Natalie Cole

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Well this is a really crappy way to start the new year.

It was announced today that Natalie Cole died last night at 65.  She’d been ill for several years, although she continued to work; she even released a Spanish language album in 2013.  While she wasn’t quite the singer either of her parents were, she was an effervescent performer and had a number of Pop hits in her own right.  She’d previously struggled with drug addiction–which was behind the illnesses she suffered later in life–but she’d come out of that darkness clean many years ago.

Many people in the last couple of decades think of her “duet” with her late father on “Unforgettable” when they think of Natalie Cole, but I prefer the woman I see in this early hit from the 70s.  “This Will Be” shows what she could do and the brightness she had in her style.

Like I said, this is a crappy way to start the new year.  Last night, I also heard about the death of Wayne Rogers from M*A*S*H, so it’s a double pop culture whammy.  They might not have had the star power they had at the peaks of their careers, but their work and lives will be remembered.

Happy Birthday, Patti!

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Today is the birthday of the brilliant, inimitable, utterly wonderful Patti Smith.  After all the deaths this week, and today’s surprising pop culture news, I thought it would be nice to celebrate something happy.

Aside from her incredible talent and skill as a writer and performer, I love Patti Smith because she is herself.  She doesn’t hide or lie or pretend to be anything else.  Her refusal to be what anyone else thinks she should be, to fit into any easy stereotypes, has probably cost her fame and money.  But those are such fleeting things, and there’s so much more value in living the life you want to live.  Smith has lived her life–all the joy and pain and anger and sorrow of it.  And the art that has come out of that life has made the world a much better place.

Now it might seem odd that I chose a song from Gone Again, the mourning album she recorded after the death of her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith.  But “Farewell Reel” is one of my favorites, and I think it represents the kind of artist and person Patti Smith is beautifully.  It’s open and honest, sad and joyful, both a eulogy for what she lost and a promise to keep living.  That’s what I love about it.

Scott Weiland

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Scott Weiland, the intensely troubled former lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver, has died.  TMZ is reporting that Weiland’s death was caused by cardiac arrest, but there is no word on what caused his heart to stop.

Weiland had a long history of drug abuse, which I’m sure at least contributed to his untimely death (he was only 48).  He came to prominence in the 90s with Stone Temple Pilots as part of the grunge movement.  STP were never a favorite of mine, so I never paid him much mind.  I did hear about his arrests and rehab attempts, and felt so badly that he couldn’t kick the habits that plagued him.  I’m not an addict myself, so I don’t fully understand the labyrinth of addiction.  But I do understand the difficulty of moving out of a rut, of changing engrained habits.  I don’t know what drove Scott Weiland so relentlessly that he had to find some kind of solace in drugs.  I only hope that there’s some peace for him now.

“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”

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Today is the anniversary of the day Jimi Hendrix was transported to this planet to do that voodoo he did so exceedingly well.

I won’t go on about his talent; I’ve done it before, and not half as well as anyone else.  But I do like the idea that he was an alien.  It helps give people something to hang his unexplainable singularity on.  The same applies to Albert Einstein.  Why else would his thinking and vision be so revolutionary?  You could even hang the alien label onto William Shakespeare, or Vincent Van Gogh. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson?  Aliens.  How else would they have basically created the blueprint of modern poetry so separately (and so drastically differently)?  Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt?  Yep, them too.

There’s so much about individuals like this that defies explanation.  How did such extraordinary talent and charisma and intelligence come to be?  Calling them beings not of this planet, extraterrestrials that were somehow delivered to humanity for some unknown reason, gives the more ordinary among us an excuse to continue being ordinary.  It’s okay to be an average person when you were born amongst other average persons, while these creatures drifted to us on some ethereal spacecraft.

