A Confession


Hi, my name’s Mary, and I like Hall & Oates.  It’s a little bit like admitting you’re an alcoholic (which I’m not) or an English major (which I was).   Although at least with alcoholism you get the understanding that anyone with a chronic disease gets, and English majors (sorta) have marketable skills.  Hall & Oates fans have little hope for any social redemption whatsoever.  “You like who?  Seriously?  Those guys who sang ‘Maneater’?  Eww.”

Okay, “Maneater” was a terrible song; I don’t know a single person who likes it.  But they have a lot of other really catchy songs.  No, really.  Hall & Oates are responsible for some of the hookiest hooks that ever lured a music fan.  These guys could probably catch marlin with some of these hooks.  The musicianship is good, but nothing to write home about.  The songwriting, aside from the great hooks, is all right but not stellar.  And I’m still not entirely sure what John Oates actually contributes besides some back-up vocals and contrast to Darryl Hall’s tall blondness.  Okay, I’ll grant that Hall has a pretty terrific voice.  And there’s those magnificent hooks.  But they’re so middle of the road, they probably have double yellow lines running down their backs.  They ought to be completely bland and forgettable.

But they’re not.  Somehow, Hall & Oates are greater than the sum of their parts.  Some weird trick of chemistry, or some kind of witchcraft maybe, makes these two pretty ordinary guys funny, charming, and really fun to listen to.  They had a string of hits in 70s and 80s, which are still radio staples today.  Songs like “Rich Girl,” “Private Eyes,” Sara Smile” (written for Hall’s then-girlfriend), and “She’s Gone” exemplified a sub-genre of pop music called “blue-eyed soul” (see The Righteous Brothers for further examples of this).  Hall & Oates songs are also blessed with a kind of agelessness, musical portraits hanging in everyone’s attic, never seeming to get old.

One of my favorites by Hall & Oates comes from the mostly forgettable album Ooh Yeah! (jeez, I cringe just typing that).  Released in 1988, it was just after the duo’s commercial peak but just before the inevitable downhill slide.  Might even be that this is the album that started that snowball rolling, but you wouldn’t know it from this song.  “I’m in Pieces” has all the hallmarks of a great Hall & Oates song: great hook, well-produced with a horn section and awesome keyboards, and Hall’s voice.  It’s not one of their better known tunes, and that’s a shame.  Because it’s one of those fun, flirty, Top Forty-style songs that Darryl Hall and John Oates do better than just about anyone.  Really.

Are Hall & Oates a guilty pleasure? No, not really.  It’s hard to feel guilty about liking anything that makes me smile and sing along.

“Hellhound on My Trail”


Robert Johnson was. . .

There are a million ways to finish that sentence.  The greatest bluesman ever.  The man who sold his soul to the devil.  A young musician who died tragically and mysteriously.  An enigma.

Robert Johnson is whatever you need him to be.  To me, he’s a ghost story.  Most people already know it, but here it is again.  Once upon a time, young Robert Johnson wanted so badly to be a great musician, but he was really only okay.  Then he disappeared for a short time, and when he came back, he was better.  Not just “oh, hey, he’s improving” good, but “oh my dear god, where is that sound coming from” good.  Nobody could logically explain it.  So people started whispering that Robert went to a crossroad and sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his supernatural talent.  Maybe Robert even started this rumor himself.  For a few years, he traveled around the South playing bars and honky tonks, gathering fans and building his reputation.  Then one night, when Robert was just 27, he took ill.  After three days of pain and sickness, he died.  Some people said he was murdered, poisoned by a jealous husband or a scorned lover.  Some said it was just the devil collecting his due.  He was buried in an unmarked grave in or near the town where he died.

That’s it.  There’s a lot of facts involved between when he was born and when he died–information about his family and travels, official documents about his life–but you should never let facts get in the way of a good story.  And really, the only facts that matter with Robert Johnson are the recordings he made during two different sessions in Texas.  Although none of his records were successful during his life, Johnson’s recordings live on.  The songs are thrilling and evocative, musicianship at it’s finest.  They’re also. . . spooky.  Johnson’s talent shines through the primitive and time-worn recordings, but there’s a weirdness to them.  The songs transcend themselves to become their own little world, a world where maybe the devil is real and maybe he isn’t.  A place where truth is always going to play second fiddle to an otherworldly slide guitar.


