Monday, May 18, 2009

The Dispatch From Escalatorville: Like Waiting For A Sequel To 'Waiting For Godot'

Welcome to the latest installment of Escalatorville. You doin' all right? No worries. Relax. Exhale. Inhale. Hold It (no, no, in your lungs - not in your throat, that'll just make you cough). Exhale. Repeat As Needed.

The Circumstance Of Pomp

Now's the time of year for college and high school graduation ceremonies. Throughout the land, millions of enrobed (until the after party) seniors sit in awkward folding chairs and, with a collective glance toward their watches, wonder about their future.

Mainly, "When is this speaker going to shut up?"

I have not been offered the chance to speak at any of this years commencement ceremonies (still available for certain dates -, I also do weddings).

I have, however, composed a brief and general address for any procrastinator looking to plagiarize an educational touchstone:

'Good [Evening/Morning/Gravy!] - Graduates, Faculty, Staff, and the group of boys and girls roaming the aisles selling popcorn and beer;

I thank you again for the Honorary Degree in [Arts/Sciences/Animal Psycho-pharmacology] you've bestowed upon me. It shall be displayed with pride in my [Home/Office/Band Room], adjacent to my [Nobel Prize/Presidential Citation/Woodstock '94 Poster].

Now, most speakers will try to burden you with overwhelming goals and indifferent expectations. I say "nay" to all that. You have relatives whom have driven many miles to be here, sweating out the whole ceremony in this stuffy auditorium - and they're about ready for a goddamn drink!

Therefore, I offer some simple advice to the youth of America:

-Buy more masking tape than you think you might need. Mistakes will happen, trust me on this. Also trust that as time wears on, you'll feel less and less like correcting mistakes than you will in preventing them.

-Stop living your life through soundbites. Stop living your life through soundbites. Stop living your life through soundbites.

And, most importantly;
-Pull up your damn pants, you look ridiculous.

There, that'll get ya through to yer next identity crisis. Oh yeah, expect one of those every 5 to 7 years - chill out, you'll get over it. Try to be kind - and pay attention.

Now, since you'll forget everything I've said the moment you leave the building, we move onward, upward, over, under, sideways, down.'

There's a reason they're called "Previews"
Recently, at a cinema nowhere near near me - I saw trailers for three separate, upcoming, fictional films. A portion of each films plot line revolves around the future possibility that the human race will be forced to go to war against armies of machines.

The special effects in each looked most impressive. It's amazing what super intelligent computers can do - ain't it?

Then Kettle Gave Pot A Mirror
I think anyone still using the phrase "Think outside the box," really needs to take their own advice.

Am I the only one that's noticed the rapid de-evolution of communication?

Once upon a time, we wrote letters to one another (and used phrases like "once upon a time"). Then we had the quaint, yet artistically inviting, post card. We enjoyed both quite well for many years.

Alas, someone invented the Fax machine, which begat Email and - ahem- Blogs.

In the modern era, much of our citizenry has reduced contact to texting and Tweets. Ever minimizing the amount of actual communicating. I predict that in short time, we will revert back to grunting.

With that in mind, I'd like to unveil my latest invention - just in time for the holidays. It's a device you can download to your computer or phone. A picture of your face responds to each query by either bobbing up and down, or shaking from side to side. It's called the iNod.

Insert Numerous Inappropriate Headlines Here (No Fights)
The two continuing rumors I keep hearing about our new Commander In Chief:
A) He is a fan and proponent of "Pork."
B) He is a Secret Muslim

I just want the theorists to make up their minds - by definition, he CANNOT be both.

Notes on Notes Dept.
If you are reading this, then you partake in the interwebs. Do you ever log-up to the SpaceBook? Well, I do - and a number of folks have tried to convince me to create one of those "25 Albums Of Your Life" lists.

