Monday, April 24, 1995

The New Dylan

Back during my sophomore year of college, I took a close look at my burgeoning record collection and noticed it was sadly lacking in female artists. While this was not exactly intentional, it was not altogether unexplainable. I always have been interested in music that I could relate to and understand, and that is something no one has ever accused me of doing with members of the opposite sex.

So, I asked all my educated buddies to suggest female artists and soon my collection contained everyone from the Pretenders to Slapp Happy, from Marianne Faithful to Emmylou Harris to Sheila Jordan. I listened and enjoyed much of what I heard. I've gone through my Madonna/Bangles/Joan Jett phase, have enjoyed current groups like the Throwing Muses, PJ Harvey, and L7. Yet the more I listen, the more I must admit my understanding of women has officially reached an all time low. When the best concert I've ever gone to was Bananarama at the Guthrie (they couldn't sing, didn't play instruments, couldn't dance, but damn they faked their way through Cruel Summer great), I must admit my admiration for female artists has bordered on patronizing.

Ultimately, I gave up. At the same time I was trying to add a female base to my record collection, I discovered Bob Dylan. I no longer cared about finding a female artist or any other male artists that I could relate to. For me, Bob was the real thing, all others were playing in the B league. His creative language, his vocal style, his spit into the wind attitude, oozes the very definition of all that is cool about life. Bob is one of the rare artists who doesn't make music to entertain or please; nor to express himself or reach others; Bob makes music because he has to- he wouldn't know what else to do. His music is religious, the very reason they sing hymns in church. Bob is cool.

When I first heard Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, it was a stirring experience. I really listened. Phair was the first female artist to whom I could relate; and she shared many Dylanesque qualities: clever heartfelt lyrics; unique and personal guitar playing music; the absolute need to sort through the inner while expressing to the outer. She doesn't do this for approval, or for tangible things, she seems to do it because of the need to. There are those in my life who ask me which new artists they should listen to, figuring since I work at Cheapo, I have some knowledge of what is good out there (yeah right). I suggested Exile in Guyville to a woman and she brought it back and said, "I see why you like her. She sounds like a female Bob Dylan. She can't sing either."

Working for state government doesn't exactly inspire one to creative heights. There are certain days when I can feel whatever embers of creativity that once lingered inside, quickly die away. Yet one of my all time favorite achievements was sending a Liz Phair quote across a division wide email. What made this even better was getting another Liz Phair quote sent back to me in response. Cool.


SHE strolled onto the stage at First Avenue Saturday night wearing striped pants and a leather halter top thing. She smiled and strummed her way into Divorce Song and the place went nuts. She sang all the songs one might expect her to sing (except I guess, Whip Smart and Dance of the Seven Veils). There was some new material; a song answering the artist formerly known as Prince's song to Cindy Crawford. "I feel so beautiful..."; and an anthem to those who wish to impose the death penalty to someone caught growing cannabis. Liz also announced that the much sought after Girly Sound will be released soon. "I gave all my tapes from my closet to someone. Call it juvenilia..."

The stripped down sound of just Liz with her electric guitar was quite appropriate. The bigger sounds of songs like Supernova and Jealousy may have lost their powerful electric riffs but something was gained in the poignancy of the angry performance (the line about, "and your lips are slippery like a cherub's bare wet ass," always gets me somehow). The absolute highlight for me was Never Said which Liz introduced by saying, "Do any of you know any jerks?"

So what is it about her music that makes one stand alone in a room full of packed humans, squished against a barrier, intertwining with the swirling smell of smoke and sweat? Maybe it isn't exactly music I understand genderwise (one of the questions of the evening was if she would sing Flower a song that might make Lenny Bruce blush- she did, turning afterwards to smile and say, "Just kidding"), but her songs aren't so much about the act and the gender of sex as they are about the complexities of love and loneliness, reaching out to be understood in an ever confusing world. Standing in the crowd, I wondered what the guys listening think and feel when she sings Divorce Song ? Do we get it? I know I, for one, have had many of the conversations that Liz sings about, either with another or internally. I finally can see the other side.

