Posts Tagged ‘Seattle Weekly’

Sign O’ the Times

Back when I worked for Seattle Weekly, I had a conversation with our music editor, Bart Becker, about the fragmentation of commercial radio. Each Seattle station was locked into its own fenced-off musical world. Some formats had Reader’s Digest condensed playlists – Classic Rock had compacted Creedence to about eight tracks, for example. We lamented the lack of a commercial station that dared to play rock, reggae, jazz, classical, blues, punk, and country all on the same day.

Of course we were being unrealistic. No station could turn a profit without focusing on one subset of all radio listeners like a red-tailed hawk on a meadow mouse. I bring this up now for two reasons:

1) Bart’s team, the San Francisco Giants, are playing in the World Series, and with a name like Bart Becker you know he should be holding down the hot corner or frantically calling the bullpen for a left-hander.

2) Even though I have listened to several hours of music a day almost every day since I crawled out of the ocean and learned to breathe oxygen, I had never heard a single note from Sign O’ the Times.

Yeah. Radio is fragmented.

Why didn’t somebody tell me?
Sign O’ the Times is so good that I almost didn’t write about it. I’m not worthy! But I started out to review every album Prince ever made and goddammit I’m going to review every album Prince ever made. (Unless Rhapsody doesn’t have one. Prince is not sending me free merch.)

I started by looking at what critics said about Sign O’ the Times in 1987. Everyone compared it to The White Album, which makes sense because both albums are a mess, but nobody mentioned that The White Album was created by John, Paul, George, and Ringo while Sign O’ the Times was created by Prince, Prince, Prince, and Prince. This makes Sign even more monumental.

The songs here come from three different projects. They don’t belong together, especially the songs from the project in which Prince played a woman and speeded up his voice. It never occurs to me to do projects like that. Sign has something for everyone, but much of it is not my style: super-smooth soul ballads (I’ll only accept Barry White), hip-hop (doesn’t come naturally to Prince – he’s a rocker at heart), songs that are so slow they could be outrun by the walking dead, and God. What’s left is more than enough for a wretch like me, but I’m only going to mention the title track, “The Cross,” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend.”

“Sign O’ the Times” is an updating of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” In fact, “Sign O’ the Times” would fit perfectly on Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece of the same name. But there is that Prince touch at the end, when he sets aside his concerns about AIDS, natural disasters, and nuclear war and suggests to his listener that we should just get married and have a baby.

“The Cross” is Prince taking on U2 at their most pompous and rocking them right out of Ireland. The song doesn’t even hit its crescendo until 2:28 and it’s over at 4:45. On this album, 4:45 streaks past like a comet. I’m staggered. And I say all this in praise of “The Cross” even though it’s more God.

“If I Was Your Girlfriend” may be the most singular song in pop music. Follow along: Prince, who has a girlfriend, imagines himself as his girlfriend’s girlfriend, because then they could be closer than they could be with him as her boyfriend.

If I was your girlfriend
Would you let me dress you?
I mean help you pick out your clothes
Before we go out?
Not that you’re helpless
But sometime, sometime those are the things
That bein’ in love’s about.

But his real question, and the heart of the song, is:

If I was your one and only friend
Would you run to me if somebody hurt you
Even if that somebody was me?

The music is distancing, almost ominous, and his voice is speeded up (in one spot he sounds like Snoopy), but this line has two points of view plus a gender switch. What is this, literature?

Oh, and the song eventually gets sexual. C’mon, it’s Prince.

Summing up
Sign O’ The Times, flaws included, rates five stars from any pointy-headed critic.


This album is not fun, not like 1999 or Purple Rain or The White Album. Nothing on Sign is as plain silly as “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” I realize that I’ve been listening to The White Album for 46 years and to 1999 and Purple Rain for about 30 and to Sign for two weeks, and that artists should always try to grow, but I can already tell that I’m not going to replay Sign O’ the Times, just three or four of the tracks.

I just did…and then I listened to Ringo crooning “Don’t Pass Me By.”

