Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Quiet Brilliance Of Paul McCartney's First Solo Albums

Paul McCartney has long been thoroughly misunderstood by casual music fans.  He is usually thought of as the nice, cheerful Beatle capable of writing a great pop song but unwilling to experiment and push the envelope like his writing partner John Lennon.  Furthermore, McCartney's solo records are usually considered fluff, plenty catchy and all, but totally lacking in serious intent.

To reduce McCartney to "Silly Love Songs" does him a huge disservice.  In the first place, his behavior in the later years of the Beatles was not so nice and cheerful.  Yoko Ono did not break up the Beatles, McCartney's attempt to take over the band after manager Brian Epstein's suicide alienated his mates to the point that Lennon quit and the others essentially took his side.  It is telling that on their early solo records the Beatles play on each others' albums, but nobody plays on Paul's.

Those first two records, McCartney and Ram, are also more musically daring than what his bandmates were doing, contrary to stereotype.  Don't get me wrong, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, and All Things Must Pass are all fantastic albums, and are as good as or better as Paul's output in the period.  In the period from 1970 to 1971, Paul McCartney basically invented lo-fi indie pop about twenty years before it became a thing.  He was willing to throw experiments and spontaneous stuff on records fearlessly, and for that reason both albums have a warm, homey feel to them.

McCartney announces its intentions with its beautiful, artsy, off putting cover.  Despite naming the album after himself, he does not appear on the front.  The picture on the back is a famous and endearing photo of him sheltering his daughter in his coat while sporting a lazy beard.  The front lets the listener know that this will not be a straightforward pop album, and the back signals that the man behind it is taking shelter in domesticity.  Both principles come out in the first track, "The Lovely Linda," evidently recorded on a lark while Paul was testing the rather limited equipment he used to record the album.  Make no mistake, McCartney isn't just reveling in domestic life.  The stark "Every Night" describes deep depression better than just about any other song.  He describes wanting to go out every night and get wasted to forget then not wanting wake up the next day.  It also expresses longing for Linda, who evidently endured a lot in this period of time.  This is not a silly love song, but a look into the dark night of the soul.

Other tracks sound unpolished, even unfinished.  "Momma Miss America" is missing lyrics, but has an amazing dark mood about it, like the soundtrack to an assassin heading out at midnight to do a dirty deed.  The song shows off both McCartney's drumming and guitar playing, since he recorded all of the instrumental tracks himself.  While his first solo album closes out with "Maybe I'm Amazed," a very Beatle-y love ballad, it's almost there to provide some of that old time religion for listeners who might feel lost at sea.

1971's Ram steered towards brighter shores, but maintained the same off the cuff, spontaneous feel.  It was credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, a fact that others saw as a dig at John and Yoko, but which I interpret as a tribute to how Linda had helped pull Paul back from the edge. The first song, "Too Many People," seems a direct response to his detractors, especially Lennon, with the lines "You took your lucky break/ and broke it in two."  It also rocks pretty damn hard, opening up in ways that the first album never quite did.  Some experimental touches persist, like the hypnotic "Ram On."

Once McCartney get the acrimony of the Beatle breakup out of the system he crafts some beautiful, symphonic pop songs that could have been put on Abbey Road.  "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" may be way over in the realm of frivolity that so frustrates his fans, but it is still gorgeous and supremely catchy.  The last song, "Back Seat of My Car" is just flat out amazing, and deserves to be much more well known than it is.  The 50s touches, the symphonic strings, impassioned singing and searing guitar are quite a combination.  The sheer complexity of it is really stunning, and in that respect it far surpasses what his former bandmates were up to.  You can call his music in this period frivolous, but certainly not uninteresting.  Forty-five years on it's easier to see the brilliance, removed as we are from the hothouse world of the early 1970s and expectations it brought to each new Beatle solo album.  Now it's free to just be good music, and for that I am grateful.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chris Christie's Latest Con

Pity poor Chris Christie.  All the Republican cool kids are starting to announce their candidacies, and he's still on the sidelines with possible indictments hanging over his head and a lack of support from residents in his own state.  He's gone from potential front runner to also-ran.

