Random thoughts on a Saturday

Random thoughts on a Saturday morning…

So I am currently ensconced in the Ritz Carlton hotel on Amelia Island, off the coast of J-ville, Fla. Working… or something like it. Perhaps the accurate way to describe it would be, “earning my paycheck,” since this hardly passes for work, even in our spoiled-rotten society. I’m here for the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, which, if you care about antique cars, you already know about. If you don’t care about cars, more power to you, I’m not even going to explain.

So yesterday I flew here in the morning because I had to attend a party at 6pm, at which I drank prodigious amounts of free Heineken and talked about old cars. But since I didn’t have a whole lot to do in the afternoon (rain, antique cars and photography don’t mix), I ordered up one of those movies on the Spanktrovision.

‘Cept I ordered Almost Famous instead of one of the Caught From Behind series. Two hours and about 50 “Fuck yeah!”s screamed out loud at the TV set while making the sign of the devil with both hands raised above my head, my only lament is that I had no lighter with me. God, I love Stillwater, but that is the obvious line. Now I’m not going to go into some great marvelous ranting about why this movie is a must see for anyone who’s reading this Web site—just look at our freakin’ title. “Rock and Roll can change your life” is right. It did and it still does, despite the fact that Lester Bangs proclaimed it dead before I was even born (according to Crowe, if you believe that this flick is an autobiography of sorts).

What I am going to say is that for those of you who have your doubts about the veracity of the scenes played out with the band, you know, the Stillwater-on-tour-with-the-journalist stuff, well, as Orson Welles was like to say, It’s All True. No, I was not hanging with Cameron when he was a teenager (we’ll have to chalk that one up to a fantasy for the time machine), but I’m a “journalist” right now, so I know. That’s what my life is like. Just replace the rock stars with old white dudes who buy and sell and design and build and race cars. (And unfortunately, replace the Band Aids with auto industry flacks who, like the party girls of the ’70s, want nothing more than to screw you.)

The point is that I travel all over the country/world, being wined, dined, and ass-kissed by a bunch of people who all want the same thing as Jeff Bebe (nice job, BTW, Jason Lee)—to be made to look cool. And the auto people I run with, despite their aged-ness, their honkey-ness, even their corporate-ness, are cool, to me. I am an auto nut, a gearhead, a race fan—but I’m never going to be one of them. I’m a hanger-on. I go to the parties and I’m the guy getting introduced, not the guy introducing. You, reading this right now, have a much better chance of being my friend than any of these people. Because in the end, I am left with the words of Lester Bangs in the film echoing in my head: “Be honest. Be unmerciful.”

No one wants honesty. No one wants to be shown for what we all are, even the cool ones, especially the cool ones, the rock stars, the Ferraris. We’re all human, we all have silly pictures to post on Web sites. We’ve all done a lot of stupid things, we’re all decidedly not perfect, we all have Skeletons In The Closet. Corporations are just as susceptible to this fact of life as individuals. Somehow though, the ones that I deal with seem to think that creating the disconnect between reality (“The first rule of the [auto] industry is to make money.”) and perception (“Wow! Look at the all-new [Ford, Toyota, Cadillac, BMW, Dodge, Audi, etc.]! It’s the best car ever built.”) is the way to success. Denial of the Truth—as we learn from Russell in the flick—is not the way to fame and fortune or the cover of Rolling Stone. Yet this fact seems to be lost on most.

Which brings me to the next point, which brings me back to last night, after the party, after I had ordered room service (on The Man’s tab, of course). I watched Walter Kronkite on Larry King Live. I heard him—Kronkite—bemoan the lack of responsibility and adherence to basic journalistic principles (like Lester “said,” Be Honest, Be Unmerciful) in our contemporary era. I sat there, eating my Cobb salad, saddened by the fact that I know it to be true. I am a part of it.

There are so many people out there, claiming to be writers, claiming to be “journalists” that are only there for the parties, the free trips, the camaraderie, the fun. I can see through 99% of what passes for “news” or “journalism” these days—it’s nearly all dreck, a part of creating that disconnect that enforces images of perfection of all our idols, be they athletes, rock stars, politicians, or corporations.