“Stand By Me”


In 1975, John Lennon released his second to last studio album, Rock ‘N’ Roll.  Shortly thereafter, Yoko Ono gave birth to their son, Sean, and John took a five-year hiatus from the business to raise his child.  Rock ‘N’ Roll is a collection of covers–songs from the 50s and 60s that Lennon loved by artists that inspired him.

Cover albums can be oddly revealing.  The choice of songs tells you a great deal about the recording artist’s taste, what he or she values musically.  The way the songs are recorded can also reveal a lot.  My own personal take on covers is that they should sound both familiar and new, a song you already know given a new life.  Some covers can be too different, losing something essential about what made the song good in the first place (Siouxsie and the Banshees version of “Dear Prudence”).  Some covers are too similar, note for note renderings that not only bring nothing new to the table, but suck all the life out of the song (Rascal Flatts version of “Life is a Highway”).  There’s a fine line between a good cover and a hot mess; not everyone knows where it is.  I’ve always thought the most important thing is that the new artist has to own the song.  It’s someone else’s words and melody, but it’s yours in the moments you play it.

John Lennon owns the songs he covers for Rock ‘N’ Roll, but that ownership has a price.  The album was conceived and began recording during Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” when he was separated from Yoko and living with May Peng in Los Angeles.  It’s no secret that Lennon was a walking, talking train wreck at this point in his life, drugging and drinking, terrorizing LA night spots with the likes of Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr.  He was spinning out of control and desperate to go home Yoko.

That desperation comes through in the way he attacks these songs, his voice raw with emotion.  He experiments a little with the musical styles and arrangements of these songs (most notably reggae on a couple of tracks), but he retains their original spirit while adding new layers.  My very favorite is his cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”  This is a wistful, hopeful song no matter how it’s done, but there’s added dimension to Lennon’s version.  There is none of King’s smooth, urbane, restrained style.  Lennon’s voice is pleading, begging for support.  You feel it in your bones when he sings the chorus, “Darling, darling, stand by me.”

Lennon’s version doesn’t try to erase or outdo King’s version.  Lennon does his best to make the song new, give the audience something different to hear, even as we say, “Oh yeah, I love this song.”  That’s what good covers are supposed to do.

“Andy Warhol’s Dead But I’m Not”


My brain is a little soft tonight, so that’s one of the reasons this entry is a little short on analysis.

The other reason I don’t have much to say about this band is that I can’t find out much.  E*I*E*I*O (never enter that for a Google or YouTube search, btw) is a midwestern band from the mid to late 80s that had a minor MTV hit with “Hey Cecilie” (another great song).  They have a MySpace and a Facebook page (but nothing on Wikipedia).  That’s about it.  Now I could go dig up my CD–which I bought used to replace my cassette copy of this), but that will give me nothing but the bare facts.  I want something I can sink my teeth into.

Like what on Earth inspired these guys to write a song like “Andy Warhol’s Dead But I’m Not”?  It’s sort of a love song.  If you’re definition of a love song is kind of vague and open to interpretation.  To be honest, it’s kind of musical booty call with pop culture references.  Right up my alley.  If I were into booty calls, that is.  Really, they’re kind of more trouble than they’re worth.  Not to mention wrong if you happen to be married or in a committed relationship.  I’ll stop babbling now.

Regardless, it’s a really fun song.  Just the kind of thing my brain needs right now.  Sorry the video is kind of boring.  I hope you enjoy it anyway.  This song really is kind of clever, even if it is kind of incomprehensible.  It has a great opening, too.  I’m babbling again, aren’t I?



Yesterday, I wrote about LL Cool J and a song he recorded 22 years ago.  And 22 years ago today, Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed when the helicopter he was in crashed into a mountain.  Four other passengers, including Eric Clapton’s agent Bobby Brooks, were also killed.  It still stands out in my mind as one of the most senseless and eerie rock tragedies in my lifetime.

