Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Crash the Generations

My 7-year-old son is learning to play Jake Bugg's "Lightning Bolt" on guitar at the YMCA. It's with no small pride that I learned he suggested that the class learn it -- and that his young hip teacher had to look it up first.

And I'm thrilled -- only secretly -- on those days he comes home from the Y requesting I play some awful autotuned pop-rap he heard after school, and load it onto the playlist for trips in the car. He likes music. I like music. We share what we like with one another.

"Just about everyone I know gets excited when they talk about sharing their favorite music with their kids," says Garland Jeffreys, writing on a new website devoted to that very topic. And he's right. The site was inspired by the new song, "Collide the Generations" that itself was inspired by the musical relationship between Jeffreys and his daughter. The song sounds like an exciting new take on "Gimmee Some Lovin" and the video -- consisting of photographs submitted by fans of their kids -- is pretty cool too.

Garland Jefferies has been around since I was a kid. I can remember ESCAPE ARTIST getting some play on WPLJ in the early 1980s but nothing much ever seemed to come of it. Further explorations of his soulful and gritty stuff only reveals how massively overlooked an artist he is. Play this one for your kids:

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Hottest Band in the Land

Gene $immons doesn't need to squeeze another penny out of the KISS merchandise vault so I urge you: Do like I did and get the new biography NOTHIN' TO LOSE from your local library, and not from your local or virtual bookstore. I'll be returning my copy to Mid-Manhattan Library at 5th and 41st any day now so there's at least one out there.

The book, credited to Gene, bandmate Paul Stanley, and longtime KISS Kronikler Ken Sharp, is an oral history focusing exclusively on the period between 1972 and 1975 when KISS was formed, signed, released four albums, toured the country, and transformed from complete unknowns to fire-breathing arena superstars. It is a remarkable and absurd American success story.

Back in the 70s, my brother was a Kiss Army soldier, so I was quite familiar with the band, particularly the versions of songs off their first three studio albums whose live versions comprised 1975's careermaking ALIVE! double-set. Strongly influenced by prevailing critical opinions and a need to zig where my brother zagged, I outwardly expressed disdain for it all, even as I found the whole thing psychically and visually intriguing. Musically, I could take or leave them. Paul can be an exciting vocalist, and they had some fun rockin' tunes, but I found the lyrics idiotic even then. Their vision of being a heavier version of the Beatles was better conceptually than ever executed. They were a band for 9-year-olds when I was 11.

I learned some interesting things: Paul and Gene walked away from a record offer from their first band together, Wicked Lester, mainly because they themselves didn't believe in the music or the band's prospects. And they describe how they reached to find musicians to achieve their musical goals, even as it meant gambling on guys who'd prove difficult to work with: The sour and doubt-riddled drummer Peter Criss; and the talented but hard-partying lead guitarist Ace Frehley (whose own autobiography, NO REGRETS, skims over entire years he simply cannot remember). Weird, green, outer-borough Jews they may have been but KISS knew what they wanted. Their naked ambition to make it saw them hauling empty boxes disguised as Marshall amplifiers to shows, shop for costumes and props at pet stores and S&M shops and learn stage tricks from vaudeville magicians. They played local shows infrequently, giving audiences the illusion they were out touring the world while in reality they were incessantly rehearsing in a 23rd Street loft. Carefully manipulated appearances and press (thanks, Gene) helped them leapfrog contemporaries with more experience, bigger fanbases and better chops.

The big idea behind the kabuki makeup and stageshow was to consolidate the gains the band Alice Cooper had made in terms of rock theatrics, but advance them by making each member of the band as distinct as Alice Cooper the singer. It was brilliant (Alice Cooper, as noted in the below post, was just about to recede). And Kiss showed a terrific instinct for image-conscious management: they employed a gay game-show producer, Bill Aucoin, as their manager. Aucoin's lover, Sean Delaney, would take charge of their flamboyant stage show. And when they signed a record contract, it was with bubblegum maven Neil Bogart's upstart Casablanca label, which might have been the only company crazy enough to bankroll KISS through its spectacularly unprofitable early years when they toured like crazy but sold almost nothing and were all but ignored by radio. The music by definition almost always took a backseat. Even fully-realized early KISS classics like "Strutter" tend to be marred by muddy recordings, and the studio albums from this period (KISS and HOTTER THAN HELL from 1974 and DRESSED TO KILL from early 1975) were hasty affairs largely written and performed on the spot between punishing cross-country road trips.

A wealth of interviews with KISS' road crew -- not to mention remarks from bands unfortunate enough to share billing with KISS in those years -- will leave you with little doubt as to KISS' work ethic. Yet the 500-page book still doesn't tell quite enough: Paul Stanley of all people emerges as the most instrumental of KISS's creators: A young, ambitious frontman, graduate of a Manhattan performing arts high school, and a student of English psych-rock groups like the Move. We also get the impression he's a sensitive former fat kid. Of course, he's got his own autobiography in the works, perhaps he addresses the elephant of his sexuality and his other motivations there.

The band-approved bio never strays too far from the company line. While KISS's alleged skill at blowing other bands off the stage is repeated over and over, about the worst thing other quoted musicians have to say about them in the book was that their music was "dumb" or the act was "corny" (true and true). Most in fact speak about how gentlemanly and gracious they were. The book is admirable in scope: It includes remarks from the kids pictured holding the banner on the back cover of the ALIVE! album and the photographer who got the shot; club owners; DJs; roadies; PR folks; lawyers; and fans. There's a funny chapter devoted to a kissing promotion built around the cut "Kissin' Time" -- a Bobby Rydell cover the band had no interest in even recording but was snuck onto copies of the first album at Bogart's behest. The photos are great and include Gene Simmons' handwritten notes (he liked Paul's hilarious raps in ALIVE!).

