Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Kurt Cobain, David Bowie and Don Draper: The Men Who Sold the World

I guarantee we will screw this song up says Kurt Cobain as he and his band Nirvana launch into a cover of David Bowies The Man Who Sold the World on their epic MTV Unplugged performance in the fall of 1993. Kurt, Dave Grohl and Krist Novacelic (along with Pat Smear and Laurie Goldstein) nailed it on the first try. But the rest of Kurt's life, of course, was a disaster. 

Hearing this brilliant performance a few days ago, on the 20th anniversary of Kurts suicide, it was hard not to wonder if Kurt chose it because he knew he had the world and he wasnt interested in hanging onto it. Many have noticed that the shows décor has a funereal quality to it, and some wonder if the show was his way of saying goodbye, a few months early.

When Nirvana played it, "The Man Who Sold the World" was a relatively obscure song in the  Bowie oeuvre, the title track of one of his pre-Ziggy Stardust records. Few in the audience seem to recognize it.

Not surprisingly, it immediately leapt in stature after Kurt made it his own. Of course it helps that it's a fantastic, futuristic song.

I saw Bowie on a tour with Nine Inch Nails in 1995 and before he sang the tune, he  said something to the effect that he was honored Kurt decided to sing it and would love to have known why he selected it. Here's a wonderful version from a circa-'95 BBC special. 

"The Man Who Sold the World" has reared its head again on the cultrual landscape, this time in the Season 7 trailer for Mad Men, playing over trippy graphics by legendary designer Milton Glaser, who is well known for his poster of Bob Dylan, a visionary cat who had a Cobain-like following but somehow managed to make it to the other side.

Is using "The Man Who Sold the World" Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner's way of saying that Don Draper's suicide as inevitable as Kurt's seems in hindsight? Is it a hint that Don, an ad-Man Who Sold the World to the world, is going to pull a Cobain, a quarter century before Cobain? 

Or maybe Don will be murdered by his estranged, unstable blonde wife, as some suspect Kurt was. 

I guess we'll find out when Mad Men concludes its seventh, final and tortuously dragged out season, which starts this weekend and ends 12 episodes later sometime next year. Is this any way to thank your fans? Maybe we'll be the ones checking out early.

Buy on iTunes:

Friday, March 14, 2014

Future Islands: The New Wave of the Future

Many thanks to fellow copywriter and music lover David Stemler for pointing me in the direction of a great band I’d never heard of: Future Islands. I’d heard that they were on David Letterman that week, but had missed the show and moved on with my life.

So I checked out their performance on YouTube and was totally mesmerized (as was Letterman), for a couple of reasons.

One, the song “Seasons (Waiting on You)” is irresistible, a hook-filled New Wave synth-pop delicacy that took me back to those weekly Tuesday "New Wave Nights" at Huskies Bar & Grill at the University of Connecticut.

Two, the band’s singer, Samuel T. Herring, is one of the more unusual frontmen to make the scene in some time. He’s one of those people whose body doesn’t match the voice, and vice versa. 

Herring looks like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, sounds like Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals (with some neanderthal-ish vocal inflections) and dances in a style that is completely sui generis. (More on that later.)


I was trying for days to think of what Herring's dancing and grunting reminded me of, but I couldn’t figure it out. 

Then it hit me: it was the cringe-worthy, deeply disturbing dance "for charity" that David Brent (aka Ricky Gervais) did on the original, far superior BBC version of The Office. With both Brent and Herring, I am horrified yet cannot look away.


I was going to say that Future Islands, who formed in North Carolina and are now based in Baltimore, is a very promising new band. But, after doing a little research, I’ve learned they have already released three albums. 

Their fourth, Singles, which contains “Seasons (Waiting on You),” comes out  March 25 on the prestigious 4AD label. I will be picking it up and you should too. 

You can pre-order Singles by Future Islands (and get “Seasons” now) on iTunes here.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Beck's Morning Phase: Album of the Year

I got it for $9.98 plus tax
Last Tuesday, during my lunch hour, I walked over to the Best Buy near my office and picked up a CD of the brand-new Beck album Morning Phase

I took the physical media off the sparsely populated, sad- looking New Releases rack, brought it to the checkout counter, took it home, unwrapped the cellophane, peeled the annoying sticker across the top off, and put the CD in my iMac to add to my iTunes folder. Then I transferred the song files to my iPhone for convenient, on-the-go enjoyment. I've been listening to it non-stop ever since.

This was surely the same ritual I went through when Beck released his last record, the Danger Mouse-produced Modern Guilt, way back in 2008. But it didn't seem like a lot of work back then.

Of course, I could have saved about six steps by directly downloading the record from iTunes right onto my phone, but Beck Hansen took the care and the time to make a beautiful, melodic, cohesive and evocative album, already the high bar for album of the year. I felt like I needed to follow some sort of ritual as a gesture of appreciation to one of my musical heroes.