Ever notice how journalism, as a word, has been replaced by the term “Media?” There’s a self-evident reason for this.

We’ve let corporations buy everything—they own Stillwater and Rolling Stone magazine now—and it’s become all too convenient of a world, devoid of anything real. If Russell was driven to getting his head full of acid and climbing on a roof in 1973, what would he do today?

To be continued…


It’s Nelly’s Party (Come Get It): NELLY FURTADO AT PARK WEST, 3/7/01

Will Nelly Furtado’s 21st century pop music bouillabaisse save America?

There were no flash pots, indoor fireworks, or multi-tiered stages. She wasn’t coming off a skin-tight appearance at The Super Bowl. And the only click track she needed was the beat of her two drummers. On Wednesday night in Chicago, Nelly Furtado brought her own brand of girl-powered pop to an audience in dire need of a real-rock transfusion.

All of 22, Nelly Furtado already has four major Juno awards in her native Canada. “Woah, Nelly!,” her domestic debut, is lodged at 64 on the Billboard 200 and climbing. And all this despite limited US airplay and exposure. It’s a damn shame. Furtado’s music combines the laid-back hippie vibe of Edie Brickell with the urban beats and slick production of Lauryn Hill or Macy Gray. She could be compared with Fiona Apple’s cabaret approach to pop, but she has none of Fiona’s bile-spitting anger. The world isn’t bullshit for Nelly. In fact, she seems to love it. Her songs are imbued with a sunny sense of themselves, which translates live to an easygoing sexiness that’s refreshing in a climate of pedantic aftermarket popstars.

Dressed simply in jeans and a tank top (no red unitards here), Furtado took the stage promptly at 8:15, fronting her male 5-piece band with a remote mic that let her skip around like a Canadian/Portuguese imp. Though her jaunty stage moves were a bit Gwen-like, they weren’t tripped out. She was obviously enjoying herself, and probably trying also to spice up a somewhat tepid crowd. While Furtado’s voice – a shimmering tool that can go high, low, and in between – was the star of the show, her band did its part to replicate the slick production of “Woah, Nelly!” Remember Andrew Farris, the ubiquitous keyboard player from INXS who seemed to play every instrument at once? Nelly’s keyboard guy saw him too. Often playing two keyboards while at the same time backing Nelly up with synthesized harmony, he was the guts of the band. With his electronics taking such a prominent role, the rest of the band suffered a little. When the guitar man strapped on his Strat, it was non-existent in the mix. But they were still a band, and she was still singing all her own stuff, which is light years beyond your average TRL artist. It’s tough to sing into the mic from the audience at a Britney concert.

As the night moved along, the upbeat material fared better. When Nelly and her band gathered on stools with acoustic instruments (including a crazy thing involving a long stick and what looked like a cantaloupe) to perform a few traditional Portuguese numbers, the bathroom lines lengthened. Which wasn’t surprising. Despite widespread critical acclaim, Furtado’s music has taken awhile to crack the American market, and has done so without the normal publicity juggernaut of KISS-FM airplay and mall appearances. So when she cranked up “Shit On The Radio (Remember The Days),” the (mostly underage female) crowd responded by shouting back the chorus. I realized then why the line for beer had been so short all night.

Nelly is good for American music. She has no use for Swedish songsmiths, oversexed posturing, or vapid layouts in Tiger Beat. Her approach to music is similar to countrywoman Sarah McLachlan’s, only without the adult-contemporary aftertaste. It ain’t no thing for her to switch from soulful high notes into gritty rap, which she pulls off with admirable flow. While the music sometimes enters over-produced, Mattel Sinsonic Drums territory, the slickness never overpowers Furtado’s voice or lyrics (which she writes). Watching her lead the audience in the chanting chorus to “Turn Off The Light,” it was easy to imagine her as a more organic Britney. While the new Material Girl and her ilk desperately try to extend their pyrotechnic fantasy ride, girls like Nelly are out there doing it for the kids, and with all the right moves: A little bit urban, a little bit hippie, and completely 21st century.


Rockin’ Country Style

I just found a great web resource called Rockin’ Country Style. It seems to be very well done, and simple to navigate. It’s all about the content. The guy who put this thing together is obviously a music freak; just take a look at his Criteria for Inclusion. If you need a rockabilly discography, this is the place to go.


