Monday, February 16, 2015

Something Inexpressable

Sometime in Junior High Bob moved to town from Los Angeles and brought a lot of exciting things with him. He dressed differently -- corduroy OP shorts, and surf hoodies from Pier Connection. The music he liked was fresh and at times impossibly exotic for a suburban Long Islander like me -- names I heard for the first time, like Black Flag and Oingo Boingo, and those I was only scantly familiar with, like Devo and the Police.

Bob's house adjoined woods at the harbor and we spent a summer exploring back there. You could walk the beach all the way to the Vanderbilt property where we we'd hang out in an abandoned seaplane hangar. The mischief we got into then didn't involve drinking or drugs, but rather the thrill of being where we didn't belong, and breaking whatever we could find once we got there -- bottles, buildings, anything. One time we were on our way to the woods when Bob's dad suspected we were up to no good -- maybe the jar of gasoline we were carrying had something to do with it -- and after a lengthy interrogation Bob finally gave in: "We're gonna burn this G.I. Joe, awright Dad?!?" It didn't occur to me until just now what a great metaphor for growing up that was.

Bob's enthusiasm for smashing things aligned with his particular admiration for the Police and its energetic drummer, Stewart Copeland, and before long Bob was performing with a group -- my biology partner Andy on bass, the hilarious and tragic Chris, whose family could afford all the equipment, on guitar, and Andy's talented young cousin John singing and playing keyboards-- that may as well have been a Police tribute band and would go on to dominate battle-of-the-bands contests in a five-mile radius. Its not exaggerating to call the Police a kind of Beatles of our particular moment: They had a distinct sound and style, very modern, and they inspired fans to play. And while "album-oriented" WPLJ made it difficult to distinguish one New Wave band from the next it was clear to us that as early as REGATTA DE BLANC the Police were on their way to superstardom and we'd be the ones leading the charge.

That's all background for the state of mind reawakened reading Andy Summer's memoir, ONE TRAIN LATER. The Police guitarist tells an origin that was far more interesting than I'd known and insightfully articulates what went into the Police's unique sound.

About half the book -- the half I didn't know -- focuses on Summers' education as a guitarist, dating back to jazz lessons and a teenage apprenticeship under 1960s British R&B legend Zoot Money; informal jams with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton; and stints with psychedelic acts like Dantalion's Chariot, the Animals and Soft Machine. Those travels landed Summers in Los Angeles in the 1970s where he he had a short marriage to Robin Lane (later to front new wavers the Chartbusters) but bottomed out professionally, working as a part time music teacher.

Returning to England with a second wife in 1977, a chance encounter on a train with Copeland -- the event referred to in the book's title -- was critical in the coming together of the musical acquaintances. As Summers tells it, punk was the rage and Copeland was determined that the Police -- then with a hack guitarist named Henry Padovani, the Pete Best of this story -- be a part of that scene. Summers in the meantime sensed a musical kinship with singer Sting and describes how Sting's songwriting combined with inspiration from reggae and the reeling in of his own playing -- the Police, like the punks, didn't do solos -- came upon a fresh and exciting formula. Summers describes it as "the sound of tight compromise."

The Police won fans a few at a time on lengthy tours of the U.S. and the world. I imagined an early visit to LA won Bob, or at least his influencers there. Summers writes well of the experience."Each night despite the hours and the miles traveled, we work and push to galvanize the audience into heated response, beat them into submission, bend them to our will, seduce, collude, conspire, transform. We don't leave the stage until we've won."

My favorite Police album is probably REGATTA, though its followup ZENYATTA would be the first one I owned myself -- unwapped the plastic still in the mall to inspect the inner sleeve for lyrics, but found only photos and triangles. They were still ascending by the time GHOST IN THE MACHINE came around, headlining a concert at Madison Square Garden we all saw with the Go-Gos opening, but as it turned out both me and Andy were having issues. The Police sound was evolving toward Sting's taste for the jazzy world-beat thing he'd go for in his solo career. "Personally," Summers writes, "I like about half the album and hate all the un-Police saxophone shit." Right on, man.

1983's SYNCHRONICITY would of course be the coronation -- huge enough to keep Michael Jackson from his customary perch atop the pop charts and the first of what I'd consider the Holy Trinity of starmaking rock efforts that year -- Van Halen's 1984 and Springsteen's BORN IN THE USA would soon follow. Although Summers makes it clear the Police were inevitably headed toward oblivion by then -- not because of infighting but because Sting's muse had departed and there was little the band hadn't conquered -- he insists the Police had not yet reached their potential, and calls for a proper reunion tour (which would occur following the 2006 publishing of the book).

I haven't seen Bob for more than a decade but he was drumming for many years, and mutual friends tell me he's been blessed with a daughter who shares his legendary temper. Pianoman John is still performing and Andy still plays bass in cover bands for fun. Chris passed away tragically several years ago. I'm still listening.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Tell Me What You See

It doesn't declare a winner, nor does it even argue for one; rather John McMillian's BEATLES VS. STONES filters the story of the Beatles through the perspective of the Rolling Stones and vice-versa, examining the obvious and subtle ways they informed, influenced, imitated and irritated one another.

As a guy well-versed in Beatle history, I appreciated McMillian's telling of familiar material from a unique angle; and as a guy largely ignorant of the Stones' story, I learned a few things.

Central to the story is an examination of the paradigm of the respective group's origins and early marketing: The Beatles were minor criminals from hardscrabble Liverpool presented by manager Brian Epstein as the huggable moptops-next-door while the Stones, hailing generally from better homes, economic conditions and opportunity around London, cast as menacing rulebreakers by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham.

These images were enduring, and played into a supposed rivalry fanned by the press. While the bands themselves largely got along, a bit of a frenemenship emerges. McMillian describes how John and Paul casually school the young Stones with an impromptu studio writing session, which no doubt sped the Stones' transition from blues interpreters to rock songwriters, which eventually, would spur the Beatles to new heights. Occasionally this would lead to the sincerest forms of flattery, as when the Stones followed SGT. PEPPER with SATANIC MAJESTY'S REQUEST, rankling the caustic Lennon in particular.

As their respective success and influence grew (not to mention their use of drugs), McMillian documents how they were perceived by the counterculture they played to ('Revolution' vs. 'Street Fighting Man'); and finally how their business interests collided, first when Paul and Mick pondered joining the band's interests; and finally when Mick enticed John to seek Allen Klein's representation despite knowing Klein to be a thief. This issue would eventually tear the Beatles themselves apart, just as the Stones enjoyed their greatest artistic triumphs.