Morning Phase is being billed as a follow-up to 2003's Sea Change, the Blood on the Tracks-ish record Beck wrote after breaking up with his longtime girlfriend, and one of his absolute best records (see the RT write up here).

It has many of the same stellar musicians, string arrangements (courtesy of Beck's conductor/arranger dad David Campbell) and overall vibe. (1998's very underrated Mutations is also of this ilk, and a must-own if you are a fan.)

Yet Morning Phase feels less like a follow-up and more like the opposite side of the same coin.

Morning Phase is a little more hopeful and mature, as one might hope after ten years of personal and artistic growth. Rather than get into a song-by-song rundown, just take my word when I say the record has an arc and wholeness to it that call to mind classic albums of yore. It's good to know they still exist.

For someone who came to the world's attention as the genius goofball behind "Loser" and Odelay, it's interesting that his quote-unquote serious work is the most enduring. It's kind of like when someone silly like Bill Murray does a serious role and it turns out he's a better actor than all the Oscar-type capital-A Actors.

Beck put in two sublime performances on Saturday Night Live this past weekend, redeeming a comedically abysmal show hosted by the guy from Big Bang Theory.

First was the lead single "Blue Moon," featuring some wonderful, Fleet Foxes-esque harmony singing with his bandmates.

Near the end of the show, he sang one of my other favorites from the record, the haunting "Wave." 
One of the things I love about it is that it reminds me of my favorite tune by Radiohead, "Pyramid 
Song." For SNL, he was accompanied by a huge string section. The catering alone must have cost
a fortune.

Buy Morning Phase on iTunes here
Or better yet, make a pilgrimage to your local brick-and-mortar 
record retailer.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Happy 71st Birthday George Harrison: Savoy Truffles

Happy 71st to George Harrison, who is no longer living in the material world but is no doubt celebrating in a spiritual one somewhere.

Today I was thinking of all the great little ditties that George contributed to The Beatles' albums when Lennon & McCartney threw him a bone: "I Need You," "If I Needed Someone," "Taxman," "It's All Too Much," "For You Blue," and many more. Of these, perhaps my favorite is "Savoy Truffle," from Side 4 of the White Album.

"Savoy Truffle" is indeed a truffle, a fun and funky piece of ear candy in a record that contains many flavors. 

The song is a cheeky ode to Good News, a Whitman's Sampler type of English chocolates that was a favorite of George's good buddy and fellow guitar god Eric Clapton, and featured flavors like Creme Tangerine, Ginger Sling, Coffee Dessert, and yes, Savoy Truffle.

Slowhand had a huge sweet tooth, and George was warning him in song that if he kept eating them, he'll "have to have them all pulled out," meaning his teeth. 

Here is a wonderfully literal video interpretation of "Savoy Truffle" that I found on YouTube.

There was only one bon bon that Clapton craved even more than the Savoy Truffle - George's shagadelic, super mod, Swingin' London model wife Pattie Boyd

Eventually, in 1974, a few years after Clapton wrote "Layla" and other assorted love songs for Pattie and her marriage to George fell apart, she took up with him. They were married throughout the 70s and most of the 80s.

In a style befitting wife-swapping rock royalty, Harrison held no grudge against Eric or Pattie, saying something to the effect of "I'd rather she take up with him than some idiot."

Boyd is surely #1 on the all-time list of rock muses, having inspired not only Clapton's best album, but his easy-listening 70s classic "Wonderful Tonight."

Of course, on a much higher artistic plane, Pattie was also the inspiration for George's "Something," which the rock-disdaining Frank Sinatra famously called "The best love song of the past 50 years," even though he thought it was written by Lennon/McCartney.

Here's Harrison playing "Something" at the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 with a drug-addled Clapton backing him on guitar and no doubt listening to George's lyrics and thinking, she is pretty cute, isn't she

Happy Birthday George! From all your fans on Earth.

Buy on iTunes:
The White Album
Abbey Road
Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Happy Belated Valentine's Day from David Bowie and Rock Turtleneck

Last March, when David Bowie stunned his fans by releasing The Next Day, perhaps the greatest non-Elvis musical comeback of all time, with no advance press or interview junket. It may have been the best record of 2013, and I immediately gravitated to the track "Valentine's Day." 

Its floating melody and Mick Ronsonesque guitar parts took me right back to the days of Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars -- days I didn't experience firsthand, only many years later as a Bowie connoisseur. 

Remarkably, "Valentine's Day" would have been among the better tracks on either of those records, which is high praise indeed.

I remember thinking at the time, "I must feature "Valentine's Day" on Rock Turtleneck next Valentine's Day."  But as with so many thing in life, I forgot until it was too late. Or was it? 

Herewith, David Bowie's melodic, urgent "Valentine's Day."

The Next Day is a brilliant album that touches on many of The Thin White Duke's sounds over the year, and creates some new ones, too. 

While many sounds recall Bowie's early 70s triumphs or the dark genius of his "Berlin Trilogy," (Low/"Heroes"/Lodger), the first single "Where Are We Now," has a stateliness and wisdom that places it solidly in the year A.D. 2013. 