During my formative years, I was tuning in the glow on the late-night dial. It was Chicago radio’s heyday. The Loop, WXRT, WMET, WLS, and later WCKG were all major contenders for the musical soul of the city’s youth. While I credit these radio outlets with strengthening my sense of musical history (lots of Beatles, Stones, & Zep), they’re also the reason I have reams of Journey lyrics stuck in my subconscious, and somehow know every weedly-weedly-ing lick in the outro to The Scorpions’ “Rock Me Like a Hurricane.” When you spend entire summer days bouncing a ball in the backyard with your neighbor’s outdoor speakers as a soundtrack, it’s unfortunate what you can recall later in life.

But I wasn’t raised on radio.

Fortunately, The Older Brother/Cousin Force ran strong in my family. While I might have been digging “Saved by Zero” on WBBM-FM’s “Flamethrowin’ Five,” the LP-buying example set by my brother and cousins helped me realize that doing anything my radio advised wasn’t exactly the hippest. It wasn’t necessarily the music that they bought (“Mr Roboto” in gatefold? Cool!); it was simply that these guys loved the record store, and the notion of actually listening to an entire album of music. There’s an image stuck in my brain like a “Fore!”-era Huey Lewis video. Once, when I was young, the family truckster pulled up in front of my cousins’ house. Two of them had painted the names of their fave bands on their window shades, and lit the room from the inside. And I’ll tell you, seeing “Rush” and “The Who” spelled out on those white shades went a long way towards making me a music fan. It was never just going to be about those late night stations, the ones playing songs bringing tears to my eyes. Radio may have been a sound salvation, but I knew there was something deeper. One thing leads to another, indeed.

Just like Don Simmons, the man with the tragic affliction of “no soul” in “Amazon Women on the Moon,” many Americans are unfortunately raised with the belief that they had better do as they are told, and listen to the radio. After spending their entire lives as radio listeners, they’ve become prisoners to what it has to say. There’s a good reason why the “Now!” series of current pop hits packages consistently sells in the millions. All the hits of the previous few months are compiled in one place for the listener to enjoy, without all that annoying filler one would find on a single artist release.

Sometimes this attitude is warranted. I wouldn’t swear Caviar’s recent self-titled release on anybody. After their catchy single “Tangerine Speedo” picked up speed on modern rock stations nationwide, Caviar’s album was hastily released by Island/Bomb Trax with bland cover art suggesting its used-bin future. None of the album’s mid-tempo, Verve Pipe-meets-Fountains-of-Wayne rock comes close to the cloying, sexy vibe of “Tangerine Speedo.” But who cares? Island ‘s release of the record was an afterthought. It had already made its money off of the single, placing “Speedo” on soundtracks for “Charlie’s Angels” and “Gone in 60 Seconds” where it would help piggyback sales with the other decent, yet mediocre, songs on those collections. To the average radio-influenced music consumer, an album by an unknown – even with a solid hit single – is a risk. A soundtrack or hits compilation is a better bet. At least you can play it at parties.

There will always be bands like Caviar, whose 15 minutes are sold out from under them before they can even cash them in for a groupie’s blow job. But maybe it’s a risk they consciously took, putting all of their Speedos in a tangerine-colored basket. The label upsells the shit out of these groups, and like Jordan says, it gets the hell out of Saigon. And as they taxi down the runway, they can hear the rock bands shout, “don’t come back here.”

But the labels always do. And they bring more money. And many of the bands rolling daily into Jordan’s studio have realized that, to get signed, you either shut up or get cut up. To the labels, it’s only inches on a reel-to-reel. And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools. But maybe, just maybe, you can be the next Sugar Ray.

My, oh my, what a dream to live for.


Leroy Bach, Edward Burch and John Stirrat at the Hideout

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Leroy Bach, Edward Burch and John Stirrat at the Hideout. March 5, 2001

Everyone has that bar that just fits. Maybe it’s only for the summer or your junior year in college, but it is exactly where you want to be on any given night. The Hideout in Chicago is that bar for me right now. The hideout has a long reputation for being a great place to see country-ish music and it is still a premier venue for club-sized concerts. But what makes the Hideout MY Place is the genuine neighborhood feel you get when you walk in the door.