1987 Scoreboard
Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love was the Rolling Stone critics’ best album. The runners-up:

The Joshua Tree – U2
Sign O’ the Times – Prince
Document – R.E.M.
Robbie Robertson – Robbie Robertson
Pleased to Meet Me – The Replacements
Bring the Family – John Hiatt
By the Light of the Moon – Los Lobos
Franks Wild Years – Tom Waits
Babble – That Petrol Emotion

The readers voted for U2’s The Joshua Tree for best album. Their runners-up:

Sign O’ the Times – Prince
Document – R.E.M.
Tunnel of Love – Bruce Springsteen
A Momentary Lapse of Reason – Pink Floyd
Whitesnake – Whitesnake
Hysteria – Def Leppard
Tango In the Night – Fleetwood Mac
…Nothing Like the Sun – Sting
Bad Animals – Heart

If you’re keeping score you may have noticed that African-Americans have been a small part of these Rolling Stone lists. We’ve had Robert Cray, Run-DMC, and Tina Turner once each and Prince three times as opposed to 33 white artists. Los Lobos are Chicano. But what I’m really mad about is that there’s only been two Jews, Paul Simon and Lou Reed. Plus now we have…Sting! You can’t get more Caucasian unless you activate the Perry Como hologram.

Today’s Randoms: WTF Edition 

Paul Revere & The Raiders, Collage (1970)
The boys were running on fumes by 1970, plus on this set they’re playing in a higher league: Steppenwolf psychedelia and Guess Who hard rock. This album should’ve sucked the phone.

Wrong! “Think Twice” is good enough to have been the B-side of “Kicks,” “Hungry,” or “Just Like Me.” The tracks “Dr. Fine,” “Just Seventeen,” and “The Boys in the Band” are not bad. “Sorceress with Blue Eyes” is as dumb as its title, but Mark Lindsay shows what his voice can do – a sort of Mick Jagger with Robert Plant’s phrasing – and the guitar break is classic heavy ’60s.

Collage is not worth a purchase – most of it is Crud Gone Wild – but it’s definitely worth a listen.

George Benson with the Brother Jack McDuff Quartet, The New Boss Guitar of George Benson (1964)
I only knew George Benson from his lightweight pop of the ’70s and ’80s (“This Masquerade,” “Give Me the Night,” and his signature tune, “On Broadway”). The New Boss Guitar was a happy surprise. This is jazz, alternately cool and funky.

The album was reissued in 1990 with one extra track, their reading of the My Three Sons theme. It doesn’t fit with the earlier cuts, and it sounds nothing like the music from that antique TV show, but Benson and his band were on fire when they waxed this one. All hail the drummer!


In the first week of May, I made my 500th connection on LinkedIn. What does this mean?

I don’t know. But it must be a milestone because 500 is a cool number. It’s not a prime number, but it’s right next door to one: 499. So when I made my 400th connection I decided to work very seriously on my next hundred. Because these numbers look like career homerun totals, I made a game of it, announcing each stage to my wife:

407: “I’m neck and neck with Duke Snider.”
439: “I’ve got Andre Dawson in my rearview mirror.”
453: “Bye-bye, Yaz!”
493: “Did you know that Crime Dog was tied with Lou Gehrig? What? Who is Crime Dog? Why am I talking to you?”

I stood at 499 for about two weeks. I wondered if I should invite someone special for my 500th. The obvious choice was Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, but I figured he was kinda busy being a co-founder and I didn’t want to wait 200 years for Reid to say yes. I also thought it would be fun to connect with someone who had the same name as a person I admired, but either that person had no presence on LinkedIn or there were 119 of them (as with David Bowie).

Number 500 arrived when I wasn’t looking – an invitation I’d extended weeks before and forgotten about. Lucky 500 is an editor who works with a publisher I once worked for. As with many of my connections, I’ve never met this person, but if he’s one of my guys you can be sure that he rocks.

(Note: At this point I didn’t actually have 500 people in my network, because at least one had died. Her profile is still active. If we’re connected and you’re still breathing, write and say hi. I’d love to hear from you.)

When I hit 500 feedbacks on eBay, they sent me a certificate. Actually, they sent me a link to a certificate that I could print myself. I wasn’t expecting LinkedIn to give me a handjob and a parade, but still I was disappointed when nothing happened. Then I thought, maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe I’m the one who should be doing something, and not just my end-zone dance. Maybe I should be printing T-shirts for my posse. (Don’t send me your shirt size. I’m not doing this.)

