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On Music

Highs in the Mideighties

June 25, 2014 | by

Recalling the heyday of Prince and Madonna on the thirtieth anniversary of Purple Rain.

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Twenty-four-hour music television, the brainchild of a TV-spawned pop star, the Monkees’ Michael Nesmith, began broadcasting in August 1981 with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” MTV was everywhere within eighteen months. If new pop and postpunk had gleefully and rapidly rewritten rules, taking music forward in a constant revolution of purpose and invention, their aftermath was an era of momentum for its own sake. Things got ever shinier, greed and need replaced innovation: conservatism was a force and a problem both outside and within eighties pop.

Two new names appeared in this froth of newness. Both stood out from the crowd, both clearly demanded attention, worship, devotion: Prince and Madonna. These were names that couldn’t have existed at the dawn of modern pop, names that baited royalty and religion.

Both based their sound on electronically processed dance music, allowing them the opportunity to change style from record to record in a way that seemed innovative, one step ahead of the pack, like Dylan or Bowie before them. Both had egos the size of mansions. Both had a new hunger for success, for money. Both used MTV to become stars, and both used movies (Desperately Seeking Susan, Purple Rain) to make the jump from stardom to superstardom. Sex! Religion! Gigolo! Whore! Purple! Cone bra! No one could accuse Prince or Madonna of underplaying their hands. And, eventually, both challenged Michael Jackson’s place at the very top of the pop empire; by the eighties’ end Madonna had (arguably) toppled him in the popularity stakes, and Prince had (certainly) creatively eased past Jackson with the most streamlined, silver-finned R&B of the decade. These were their similarities. In other respects they were quite different.

Prince had first appeared with the itchy falsetto disco of “I Wanna Be Your Lover” (no. 11, ’79) and was presented—not least by himself—as a teenage prodigy. He grew up in the largely white city of Minneapolis: “The radio was dead, the discos was dead, the ladies was kind of dead. If I wanted to make some noise, if I wanted to turn anything out, I was gonna have to get something together. Which was what we did. We put together a few bands and turned it into Uptown.”

He wanted to be everybody’s lover and—unlike most disco acts—was quite at home with lyrics about oral sex, incest, and Dorothy Parker. This set him apart. By 1983 he was channeling Sly Stone and the Beach Boys on “Little Red Corvette,” and a year later Newsweek was calling him “the Prince of Hollywood” as Purple Rain—starring Prince as the Kid—grossed $80 million. Read More »

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Blinded By the Light

June 9, 2014 | by

The Boss comes to Mohegan Sun.

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Room 704 at Mohegan Sun, a gleaming casino and resort hotel on an Indian reservation in Connecticut, has a phone in the bathroom, right next to the toilet, and it’s hard not to wonder what kinds of calls might wriggle down the line. Are they orders for room service? Broadcasts of wins and losses at the slots? Wheezing pleas from depleted souls in search of a semblance of breathable fresh air?

The big picture windows in the room, which is appointed with a luxe king bed and an authoritative TV, are of a type that cannot be opened, and any attempt at Mohegan Sun to venture outside among earthly elements is met with a kind of bewildered disdain. The best you can do is to sit out on a bench by the carport, where valets prevail. If you have a car, they will gladly park or retrieve it for you. If you want to simply sit and take in the evening air, they will look at you as if you’re insane.

The valets had a lot of cars to tend a few weeks ago, on the occasion of a pair of concerts by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The Mohegan Sun arena, a two-hour bus ride from New York City, has become a regular tour stop for a long list of momentous musical acts: Prince, Bob Dylan, Jay Z, Taylor Swift. The roster goes on, with more of a caste otherwise accustomed to playing settings bigger than a ten-thousand-seat room.

The Boss very much among them. “Did you lose your money?” he asked upon taking the stage on Sunday, the second part of his two-night stand. “You must’ve lost your money. If you didn’t lose your money, then we wouldn’t be here.” Springsteen, coming clean with the ways casinos use show-biz happenings as a loss-leader for all the other entertainment they shill, somehow sold this as a winsome arrangement for all involved, with a beneficent grin signaling a sense of solidarity that was convincing in spite of the usurious logic at play. “Either way,” he continued, “we’re going to make you feel lucky tonight.” Read More »

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Crazy Music

April 18, 2014 | by

Skip Spence’s “music from the other side.”

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Skip Spence is known for his work in Moby Grape, a seminal psych-rock outfit, and for his only solo album, Oar (1969), which has one of the most gloriously unhinged creation myths in the history of popular music.

In ’68, Spence—who would be, coincidentally, sixty-eight today—was cutting a new Moby Grape record in New York. The city was not bringing out the best in him. One night, as his bandmate Peter Lewis tells it, Spence “took off with some black witch” who “fed him full of acid”: not your garden-variety LSD, mind you, but a powerful variant that supposedly induced a three-day fantasia of hallucinations and cognitive haymaking. The result? “He thought he was the Antichrist.”

