Saturday, December 24, 2011

"...Hail, Hail, The Angst's All Here..."

Loves me some words.

Been putting them together, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember.

And I can remember pretty far back.

Near as I can remember.

And, every now and then, I find myself inspired to add a word or two to the mix.

Just such an inspiration occurred today.

Courtesy of Lana Del Rey.

Here's a quick "whatsheallabout" from Yahoo Music.

How dumb do you have to be to announce to the world that you're a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra"? But Del Rey appears to be dumb like a fox, in that way. And, also, a fox, if we must say so ourselves. Not everyone is crazy about her plumped-lip look in the video for "Video Games," but 12 million video views (and counting) later, she's doing something right. That shrewdness isn't just in her knack for self-marketing, but also the real craft heard in that knockout single, a funereal ballad which makes her lover's fondness for World of Warcraft sound like the stuff of very high tragedy. We'll have to wait till her full-length album comes out in January to find out if her boots were really made for walkin'.

I gave Diva D-R another look/listen while digesting that little description and, somewhere around the two minute mark of her melodrama, the new word popped.

Debut momentarily.

Though she's ostensibly the latest, the lady Lana is not the lone purveyor of this particular song style.

Not by a long shot.

But, it was that Yahoo's description of said style that put me on the path to generating a new genre'.

A genre' that counts, among its subscribers, such talents as Christina Perri, Adele, even, if you stretch the point a parcek or two, Taylor Swift and, of course, now, Lana Del Rey.

Young ladies whose primary presentation is pretty much equal parts love and lament, melodic and melancholic, romantic and regretful.

In other words, a whole lotta angst goin' on.

Which is just fine and dandy, thank you, because, let's face it, there's only so much Michael Buble' one can absorb before the blood sugar cries out for dark chocolate.

The core audience these young ladies has recruited will faithfully sway and swoon, if only internally, to the pretty pathos and the relatable ruminations, never burdened by the perspective of older listeners who will struggle, from time to time, with the continued conflict of hearing dark and dramatic "reflections on a life of heartbreaks" from someone who was in elementary school less than five years earlier.

But, hey, Bob Dylan was only, like, twelve when he was doling out the admonitions of changing times to people five times his age.

So, I say, you go, girls.

Atta way to articulate.

Oh, and as for the new word that came to life in my lobe?

I agreed, and chuckled, at the Yahoo writer's opening opine about the Lana D R's self image as a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra".

Which, frankly, is like calling yourself a "macho Adam Lambert."

But, I understand the spirit of what she's going for.

And I think she actually came pretty close to pegging it.

She was just off a tad.

Mses. Del Rey, Perri, Adele and assorted other prolific poetesses yet to ponder and present, may I suggest that "gangsta" is close, but no cigar.

Allow me.


Happy to help.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

"...Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid, On, John, Paul, George and Ringo..."

Amidst the bargain jargon and super sale slang flying around like snow in a New England sky this time of year, there is a word, instantly evocative of the season, that tends to get lost in the shuffle.

At least, until the last lock on the last door of the last open store is finally clicked somewhere along the way Christmas Eve.


As in " the world..."

I was reminded of that today in a place doing something you don't often associate with epiphanous holiday moments.

Walking the treadmill.

Listening to The Beatles.

One song, amidst a variety of songs by a variety of singers on the IPod, put there for their groove, feel, mood, etc, ostensibly to keep me feeling upbeat as I work out, tone up and slim down but which, in fact, simply, and thankfully, do me the service of distracting me long enough to exercise for thirty minutes without wanting to load the treadmill into the trunk and drop it off in some unwatched dumpster on my way to the nearest DQ.

Go for the burn, my ass.

Winter is all about blizzards, baby.

The kind that come with chunks of Oreo.

And, this time of year, candy canes.

So, as I kept up a nice 3.2 MPH pace to the dancing and dining sounds of Michael Jackson, Nickelback, The Kinks, Shawn Colvin, Adam Lambert and Tammy Wynette, among others (hey, I wasn't born buff, but nobody can say I wasn't born eclectic), along came John, Paul, George and Ringo.

And a song that invariably, even after almost fifty years, evokes a smile and a little lightening of the load.

In the strangest way, as well, it also triggered that little previously mentioned holiday epiphany.