I was attending my local community college at the time, taking creative writing classes.  As I was preparing to leave for school, I heard on KLOS that one of the choppers leaving a concert at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin had crashed.  (The concert was a guitar lovers dream, part of a tour that featured Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray & Jimmie Vaughan.)  The report stated that the chopper was part of Clapton’s tour, and that no one yet knew who was on board.  It was a little freaky for me, as a young rock guitar fan, to leave my house and access to the news without knowing whether or not Eric Clapton was still alive.  I know all the other people involved were very important, and that the deaths that occurred were no less tragic, but it was weird thinking a legend of Clapton’s stature might be gone.

I got home, found out Clapton was alive (whew!), but that SRV was gone.  He had toured the year before with Jeff Beck, and I remembered being gripped with an overwhelming urge to see that show, but I couldn’t find anyone to go with me (I don’t drive, and didn’t want to go alone anyway).  I had no idea why I wanted to see that concert so badly; I liked them both, but I wasn’t a huge fan of either.  But Stevie Ray’s death pushed me to listen more to his music, and I was flabbergasted.  The amount of raw talent and charisma he possessed is stunning, even today.  He is still kind of unbelievable.  I understand how stunning he must have been coming out of Austin, TX in the early 80s.  Why David Bowie hired him to play on Let’s Dance after seeing SRV play at the Montreux Festival (that’s SRV on the opening of “Modern Love”).  Why everyone hailed him as the Savior of the Blues.

This clip is from his appearance on Austin City Limits in 1989.  It shows Stevie Ray Vaughan at his absolute peak.  He was sober for the first time in many years, vital and alive.  It’s almost impossible to believe he was dead less than a year later.

“Mama Said Knock You Out”


A few days ago, rapper and actor LL Cool J took out an intruder in his SoCal home.  (Good thing, too.  I’ve heard reports the guy had a manslaughter conviction on his record.)  I am all for defending your home and family from intruders by any means necessary (for me, that would mean hiding in a closet with my cell phone and whichever cat was within grabbing distance).  Everyone has been making “Mama Said Knock You Out ” jokes ever since.  But let’s take a moment to remember that this is one badass song.

I’m not the biggest rap /hip-hop fan out there (not surprising, since I’m a middle-age, middle class white woman from the suburbs).  But what I do like, I like a lot.  And I like “Mama Said Knock You Out.”  LL Cool J is an old school rapper with old school style.  This song was released in 1990, and was one of his biggest hits.  It is powerful without being profane, lyrical without sacrificing machismo (not something I advocate normally, but it works for this song).  Too many rappers today think they can just use a lot of expletives and degrading rhymes about women/gays/cops to make up for a lack of talent.  They think it’s all about image, money, drugs, and naked women.  (To be fair, this kind of attitude isn’t limited to hip-hop; there’s a lot of heavy metal bands that take pretty much the same tack, only with more pyrotechnics.)  LL Cool J never needed to resort to that sort of thing.  Yeah, he could be a braggart, and he was never exactly one of feminism’s poster boys.  But he knew you needed more than an image and an attitude to make music that lasts.  That’s why this song holds up more than twenty years later.

I’m glad we’ve moved past the “rap’s not real music” thing.  Because there’s some amazing music out there being created by rap/hip-hop artists.  I’m still feeling my way around this musical world, but I’m slowly discovering stuff that really resonates with me.  So if anyone has any recommendations, I’m listening.

Neil Armstrong


No music today.

I just now saw the headline that Neil Armstrong has died at 82.  I haven’t read any of the stories yet, so I have no other information.

My dad was an aerospace engineer before he retired some years ago.  He worked on Mercury and Apollo missions, though not the moon landing.  He helped design the Space Shuttle (his specific area was the sleep stations, but I remember him coming home griping about “those damn heat shields,” so I think everyone got in the act on those at some point or another).  He worked on a few other projects, including some early incarnations of the so-called “Star Wars” shield.  So the death of an astronaut is news in a household that was essentially built on rocket ships.