She closed the evening with the ultimate Liz song, a searing version of Fuck and Run. "What ever happened to a boyfriend? The kind of guy who makes love because he's in it. I want a boyfriend... I want all the stupid old shit like letters and sodas." Then she smiled, shyly walked off the stage. It was a rare, wonderful evening, the sounds buzzed through my mind- man, you make me dizzy Miss Lizzy, the way you rock and roll. You're a better man than me. And you're way cool.

Monday, April 17, 1995

Easter Tail

ham\'ham\n [hamme] 1: a cut of meat consisting of a thigh; esp: one from a hog 2: a showy performer; esp: an actor performing in an exaggerated theatrical style

So scabball never quite came to be and Buford the Bunny found himself speeding his way home from his first practice of the season. Chaos loomed in the aftermath of a bitter work stoppage, and Buford, like many of his peers found himself a free agent signee on a brand new team with brand new faces. Some of the old familiar ones he meekly missed in the process of turning reality into another memory. As his mind wandered, he heard a noise- KABOOM! Buford's timing belt gave way and the power of his engine ground to a halt.

One minute he was moving full speed, cranking the tunes basking in the glow of a successful athletic outing. It had been a decent evening nothing to take for granted. Even his groin, continually injured the previous season, didn't bother him at all. The next thing he knew, Buford's engine stalled, and he limped to the intersection lucky to hit a red light as he desperately tried to restart himself. After a long hard spring, where events toppled down upon themselves like a row of dominoes (vacation plans fell on through, scheduled to work right through June; personal changes happened too soon), to take away his wheels seemed like a cruel irony to it all.

His one lucky break was he ended up near by a service station. Not knowing if it was a trustworthy place, he did not know what he should do. But they were very kind. Provided good customer service. Did an initial check to see if they could determine what the problem was, offered to better any other estimates. They provided a needed calm in a stressful situation.

Strikes aside, silence inside, bonking timing belt noises outside, Buford made it home. That was a blessing; better count those for he knew not when they too might disappear. The weighted stress of disappointment was sometimes hard to take. Buford knew it was all in the way one looked at things. Often time, you have to dig beneath the surface, keep on looking, to reveal life's many hidden treasures. No use dwelling on the downers. There was always further to fall. All he had recently achieved in both his personal and professional life was certainly nothing to sneeze at.

He hoped he could fall asleep quickly and when he awoke everything would go away and be O.K. But he could not sleep. He was too tired. Cutoff, detached with his mind racing a million miles an hour down that same old dead end street, he tossed and turned, resigned to another sleepless night. He began to realize that this was his fate, his life was somehow being lost in the flurry of time gone by. What happened tomorrow likely wouldn't be much different than what happened today yet it was radically different than what happened yesterday. Still, the feeling lingered that somehow this wasn't the way things were supposed to be.

The next morning he went to his refrigerator and took out a carton of eggs. He took out his paints and went to work; church colored prayers, ribbons and bows, and highway lines etched in his memory from years past, the lines connected to one and other in the most circular manner imaginable. Green swirls mixed with red skies and gray hues, cathartic creativity hidden deeper than the yolks of the cracked hard boiled eggs. He never considered himself an artist, and sometimes the monotony of his once a year, "special" job seemed to be more of a chore than a craft. Somehow he was able to get it done, and somehow the final result was rewarding. But somewhere along the way, his sense of adventure and humor had walked away. He wondered what would change if his deliveries ever stopped. Would Peter Cottontail keep hoppin' down that bunny trail? Would Humpty Dumpty rise again?

Ah, but it was springtime, the time a young bunny's heart turned to the bark of unprotected saplings. He looked across the land of a vast field in front of him. Underneath, his feet sunk in the marshy like rain drenched grass. It was the perfect weather for a romp in the park, a swing on a swing, a memory of a long lost trip, merely a phone call, or an email away. He thought of days when he had messed up and dropped the ball. Another opportunity lost, never to be seen again. As time went by, none of it seemed to matter as much anymore. Much of it was tax deductible. For a flash of a moment, he actually felt inspired again.