One thing about this record that has always fascinated me is the cover  - basically a white Post-It slapped over his iconic "Heroes" LP cover. What does it mean? My guess is that no one buys records anymore, so why even bother coming up with a cover concept. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Buy David Bowie's The Next Day on iTunes

Monday, November 04, 2013

I Saw Lou Reed Play One Song Live and It Was Amazing: Bob Dylan's "Foot of Pride"

Alas, I never saw Lou Reed perform a full concert, but I did see him play one song, and it was amazing. It was at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Tribute Concert at Madison Square Garden in the fall of 1992. Among the performers were George Harrison, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder, Chrissie Hynde, John Mellencamp, Eric Clapton, The Band, Willie Nelson, Johnny & June Carter Cash, Eddie Vedder, and of course Bob to bring it all back home.

Epic performances were aplenty that evening, and one of the best was from Lou. 

He came out pretty early in the show and started playing a two or three note drone and doing the talking-singing thing that he did better than anyone.

I am a world-class Dylanologist but I couldn't place the tune; perhaps he'd decided to one of his own songs as a tribute?

The song turned out to be "Foot of Pride," an Infidels outtake that had recently seen commercial release on the first installment of the ongoing Bootleg Series. Dylan's version had never really made an impression on me, but in Lou's hands it was mesmerizing, building in intensity and fury with each verse. And there were many verses.

Much credit goes to the BobFest "house band" for the evening, led by bandleader/guitar slinger G.E. Smith; and including Booker T, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn from Booker T and the MGs; and Anton Fig from David Letterman's band on drums. They worked the dynamics of the tune perfectly and give it more power than Mark Knopfler could muster when he produced Dylan's version.

foot of pride Bob DYLAN [rare] by mystralgagnant95300

Lou, Bob, TP and Randy Newman 
One of the things I like best about Lou's performance is the way he makes no attempt to hide the fact that he's reading the lyrics off a teleprompter — who but Bob could be expected to commit all 87 verses of "Foot of Pride" to memory, or even to know what the tune is about, beyond something like betrayal and redemption? I personally have no idea, but in Lou's hands, I loved it.

By the way, I payed face value for my ticket to that show - and I had good seats. The price to see all those legends? $80. Remember that the next time The Eagles come around.

Buy on iTunes:
Lou Reed, "Foot of Pride"
Bob Dylan, "Foot of Pride"

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Satellites of Love: 3 Essential Lou Reed Covers

A lot of Generation X-ers like myself were introduced to Lou Reed's genius through cover versions of his songs. Bands like R.E.M. and U2 kept Lou's flaming torch alive in much the same way the English R&B groups of the 60s, like the Yardbirds, Cream and the Rolling Stones, spread the word about forgotten blues forefathers like Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Son House. Here are three of the best Lou covers from the 80s and 90s.

R.E.M., "Pale Blue Eyes"
R.E.M. got into the habit of doing loose yet poignant Velvet Underground covers in the mid-1980s and putting them out as B-sides to singles like "Radio Free Europe," "So. Central Rain" and "Superman." I'm proud to say I still have some of those 45s in my archives. Back in the day, R.E.M. would often open a show with one of these tracks. In 1987, the three wonderful VU covers and other charming chum appeared on their B-sides comp Dead Letter Office
BTW, When people of my ilk refer to "classic R.E.M." they generally don't mean "Losing My Religion," they mean stuff like this, when Michael Stipe had a flowing mane and a noble air of reticence.

Cowboy Junkies, "Sweet Jane"
The Canadian band Cowboy Junkies tapped into the divine when they recorded their 1988 LP The Trinity Session around a single microphone at Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity. The record featured a wonderful mix of originals and covers, with the clear highlight being a slowed down, reverb drenched version of the Velvets' most famous tune "Sweet Jane." I believe at the time, Lou said it was one of his all-time favorite versions of one of his songs, which is high praise as Lou covers are legion.

In 1989, the ethereal Margo Timmons and her bandmates played "Sweet Jane" for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. How hot was it? It was so hot that even Johnny liked it. That is weird, wild stuff, I did not know that. (I miss Johnny too).

U2 and Lou Reed, "Satellite of Love"
U2 got all vanguardy and ironic for their 1992-93 ZOO TV tour in support of their masterpiece Achtung Baby. Much of their tour theatrics centered on the relationship between humanity and technology, which was very prescient considering the Internet and Apple were in the planning stages of taking over all of our lives.

One of the highlights of the show was perhaps the first-ever duet via satellite, an all-too apropos cover of the Transformer track "Satellite of Love," one of my desert-island Lou songs. U2 has long made their love of Lou well known, having tossed in a few lines of "Satellite" and "Walk on the Wild Side" during their epochal version of "Bad" at Live Aid in 1985. 

Buy on iTunes:
R.E.M., Dead Letter Office
Cowboy Junkies, The Trinity Session
U2, "Satellite of Love"