Posts Tagged ‘The Grateful Dead’

Queen: Greatest Hits

I am never in the mood for Queen. There is no time of the day or night, no day of the week, no season in which I would choose to listen to Queen. This isn’t because I hate them; I don’t. They’re literate, which means a lot here at the Bureau. They use adjectives that are uncommon in a rock song (“warily”) and when the situation demands it they can concoct their own (“belladonic”). I’m just unmoved by their music.

One thing I do enjoy about Queen is that you can arrange their song titles to tell stories:

Fail Whale
It’s a Hard Life
I’m Going Slightly Mad
I Want to Break Free
I Want It All
Fight From the Inside
Keep Yourself Alive
Don’t Stop Me Now
Another One Bites the Dust

Get a Room
Get Down, Make Love
Spread Your Wings
We Will Rock You
Sheer Heart Attack
Sleeping on the Sidewalk

Placing them within the context of their ’70s contemporaries, Queen is less pompous than Yes, wittier than King Crimson, looser than Traffic, warmer than Pink Floyd, better dressed than Mountain, hipper than The Grateful Dead, kinkier than Steely Dan, nastier than Carole King, more electrifying than War, and smarter than Grand Funk Railroad, though that one is easy. My dog is smarter than Grand Funk Railroad. Queen could toast and eat Bread and wash them down with ELO without missing a beat. They are the Monitor to Black Sabbath’s Merrimack. They are not just superior to Chicago, they make Chicago look like Fall River, Massachusetts. Their song about women with overlarge derrieres is AC/DC with metaphors and flashbacks. AC/DC can barely manage a point of view. And their song about murder, the nature of reality, and Galileo made Wayne’s World possible.

Queen was obviously a respectable unit, but this is music, not quantum mechanics. If you could explain art you wouldn’t need misinformed critics like me. Honk if you love David Bowie.

The birthday of our nation is a good time to complain about complainers. I am referring here to “dues songs,” in which musicians who have been made wealthy by their music describe how difficult it is to be successful. And apparently success is very difficult indeed.

The ’70s were an unmatched decade for whiners, best typified by Deep Purple’s immortal doorstop, “Smoke on the Water.” This is of course the heart-rending ballad of a band that can’t record their music at a studio in Switzerland, not because the government of Switzerland wants to spray them for bugs but because the studio burned down. So the band makes other arrangements to record their music in Switzerland. Rough.

ABBA’s “Super Trouper” is not quite as dumb; ABBA, unlike Deep Purple, didn’t believe you had to have the guitar solo and then the organ solo except when you had the organ solo and then the guitar solo. But the story, about the love of one special person saving the singer from the horrors of performing before adoring crowds, makes me think they’re not such troupers.

Alas, even an artist as awesome as Joni Mitchell complained (though ruefully, and with wit) about the success that allowed her to enjoy carefree vacations abroad in “Free Man in Paris.” “Free Man in Paris,” by the way, is superior to the entire Deep Purple catalog, not counting “Hush.”

Moving to other decades, The Byrds and Bad Company warned us of the perils of reaching for the top in “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star” and “Shooting Star,” respectively. Of course both bands were thoroughly enjoying those perils at the time.

Say what you will about The Grateful Dead, they never complained about the Deadheads.

A dues song done right
Bob Seger writes about the rigors of the road in “Turn the Page”:

Later in the evening
As you lie awake in bed
With the echoes from the amplifiers
Ringin’ in your head
You smoke the day’s last cigarette,
Rememberin’ what she said

“Turn the Page” is a journalistic, matter-of-fact account of Seger’s life that gains power from the slow accumulation of details, not from lamenting the illogical. When Seger released this song in 1972 he was unknown, unheralded, and unwealthy. Listening to this song you can’t help but root for him.

A dues variation
Peter Yorn is a singer/songwriter with a knack for reflection and a love for Bruce Springsteen. His “Rock Crowd” is a whole new look at life on the road:

I sit backstage
Oh I never know what to play
My mind gets cloudy
Can’t think of what I wanted to say
But when I see you
And we’re moving through the night
I feel like I can make it through another night

Rock crowd throw your arms around me
I feel glad when you all surround me
It’s you, it’s you who grounds me
When you’re done put me back where you found me

This song is beautiful and haunting. I wish it had a video. I wish I had a rock crowd!