Spence strolled over to the Albert Hotel, at Eleventh and University, where he held a fire ax to the doorman’s head; from there, he negotiated his way to a bandmate’s room and took his ax to the door. The place was empty. So he hailed a cab—you know, with an ax—and zipped uptown to the CBS Building, where, on the fifty-second floor, he was at last wrestled to the ground and arrested. He did a six-month stint in Bellevue, where he was deemed schizophrenic. “They shot him full of Thorazine for six months,” Lewis said. “They just take you out of the game.”

But Spence wasn’t out of the game. The same day they released him from Bellevue, he bought a motorcycle, a fucking Harley, and cruised straight on to Nashville, where he planned to record a series of new songs he’d written in the hospital. He was clad, legend maintains, only in pajamas. Read More »

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Dennis Wilson Was a Good Editor

March 6, 2014 | by

Charles Manson’s Lie: The Love and Terror Cult was released forty-four years ago today.

Charles Manson 

Dennis Wilson was the only Beach Boy who surfed. Accordingly, he embraced a more, let’s say, briny side of the beach-bum lifestyle—he’s the only Beach Boy you can picture actually sleeping on the beach, living out of the rusted trunk of some boat of a car, feeding the gulls, rolling spliffs, letting himself go. His excellent solo record, Pacific Ocean Blue, proves how undervalued he was in the band. But his work on “Never Learn Not to Love,” the B-side to 1968’s “Blue Birds Over the Mountain,” proves that he knew how to wield a red pen.

First, some obligatory exposition. It was Charles Manson—yes, the—who first wrote “Never Learn”; he called it “Cease to Exist,” and when his friend Dennis Wilson, that Beachiest of Beach Boys, asked to record it, he was thrilled. Or rather, he would be thrilled, he said, if Wilson agreed to one condition: he was not to emend Manson’s lyrics in any way.

He did, of course; he retitled the song, rejiggered the verses, tossed in a bridge, and quietly published the song as his own. Manson, as you can imagine, was pissed, and threatened to kill Wilson, but when the former turned up on the latter’s doorstep, it was apparently Wilson who beat the piss out of Manson, not the other way around.

As befits a story starring a cult leader, this is a tale full of apocrypha and lurid curlicues—hitchhikers, bullets, group sex culminating in group gonorrhea—but the lyrics, not the diseases, are our interest here. Read More »

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Dramatic Needs

January 15, 2014 | by

Trouble Man, Marvin Gaye’s 1972 soundtrack to the film of the same name.

Trouble Man, Marvin Gaye’s 1972 soundtrack to the film of the same name.

The way the story most often gets told, Marvin Gaye with What’s Going On (1971) liberated himself from Motown’s formulaic method of music-making and achieved total artistic independence, whereupon the music—if not, to be sure, the man himself—went on to live happily ever after. But the story gets told incompletely, because What’s Going On was only the start of it—it was how Gaye leveraged the potential for his independence, but it wasn’t how he ventured out and completely seized that independence. To tell that story, you have to tell about Trouble Man.

It’s a story that can now be told more elaborately, with a wonderful fortieth anniversary reissue of the original album, complete with some newly released material and a supplementary booklet. Trouble Man is absolutely sui generis within the Marvin Gaye canon for being not only a blaxploitation film soundtrack—the only film score he would ever do—but for being jazz-based and largely instrumental. The booklet does a commendable job articulating Trouble Man’s importance, while the artifact itself sings, as always, with perfect eloquence to the same thing. Except that now it sings even better. Read More »

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Swamp Thing

January 7, 2014 | by

Bobby Charles album cover

Cover of Bobby Charles's 1972 album Bobby Charles.

When it gets cold, profanely cold, anesthetically cold, I like to put on humid music. It doesn’t cut the wind chill, but it helps. In a pinch, one could depend on Dick Dale or calypso; in dire straits, even a Key West bromide like Jimmy Buffett’s “Boat Drinks” gives off enough balm to suffice. But while such songs have heat, they lack humidity. At the risk of sounding like a sleazy bandleader: if you really want to thaw out, you’ve got to sweat.

Bobby Charles’s eponymous album, soon to be reissued on vinyl for possibly the first time since its 1972 release, is perfect for the job: it has the languor and stickiness of an August day in New Orleans. Battered but amiable, Charles, a Louisiana native who died in 2010, sings with the slightest of rasps through ten tracks of rhythm and blues, alternately bustling and lumbering. He strikes me as a man who knew how to take his time. His is the sort of music people like to describe as “homegrown” or “country-fried,” though both adjectives feel too tinged with condescension to apply here. In deepest winter, the mere sight of Bobby Charles’s cover is a salve. It has a brown-and-green palette both earthy and eye-popping. What felonies wouldn’t you commit to be that man, or that dog, reclining in such tauntingly verdant swampland? Read More »

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