The Beatles: Dying Young

If we think back to our English 101 classes, classes that occurred so long ago, we’ll undoubtedly recall a poem by A.E. Housman, even though we have no idea who the hell A.E. Housman was, which is somewhat understandable, given that he died in 1936, and we’d be unlikely to have any reason to read him outside of an English 101 class.  (Sort of sad to think that he is considered one of the greatest scholars of all time, and here I am, dismissing him like some circus curiosity.)

Our familiarity would be with one of his poems, “To an Athlete Dying Young.”  The opening quatrain:

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

But then, as the title indicates, the athlete died.  And Housman writes:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.


Which brings me to the Beatles.

Here we are, at the 50th anniversary of their arrival in America.  Of their walking down the steps of a jet (would they have used a jetway had one been available, or would Brian Epstein realized the importance of visibility, back in a more innocent time, when people could actually get beyond the TSA screening without a boarding pass?).  Of their appearing on the Ed Sullivan show, when they might as well have been more unplugged than the Chili Peppers at the Super Bowl.  Lipsync hell.  They could have just stood there and shaked their heads on occasion.  That would have been enough.

A few weeks ago I was in Las Vegas, the place where entertainers go to earn a meal ticket when the grueling life of touring it too much.  “Love” is still playing at The Mirage.  This reimagining of Beatles’ music will probably be playing at The Mirage long after Donny and Marie give it up due to hip replacement surgery.

The Beatles are still with us.

But we are without the Beatles.

(No, that is not a conscious reference to “Within You Without You.”  Honest.)

There will never be another band like the Beatles.  And in large part, that’s because the band, to gloss Housman, died young.  They never became “lads that wore their honours out.”  They put out a body of work at a time when there wasn’t an endless drone of alternatives that sound like the opening of “Tomorrow Never Knows.”  They pulled the exceedingly neat trick of continuing to create new music and new fans while retaining their old fans.  Consider that Meet the Beatles was released in 1964, Revolver in 1966, The Beatles (aka, The White Album) in 1968, and Let It Be in 1970.

That was it.  That short period of time with such a wide range of music.  (Yes, there were other things in between, but clearly those releases mark huge differences, one from the other.)

What would have happened had they continued, had they not had the falling out?  Or what if one member left the group to be replaced by someone else?  Or if the member left and he was replaced by a series of someones?

Would the Beatles have become The Beach Boys?

Would they have the veneration and the esteem?

Would we be celebrating 50 years in a public way, or would there just be a group of fans who’d acknowledge the anniversary?

There will never be a band that will be as big at the Beatles.  This is not only due to the proliferation and cacophony that is so characteristic of the music scene now.

But because there will probably never be a group of guys who will have created such an amazing body of work and then saying, in effect, “Fuck it.  We’re done.”

In effect, dying young.

Total U.S. Album Sales (physical + digital in millions)

Music Sales Over the Years: 2013 Year-End Soundscan Data

I love it when Billboard releases the year-end Soundscan data. It’s fascinating to see how people are spending their money on music. I wouldn’t be surprised if within a few years Billboard starts incorporating streams into their year-end charts somehow. Although — come to think of it — I’m not sure whether or not the streaming services have a way of tracking “album streams,” or if they even care. I would imagine it’s a miniscule number anyway without much relevance to anything.

I still listen to albums sometimes, but I spend most of my day with iTunes shuffling a byzantine custom playlist that depends on a song’s ranking, when it was last played, etc. It’s convoluted but it works for me and makes sure that songs I love don’t fall off my radar completely. I’ve dipped into streaming a bit but it doesn’t totally appeal to my sense of hoarding. Yet.

My favorite albums of 2013 were Phosphorescent’s Muchaho and Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City. I also totally obsessed over Father John Misty’s Fear Fun (2012).

Anyway, here’s the Soundscan data for 2013 compared to as much prior history as I could scrape off the internet. If you can help me fill in any gaps (especially 1991-1995, the early Soundscan era), I would certainly appreciate it.