His reflection looked back from the pool of a puddle that was spilled in the middle of the field. His sensitive rabbit's ears had finally heard from the girl with a man's name. She was a better man than he could ever be. The lingering presence of the spirit shot through the palm of his hand. He envied that lucky old gift that got to change hands. His face had the look of quiet confidence of one who looked as if he knew more than he actually did. He looked back up in the distance. The future seemed unlimited, so many roads ahead yet to travel. If and when that old timing belt got fixed, Buford would start again., for he had finally learned his valuable lesson: Never put all your eggs in one basket.

Wednesday, April 12, 1995


"These are parlous times, Alex. Sloppy's getting harder to bring off, and cute ain't enough."

-Robert Christgau

Big Star produced some of the loveliest, most heartfelt, spooky and inspiring music these ears have ever heard. Songs like Holocaust, Jesus Christ, Oh Dana, The Ballad of El Goodo, When My Baby's Beside Me, combine a surety of melody with sparse instrumentation and haunted vocals to create powerfully mood altering music. Just when I think the world has gone wrong, I pop in one of Big Star's, or Alex Chilton's discs, and things don't seem so bad anymore.

Thus it is with great pleasure that Chilton's newest effort, A Man Called Destruction, is such a wonderful (and a little bit surprising, certainly unexpected) effort. The contest is over! We have a winner folks, and they need not make any more CDs this year! You can't do any better! Chilton's solo career seldom has achieved the same emotional intensity of Big Star's best work, yet he remains a quirky artist one who is unquestionably a truly committed singer/ songwriter/performer mixing personal angst with what is at the heart of all great rock and roll: passion and primal simplicity.

High Priest, Alex's last full length studio effort was a continuing return to his R&B roots. A Man Called Destruction is molded from the same vein. The song cycle kicks off with a spirited rocker called Sick and Tired which has Alex impatiently chiding his girl to make up her mind over what she's going to do because he's "sick and tired of fooling around with you." The second song, Devil Girl has the singer bemoaning the lure of a wicked woman. By the third song, Lies, it is now Alex who is on the defense licking his wounds stung by the words of a relationship gone wrong.

Alex's cynical humor has always been one of his most endearing, appealing traits, and the CD switches moods suddenly with a rendition of a funeral march followed by the goofy What's Your Sign Girl which has such strained rhymes using the signs of the Zodiac, ("if you're a Virgo we can make it from the start. Miss Leo, you foxy lion heart...") that one is forced to question whether he has either lost his marbles or if he is using his genius to have a laugh on us. It's darn right Brian Wilsonesque which is appropriate since Alex ends up covering a Wilson song, New Girl in School, which is so faithful to the Beach Boys' sound in recreating the vocal harmonies, that it sounds like a great long lost track from the early sixties.

Alex's unpolished guitar playing is inspired throughout the entire disc. From the bluesy Sick and Tired to the rhythm and blues playing on Boplexity, Alex leaves his unique stamp on each of the tunes. He may not be a virtuoso musician but every lick comes from that unique place that can't be repeated nor reproduced by another. His guitar playing forms a stylistic bond with his versatile voice.

The journey Alex takes us on from the beginning of the disc to the end leaves a trail of memories covering the full spectrum of emotions. Anger and sadness, give way to the smile and the wink of the eye underlying the joy of music making. The salvation of one's experience with life's heartbreaks is in the rhythm of words, thoughts, feelings and music. The betrayal and denial of another is given release in the sheer joy of expression. One can get up and dance or turn off the lights and do whatever one does when the light ain't there anymore (that would be hours of sleepless reflection in my case).

A Man Called Destruction is not Alex's masterpiece. It's not exactly going to get a lot of attention from the music buying or radio listening public. But it is another gem, another hour's worth of sublime music making from one artist who has always remained true to his own unique vision. What is the significance of the title? Listening to Alex's early music one can hardly believe he has survived this long. For one who feels things so deeply, certainly self destruction has been a constant companion. Thus it is inspiring to know he has come so far and has been so true for so long. That he is continually performing to a dwindling audience has its advantage (artistic freedom) as well as its inherent downfalls. Entertained? Enlightened? One wishes all music could be this individualistic, goofy, heart wrenching and good.



Monday, April 3, 1995

Oprah... Uma... Oprah... Uma...