LinkedIn (the site also spells it “Linkedin”) long ago transformed itself from sparkly toy to networking ninja. If I want to find out who I know at a particular company, I can do it in seconds. Before LinkedIn, this would’ve taken days or weeks, if it could be done at all.

So if nothing much happens when you make your 500th connection, so be it. In fact I’ve moved past that mark now. I believe I’m tied with Eddie Murray (504), but then, who’s counting?

Random Pick of the Day
Various artists, The Crow (1994)
This movie is about a murdered man resurrected by a mystical crow to reign death and destruction upon his enemies. Please don’t make me write a sentence like that again. The heart of the soundtrack is “Burn” by The Cure, closely followed by Nine Inch Nail’s cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls,” “Snakedriver” by The Jesus and Mary Chain, and the dreamy “Time Baby III” by a band called Medicine. (The vocal on that one is by a former Bangle.)

As for the other 10 songs, Stone Temple Pilots’ “Big Empty” has had so much radio play that it bounces off my brain. The remaining nine are interchangeable, but appropriately mopey, metal.

Random Pan of the Day
The B-52s, Cosmic Thing (1989)
Why am I panning this record? I love The B-52s. Cosmic Thing was their big comeback. It has “Love Shack,” “Roam,” and one of their best lines, on the eternal topic of shaking your booty: “Don’t let it rest/on the president’s desk!”

But most of Cosmic Thing is easy-listening filler. “Roam” still sounds good, but “Love Shack” is getting tired. When this record came out, the mellifluously named Bart Becker, music editor at my paper, Seattle Weekly, wrote that this was a band that had pretty much lost it. Twenty-five years later, I reluctantly agree. By 1989, The B-52s were not even all that wacky anymore. I can only recommend Cosmic Thing to confirmed idiots such as myself. For anyone else, The B-52s and Wild Planet are all you need.

Bart Becker would’ve been the perfect name for an infielder on the San Francisco Giants.


Years and years ago, when I worked at Seattle Weekly, when there were still wolves in West Seattle and humpback whales in Elliott Bay, when the grunge scene was an ordeal because it was always raining and the flannel shirts we wore soaked up the wet, before the motor car, before the wheel, before light rail, before we had to worry about the oral-sex requirements of sitting presidents, or reclining presidents, the editorial staff of our brave paper took turns writing the calendar section. For me that meant three tours of handling the sports listings.

My first tour was in the summer of 1989 and that went all right because I only had to work with baseball and I know baseball. I made fun of the Mariners (“When the meek inherit the earth, the M’s will be out of town”) and various college squads, reported on bike treks and road races and boat shows, encouraged people to play more chess, and ran a trivia contest that was won by a guy who used to work with my wife’s ex-husband.

My second tour, in 1993, was more of a challenge because baseball season was ending and football was beginning. I don’t care for football. I’ve been to one professional football game, in Boston, when the New England Patriots were still the Boston Patriots and they played in Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. (This was not my idea – my Cub Scout pack dragged me along.) At one point during that icy afternoon I was handed a hot dog, which tasted as if it had been cooked in Nova Scotia and mailed to the ballpark, and like Charlie Brown I desperately wished there was a baseball game in front of me.

What was I going to do with football? Fear not! I had three advantages:

1) A book of football quotes I found at the library that I could use to fill valuable column inches. (“Football combines two grim features of American life, violence and committee meetings.” – George Will)
2) The Seattle Seahawks had an abysmal season in 1992, winning a mere two games. They were not poised to set the world on fire in 1993.
3) My trail had been blazed by a feature that ran in the 1980s in the Big Papers called “The Bottom Ten,” which focused on, if memory serves, the bottom ten.

Yes, the script wrote itself:

8 Sept. 1993: “The Raiders take time out from vacationing in Seattle to slice the Seahawks into lunchmeat. Next loss: on the road vs. the Patriots. At home vs. LA, 9/12 at 5. Catch the action on TNT or, if you have some consideration for your family, simply listen on KIRO-AM 710.”

15 Sept. 1993: “In Massachusetts, the Seahawks visit ‘Old Ironsides,’ Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, and, eventually, the stadium where the Patriots have gathered to shoot them full of holes. Next loss: on the road vs. the Bengals.”

Seahawks fans (the few who bothered to read this drivel) (the few who knew how to read) occasionally protested what I had to say, usually through an angry, anonymous fax. I wish I’d saved them. They had all been scrawled with felt-tip markers.

