke my heart, causing me to run into the bathroom and sob.  Over dinner that evening, my mother asked me what had been troubling me all night, and I foolishly reenacted the advertisement for her, bringing on yet another sobbing fit in front of the entire family.

I will never forget the look of exhausted confusion on my father's face as he sat in front of his dinner, waiting for me to please shut the fuck up)).

So, yeah: tears are sort of my thing, I guess.  And, so, it got me thinking about the many songs that have been known to make me cry.  Here is a sampling for your enjoyment and mockery:

Elliot Smith -- Waltz # 2


The grandaddy of all tearjerkers, in my book -- and not just because I'll always associate it with Smith's suicide. In fact, I once lived with a guy who was going through a tremendous depression over an unrequited love, and he listened to this record endlessly. 

A mere three years later, I went through a similar patch myself, and I suddenly understood the senselessly defeatist (yet willful) decision to not get over someone.

"I'm tired/I'm tired"

It somehow says so much.

Ain't No Nice Guy  (acoustic) -- Motorhead


Not only is this Lemmy's single most beautiful vocal performance, but damn near every couplet is a depth charge of self-awareness, timed to release only after its too late to change the reality of what a total fucking jerk you actually are.   

Sigur Ros -- Svefn g Englar 


I could not make the first guess as to what this song is about.  But I swear that there are times when I hear it that I wish nothing more than that I'd never had to have left the safety of my mother's womb.

He Moved Through the Faire -- as sung by Sinead O'Connor

For those of use who grew up in Irish households, Sinead knows how to hit that sad, sad note that permeates the best Irish music -- nearly a Celtic blue note, except less sexy and more.....miserable.

Celebrated Summer -- Husker Du

This song's indecision -- bouncing between exuberance, nostalgia and a vague sense of regret --  harnesses an emotional confusion that most people live with throughout much of their teens and even their 20's.  It is a true credit to Bob Mould's songcraft that he captures the sadness and futility of those years most clearly in retrospect. 

I'm supposed to see Mould live in three weeks and its pretty much a lock that I won't survive the middle section of this song intact.

You See Me Crying - Aerosmith

Jesus, do I hate what Aerosmith has become. Even so, this song has such a masterful, hazy, 70's AM radio vibe (god DAMN, that wonderful oboe and those awesome string arrangements!) that you can overlook the ridiculous-even-by-Areosmith's-standards lyric, "cuz my love is like a merry-go-round."  

No doubt about it: this song is unabashed in it's self-pity.  But at times we all need that.

Let It Loose -- The Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger might be a conceited jerk, but he has a way of turning some very vulnerable lyrics. That whole half-bridge, "Maybe your friends think/I'm just a stranger/Some face you'll never see no more" section, where his voice becomes thin and exasperated, has always struck me as one of the more honest and sincere vocals in the entire Stones catalog. 

Who ever would have thought Jagger gave a damn about what his groupies thought....much less what his groupies' friends thought?? 

Acetone - Mudhoney

"Oh, Lord what have we become?/We're not fooling anyone"

Nothing is sadder than shame.

Roberta Flack -- Do What You Gotta Do

I found this record in parents' vinyl collection during a sick day in high school.  Long before I'd ever had a girlfriend, after listening to this record I believed that I knew precisely what a breakup would feel like.  This song is so painful, so beautiful, so feminine and so totally dignified in the face of heartache that it crushes me to this day.

I Loves You, Porgy -- as sung by Nina Simone

"Don't let him take me/ Don't you let him handle me and take me off somewhere"