Because it caused me to be reminded of something that's missing, in large measure, from both the holiday season...and the current popular music culture.


Sure, many folks find happiness and warmth and good cheer and a few of its cousins showing up at Christmas time, but how much pure, untainted, child like joy is there to be found anymore?

And I'll spare you the diatribe about Black Friday madness and Christmas crazies and mall mental cases and let you reflect, yourself, on how buried or not, in all that sugar coated sludge, real laugh out loud joy there is in your holiday season.

Meanwhile, I realized, somewhere along the 26th minute of the 3.2 MPH as the Fab Four sang, that the same thing could be asked about pop music.

Sure, many people find happiness and warmth and good cheer and a few of its cousins in pop music, but how much pure, untainted, child like joy is there to be found anymore amidst the thump and the beat and the groove and the lyrics that either send a wave of angst washing over us like that big ass ocean wave that turned George Clooney and the gang upside down a few years back or so often imply, or simply offer upfront, the concept that we should "fuck like rabbits...and then maybe get to know each other"?

And just so the youngers don't leap to the tired old argument that my line of thinking is simply tired and old, understand this.

I'm not talking about morality.

Or hip quotient.

Or even cultural relatability.

I'm just talkin' about joy.

A feeling of delight and/or exuberance that comes without the baggage of angst or sexuality or social relevance or cultural connection?

And just makes you feel good...before, during and after.

With no buyer's remorse coated in a thin varnish of fear that you're going straight to Hell for drinking it, shaking it, making it and/or faking it.

And, truth be told, even The Beatles evolved fairly soon after into that next, more angst filled, phase.

But, while it lasted, this particular phase of artistic creation radiated pure joy.

And was a joy to hear.

The song has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.

But given the spirit that it evokes, I'm ready to make a pretty good case that it belongs right there on the Muzak with Rudolph, Frosty and the Holly Jolly of your own choosing.

Joy to the world...

...and I feel fine.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"...Gold...and Frankincense...and Frampton..."

Wouldn't be Christmas without "It's A Wonderful Life".

And amongst all the iconic images and catch phrase lines of dialogue that have woven their way into the fabric of our everydays, one particular line seems to pop up, for me, often throughout the year as the adventure of the life continues to unfold.

"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"

That thought has been, and continues to be, a source of both amusement and pride, depending on the given situation.

And, now and then, comfort when the water is low in the down phase of "sometimes the surf is up, sometimes the surf is down".

A friend of mine from bygone days is having a birthday this week and a little reminiscing about said days brought back both a fond memory and a renewed reminder about how we all affect, subtly, seriously or even satirically, each other on the shared road.

(excerpt from "I've Never Heard Of You, Either", @2010 by Blurb Publishing)

Peter Frampton was not amused.

Well, hell, I was just kidding.

In a work environment that can be very labor intensive and frequently chaotic, what with thousands of CD’s, tapes and assorted other merchandise items needing to be priced, stocked, dusted and protected from theft, it was only natural to expect that we would, occasionally, want to go off the well trodden path and come up with a few things for our own amusement. After all, those M.A.S.H. guys did some pretty wacky things and got away with it because everyone just sort of silently understood that it was their way of keeping from losing their minds in the madness. (not to equate the horrors of war with the running of a record store, but, unless you’ve done retail at Christmas, just ease off on the rush to judgment, okay, pal?)

We came up with a few little diversions from time to time. One I was particularly proud of (since I created it) was something we called the “trivia card”. Simply described, it was one of those plastic cards that sits in the stock bins, you know the ones that have the artists name on them so you can tell where the John Denver leaves off and the Frank Zappa begins, which we embossed with little bits of trivia about that particular artist. (...”Did you know that Andrew Gold, the singer/songwriter who created ‘Thank You For Being A Friend’ is the son of Marni Nixon, the lady who dubbed the singing voice of Natalie Wood in West Side Story?”)

The customers seemed to enjoy them, especially when we went a little left or right of center (“.....Sonny is a Congressman, Cher sells face creams and their daughter is a this a great country or what?”).

Sooner or later, though, it was inevitable that we would piss somebody off.

Hey, show me the way, Pete.