A group of us made our way to the Hideout last night to see Wilco’s John Sirrat and Leroy Bach play with other local fave Edward Burch. Since Wilco is a Grammy nominated college chart fave and the patron saints of folk rock here in Chicago, I expected a smoky, packed bar and annoying frat guys, the likes of which we had at Jeff Tweedy’s final performances in the now closed and sorely missed Lounge Ax. Instead, what we got was a completely un-miced acoustic performance similar to those taking place in countless rec-rooms, college dorms and back porches across America.

As soon as we walked in we were welcomed by Bach who told us to get a beer and have a seat. It was standing room only, but just by the Hideout’s front room standards. There were maybe 30 people in attendance and the seating arrangement was quickly fixed when the affable bartender told us to go get some more stools out of the back room. We stumbled clumsily past Bach and Burch to find our seats and drag them back to the front. They waited patiently until we were comfortable before starting in on another of their old timey folk tunes from the Carter Family or Louvin Brothers. Their voices blended nicely in loose harmonies. Occasionally we’d miss some words over the chiming of Burch’s 12-string guitar, but the mood was right and I was ready for some Pabst.

PBR $1.50 bottles. “I’ll take two and save myself a trip.”

Soon, Wilco bassist John Stirrat, ambled up to the front and played a few selections from his recently released little record, “The Green Hour” from his side project The Autumn Defense. The songs were pretty with a definite 70s AM radio, singer/songwriter influence. Stirrat’s voice was a little shaky, but that was understandable given his un-miced performance and the increasing din of the patrons enjoying Pabst.

Come midnight the dread of another Tuesday at work was weighing heavy and after Burch and Bach’s second set I meandered out to my car and drove home happy to have spent another night living in Chicago.

Studio Perspective: Trends and How They Kill Themselves

First official posting by junior member J Franky:

Studio Perspective: Trends and How They Kill Themselves

Hi there. As some of you may know I actually get out of bed every morning and go to a Day Job, specifically at a recording studio in Chicago. I would like from time to time to share the little observations I pick up on while watching other bands, listening to random mixes and cleaning up other people’s vomit. Let me know after this article if this is anything that you gentlemen are interested in knowing more about, and if there are specific questions that I need to get to the bottom of in the studio. I can be reaaaaaaallly sneaky if properly medicated.

Anyways, I wanted to further expand on the ever-present cycle of popular/radio music, as exhibited in the Chicago scene (which I like to think is representative of the midwest in general). My studio has a fairly large variety of acts coming through the doors, but for the most part it’s blues and rock, and sometimes rockin’ blues. We have had a lot of Irish music, and there was a guy who played the sitar really well, but again, it’s primarily a Rock studio. It’s not the Most professional/expensive studio in the city, but it does get some fairly big names and tends to attract smaller bands who have saved up and want to make a really good demo to shop around. Those bands, the younger ones, never cease to impress me with their playing ability, their energy, and most impressively their total belief that every song they record will be a huge hit.

Why this poses a problem is because these bands are all writing the same song. I can’t tell you the Exact number of bands that have come through the doors sounding like Blink-182 or Papa Roach, but it’s mind boggling. Almost every young band that comes in is trying to sound exactly like one of those two, perhaps with a bit of a ska edge thrown in. And they’re not shy about it; they ask (or the engineer even asks them) to sound like an existing record. I know that the latest Rage Against The Machine disc has been sitting next to the mixing board for two months now. The engineer will pop it in and the tweak the knobs to get it to sound as much like the disc as possible. And this is what the bands want. Now granted this is not my exact cup of tea, but most of these bands sound like they could be on the radio to my ears. They all insist that they are bringing in lots of people to their shows and will easily sell these discs right off the bat.