The book ends as ALIVE!'s success and sold-out arenas begin at last to generate some money after years at the brink of financial ruin -- and before Gene's arrogant materialism and the band's refusal to evolve became an attribute of the KISS brand every bit as recognizable as the greasepaint. KISS would have a few more good tunes in the coming years but not a whole lot of new ideas. Their most recent album includes a song where Gene and Paul sing about, uh, a cruise ship -- "Take Me Down Below" -- with lyrics so stupid its as though they were daring us to recall Marty DiBergy: "...treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality. ... the musical growth cannot be charted..."

Of the LPs covered in the book, the debut album -- including songs like "Deuce" and "Strutter" that are as old as the band itself -- offers the best representation of what KISS was aspiring to. I even like the spiritedly ridiculous remash of "Kissin Time." (In general, I like the songs where Gene and Paul trade vocals, even the Catman gets in a verse in Kissin Time). The band itself have few good things to say about the rushed follow-up HOTTER THAN HELL, though it includes Gene's weird horror-movie love ballad "Goin Blind." DRESSED TO KILL contains their eventual breakout single "Rock & Roll All Night" but also, Gene reveals, stuff dating to their Wicked Lester days as they were typically crushed for time. From this I like Paul's Todd Rundgren ripoff "Love Her All I Can." Of course many of these tunes are best showcased on ALIVE! which as Paul remarks in the book, really puts the listener in the middle of the crowd, and at the just the right moment.

Here's a playlist I whipped up from the first three, plus the aforementioned naughty nautical from 2012. Enjoy! Rdio is free!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hello. Hooray!

Michael Walker's WHAT YOU WANT IS IN THE LIMO isn't nearly as salacious as the title or the cover art suggests, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's a fast account of three bands (Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and the Who); their respective 1973 albums (BILLION DOLLAR BABIES, HOUSES OF THE HOLY, QUADROPHENIA); and the associated American tours that, as the book's subtitle suggests, marked the birth of the modern rock superstar and the death of the 1960s.

That last point is the central theme and common thread linking these stories, as Walker argues how these three tours represented the moment at which the appetite for rock created by the musicians of the 1960s is sated only without what Walker calls that era's "boring poli-sci socio-overlay" of bands that felt they needed to be in solidarity with their audience. The tours of 1973 -- played in sports arenas, by bands that arrived by private jet, fueled by drugs, elevated by onstage theatrics, sleazed up by groupies -- illustrated a cold new remove from fans that is the common lot of the Superstar.

A key to this newfound power were strong-armed managers --Led Zeppelin's thuggish Peter Grant for one -- who flipped the traditional financial model, giving the entertainers the gate proceeds and forcing promoters to line up for a cut. This slick innovation afforded the excesses of drugs, private planes and bills for destroyed hotel rooms the tours became notorious for.

Having only recently suffered through Pete Townshend's dull autobiography, the Who's struggles to bring the innovative but then-underappreciated QUADROPHENIA to life were quite familiar; my takeaway from Zeppelin was a new appreciation for Robert Plant's desire for stardom and John Bonham's propensity to be a violent douchebag. That left the tale of Alice Cooper, whose theatrical shows reached a new peak in '73 just as the band was splintering under the strain of drink, drugs and the act itself. And though Cooper would be the first to fall, all three bands entered a decline phase following 73, culminating of course in the drink/drug related deaths of Moon and then Bonham by the decade's end.

I gave BILLION DOLLAR BABIES a whirl to accompany this book and was impressed with the muscle and glam (produced by Bob Ezrin who'd do a similar trick polishing Cooper's descendant KISS-- another topic I hope to get to soon). Overall, LIMO isn't as quite as electrifying as the albums or tours it covers but as a succeeds as a quick overview of the wild era that birthed them.

Sunday, February 9, 2014


Any writer who's ever been frustrated by an inaccessible interview subject ought to appreciate the unique and daring workaround Dave Bidini finds in his gonzo biography of Canadian folk balladeer Gordon Lightfoot.

WRITING GORDON LIGHTFOOT has Bidini -- himself a Canadian musician -- writing about Lightfoot by writing to him, in a series of direct and slashingly revealing letters. These are interspersed with chapters detailing Toronto's 1972 Mariposa folk festival in which Lightfoot met Bob Dylan, and other goings-on that week in Canada and in the world (the Fisher-Spassky chess match in Iceland; the largest jailbreak in Canadian history; controversy over Bobby Hull's flight to the WHA; the solar eclipse mentioned in "You're So Vain" etc etc etc). His stuff on the jailbreak and hockey is often hilarious and serves to flesh out a sketch of the cultural landscape of the time.

The heart of the book are the letters, through which we learn that Lightfoot is not just famously private but may or may not be harboring resentment over remarks the writer himself had made in the past. Lightfoot is a huge figure in Canada, basically the first pop star to sing about Canada, but maybe also, a bit of an asshole, particularly in 1972. Telling that story while ostensibly addressing said asshole directly I found to be just astonishingly daring as a writer and one conclusion you could draw is that it takes one to know one. But as said above it's also very funny, and softens a bit as Bidini sort of takes in what he's done. I give it two lightfeet up.

Years ago, driving from Toronto to Montreal and back we tuned in a public-radio station doing a countdown of the most important Canadian songs of all time. As I recall it, Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" topped the list: I don't know if I'd ever heard it before then. Like many of my classmates in fifth grade, I owned a copy of his "Edmund Fitzgerald" on 45 -- what I didn't understand then was that it was true story, almost to the detail. The one that still gets me today though is "Sundown," a gorgeous song with vicious lyrics detailing a volatile relationship and substance abuse. Also a true story.