Total U.S. Album sales (physical + digital in millions)

Total Album Sales (physical + digital albums)

2013: 289.41 million
2012: 315.96 million
2011: 330.57 million
2010: 326.15 million
2009: 373.9 million
2008: 428.4 million
2007: 500.5 million
2006: 542.4 million
2005: 618.9 million
2004: 667 million
2003: 687 million
2002: 681 million
2001: 763 million
2000: 785 million
1999: 754.8 million
1998: 711 million
1997: 651.8 million
1996: 616.6 million

Compact Discs

2013: 165.4 million
2012: 193.4 million
2011: 223.5 million
2010: 239.9 million
2009: 294.9 million
2008: 360.6 million
2007: 449.2 million
2006: 553.4 million
2005: 598.9 million
2004: 651.1 million
2003: 635.8 million
2002: 649.5 million
2001: 712.0 million
2000: 730.0 million
1999: 648.1 million
1998: ~578 million*
1997: 504.6 million
1996: 448.4 million
1995: 368 million

Digital Albums

2013: 117.58 million
2012: 117.68 million
2011: 103.1 million
2010: 86.3 million
2009: 76.4 million
2008: 65.8 million
2007: 50 million
2006: 16.2 million
2005: 5.5 million

Vinyl albums

2013: 6.1 million
2012: 4.55 million
2011: 3.9 million
2010: 2.8 million
2009: 2.5 million
2008: 1,877,000
2007: 990,000
2006: 858,000
2005: 857,000
2004: 1,187,000
2003: 1,404,000
2002: 1,339,000
2001: 1,246,000
2000: 1,533,000
1999: 1,405,000
1998: 1,376,000
1997: 1,092,000
1996: 1,145,000
1995: 794,000
1994: 625,000

Cassette albums

2009: 34,000

2007: 274,000

2004: 8.6 million

2002: 29.8 million
2001: 49.4 million
2000: 77.2 million
1999: 105.5 million
1998: ~130.8 million
1997: 146 million
1996: 166.7 million

Digital tracks

Digital Track Sales (in millions)

2013: 1.26 billion
2012: 1.336 billion
2011: 1.27 billion
2010: 1.17 billion
2009: 1.16 billion
2008: 1.07 billion
2007: 844.1 million
2006: 582 million
2005: 353 million
2004: 141 million
2003: 19.2 million (SoundScan monitored them only during the year’s second half)

Track equivalent albums (where 10 track downloads equal one album)

2013: 415.3 million
2012: 449.5 million
2011: 457.7 million
2010: 443.4 million
2009: 489.8 million
2008: 535.4 million
2007: 585 million
2006: 646.3 million
2005: 654.1 million
2004: 680.7 million


2013: 118.1 billion
2012: 89.5 billion (calculated on reports that 2013 was up 32%)

Sources: USA Today, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, USA Today, Computer World, New York Times, Hollywood Reporter, CTV, BBC, WSJ, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, Billboard, Pitchfork, Narm.


A Glorious Noise Guide to Bob Dylan


I have a favorite era of Dylan, and it’s short: 1965-66. There’s stuff he did before and after that I like a lot, but the bulk of my mix comes from those two years. And I’ll defend that decision to the death; feel free to make your own Dylan playlist that represents his career more thoroughly. These are songs that I love, songs that showcase my favorite themes of Dylan’s catalog: aching love songs, bitter breakup songs, country-fried rock songs with trippy wordplay. That’s my bag.

There aren’t any “protest” songs here (Dylan dismissed them as “finger pointing songs”), but there’s still plenty of finger pointing. Instead of obvious targets such as warmongers and segregationists, my favorite Dylan songs take aim at his fellow Baby Boomers for being a bunch of pretentious phonies. He was prescient like that.

1. Tell Me, Momma – Dylan is known for his lyrics, but that’s not why I kicked off my comp with this song. “Tell Me, Momma” sounds closer to the Velvet Underground than any other “classic rock” of the era. Dig that organ drone! It certainly doesn’t sounds like folk music, and the barely discernible lyrics are secondary to the racket. A blatant “folk you!” to his audience’s expectations.