I had made up a new batch of cards and, feeling particularly witty that particular day, included this little tidbit of info under the name


“....artist whose album ‘Frampton Comes Alive’ is the best selling live album of all times...go figure...”.

I thought it was funny.

The staff thought it was funny.

Customers thought it was funny.

Peter Frampton was not amused.

I dodged the bullet, being occupied when Mr. Frampton came by, but Rob Esparza, one of my assistants had to do a very quick tap dance for the miffed musician. (....”what’s this?” “oh, you know, Mr. Frampton, go figure just means it’s hard to explain phenomenal success like yours”.....”oh, is that right...well, uh....I don’t think...” “well, sir, if you are offended, we apologize and here {sound of label being ripped off}’s gone..” “well...”)

I thanked Rob for falling on the sword for my attack of the witties. And, I was, in a spirit of good humor, content to let it go…until….

Not two hours later, my boss came to me and informed me that our main office had gotten a call from Mr. Frampton’s management office expressing their sincere unhappiness with the ridicule we had inflicted upon the aforementioned Mr. Frampton.

Well, shit, Peter, you sort of validated the whole “go figure” thing with that little temper tantrum, didn’t you?

Convinced that discretion was the better part of retort, I let it drop.

But not before I made up one last bin card for the benefit of staff and friends to use as a prop when telling the story:

“ was a joke, Peter...lighten the fuck up...”

Admittedly, that story doesn't necessarily qualify as a memory of the misty water colored variety Barbra Streisand warbled about.

But I think, if you stretch the point, you can see the threads of our humanity that weave in and out of the story, threads that take on a special meaning as family and friends gather to share a very special time of year.

There's humor and harpiness, vanity and victory, quiet determination and quick thinking, sacrifice and silliness, folly and friendship.

One, and all, essential tiles in the mosaic of the lives given us by the God whose kid is having a birthday this month.

And just as Harry Bailey wouldn't have been around to win the Congressional Medal of Honor if George Bailey hadn't pulled him out of the icy lake when they were kids, so, too, perhaps would my life not have taken me to success as a writer and radio personality had I been fired that day because Rob wasn't around to pull my bacon out of the fire.

"...Each man's life touches so many other lives...."

An unconventional, but, I'd offer, totally appropriate thought in this season.

Not to mention the other, equally unconventional thought that might best be remembered when the frantic frenzy of said season starts to overtake and overwhelm.

"...lighten the fuck up..."

Happy birthday and Merry Christmas, Rob.

Oh, and Peter...Merry Christmas to you...and...see above...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"...You Just Gotta Know That Somewhere Tonight, He's Wrapped Up In Some Lovin Arms..."

You're liable to hear a lot of "Drift Away" for the next day or two.

Dobie Gray has passed away.

When a celebrity dies, it's customary that whatever most identifies that celebrity for the public becomes, at least at first, that celebrity's media epitaph.

In Dobie's case, that would be "Drift Away."

Not too shabby, as epitaphs go.

But narrowing the focus on an amazing and diverse career that spanned five decades down to a single song might do the man proud but it hardly does him justice.

And while cliche' is always anathema to this word guy, it's only fair, and totally on target, to say that Dobie Gray truly was a one of a kind vocal talent.

In a culture that seems, sometimes, to pride itself on being the newest version of the current next big thing, Dobie was a singer who could not be mistaken for any other singer.

Even if you tried.

And while Dobie's career rebirth performance of Mentor Williams' amazing "Drift Away" deservedly belongs in the list of iconic pop songs, you're cheating yourself out of some wonderful discovery if you don't seek out his larger body of work including, but certainly not limited to, his seminal performance of Tom Jan's stunning "Lovin Arms".

Not to mention a little ditty from the hip and happening sixties that was, to Dobie, "I Was A Teenage Werewolf" was to a young Michael Landon, that which brought fame but, along with it, a latter day cringe factor of ten plus.

"The In Crowd".

As for this baby boomer, I was doubly blessed by Dobie Gray's time on the mortal coil.

First as a young fan of both that cheesy sixties stuff and the seventies rebirth that produced "Drift Away", et al.

Then in the early eighties as a friend and peer who was honored to be asked to sing backup with him on stage at the 1982 Volunteer Jam in Nashville.

That was quite a night on a couple of counts.