In a bid to establish his relevance, he has proposed a plan to "reform" Social Security that is plain old austerity politics.  It mostly involves raising the retirement age to 69 and cutting off benefits above a certain.  He also wants to do similar things to Medicare and Medicaid.  Of course, in typical Christie fashion he has pitched the same tired conservative talking points as straight talk, claiming that "Washington is afraid of having an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid with the people of our country.  I am not."

Chris Christie proclaiming his honesty is just about as ridiculous as Madonna proclaiming her modesty or Bill Clinton his marital fidelity.  At least those other people don't insult the public's intelligence with such claims the way Christie does.  He talks as if austerity is necessary because the money isn't there to pay for "entitlements."  (Scare quotes there because I have been paying for the retirement benefits of the elderly for two decades now, but am supposed to somehow not expect the same provided to me by the next generations.)

We all know that the money is there, and that it is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.  Forget the Social Security trust fund, there is plenty of money held by the superrich in offshore tax accounts to keep the system solvent under the current rules.  It's just that the ideology of Christie and his ilk says that billionaires ought never to be made to make a sacrifice, but that the average worker ought to maintain that state of affairs by putting off their retirements or sacrificing financial security in old age.  He's also against raising the minimum wage, unions, and pensions, so I guess the future elderly with have to make do with gruel and early death.

We are the wealthiest nation on earth, and can well afford the rather modest retirement benefits our welfare state offers.  To pretend otherwise is not to engage in straight talk, but the worst kind lying cant.  Of course, Christie isn't saying these "hard truths" to get voters, but to get more of that sweet sweet Koch money.  I get the feeling that even they aren't buying what he's selling anymore.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Track of the Week: The Seeds "Pushin' Too Hard"

There are certain styles of music that have a sound that I just can't resist, a sound and feel that sometimes supersedes the songs and artists themselves.  After seeing that famed 60s underground Seattle band The Sonics had reunited and put out their first album in almost fifty years, I did a deep re-dive into sixties garage rock during my morning commutes this week.  Fuzzy guitars, caveman rhythms, bright organs, and sneering vocals make a helluva combination, one that always keeps bringing me back.

If I had to go back to the old days before iPods and make a mix CD of garage rock that could fit into a 77 minute box, "Pushin' Too Hard" by The Seeds would be one of a handful of songs that would make the cut, no questions asked.  The song starts with a demented organ line and frantic pace, putting the listener right into the damaged mind of singer and principal songwriter Sky Saxon.  (And no, that's not his real name.)  He rants and sneers about others "pushin' him too hard" in a way that captures the teenage psyche perfectly.  Before the song gets very far it jumps right into an organ solo that sounds like spinning plates about to crash and a basic, plunking guitar solo that despite its almost comic simplicity, comes across just as sinister as Saxon's voice.  I wish I had known about this song when I was sixteen, since it would have well complimented my theatrical defiance and over-inflated sense of individuality.

Garage rock was the ultimate teenage music made by young men who wanted to imitate their British Invasion heroes but were unable to match their musical virtuosity.  It is simplistic, often to the point of ineptitude, but when lightning strikes in just the right place, like on "Pushin' Too Hard," the result is so stirring that you don't notice the absence of even a third chord.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Is Rand Paul Crazy Like A Fox?

The day Rand Paul launched his campaign, it looked like it had turned into a dumpster fire in record time.  His campaign video got locked from YouTube for using copyrighted music without permission and his website was full of embarrassing typos as well as stock photos purporting to be those of his supporters.  Since then he has been extremely dickish towards reporters (especially women) who dare to ask him tough questions and his campaign has sued TV stations running ads about his old statements on Iran.  One might think that his campaign is an attempt to make Ted Cruz look sane.

To quote the bard, he may be mad, but there is method to it.  Paul knows that if he has any chance to win the Republican nomination, or even come close to it, he can't try to beat the establishment at its own game.  He has to win over the conservative wing and gain some others in the bargain, and after this week he is actually stronger rather than weaker in that regard.  As far as the conservatives go, Paul's quarrels with the media are the reddest of red meat.  It is a matter of conservative orthodoxy that the media is a den of liberals out to destroy them, and by being combative Paul is giving Right wingers something to root for.  Instead of trying to win the press with charm, a la John McCain, Paul using it as a foil.  If the major news outlets get upset, that only helps him.  Are GOP voters actually going to care what anyone besides Fox News thinks of him?