2. Subterranean Homesick Blues – Another one where the words don’t really mean anything. Except, of course, when they mean everything. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” after all. It’s the sound of a guy having fun with language, and daring pointy-headed beard-scratchers to try to make sense of it.

3. Eternal Circle – I like this because all he wants to do is finish his damn song so he can go out and hook up with a girl, but it just won’t end! Tom Waits ended up with the same punchline on “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You.”

4. All I Really Want To Do – Gotta love that harmonica. If you’re listening to this on the train, everybody around you will know it’s Dylan. I love the way this is recorded, where you can hear his sniffling and chuckling between words. This might be a love-it-or-hate-it vocal for Dylan newbs. I love it, but I can understand it might take some getting used to. My wife told me that when she was a little girl she heard a Dylan song on the radio and asked her mom how a guy who sounds like that could be on the radio. The answer: “It’s political.” Perfect.

5. If You Gotta Go, Go Now – I like it when Dylan gets a little raunchy. “It ain’t that I’m questioning you to take part in any quiz / It’s just that I ain’t got no watch and you keep asking me what time it is.”

6. Tombstone Blues – This sounds like the Pixies, like it could be on Come On Pilgrim with the frantic acoustic and screaming lead guitar. And Dylan’s voice doesn’t get any snottier than this.

7. Highway 61 Revisited – Get past the clown whistle, and just listen to that Wurlitzer electric piano boogie. The conversational lyrics are playful and funny. Dylan’s humor is often overlooked when he is depicted as Serious Artist, Voice of a Generation. Dude could be hilarious.

8. Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window? – My favorite Dylan narrative structure is his second-person plea to a woman about what a dick the guy she’s with is. This one’s about a controlling asshole: “Why does he look so righteous while your face is so changed?”

9. Like a Rolling Stone – OK I know this song is overplayed to the point of becoming sonic wallpaper but hear me out. I almost put an alternative take or live version on here to force you to listen with fresh ears, but the master version is fucking perfect. As I get older the lyrics hit me harder and harder. I’m pretty darn happy with how my life has turned out, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets. And this song is all about how the hubris of youth gets quashed by the realities of life. One of the bits that kills me every time is: “You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely / But you know you only used to get juiced in it.” My poor mom worked three crappy jobs to be able to afford to send me to my fancy-assed private college, and what did I do there? Get wasted. I’m aware that my life could’ve easily turned out like the subject of Dylan’s scorn (still could!), and I try hard now not to take things for granted when I’m hanging out with “all the pretty people drinkin’, thinkin’ that they got it made.”

10. Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues – Gotta include this for no other reason than the Beastie Boys sample (“Finger Lickin’ Good”), but even without that its moody, piano-driven vibe makes it worthy. Plus, Dylan’s exhausted vocals perfectly fit the Kerouac-inspired tale of a trip to a border town.

11. Visions of Johanna – This is another one of those songs that you can listen to a million times and catch new stuff each time. I’ve tried to parse out a linear narrative, and sometimes it feels like I’ve almost got it, and then it just disappears. Which, I guess, is kinda the point of the song. By the end of the second verse, you might think you’ve got it figured out: “Louise, she’s all right, she’s just near / She’s delicate and seems like the mirror / But she just makes it all too concise and too clear / That Johanna’s not here.” Sounds like a fairly straightforward “I want the one I can’t have, and it’s driving me mad” scenario. But then in the third verse our narrator can’t sleep and ends up out in the hall with Little Boy Lost: “He’s sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all.” And the fourth verse has him making fun of tourists in a museum until “these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel.” The final verse introduces a bunch of new characters, builds to a musical climax, and at the end “these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.”

12. She’s Your Lover Now – Another second-person stream of vitriol, this time the “you” in question flips between his ex and her new guy. My favorite line is: “You just sit around and ask for ashtrays, can’t you reach? / I see you kiss her on the cheek every time she gives a speech.” It has the bitterness and that specificity of an early Mountain Goats song. The fact that this take trails off before the song is actually finished just makes it even better, as if Dylan is so pissed he can’t even make it to the end without kicking over his mic stand in a fit of spite.