Thousand Foot Krutch also addresses their fans in “Throw Up Your Rawkfist.” I love saying “Throw Up Your Rawkfist,” particularly at my birthday parties and when I’m teaching chess. But Thousand Foot Krutch is a Christian rap/head-banger outfit that makes me want to spray them for bugs, and their less-than-impressive lyrics don’t set my heart afire: “Throw up your rockfist/if you’re feelin’ it when I drop this.” Don’t drop it in here, I just vacuumed.

More news from Steveworld
I entered one of my short stories in a competition at Glimmer Train and finished in the Top 25. There were 1,000 entries so I’m feeling double plus good about this. Of course, if I had finished in the Top 3 and had gotten published in the zine, my next story would be about how awful it is to be published and rich and to find every train station surging with girls.

I have a new post in The Nervous Breakdown. This time around I use the occasion of my birthday (July 3) to share everything I’ve ever learned. You only have to scroll down twice! Thanks as always to Special D. I’ve learned a lot around here.

Happy Independence Day! Soon I shall be drinking the Bloody Marys of Liberty. (Robert Farley)

My hippie friends want to know why I don’t write about their music. The reason I don’t write about hippie music is quite simple really and that reason is that I have so far been unable to explain what it is.

To give you some idea of what I’m up against in this investigation, consider the following. Does hippie music include folksingers like John Prine and Bob Dylan? Does it include pop-country hybrids like The Byrds and Bob Dylan? Does it include wild-haired rockers like Mountain and Bob Dylan? Does it include people who were just passing through hippiedom, like The Beatles and Bob Dylan? Does it include psychedelic mind-trippers like The Electric Prunes and – no, I can’t make that one work.

Where do you file Quicksilver Messenger Service, except under Crud?

In Search of the Lost Chord
What then is this entry in the continuing annals of Run-DMSteve about? It’s certainly not about to make me a lot of money. What I intend to do is take you step-by-step through the rigorous scientific process by which I discovered that the long-sought definition of hippie music has once again dodged up a side street.

The first thing to do in any successful project is to sweep everything you don’t want to deal with under the rug. So I began by declaring that hippie music is music produced by bands that existed in the 1960s. This yielded a sold historic footing and liberated me from having to think about Phish or Blues Traveler.

To further winnow the field, I decided that hippie bands had to have staying power. If they’d played together for at least a decade or two, they were in. If their principal members had died in the early innings, they were out.

(If we posit the existence of a rock ’n’ roll heaven, I’m sure they enjoy musical performances by an adverbial intensifier of a band. But until we can download an alternate-universe app, we’ll never know what Janis, Jimi, Jim, and their peers might have accomplished. Though I can easily picture Jimi playing Wilson Pickett in The Commitments.)

I eliminated The Allman Brothers because Greg married Cher. Black Sabbath I eliminated just for being.

Finally, I considered the fans. A hippie band should come equipped with its own cult. Did our candidates have fans who routinely spent the summer following them around? Did these fans leave their jobs, if they had jobs, to go to 12 concerts in six cities in two weeks in one chartreuse microbus? Were they following their heroes around in 1970, 1990, and maybe even 2010?

There were only two bands I could think of that met these requirements: The Grateful Dead and The Moody Blues.

This is not my idea of a good time, but at least they’re better than Procul Harum.

Blues for Allah
To keep things simple, let’s refer to both bands in the past tense, even though 60% of the Moodies are still on the road and threatening to visit your hometown.

I confess that during an early adolescent period, when I was pretending to read Herman Hesse, The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed was the most profound musical document I knew. And at a later adolescent period, when I wore my hair down to my belt, The Dead’s American Beauty spoke of my yearning to get back to the land. An odd yearning, given that I’d grown up in suburbia.