All of us are extremely aware of the trends in the music industry, but it’s very interesting to see it on the ground-level where all of these bands are coming in sounding exactly the same as each other, but each one fairly talented, each one feeling that they have some little hook that will make them noticed over the others. The response from the labels around here has been exactly what you would think: sign a few, make some bucks off them, get out quick. It’s already on to the next thing, and these bands are still coming in by the boat-load. What happens when they realize that this trend is nearing completion and that they’re the ones who are driving it to it’s end? Will they morph into the Next Big Thing? Or do they give it up and are never heard from again? When speaking to the Elders of the Studio the conventional wisdom is that this is how music life goes. These bands will put out one album and break up and most will give up music entirely by the time they are 25. And it never stops. Hundreds upon hundreds of young bands will come in thinking they are riding the current wave, not having the perspective of sitting back and seeing that there are hundreds of bands doing it. Wouldn’t you think that modeling your sound off of something that was on the radio last year is a sure-fire way of dating yourself into instant obscurity? I don’t know, maybe it’s just because I get to see it first-hand now. And I’m trying hard to remember whether I felt that way before when I was a wee lad, if I wanted to sound exactly like the radio. I think I did, but I’m not sure anymore. Do you guys remember?

News flash from www.wilcoworld.net

News flash from www.wilcoworld.net:

First News of the New Album; lineup change

The next Wilco record is currently scheduled for release on July 10. The working title is “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and it will be on Reprise Records. The band will begin mixing the 20 or so recorded songs in April at which point they’ll begin the process of editing it down to the 12-15 that will likely end up on the record. As many of you have no doubt heard, Wilco also have a new drummer. His name is Glenn Kotche — he’s a Chicago guy who’s recorded and/or toured with the likes of Jim O’Rourke, Paul K. & the Weathermen, Edith Frost, and many others. He’s performed with Jeff a couple of times in the past — most recently at the Abbey Pub. He also worked with Tweedy on the soundtrack to the forthcoming film “Chelsea Walls”. The departure of Ken Coomer’s was quite sad for us all but everybody in the Wilco camp is now really excited about the way the band and the record are sounding with Kotche. More about all of this soon.

I wonder how much we’ll miss Ken Coomer. He was a great drummer and really contributed to the Wilco sound. Drummers are fussy though, right?

Quasar Wut Wut Breaks My Heart

When it was over, Jeff turned to Jolie and asked her how long that song had lasted. Jolie said about four and a half minutes. I was shocked. I would have set down my beer and put my hand on the Bible and sworn that Quasar Wut Wut had just played a twenty-five minute extended jam on the Rolling Stones’ “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker).” Apparently, the band has figured out a way to distort Time, which is good because even after twenty-five minutes of it I still could have used more.

When you’re friends with the guys in a band, you don’t want to compliment them too heartily about their cover songs for fear that they’ll interpret that to mean you don’t like their originals. With the Quasars this is not the case. Their own songs are great: weird without being obnoxious, and original without being pretentious. And if some of their compositions veer a little too close to the carnival or near some eastern european festival, then the next one will be a straight up rocker. They mix it up. And that’s good.

But they seem to cut loose a little more with their covers, as if they’re giving themselves the chance to rock out without worrying about being flashy. Guitarist Matt Schwarz never got as crazy on his originals as he went on “Heartbreaker.” And I mean Eddie Hazel crazy. He was amazing. For a moment there, he was a guitar god. For me right then, he was the best guitar player in the world. Why doesn’t he do that on his own songs? Is he afraid he’ll sound like Ace Frehley? Is that a bad thing? I don’t know.

Everything came together on “Heartbreaker.” Brent Sulek’s singing was right on and soulful. He must have been channeling Otis Redding at Monterrey (you know what I’m talking about: shake!). Jordan Frank and Matt Schwarz’s Doo Doo Doo Doo Doos sounded perfect and creepy, just like they should. The drummer had the Quasars playing twice as fast as the Stones, which made everything even better. Jolie tells me there was a moment when they all turned to each other in the middle of the song, acknowledging that they too realized that they were making some magic.

I’ve been questioning my feelings from the moment they stopped playing. Can’t tell the guys how truly great they were or else I’ll sound like just another dumb kiss-ass fan. Is it even possible that they were as great as I thought, or was I just out of my head? I honestly don’t know the answers. But I do know that in a crummy little bar in Detroit, those four guys shook the earth for either 25 minutes or four and a half minutes.

Either way, when I left the bar I had to wonder for a moment whether all the burned-out buildings surrounding me were actually caused by the earthquake that had just taken place in my head.

Rock and roll can change your life.