13. If You See Her, Say Hello – Similar subject but different perspective. No longer angry. “She might think that I’ve forgotten her, don’t tell her it isn’t so.”

14. Tangled Up in Blue – My favorite line in this song is: “I must admit I felt a little uneasy when she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe.” Heh heh.

15. Simple Twist of Fate – A relatively simple story about bringing a woman back to a hotel and waking up alone. It’s in the third-person until the final verse where Dylan takes it into the first-person (“I still believe she was my twin, but I lost the ring”) for a little extra oomph when we realize the woman he’s talking about there probably isn’t the same lady he hooked up with in the beginning of the song. Oops.

16. Blind Willie McTell – Recorded in 1983 and inexplicably not released until 1991 considering the fact that it’s better than everything else he did in the eighties combined. An apocalyptic travelog that takes us through time and across the South to explore the roots of American music from “charcoal gypsy maidens,” chain gangs, and “ghosts of slavery ships.” Heavy stuff.

Rockin’ the Vodka on the (Lava) Rocks

Given the anti-gay laws and whole Edward Snowden contretemps, it seems as though Russian vodka isn’t as popular in drinking establishments in the West as it once was, which provides an opening for distillers from other countries. . .including Iceland.  Yes, the land of Björk.

Timing is good for Reyka vodka, which uses lava rocks for filtration, especially as it is running a contest for musicians, DJs and fans to perform at and attend the Iceland Airwaves music festival, which will be held October 30 to November 3.

Musicians and DJs have until August 19 to send in their work to Reyka, using Grooveshark (  Music lovers have time for a cocktail or two, as they’re not to sign up for their chances to win until later this month: they can do it on Reyka’s Facebook page ( from August 30 th through September 30 th.

There will be two bands and two fans sent to the festival among the glaciers and lava.

Says Reyka senior brand manager Lindsay Prociw, “We want our creative friends around the world to flock to Reyka’s land as a beacon of inspiration and imagination, and we’re happy to shepherd them one band, or fan, at a time.”

Presumably with a sufficient number of Reykas on the rocks, and shepherding is a requirement.


Neil Young - Everybody's Rockin'

Songs, Law Suits & Sundaes

Neil Young - Everybody's Rockin'

While the idea that artists can make music that is not what people, fans, mainly, think or expect them to make and yet that music has as much validity as anything that they may have previously recorded or performed raised in this recent entry about Elvis Costello, it has come to my attention that this isn’t some philosophical rabbit hole, but potentially something that could have crippling consequences for the performer in question.

That is, back in the 1980s, when Neil Young was signed to David Geffen’s label, Geffen sued Young for $3-million, with the suit claiming that the music that Young was putting out—Trans and then Everybody’s Rockin’—were “unrepresentative” of, well, presumably Neil Young music.

The suit was dropped, but consider what the existence of the suit in the first place meant.

Neil Young was signed to a label presumably because there was something that was considered to be “Neil Young Music.”  Prior to that point in time, Young had put out a rather robust body of work, a collection that could be considered, to put it modestly, eclectic.

Does, say, Harvest (’72) have much similarity to Rust Never Sleeps (’79)?

Yet Geffen seems to have thought that there was Neil Young Music and there was something that was Not Neil Young Music.  He had paid for NYM.  He was getting what he perceived to be NNYM.  And so he wanted his money back.

If you went to an ice cream store and ordered a banana split and they gave you a hot fudge sundae, you’d probably want a redo, at the very least.  Arguably some of the components of the banana split are like those of the hot fudge sundae, but that’s not what you had in mind.

And Geffen didn’t have, apparently, Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’ in mind, either.

So who’s right?  Who decides?  The artist/performer or the person paying for the product?  (Yes, “product” is a loaded word, but most musicians are not involved in personal not-for-profit undertakings, because when they go to the ice cream store for that hot fudge sundae, the person behind the counter expects money, not a song.)