It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of The Dead or The Moody Blues, except to switch stations when the local Classic Rock outlet wheels them out of the morgue. But once I had them under the electron microscope, I discovered some unexpected relationships:

Fig. 1: Sugar magnolia vs. white satin

  1. The Moody Blues experimented with classical music.
  2. The Grateful Dead experimented with disco.
  3. The Grateful Dead rode a train.
  4. The Moody Blues rode a see-saw.
  5. The Grateful Dead had trouble capturing their concert performance in the studio.
  6. The Moody Blues had trouble capturing their studio performance in concert.
  7. Band members left The Moody Blues by resigning.
  8. Band members left The Grateful Dead by dying.
  9. The Grateful Dead were fronted by a charismatic man.
  10. The Moody Blues were five guys with feathered hair.
  11. The Grateful Dead released Aoxomoxoa in 1969. The Moody Blues have nothing to match this, but Pink Floyd does: Ummagumma, released the same year. Which makes me wonder if The Dead and Floyd were actually the same gang of idiots.

Bummer. The only thing this list demonstrates is the astounding diversity of the hippie biomass. I’ll keep working on this problem, even though the budget compromise that has kept the government open has shut off my funding. Someday, I vow, the world will know what exactly hippie music is. Until then, tenere a autotrasporto (keep on truckin’)!

“Owner of a Lonely Heart”
Yes has been around so long, they had to postpone their first gig until Sir Francis Drake could defeat the Spanish Armada. In the 1970s, Yes and a collection of art-school escapees including King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Pink Floyd, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer created their own playpen of popular music: progressive rock. Prog-rock songs have two underlying characteristics:

1) Too many notes.
2) Boredom.

Yes enjoyed tremendous commercial success with their overinflated songs, and long after the rest of these pompous mammoths had been stuffed and mounted, Yes was still blundering about, bugging the hell out of me. Because Special D says I should stop being a grump, I’ve decided to say something nice about Yes. In fact, my research has revealed so many nice things to say about Yes that I’ve tabulated them for your convenience.

Table 1. Have You Heard the Good News About Yes?
The song “Owner of a Lonely Heart” is superior to all of its contemporaries:

  • Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
  • Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart”
  • Hart to Hart starring Robert Wagner and Stephanie Powers
  • Most crud by Heart

If the sacred mission of prog rock is to clear the dance floor of all human life, why did Yes record a dance song? Not only does this heresy remain unexplained, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” became Yes’ only #1 hit! In 1983 this seemed about as likely as the Dukes of Hazzard hosting Masterpiece Theatre. I understand now that the years in which Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, and the band’s 1,000 other members spent honing their craft, blowing everything out of proportion and infusing their albums with a heady dose of tedium, was all in the service of this one moment.

Where eagles dare
The song starts with the guitar clearing its throat like a brontosaurus heading for its mud hole. I like it already. Over the next two minutes, the spectacle of a band this inept attempting to create a dance-club hit by straining Thomas Dolby through Deep Purple can’t help but win you over. They even snap their fingers. This stretch of music isn’t really danceable; it’s slow and lumbering. But Yes fans can dance to it, for they are slow and lumbering.

And then, with the music swelling and the falsettos becoming ever more false, we’ve safely reached the end. Right? The song has acquitted itself with honor and can now retire. Right? You know I’m going to say Wrong! We have instead arrived at the bridge. The band doesn’t transition into the bridge so much as trip over it. This is Steve Howe’s cue, or maybe this is what wakes Steve Howe up. With a mighty heave of his fingers, he uncorks a guitar solo that kicks like a line of retired Rockettes. Don’t you always laugh at this point and flail about the room with your air guitar? Of course you do.

Having shot its wad with these bold ideas, Yes contentedly rolls over for the last 60 seconds. The song slowly deflates, leaving you with the memory of a good time and the thought that within 24 hours they’ll be ready to do it again.

What other band could’ve done this?
Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” was a very different song for The Boss, though he sort of repeated that glossy, ’80s-feathered-hair sound a couple years later with “Tunnel of Love.” The Pixies’ “Here Comes Your Man,” a bright, poppy tune, was just a tiny bit out of place on an album that included “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and the rest of their suicidal oeuvre. The Grateful Dead took a stab at disco with “Shakedown Street”; if only disco had stabbed back. But I can’t think of any band that reached so far beyond itself as Yes did with “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

Now that’s progressive.