Paul knows that his appeal is in being an insurgent, so why play the same game someone like Jeb Bush is playing? Paul also has another potential trick up his sleeve, namely the Republican attempt to make 2016 about foreign policy.  This is more a desperate attempt to distract voters from the improving economy than anything else, and his want much saber rattling on the Right.  While Paul has been desperate to walk back prior criticism of Israel and American militarism, he is still the one Republican candidate not in thrall to neo-con orthodoxy.  He is surely aware that despite the party line, most Americans have tired of war and international adventures.  Promising more of them is hardly a viable electoral strategy.

I actually see Paul as a potentially very strong candidate.  He can grab multiple Republican factions, including the hardcore libertarians, the closeted isolationists, and the broader conservative wing tired of the establishment and I am sure well aware that Ted Cruz looks like a complete pompous ass whenever he opens his mouth.  Paul is a bit of an ass himself, but also appears able to communicate with others in a way that Cruz can't.  He has also attempted to reach out to African American voters in an opportunistic but I think considerable way.  In some respects Paul appears to be playing a double game: appealing to the Right while making himself appear to be the candidate best able to appeal to voters who have not been enamored with the Republican party, thereby holding out the prospect that the big money donors just might get behind him.

Folks on the Left, including yours truly, have been having a chuckle at how inept Paul's campaign has looked this week.  Now I am thinking that Paul himself might end up having the last laugh.  Goldwater managed to win the nomination in 1964, and Reagan came close in 1976.  With the public already seeming dead tired at the possibility of a Clinton-Bush election, Paul just might be able to squeak in through unconventional means.  I wouldn't put any money on it yet, but crazier shit has happened more than once.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Can Star Wars Overcome Its Obsolescence?

I've had Star Wars on my brain a lot recently.  This is partially because of reading a recent book about the growth of the films into a major phenomenon, and also listening to episodes of The Star Wars Minute podcast.  I have also become a little more sanguine towards the upcoming sequels when my initial reaction was to refuse to see them.  I still doubt that they will be anything better than just okay or an exercise in nostalgia.  (I'm basing this on JJ Abrams' track record.)

There are a lot of narratives surrounding Star Wars, and people today act as if fans turned against the prequels with the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999.  I actually think this is a bit of revisionist history.  Plenty of fans had problems with Jar-Jar and other elements of the film, but the initial response was still largely enthusiastic despite acknowledged drawbacks.  Many thought it was a great leap forward in terms of special effects, and Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars.  A film that makes a billion dollars isn't exactly unpopular.  Sure it wasn't what the fans hoped it could truly be, but they could be reasonably satisfied with it, and plenty of kids enthusiastically got on board.

I really think the "it's not great, but it's good enough" mentality around Phantom Menace changed when The Matrix came out later in 1999.  The special effects were much more innovative, and the story line much more compelling (and I say this as someone who can take it or leave it.)  The complete failure of the prequels did not become truly apparent, however, until 2001 and the release of The Fellowship of the Ring.  That film (perhaps the best of the LOTR trilogy) blew Phantom Menace clean out of the water when it came to story, special effects, acting, dialogue, and direction.  When Attack of the Clones came out a year later, Star Wars looked obsolete, yesterday's news.  At that point, I didn't know a single sci-fi/fantasy fan who preferred the Star Wars prequels to the LOTR films, and with good reason.  Peter Jackson showed George Lucas up.