Steely Dan 2013 merch

Steely Dan Alive In Detroit

Steely Dan 2013 merch
Fox Theater, July 27, 2013

“Hey Nineteen
That’s ‘Retha Franklin
She don’t remember
The Queen of Soul
It’s hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I’m crazy
But I’m just growing old”—Becker & Fagan, “Hey Nineteen,” Gaucho.

I suspect this may be the last time that I see Steely Dan in concert.  And the reason is simple: They are growing old.  And when you grow old—Fagan is 65 and Becker 63—things don’t work quite as well as they did as when you were young.

Fagan’s voice isn’t as strong as it once was.  Becker availed himself of a chair on stage not long into the performance.  Fagan’s voice actually got better, by and large, as the evening went on.  And Becker got up off his seat sooner, rather than later.

Those guys have been performing those songs for a long time.  And while practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it does make better, which compensates for the loss in performance capabilities.  More or less.

Mind you, it isn’t that this may be the last time because they are growing old and I somehow think that I’m not and consequently I don’t want to see gray-haired or hair-challenged,  increasingly thick musicians.  After all, I enter into that category, as well.

But I just wonder whether those two are going to continue against nature and continue to undertake the unnatural touring life for much longer.

And I must admit that were it not for an absolutely astonishing back-up band, who did much of the heavy lifting (especially Jim Beard on keyboards and Jon Herrington on guitars), it would have been a less-than-stellar evening’s performance at Ticketmaster prices.


This is something that truly puzzles me.  Why do we go see bands like Steely Dan?

The last time they put out an album was 10 years ago.  Everything Must Go.

The band has been putting out records since 1972.  In 1980, Gaucho was released.  Then, there was pretty much a Steely Dan hiatus until 2000, with Two Against Nature.  There were solo efforts and the Alive in America recording (1995), but 1980 was something of an end point, it seems, as regards Steely Dan.

There was nothing older than selections from Gaucho played at the concert.  There were all manner of the tried-and-true from the other discs.  “Show Biz Kids.”  “Deacon Blues.” “Peg.”  “Reelin’ in the Years.”  Etc.

So there we were, listening to 30-year-old musical selections, music that we’d all heard, literally hundreds of times.

Somehow this seems a little odd.

There were but minor variations from the way we were used to hearing the music.  Which means that it was little different than what those of us who were at the Fox two years earlier had heard.

If someone said, “So, are you going to see an oldies’ show?” we’d be miffed.

But isn’t that what it was?


While the name of the band is, of course, Steely Dan, it could just as well have been Fagan & Becker.  After all, those two are the only points of commonality throughout the band’s career.

It reminds me, in a couple of ways, of Hall & Oates.

In the cases of both sets, they are more successful musically together than they are apart.  Sure, there are some good things on Nightfly as there are on Sacred Songs.  But still, together is better.

And when John Oates steps up to the mic for a lead vocal, a bit of cringe sets in.

A bigger cringe sets in when Walter Becker goes to the mic.

He sang “Monkey in Your Soul” from Pretzel Logic.  And something happened that I have never experienced at a concert.  Never.

When he was done, there was no rousing round of applause.  There was little applause at all.  It wasn’t because it was horrible.  It was just as if people weren’t really sure if they were done, if the song was over.

It must have been offsetting to Becker.  Had I been under similar circumstances, I would have probably wandered off the stage not to return.


Two quotes from Fagan.

“We’re in Detroit, so we’re going to play the blues.”  And they launched into “Black Friday.” Presumably, this has something to do with the bankruptcy:  “When Black Friday comes/I’ll stand down by the door/And catch the grey men when they/Dive from the fourteenth floor.”

“Thank you.  We really appreciate it. . .we’re getting old.”  He was thanking the crowd for their strong ovation before kicking into “Kid Charlemagne”: “Could you live forever/
Could you see the day /Could you feel your whole world fall apart and fade away.”

Yes, I could.