They aren’t really aliens, of course.  While I do believe life exists on other planets, I’m not so sure about any of it ever showing up here.  Hendrix, like all the others I listed, were just extraordinarily gifted people who managed to discover and use their gifts.  Not all people are so lucky.  Some people never find what they’re best at, or they’re never given the tools to access their gifts.  Or, worse, they’re not determined or disciplined enough to do the hard work of nurturing their gifts.  So while we celebrate the music that Hendrix gave us in his short time on this planet, mourn a little for all the Jimi’s that didn’t get that chance.

“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”

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Reposting “The Gambler” again made me think of how long Kenny Rogers has been around making music that people really enjoy listening to.  It might not be the best music, artistically speaking, but it’s good, solid, well-crafted music.  He’s also gone through a few stylistic changes over the years.  Most people recognized Kenny Rogers as a powerhouse Country hitmaker, but not everyone remembers that his first real hit was more Psychedelic than yee-haw.

Supposedly a rant against the use of LSD, “Just Dropped In” isn’t really as anti-drug as I think its creators intended.  It’s just a little too cool sounding to discourage potential tripping.  It’s also kind of atypical of The First Edition, the group Rogers was with at the time; apparently, they were more into the Country-Folk thing than the garage Rock thing.  Fun trivia, according to the Wikipedia page, this song was produced by TV theme song master Mike Post and the guitar solo was played by Country legend Glen Campbell.

This song had a bit of a resurgence in the 1990s, thanks to The Big Lebowski and a classic dream sequence.  That’s when I picked up on it as a pretty decent song; since I’m not much of a fan of Psychedelia, I’d pretty much ignored it before.  But like most of Rogers’ oeuvre, it’s an enjoyable listen.

I guess it’s about the right time to be waxing nostalgic about Kenny.  He recently announced he’s going to retire, from touring at least.  That’s okay; after I don’t know how many hits and at almost 80 years old, I think Kenny’s earned a nice peaceful retirement.

Re-Repost: “The Gambler”

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I’m late tonight because I’ve been watching the World Series of Poker’s final table.  As I explain in the post, I’m a sucker for televised poker tournaments.  Luckily, this song is timeless.  Even if I’ve reposted it twice now; at least I waited a couple of years.  I edited the beginning because it was no longer pertinent (and it made me a little sad, because it related to Daddy), but the rest is pretty much the same.

I knew all the words when I was a little kid (is 9 still little?). I’d sing them at top volume given the slightest provocation. And listening to it again as an adult, I realize two things. One, this is a really well crafted song. Every part compliments the whole. The production is fairly understated–which is something of an accomplishment for a late-70s country song. The characters of the song are so well drawn they could be something out of a Bret Harte story; Rogers even made a secondary career for himself playing The Gambler in TV movies all through the 80s. Two, if you treat the card playing analogy as exactly that, this is pretty good advice.

I must mention here that I like to watch poker on TV. I stink at playing it (I’m just terrible at reading people or understanding odds), but there is something compelling about watching other people play cards. I have no idea why this is so interesting to me. Maybe I’m as much a victim of the Moneymaker Effect as the donkeys that pony up $10,000 for the WSOP Main Event. And poker is kind of fun to play, even if I do stink. My family used to get together sometimes when I was a kid, and everyone would bring their piggy banks or coffee cans full of loose change to play penny ante poker all night. I don’t think poker is some kind of great meaningful philosophical experience; while there is some skill involved, a significant portion is the luck of the draw. But Rogers takes good sound card playing advice and makes it sound like Nietzsche.

It’s not the chorus–“You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away, know when to run.”–that resonates the most strongly with me, although it is a pretty sound philosophy. I find that the final verse is what stands out to me. Maybe it’s because my life is in transition right now. I’ve been evaluating and re-evaluating myself and everything in my life for quite some time now. And sometimes what you need to hear is a little no-nonsense advice that’s vague enough to adapt to your needs. This might be the advice I need right now.

“Every gambler knows that the secret to survivin’ is knowing what to throw away, and knowing what to keep. ‘Cause every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser, and the most that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”

There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.