I should mention that I regularly lauded our basketball team, the consistently excellent Sonics (“The Sonics chase the whores of Babylon out of LA, then fly to Phoenix to extinguish the Suns”) while stick-checking our minor-league hockey team, the Thunderbirds (“The underpowered Thunderbirds are towed onto the ice to start the second half of the season”).

My last turn at bat, so to speak, was in 1994. In my final appearance in the sports pages I wrote:

“What have I learned? Chiefly, that if society is up to its neck in sports, it’s because sports answer a profound need in society. However, if an intense interest in the Seahawks is part of that need, then society is, without doubt, sick.”

Perhaps society is just a little bit healthier this morning, because yesterday the Seattle Seahawks reversed 38 years of misadventures and won the Superbowl. It’s taken them 20 years, but they’ve taught me a lesson: that back then I should’ve volunteered to write the sports listings every football season. I didn’t know how good I had it.

In December of 1993 I wrote of the Seahawks, “And now, a team that needs no introduction, mainly because no one wants to meet them.” What can I say post-Super Bowl except that it’s the Seahawks, our very own oceangoing raptors, who now fly the highest. They are at the top of their profession and the top of the world, or at least that part of the world that plays U.S. football. Congratulations to them and to their fans, who God knows have endured much. I certainly didn’t help.

Random Pick of the Day
Joe McPhee, Common Threads: Live at the Tractor Tavern (1995)
Mr. McPhee is too avant-garde for this listener, but in honor of the Seahawks I wanted an album recorded in Seattle, and we spent many New Year’s Eves dancing at the Tractor Tavern, and McPhee, a sax player, was influenced by a woman who played the accordion, so it had to be Common Threads. Believe me, if there was an album about the Seahawks or even the Seagals I would’ve picked that one.

Random Pan of the Day
Various artists, Denver Broncos: Greatest Hits, volumes 1 and 2 (both 2001)
These albums actually exist, featuring Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Molly Hatchet (never as good as Molly Ringwald), and of course John Denver. Get this crap out of here.

Q: What happened to the end of 1986 Week?
A: It collided with the weekend. Party!

Q: Aren’t you too old to party?
A: You’re never too old to party. You might have to party at 12 frames per second instead of 24, but you’re never too old to party.

Q: Well, how would you rate 1986? What kind of year was it musically?
A: It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls of independent means.

Q: Since you were writing about 1986, why didn’t you mention The Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead? It’s supposed to be their best album.
A: I’ll end with them. Sort of. Like it’s any of your business anyway.

Q: Looking at your tag cloud, I see that the biggest name is Bruce Springsteen. You mention him a lot, but you don’t write about him very much.
A: You have to form a question in the form of a question. Don’t be a sports journalist.

Q: Right. Bruce – WTF?
A: Springsteen has been around so long and recorded so much that it’s impossible not to notice him. He’s a handy measuring stick. Dylan has been around even longer and has recorded even more, but he doesn’t have the same impact on our culture. Bruce has remained relevant, or at least topical. Bob has not. Plus I don’t like Dylan’s voice. But to answer your question, I don’t know what I could add to the existing mountain of Springsteen music journalism that would make a difference or sound original by even one gram. So I’ll go on referring to him and trying not to refer to Dylan. Or Donovan.

Q: How are you getting along in the novel-writing sector?
A: I’ve written 15,000 words.

Q: Is that a big number?
A: If I keep them, yes. If not, no.

Q: Would you say that writing a novel is an iffy proposition?
A: I’d say I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

Q: What did you listen to today? Sweatin’ to the Oldies?
A: Today I listened to M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming (2011). The radio hit, “Midnight City,” sounds like vintage Depeche Mode. I’m still wading through the rest of this two-disc set. This French band is kinda arty, like Arcade Fire but without the beat. I might have to counter with Oingo Boingo. I might spend this week listening to M83, blink-182, Haircut 100, Matchbox Twenty, Heaven 17, Maroon 5, The Dave Clark Five, The Bobby Fuller Four, 3 Doors Down, and Fun Boy 3.

Q: Fun Boy 3?
A: I bet I’ll be able to dispense with some of these guys in a song or two!