Of course, Peter Jackson appears to have suffered from the same affliction as George Lucas, using his prior success to make a second, mind-numbingly dull trilogy that has sapped any of his audience's goodwill away.  There are legions of Star Wars fans waiting for the new sequels, but the first one will be a major test.  It could end Star Wars' obsolescence, but more likely I figure it will either be a nostalgia moment (hence the involvement of the original cast) or an updating of an old property by making it just like all the current day blockbusters, which is what Abrams did to Star Trek.  Those films aren't bad, but they're hardly inspiring.  That'll be good enough for Disney, who can be content to sit back and watch the money roll in.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Opening Day Thoughts And Links

After five long months, baseball is back.  This year the first game took place, appropriately enough, on Easter.  Both signal the end of winter, and symbolize the victory of life over death.  The older I get, the more cognizant I am of death, and the more baseball matters to me.  I get the feeling sometimes that those two things are connected.  Baseball lasts from the time that the snows melt and the first green shoots poke out of the ground to the time that the leaves fall and the harvest has come in and the sun starts going down before supper's ready.  It is my daily accompaniment during the months that life flourishes, and its return each April heralds better things.

Here are some links to things that have helped me get through this off season:

1979 All Star Game

Now that YouTube allows hours-long videos and MLB has welcomed rather than shunned it, there is an amazing number of whole vintage broadcasts online.  I found out about this one via the twitter feed of Dan Epstein, author of two good books on 70s baseball.  Unlike many full games from the time, this is not taped from a rebroadcast, and so is full of all of the original commercials, which are just as interesting as the game.

"The Berenguer Boogie" Music Video

In the wake of the Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle" in 1985, all kinds of jocks decided it was a good idea to cut godawful songs and music videos.  My friend Justin, who happens to be a Twins fan, alerted me to one of the lesser known, "The Berenguer Boogie," featuring middle reliever Juan Berengeuer, aka Sen~or Smoke.  He lets others do the rapping on this truly awful song, which prominently features a whistle, which while prominent in football and basketball, has no use in baseball.  This is something that belongs in the "so bad it must be seen to be believed."  (The music video by the 1986 Dodgers falls into this category, too.)

Game 3 of the 1986 NLCS

This comes from the classic nail-biter between the Mets and Astros.  I love the broadcast because it has "man on the street" interviews with subway riders, play by play by Keith Jackson, and a hilarious imitation of Jackson by Astro Billy Hatcher before the game.

Sully Baseball Daily Podcast

Sully puts out a podcast every day, even during the off season.  Although I like a lot of other baseball podcasts, their hosts lack Sully's engaging manner of speaking and his ability to blend fandom with analysis.

Unrealized Stadiums

The great Stadium Page has a really cool section full of plans and renderings of stadiums that were never built.  Evidently there was once talk of putting a baseball stadium in the Meadowlands complex for the Yankees, and of putting a roof on Shea Stadium.

Cardboard Gods Blog

Josh Wilker's book of the same day is a must-have for any thoughtful Gen X baseball fan.  It's much more about life than it is about baseball cards, which are really just used as inspiration for digressions.  The blog operates the same way, and it ought to be a much bigger deal than it is.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Track of the Week: Led Zeppelin "Hey Hey What Can I Do"

Thursday night I went out to the store to get a gallon of milk and some fruit for my insatiable toddlers, and something just hit me.  The sun had gone down, but the air was still warm, with a certain sweetness in the breeze.  Finally, after a long, wretched winter, spring was here.  Cruising the aisles of breakfast cereal and frozen vegetables, I walked with a spring in my step and a song in my heart.

Over the years I've developed some seasonal habits in regards to music.  Once spring hits, I break out the Led Zeppelin.  Their combination of feral sexuality and mystical Celtic mumbo jumbo is perfectly suited for the months when nature wakes up and life returns.  People tend to think of them as an electrified hard rock band riding on massive riffs, but some of my favorite Zep tunes are acoustic.  "Hey Hey What Can I Do" is one of my favorites of this genre, a non-album B-side for the much more bombastic "Immigrant Song."  The wall of acoustic guitars and folky mandolin are great, but I love this song for how it show's off Zep's rhythm section.  Bonham's bashing never sounded better, and John Paul Jones' snakey bass is high up in the mix and absolutely glorious.  When the warmth of the April sun heats my car up enough that I need to roll down the window, there's no song I love more to throw on the stereo.

The lyrics are typical hard rock bravado, the song's character talking about falling in love with a prostitute, but then seems to forget emotion by the time of the "keep ballin'" chant near the end.  Perhaps that kept the song off of Led Zeppelin III, but in any case it's living proof that Zeppelin's cast-offs beat the best of what a lot of other bands of their era could muster.