It’s news everywhere.  Neil Armstrong was a fine human being who did one of the most spectacular things anyone has ever done.  I was just a baby when we landed on the moon, but I’m proud that I grew up in world where something like that was possible.  Knowing what I know now about the universe and our solar system, Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon seems miraculous even now.  Sure, we have hi-def pictures coming back from Mars and we just found the Higgs Boson.  But we’ve got a footstep on the moon that says a human being walked on ground that wasn’t Earth.  There were others after him, but Neil Armstrong got to be first.


Jerry Nelson


I’ve already established here that I grew up on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and that I adore the music created for both shows (check out posts here and here for further proof).  In general, I find a lot to value in children’s music, in spite of the fact that a lot of it makes me kind of sentimental and weepy.  Any song that says you are valuable for who you are is a good song, and this is the most important lesson we can teach children.

Jerry Nelson was the voice of many muppets, including The Count, Herry Monster, and Robin the Frog.  He passed away yesterday at 78.  Although he’d retired as a muppeteer, his passing is a huge loss for the world of entertainment.  I’ll be honest, I’m having a little trouble writing this without crying.  Because the muppets were such an important part of my childhood, because I learned so much more than numbers and letters from them.  I learned about sharing and kindness and self-esteem.  I learned how to be silly and how to sing.  I learned that kids voices matter, too, maybe more than anyone else.

This is a nice tribute I found on YouTube (thanks to wileyk209zback for creating and posting it).  The song is “Halfway Down the Stairs” written by A.A. Milne (a powerhouse in children’s literature).  Thanks, Jerry.  I’ll miss you more than you know.  Say hi to Jim and Mr. Hooper for me.

“Since You’re Gone”


The Cars were one of those bands I just didn’t understand until I was a little older.  I didn’t get the appeal of these skinny, funny looking guys.  Didn’t understand the depth carefully hidden beneath the cool 80s synths and self-deprecating delivery.  I didn’t see that they were a lot more than image.

To be fair, image makes up a pretty significant portion of what made The Cars good.  It’s why they made the transition to music videos so well, in spite of not being Duran Duran pretty.  They understood that one of the things that made a band really good was how it presented itself.  (Not a new idea, of course.  The Beatles were successful in the beginning partly because of the clear identity they had as a band and individuals.  Thanks for that, Brian Epstein.)  The Cars had the skinny ties and the checkered shoes and all the other cutting-edge 80s fashions.  For the record, I think most 80s style was hideous, but I’m willing to ignore it with The Cars because they pull it off so freakin’ well.

“Since You’re Gone” is one of the rare really good songs that had a really interesting video to go with it.  The video, in fact, adds dimension and substance to the song.  It’s a typical break-up tune, with the guy feeling really sad and lonely since his girl packed up and left.  He’s confused, his world suddenly thrown into disarray, feeling “since you’re gone, the nights are getting strange.”  The video shows the girl packing up her make-up and flimsy undergarments, with movers taking care of the furniture while Ric Ocasek (minus his trademark shades) does a good job of looking like he has no idea what the hell is going on.  It’s also a surreal take on the aftermath of a break-up: the empty shower, the guitar in the bed, and the shoes that walk off on their own (nice bit of stop-motion there).  Near the end, Ocasek wanders the empty house like a ghost.  There’s a haunted, empty feeling to the song that the video does a great job of emphasizing.

Nothing is ever the same when a relationship ends, at least for a little while.  Things don’t look or work the same anymore.  Food tastes different; songs sound funny.  Your whole life feels like someone just set off a bomb, or took everything you had and disappeared.  Or as the song puts it, “Since you’re gone, moonlight ain’t so great.”

Update for anyone who cares. . .


Cysts!  Granted, there’s several of them, and my doctor wants me to go to Long Beach Memorial’s Breast Center to have them looked at one more time and possibly drained.  But it’s just cysts.

So, now I get to feel a little stupid for freaking out, and I can relax a little. . .

Kool & the Gang gave us this awesome party anthem that never, ever gets old.  I’m not really a fan otherwise, preferring Earth, Wind, & Fire or The Temptations most of the time, but I love this song.  And I’m happy that even though I still have to go in one more time, it’s pretty much a clean bill.  I’m gonna do a little chair dancing while I listen to this one more time.  Check out the awesome white shoes.