Q: Where’s Deadmau5 on your list?
A: I just learned that the 5 should be pronounced as an s. I feel as ridiculous as the day someone busted me for pronouncing R.E.M. as “rem.” Which reminds me of something I read recently. What a way to begin a review: “I don’t ordinarily like to think about sex and R.E.M. at the same time…” I don’t even care what the rest of the sentence is! (Review of the film Fourplay in Portland Mercury, 27 February 2013)

Q: Let’s get back to The Smiths. Are you hating on them?
A: As if. I like half a dozen of their songs very much, but they’re scattered across their four studio albums, so their 1986 disc, The Queen Is Dead, didn’t move me.

I have tons of respect for Johnny Marr, their guitarist, but not much for Morrissey, even if he’s still being treated like a god. If all bands can be explained by The Monkees, then Johnny Marr is Mike Nesmith and Morrissey is Davy Jones.

Nevermind all this Q&A BS. Here’s a real interview for you. In the April 9 Seattle Weekly, Duff McKagan, the original bass player in Guns N’ Roses, interviews Marr. (Marr has a new album, The Messenger. It has some surprisingly strong tracks for a guy whose heyday was in 1986.) The interview is not only fun, it produced this gem:

McKagan: You were sort of the anti-guitar hero. I’m just so fascinated by your guitar style. I try to picture you guys in 1979 or whatever. I don’t know what he was listening to to get that sound.

Marr: Joy Division were rehearsing in the room above my band. They were scary guys just to look at because they wore old man’s clothes. With haircuts like they just came from the second world war. And that was much scarier than looking at someone who looked like the New York Dolls, or one of the Rolling Stones.

A: Everyone have a good week. Sweat to the oldies all you want, but don’t sweat the small stuff.
Q: I didn’t ask a question!
A: Deal.


Grunge Lite
Sara DeBell
I was living in Seattle when our fair city unleashed a pair of unstoppable cultural forces: coffee and grunge. Everyone knows what coffee is: overpriced. What is grunge?

Figure 1. Let’s go grunge-spotting!
Here are some general characteristics to help you seek and spot grunge anywhere in the world:

  • Men who can’t sing.
  • Big fuzzy guitars – a moderately pleasing sound that conveniently camouflages a lack of technical skill.
  • Overflowing testosterone. Particularly ironic in that the best album from the grunge era is easily Hole’s Live Through This. Only Courtney Love’s husband came close when his band released Nevermind.
  • Bad male fashion – plaid shirts worn unbuttoned or tied at the waist, or two nondescript shirts worn one on top of the other. A man at my gym left one of his nondescript shirts on a hook in the locker room for two months before he realized it was his shirt and not an irregular pattern on the wall.

Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, and Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam played Matt Dillon’s band, Citizen Dick, in the movie Singles (1992). This movie might not have been the high point for grunge, but it was certainly the high point for Pearl Jam.

Targets don’t get much fatter than this
Sara DeBell’s Grunge Lite, which appeared while grunge was still happening, was billed as a “whole buttload of easy-listening favorites,” recorded entirely in her dining room. She took 11 grunge masterworks and muzaked them, including Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow,” Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick,” and Soundgarden’s “Hunger Strike.” (DeBell was particularly taken, or appalled, by Soundgarden, who appear three times in her carnival of carnage.) I only wish she had taken down my faves, Screaming Trees (“Nearly Lost You”). They could’ve used the publicity.

Grunge had it coming, but this is the kind of album you’ll play only when your house is full of people and they are full of your beer. Sure, the muzak versions of  these songs are clever…if you like muzak. Few people will be able to sit through the entire thing without losing intestinal containment. OK, I’ve done it. In the mid-’90s, though, when I played DeBell’s version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at parties at our house, everyone over 40 would gather adoringly around the stereo. I probably couldn’t get that reaction today, now that the real “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a standard in the Classic Rock repertoire and everyone I know is at least 100.

After releasing Grunge Lite, DeBell became the copy editor at The Stranger, one of Seattle’s weekly alternative papers. At that time I was finishing my sojourn as the copy editor at Seattle Weekly. If this was her idea of how to gain respectability, I could’ve told her it wasn’t going to work.

I don’t know where Sara DeBell is today, musically, but the one time I spoke with her, in 1996, she was really into The Everly Brothers!