Certainly, I could engage in a Nick Hornsby style list-off with the cast of 'High Fidelity' any day of the week. My life has been inundated with music since day one. Luckily for me, my parents appreciation for music was equally proportionate to the variety of their tastes in it. Oh, I'm a music snob to be sure, but I've always enjoyed a bit of sound from every stop on your radio dial - and many points off the dial as well. Therein lies the trouble, for as I told my good friend (and former band mate) Ross about such a list;

"It's been rattling in my head. I'll have a good rundown of 5, maybe 6 in there, and then I'll walk in while Bess is exploring the iTunes list - end up relating some story from when I first copied someones cassette and photocopied the j-card, even though I didn't really know anything about The Cure. Then 'Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me' makes the list, which leads to 'The Head On The Door' and that 'Rubaiyat' compilation where The Cure covered The Doors. The Doors inevitably make me think of the Cult, and how can I make a life list without 'Electric'?"

With music, new stuff to love could be attached to the next email you read, hidden in the middle of a mix-tape you found at a garage sale, or wafting through the speakers at your local music emporium. So ya see, I would feel ill at ease simply throwing together my "25 Favorites" or "25 Best" because it's not fair to you or me. There's too much.

That said, in no particular order -

25 Albums That Changed How I Listen To Music

1) The Kingsmen - In Person: It's a live album by one of the first full time party bands. Their version of 'Twist and Shout' matches any that you've heard, and the original numbers pack a punch too. this album makes me want to play a gig every time I hear it.

2) Joan Jett & The Blackhearts - I Love Rock N' Roll: Flat out - the album is solid through and through. Catchy, great production, and polished yet raw. I, however, first heard the LP as I was entering puberty - and have had a crush on Joan Jett ever since. I bet you have too.

3) The Platters - Remember When?: Only one of the greatest vocal groups ever. You can pick this one up instead of any "hits" package, it's got most of them anyway. Pure 1959 wonderment embodied by 'Twilight Time,' 'Only You,' 'Good Night, Sweetheart' among many others. I'm not even going to mention 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.'

4) Walt Disney's Fantasia - Original Soundtrack: A near perfect introduction to the classical genre. You know every tune, even if you do sing "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" during 'Waltz Of The Flowers.'

5) Yardbirds - For Your Love: Pop music by craftsmen who listened to everything but. The entire collection is great, but there's a reason that I've covered the title song in nearly every single live show I've played for two decades. Staying Power.

6) Toots & The Maytalls - Funky Kingston: If you love reggae, you already own it. If you like reggae, you should own it. If you hate reggae, you need to own it. Not only for the title track and 'Pressure Drop,' but exquisite versions of 'Louie Louie' and 'Take Me Home Country Roads' that define the term "Re-make."

7) Derek & The Dominoes - Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs: Forget about 'Layla' - you've already heard it too much (Hell, you've been hearing Clapton's own re-do for almost 20 years already). Concentrate on the rest of the set. That's what separates this 'supergroup' from the rest of that era. The entirety of the album is really, really good. Think I'm joking? Check 'Bell Bottom Blues' or, one of the better Hendrix covers (and there have been plenty) in 'Little Wing.'

8) Hank Williams - 24 of Hank Williams' Greatest Hits: I wouldn't say this about most recordings, but, track down a re-issue of this one if you can. Y'see, the first pressing of the LP had Hank doing overdubs (essentially cover versions) of his own songs. Latter editions use the original recordings. Either way, you'll get an education in song-craft with lessons that have been learned by folks in Country, Rock, Rap, and nearly every other style of Pop music.

9) The Four Amigos - Live At The Hungry i: I know, you've never even heard of these guys. Don't fret, I hadn't either. I did know a little about the Hungry i and own a couple other albums recorded at that nightspot. Although the LP itself is not too remarkable, it is a lot of fun. The group dynamic is quite friendly (as their name would suggest) and quite obvious. It's clear that the performers here really enjoy what they do.

10) Tom Lehrer - An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer: There's a lot of folks who do musical 'parody' numbers. Lehrer was/is one of the smartest - and this album shows how a solitary performer can enrapture an entire audience with wit. In his jocular manner, Lehrer seems to both enjoy and disdain his pieces. Yet his work is quite evident, and thorough. The smartness of the writing should be enough to enthrall you with the album. Even when a song seems simple enough, listening to the lyrics illuminates the songwriters intelligence and dedication to the craft of parody.