First, I had just, about two hours earlier, married the lady who was standing next to me in that backup group on stage, a wedding that Dobie was gracious enough to announce to the thousands in the hearty partying crowd jammed into the Municipal Auditorium.

Second, don't let anybody kid ya. Singing the high harmony part live on "Drift Away" ten feet from the star and in front of thousands of hearty party-ers and actually hitting the notes is no small feat.

You can't buy memories like that, I'm here to tell you.

And not to tarnish the tribute, but the irony isn't lost on me that today another Nashville name has been in the news.

John Rich was thrown off a Southwest jet because he was too drunk to act like a civilized human being, not the first time Rich has made headlines with one low rent incident or another.

The contrast is both pitiful and poignant.

Because Dobie Gray was not only a one of a kind vocal talent.

He was a class act.

Classy enough, in fact, to share only with friends and enthralled, honored, newly married back up singers that he couldn't stand doing "The In Crowd" while always graciously thanking those fans who said they loved it.

Including enthralled, honored, newly married back up singers.

So you're liable to hear a lot of "Drift Away" for the next day or two.

I suspect Dobie is just fine with that.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"...When It Comes To Love, Was A Time That Only The Insights Were Penetrating..."

Oversimplification is a slippery slope.

And not being much of a climber in the first place, I'm disinclined to attempt any ascent.

That said, I found what John Blake had to say in an article written for to be both simplistic and spot on.

The premise, that contemporary black music has replaced romance with rawness, innuendo with intercourse, is, by any reasonable measure, a valid one.

And while one generation's romance is often perceived by preceding generations as rawness, I don't think there's any getting around some starkly sociological observations that Blake makes.

Some excerpts...

"...Listening to black music today is depressing. Songs on today's urban radio playlists are drained of romance, tenderness and seduction. And it's not just about the rise of hardcore hip-hop or rappers who denigrate women.

Black people gave the world Motown, Barry White and "Let's Get It On." But we don't make love songs anymore.


"...Earth Wind & Fire keyboardist and founding member Larry Dunn says a new generation of black artists is more cynical because more come from broken homes and broken communities..."

"...Crack cocaine decimated black communities in the 1980s. The blue-collar jobs that gave many black families a foothold in the middle class began to disappear. Desegregation split the black community. Those with money and education moved to the suburbs. The ones left behind became more isolated.

Today, we have a black first family, but our own families are collapsing. A 2009 study from the Institute for American Values and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting at Hampton University in Virginia highlights the erosion.

The study found that while 70.3% of all black adults were married in 1970, that rate dropped to 39.6% by 2008. The study also showed that while 37.6% of black births were to unmarried parents in 1970, that figure soared to 71.6% by 2008.

Our music became as grim as those statistics. Singing about love now seems outdated...."

"...Something else also happened: Black people became more narcissistic, and so did our love songs.

There's been a lot written about the narcissism of young Americans. They don't want to pay their dues. They are self-absorbed -- tweeting, texting, posting asides on Facebook -- and they are constantly immersed in their private worlds.

This self-absorption has seeped into contemporary black love songs.

One of R&B's most popular current hits is "Quickie" by Miguel, who declares, "I don't wanna be loved. I want a quickie."

There's nothing wrong with singing about sex. Few songs are as sexually charged as Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." And few singers can evoke bedroom heat like Al Green. But black men don't even bother to romance women in love songs anymore, says Kimberly Hines, editor-in-chief of SoulBounce, an online progressive urban music site.

Consider a recent Valentine's Day song by popular  artist Chris Brown called "No Bull S**t," in which he sings about inviting a woman over to his place at 3 in the morning because "you know I'm horny."

Then he sings to her to take off her clothes because "you already know what time it is" and orders her to "reach up in that dresser where them condoms is...."

"...A recent study of Billboard hits confirms the notion that wooing a woman is disappearing from modern R&B.

Psychology professor Gordon Gallup Jr. and student Dawn Hobbs studied the subject matter of the 174 songs that made the Billboard Top 10 in 2009. They analyzed three musical genres among the top-selling songs: R&B, country and pop.

The researchers at the University at Albany in New York found that R&B contained the most references to sex per song (an average of 16 sex-related phrases per song). The top three sexual themes in R&B songs were the singer's sex appeal, the singer's wealth as it relates to finding a partner, and descriptions of sex acts. A total of 19 song themes were examined.