As proven in last week's column, I spend way too much of my time in the dark. Unfortunately, not all that time is time well spent. I have seen more than my share of lousy movies. So the flipside of last week's piece is the following list of the ten worst movies I have seen. This does not include such fare as the Porky's or Police Academy movies; those movies didn't strive to be good. Instead, these movies are ones that had some semblance of artistic ambition and thus were all the more disappointing because somewhere from start to finish, something went wrong and caused major sucking.

10) Color Purple- Steven Spielberg's first attempt to be a serious filmmaker demonstrated what he does well and what even his most popular movies lack; he's a master at creating atmosphere and using film's ability to create a sense of wonderment, but his characters in this movie are never developed and the contrast between good and evil isn't taken beyond the most simplistic level. The serious themes of the story deserved better.

9) The Piano- A film very well made, with strong performances, yet the story is about the rape of a mentally disturbed woman. Love in the nineties?

8) Dances With Wolves- I like Kevin Costner, and though I haven't seen Robin Hood or his upcoming Waterworld (which has Hollywood abuzz with comparisons to the failure of Ishtar) this is his worst movie. Dances With Wolves isn't so much a bad movie as it is a movie with a bad message. All the white men in the movie are caricatures with the exception of Costner himself, and that ultimately the Indian woman falls in love with the one good white man, and that he saves the Indians means this movie is so politically incorrect as to affirm the crimes the United States was founded on and has tried hard to forget.

7) Beauty and the Beast- The conservative politics and sexism that exists in most Disney movies can somehow be overlooked because of the artistry of the animation, and the strength of the stories. Not the case here. You spend the entire movie telling about how inner beauty is more important than outer ugliness, and then you end with a handsome prince winning the woman. Explain please.

6) Return of the Jedi- The conclusion to the Star Wars trilogy that betrayed the first two movies' interesting characters and the setup between good and evil being the opposite sides of the same coin. How can you justify ending such impressive storytelling with a smiling Obi Wan and Yoda singing with a bunch of Muppets?

5) Rocky IV- This might fall in the Porkys category because when you get this far down into a series of sequels, you are bound to lose what original inspiration there was. But what is even more criminal about a movie that ends with an American hero winning over a Russian audience is that the first Rocky was a very good movie. The first movie was about the streets of Philadelphia and the eccentricity of its characters. The following two movies at least were entertaining (in fact in number three Stallone plays with the theme of getting spoiled and losing what one originally fights for.) Rocky should have quit while he was on top.

4) The Doors- Oliver Stone's movies are sledgehammers of style overwrought with pretentiousness. His characters are never people but props for messages. In this movie one can see how Stone could relate to Jim Morrison- an artist who could have used a dose of humility and whose worst vice was taking himself way too seriously.

3) Blue Velvet- Often heralded for its quirkiness and its offbeat style, this movie exploits its lead actress and the mixture of David Lynch's juvenile humor and the serious theme of abuse, just doesn't mix. The closing scene with Isabella Rosellini hanging completely naked (literally and figuratively) is disturbing because the movie doesn't earn the scene, and no one in its audience seems to care.

2) Boxing Helena- Poor filmmaking runs in the family. Jennifer Lynch's debut as a director shows some of her father's style but she is in way over her head with the story of being so obsessed with another that you mutilate them. Sherilyn Fenn's character of Helena is so bitchy and unemotional even after losing her limbs, that it competes with the main character's creepiness and lack of charisma. This is truly one movie that made me regret wasting two hours of my life on such drivel.

1) The Natural- How bad does an ulcer have to be to bleed through a man's uniform? How bad can a movie be that paints its hero in such heroic terms that by the end I wanted him to fail, utterly bored by the absolute predictability of it all. Growing up, I enjoyed many a bad baseball movie, from Fear Strikes Out, to Pride of the Yankees. But this wasn't merely a bad baseball movie it was an exercise in propped up self indulgence. Redford takes a story about one man falling to his vices, coming back and ultimately falling to the same vices, and turns it into a vanity flick. Glenn Close outlined in a halo of light, did anyone ever hear of the concept of subtlety?