11) Billy Squier - Don't Say No: My favorite Billy Squier song is not even on this album - that would be "Christmas Is The Time To Say 'I Love You'" (quite possibly the greatest Rock N' Roll Yuletide tune - and I would know). Whether you realize it or not, there is a "Classic Rock" radio station in or near your hometown that depends on this album daily. 'Lonely Is The Night?' Check. 'My Kinda Lover?' Check. Then there's track #3 - the immortal 'Stroke' - a song everyone you know has giggled about for 30 years...
"You say you're a winner, but man, you're just a sinner now."

12) Rocky Horror Picture Show - Soundtrack: I didn't see the film until well into high school, but thanks to a couple of cool caretakers, I knew all the songs by age 10. I also learned as much as one can/should learn about transvestites, science fiction, and Meatloaf at that age. Richard O'Brien certainly knew how to craft a memorable tune, but I knew them just as well from ad hoc sing-alongs in the living room after doing my homework. To Jo and Timmi - thank you for being great sitters, and for sharing a then - eclectic taste in music and culture which awakened my aesthetic senses.

13) Single Bullet Theory - Single Bullet Theory: This is an example of a band releasing the perfect album for it's time - and I'll bet dollars to donuts that you've never heard of it. This recording bleeds 1982 and bridges the gap between the new wave synth sounds and guitar pop which featured so prominently on the Top 40 of the day. Great hooks, and songs guaranteed to stick in your head. Also, the band is from my hometown, Richmond, Virginia. My dad knew a couple guys in the group, and as a kid, I got to see them play a few times. Now, nothing is cooler to a pre-teen than watching a band you have a (tenuous at best) personal connection to win the 'Rate A Record' segment of American Bandstand - so perhaps my opinion is slightly biased. The dice rolls and coin flips of record label marketing divisions wreak havoc on the futures of too many great bands. Unfortunately, such was the case with S.B.T. The album never got the promotion it needed, yet so aptly deserved.

14) Radiohead - The Bends: Often overlooked, the 2nd set by music's most innovative group in decades is what began their trek from merely interesting to downright intriguing. With 'Fake Plastic Trees,' 'Just,' 'Street Spirit,'- what more do you need? Oh yeah, 'High and Dry' is on there too.

15) R.E.M. - Automatic For The People: I bought this album as soon as it came out - and immediately recorded it to cassette. A year later, when my mom died, I listened to that cassette more than a dozen times on the bus ride from St. Augustine to Richmond. The songs were recognized touchstones that guided me through unfamiliar territory. It's a fantastic album even if you're not going through a period of sudden mourning - which I hope you aren't (but if you are, pick it up).

16) Velvet Underground - White Light/White Heat: Yeah, it's the easy choice for music snobs like myself. We'll point out the innovative use of sonic dissonance, feedback, and sparse instrumentation. Then we'll toss around terms like "influential," "groundbreaking," or "before it's time" to relay this LPs importance in the scope of modern, and post-modern, "rock" music. Really though, it's simply a unique and cool record.

17) Country Joe & The Fish - Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die: What exactly is this type of music? Rock? Folk? Vaudeville? A bit of each actually, while mixing some goofy fun with a bit of political messaging. It's got the original version of the the "Fish Cheer" immortalized at Woodstock - plus the album included it's own board game and features a drummer named "Chicken."

18) Prince & The Revolution - Purple Rain: This is one soundtrack that is tainted only by the movie it represents. You know most of the songs by heart - and despite whatever peaks or valleys Prince has traversed since then, there is no more perfect blend of rock, funk, and R&B. Parliament fans, don't hate me for that statement - it's much funner to play air guitar to 'Let's Go Crazy' than it is to, say, 'Night Of The Thumposaurus Peoples.'