The least-popular theme in R&B music was "courtship," while country music offered more songs about courtship than any other genre, the study said.

Music critic Ollison says men and women have objectified each other in modern R&B and whine "about not getting what they felt they deserved."

"It's a shame, because our desires don't change and we still want to be loved and open to someone, but the music we're sharing doesn't evoke it," Ollison says. "It's not about sharing. It's very narcissistic, sort of look at me...."

"...That narcissism hasn't just seeped into the songwriting. It's infected the process of recording R&B love songs, as well.

During the classic soul era of the '60s, '70s and '80s, making records was a communal experience. It was a time of great bands. Think of the album covers from that era -- they were crowded with musicians.

The ability to play well -- and with others -- was expected. But how many contemporary R&B artists can actually sing, write or play instruments?

Dunn, of Earth Wind & Fire, says he was playing professional engagements every day of the week by the time he was 15. There was only one prerequisite for being in a band.

"You had to play your butt off," he says.

"I got into music for one reason, and all the guys I knew did for the same reason. We wanted to be the best we could be. We didn't know you got paid. We were too young to be tripping on women. We didn't know what the bling-bling was."

What made the classic R&B love songs great wasn't just the singing or the lyrics. It was the music. The wicked groove the drummer and bassist unleash on Barry White's "Never Gonna' Give You Up," Dunn's jazzy keyboard riffs on "Reasons," the bittersweet saxophone accompaniment on Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones" -- it all still sounds good.

That musical depth is missing from contemporary R&B love songs. Funding for music programs has been cut from many schools, so kids often don't grow up learning how to play instruments.

Any wannabe singer with a mediocre voice can now sit home in his or her underwear and eat Doritos while cutting a song on a computer and post it on the Internet the next day.

"A lot of producers just do everything by computer and knock that song out. Musicians have gotten checked out of the equation...."

"...Toby Walker, creator of the soul music site Soulwalking, says many contemporary R&B artists can produce great love songs by changing the way they make music.

"These performers would hugely benefit by leaving the stilettos, makeup, mobile phones and management behind them, putting on a T-shirt and jeans, and retiring for a couple of months someplace with some real musicians, real instruments, and a recording studio," Walker says.

Some people may say it's not important if we stop singing about love, but I'm not so sure.

Black music isn't just for black folks; it's America's music. It's been that way for years. Black musicians who played the blues inspired rockers like Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones; contemporary hip-hop artists have as many white fans as black listeners.

What happens when millions of young listeners -- regardless of color -- learn about intimacy from songs that reduce love to reaching "up in that dresser where them condoms is"?

And what happens to black people if we can't sing about love?

Whenever I see a black couple doting on their children in public, I want to throw a ticker-tape parade. I know so few blacks who are married. How do we build families and raise children if we can't even stay together?

Music was never just about entertainment in the black community. It was about hope. From the spirituals that slaves sang to survive brutal racism to civil rights anthems like "We Shall Overcome," love of God, self and one another was the message in much of our music.

I wonder where a new generation will go to hear those songs that talk about striving and love.

I wonder if they will even know enough about their past to ask.

Where is the love?..."

Some months ago, I wrote a piece regarding the Enrique Iglesias club hit, "Tonight, I'm Lovin' You", a song which came in two versions, the second, less air played but, inevitably more club played, of the two being "Tonight, I'm F***in' You".

That piece can be found here...

My two cents, at the time, was that, regardless of any accusations of old fart fogey-ism, the blase' acceptance, not to mention enthusiastic endorsement, of the vaginal version was, at best, a sad commentary on the willingness, even desire, of young women in the culture to let themselves be reduced to little more than receptacles for the nearest erection.

And while I stand by my own original assertion, that oversimplifying something is risky business when coming to legitimate terms with that something, there remains a fine, yet visible, line between oversimplification and simple truth.

If popular music continues to be a reflection of the times in which it is created then any lawyer worth their salt could easily convince twelve reasonable people of a simple truth.

The heart of black music has been relocated to its crotch.

And, regardless of how hip, happening and/or hot it might be, that's more than just a little sad.

It's just that simple.