Belle and Sebastian at Pitchfork 2013

In Defense Of #fests

Belle and Sebastian at Pitchfork 2013

I’ve seen a lot of criticism of big music festivals lately. Some of it is valid: the radius clauses imposed by organizers can clearly hurt local venues and the local music scene. And I can’t think of a single band I’ve seen outside that wouldn’t have been better inside a dark club or theater. That said, fests offer a lot of things that you’re just not going to get when you go to a regular show.

I went to the Pitchfork Music Festival on Saturday and had a great time. There were three bands that I really wanted to see and several others that I was curious about. That’s enough for a solid day of music. You don’t need to love every single band. It’s good to have holes in your schedule so you can get some food, reapply sunscreen, and sit on a blanket in the shade. Downtime is essential if you don’t want to burn yourself out.

If you don’t have to travel too far, there’s no shame in getting a single day ticket. It’s important to realize that you don’t need to see everything. Don’t stress out about getting inside much before the start time of the first band you care about. On Saturday Phosphorescent was one of my three must-see bands and they started at 2:30. Sure, it might have been cool to see White Lung and Pissed Jeans, but you know what’s even cooler? A leisurely brunch at Wishbone.

We rolled in and found a good spot just in time to see Matthew Houck and his crew take the stage. The sun was beating down on us pretty hard, which made me happy we hadn’t arrived any earlier. Union Park is small enough that I could slip away for beer and be back before the end of the song.

After that, we threw down the blanket in a shady spot close enough to Trail of Dead’s stage so my pals could move up close for a while. During this chill time we met up with some other folks and spent some time critiquing the fashion choices of our fellow attendees. Happy to see nobody’s wearing corduroys in the summer anymore, but man, what’s up with all the half shirts?

We left the shade to check out Savages for a bit but got hungry after a few songs and left to eat some felafel under a tree.

At this point you might be wondering why I would spend $50 to sit on a blanket with my friends. And I would answer that sitting on a blanket with my friends is one of my favorite things to do at music festivals and something I never do anywhere other than at music festivals. I like drinking beer and eating felafels and watching people and listening to music. When something piques my interest I can get up and walk over and check it out.

I haven’t attended the Forkfest since 2010 but in past years I remember feeling old. Maybe it’s the fact that all the guys have geezer beards now, or maybe the Breeders and Belle and Sebastian appeal more to my demographic, but the crowd didn’t seem that young to me this year. But it’s still fun to see a bunch of weirdos baking in the sun while Swans pummel everyone.

I was excited to see the Breeders play Last Splash. It’s a meticulously produced album that is stranger sounding than almost any other alt-pop from the 90s. Live, though, they were perfectly shambolic. As my man JTL put it, they “brought the slacker cool epically.” I’ve seen the Pixies a few times since they reunited and I’ve never seen Kim Deal smile as much as she did on Saturday. They were scrappy and the mix wasn’t great, but whatever. The band was having fun and it was infectious.

After their set we jockeyed for a good position where we could still see Solange but be up close for Belle and Sebastian an hour later. B&S was the reason I bought tickets the day they went on sale. I saw them once before way back in 2006, and it was a great concert. If you think of them as wimpy and twee you really need to see them live. They rock harder than you’d think, and they put on a super entertaining show. There aren’t a ton of bands that I’d stand around in the rain to see, but Belle and Sebastian is one of them.

Once the rain got heavier, our densely packed spot opened up a little and we had enough room to put on ponchos and dance (gently). I kept looking up at the sky, nervous that the show would be stopped early as Bjork’s set had been the previous night. We were lucky and got a full set.

As we left the park my wet shows squished through the grass and mud. Sure, there are things about fests that you can complain about, things that are less comfortable than they could be, things that are goofy or annoying, but like most things in life it’s about your attitude. If you go in with a good attitude you can have a good time. Realistic expectations and a flexible plan will help too.

A friend’s dad ran for state government back in the day with the slogan: Aim high, hang loose, keep moving. I’m not sure if he won or lost the election, but that’s my motto when I head into a fest. See you at Lollapalooza!

Pitchfork crowd, photo by Alan M. Paterson
Photo by Alan M. Paterson

Rock and roll can change your life.