19) John Mayall's Blues Breakers Featuring Eric Clapton: B.B. King said "the Blues had a baby, and they called it Rock N' Roll." John Mayall has been introducing mother and child for decades - this album is a springboard for many future meetings. The originals, like 'Key to Love,' are fantastic - but check out Clapton's interpolation of the riff from 'Day Tripper' into Ray Charles' 'What'd I Say.' The entire album opens a window overlooking the vast meadow of the blues.

20) Beatles - A Hard Day's Night Soundtrack: Truthfully, any or all Beatles albums would make this list, but this is one that merits a story. On the day after John Lennon was murdered, our baby sitter Timmi (also a writer - check out or, sat with us in our living room and played all of my parents' Beatle albums. I remember that day distinctly. That afternoon sparked my interest in music. It's why I have shelves full of vinyl records and CDs, it's why I have weeks of tunes on the computer. The page of that day holds a bookmark in the story of Me. This is the first album that I can really recall "getting into." The juxtaposition of the Fab 4's pop tracks interspersed with George Martin's instrumental and orchestral versions drew me into the world of possibilities offered by music.

21) The Who - Tommy: At first listen, this was just a collection of songs to me. Some I had heard on the radio, most I had not. Then, after a couple listens, I got it. I picked up on the story - and found that an 'opera' could actually be unstuffy, enjoyable, and easy to hum along to.

22) Fred Waring And His Pennsylvanians - Twas The Night Before Christmas: Waring's unique re-tooling with the structure and vocal arrangements of typical Yuletide fare are key to understanding how malleable a song can be. Side two features more traditional religious themed holiday pieces - quite well done - but it's the secular side one that will give your next Christmas party a kick in the pants.

23) Rolling Stones - Let It Bleed: I dug the sound of 'Monkey Man' long before I knew what the song was about. This album has that affect. For those whom make the claim that Mick, Keith, and company are indeed the 'world's greatest rock band," this collection should be your main evidence. Skipping over the realms of Rock, Blues, and even Country - the album manages to stay cohesive despite it's varied influences.

24) Love Sculpture - Forms & Feelings: The year is 1970 - on their second LP; the trio of Dave Edmunds, John Williams, and Rob 'Congo' Jones throw together some standard - dipped in the era - original tunes. What really sells the collection for me, though, is the relatively obscure cover of 'Mars' from Holst's 'The Planets'. Even more intriguing is how 'Mars' segues directly into the blistering ear candy comprising a 12 minute rendition of Khachaturian's 'Sabre Dance.' You'll totally dig it.

25) Various Artists - The 1969 Warner Reprise Record Show: In the late 1960's and early 1970's, record companies would circulate inexpensively priced promotional sets containing samples of new recordings by their popular (or poised-to-be popular) artists. Variations of this practice still exist, albeit with less creativity, and lesser artists. This particular compilation happens to be one of the best. The selection of tunes runs the gamut of musical choices available in 1969. Songs by Joni Mitchell or Pentangle can be found canoodling with tracks by Theo Bikel and Frank Zappa's Mothers Of Invention. I'd like to salute the programmer behind this particular collection. All 4 sides flow extremely well, and besides, who could resist closing an album with Fats Domino's rollicking version of 'Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except Me And My Monkey)?"

Well, that's the list. Some folks out there might be scratching their heads, expecting a bit more variety or more obscure recordings.

"What about the Residents, Soul Coughing, They Might Be Giants?" I hear you cry,"Where is Eno/Byrne's 'My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts?"

Your concerns are warranted, but the above list are titles taken strictly from my vinyl collection - records only.

Oh, I could easily compile another 25 from across all mediums - or get creepily specific (Yes, I do have a Top 25 Christmas Albums list in the works). This is just an introduction to the musical world of Escalatorville. I started on 33 1/3 and 45 RPM records - and that's where my collector's passion lies. I only hope my selections can give a little insight, and perhaps a bit of inspiration for your collection.

Listen. Enjoy. See ya 'round Escalatorville again, let's hope.

Sonically yours,
Z.F. Lively
Concerns always welcome, answers always hazy.