Just for kicks, here’s “The Gambler” from Kenny Rogers’ appearance on The Muppet Show. Awesome.

“One Night in Bangkok”

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Thought I’d add a bit of spice to my role as a Tiny Pepper.  I have a feeling I’m going to be kind of introspective and quiet in my musical choices this month, but then again, this little bit of biting Pop-Rock just might be the start of a trend.

Yeah, this is from a musical.  We saw Chess in London as part of my senior trip to Europe, although “One Night in Bangkok” had been released as a single some time before the play was ever staged.  The producers and the composers (Tim Rice on lyrics, Bjorn and Benny from ABBA on music) recorded and released the score to help finance the stage production.  This song was a decent hit in the U.S., making it all the way to number three.  And yeah, that’s Murray Head, older brother of Anthony Stewart Head (aka Giles to all us Buffy fans), doing a charmingly nasty performance.  This was the character of the American in the play, which was extremely loosely based on the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky matches from the 1970s (you know, before Bobby went completely nuts).  The American is supposed to be sarcastic, caustic, selfish and generally intolerable, and Murray does a good job of it.  You can’t remove all the sympathy from the character, of course, because that wouldn’t be very much fun.  But he’s got a nice edge to him.

I enjoyed watching Chess, and I still really like the music, but I doubt I’d ever see it again.  The show itself is kind of dated, although the way things are going with Putin’s Russia, it looks like the Cold War may be on again, in which case Chess might be coming back into style.

Freaky Repost: “I Talk to My Haircut”

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I don’t quite feel like counting down favorite bands tonight, so I’ll continue the theme week, well, next week.  Maybe I’ll even expand it.  I’m crazy that way.  Because I spent much of the afternoon running errands, and since one of those errands was getting my hair cut (thanks, Frank!), this seemed like an appropriate repost.

So Dangerous Minds has once again turned me on to a little bit of insanity I’d never heard of. The two albums released by Reverend Fred Lane appear to be completely bananas. Which makes them pretty damn awesome in my book.

I freely admit that I choose this song because I dug the title, but it turned out to be a pretty fun listen. Although I was pretty entertained by the other clips I heard, too, so you should just search him on YouTube. It’s all pretty strange. What I hear most in Reverend Fred Lane’s music is the roots of another absurdist musical favorite, They Might Be Giants. I have no idea if John and John ever listened to this guy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

Of course, Reverend Lane isn’t a real guy. Or, he is real, but he’s not a reverend. Or named Fred. It’s a persona created by an artist named T.R. Reed. The music encompasses pretty much every genre of American music, while the lyrics are Dada-esque in nature (read: they make no sense whatsoever). This isn’t novelty music, per se, but more like performance art. What stands out most is the freewheeling abandon of these tracks. Reed clearly decided at some point to not limit himself in any discernible way. This is what the phrase “anything goes” was invented for. He just tossed everything in, including the kitchen sink.

This stuff is wonderfully weird, but it’s not mainstream in any way. The Reverend Fred Lane is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Which of course means that these recordings are currently out of print. I hope someone realizes there’s a market for this stuff and re-release it. Soon.

Errol Brown

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You might not know the name, but you sure do know the voice.

Come on.  You know how much you love this song.

Errol Brown was the lead singer for Hot Chocolate, an interracial Funk/R&B group who had a major hit with “You Sexy Thing” in the 70s.   (That’s him rockin’ that striped satin suit.)  Brown also co-wrote “Brother Louie,” which might be more informally known by its chorus “Louie, Louie, Louie.”  (It’s best known these days as the theme to Louis C.K.’s hit comedy on FX.)  But the Jamaican born singer-songwriter quit the music business when he got married and had a family.  I’ll bet he still sang all the time; you don’t have a voice like that and not love making music.  But he didn’t need the fame, which is something I greatly respect.  That kind of integrity will be sorely missed.