Malcolm

AC/DC was the first band I ever got truly obsessed with. I was 11 years old and at the cusp of maybe, possibly wanting to learn to play guitar. Anything with crunchy, choppy, standout guitar would catch my ear. I put my mom and dad’s Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits cassette through the ringer, listening to “Last Child”, “Kings and Queens”, and “Sweet Emotion” over and and over. But the band that stoked that guitar playing fire more than anyone was AC/DC. My parents had Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Highway To Hell on 8-track and I remember specifically wanting to hear “Beating Around The Bush” constantly. That song in-particular was like cat nip for me. It was rough, tough, badass, and that riff was as heavy as anything that was coming out of the Bay area in the early 80s or the Lower East Side in the mid-70s. There was just something very visceral and physical about the rhythm guitar work on those AC/DC albums.

The summer before my 6th grade year I had some chore money saved up(probably some raking for my dad) and my mom took me to Big Wheel, which was a retail store in town where you could pretty much buy anything(precursor to Walmart.) They had a pretty decent collection of cassettes so I snagged up High Voltage by AC/DC and by the time we were 20 seconds into the drive home and “It’s A Long Way To The Top(If You Wanna Rock ‘n Roll)” I thought I’d heard everything I’d ever need to hear in terms of guitar music(in some ways, that statement is still very true.) That staccato rhythm Malcolm Young built that song on was like the Pyramids of rock and roll, where hard rock built its civilization upon. Of course everything else about that song was amazing, but for a fledgling, wannabe guitar player it was as if the curtain had been lifted and I was shown that a simple flick of the wrist and just the right amount of volume from a Marshall plexi head could blow minds.

In that summer of 1986 I quickly amassed a collection of cassettes from AC/DC that covered ’74 Jailbreak up to Who Made Who. By the time I’d gotten my first guitar at the end of that summer I was already learning “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, “Ride On”, and “Hells Bells” thanks to the AC/DC songbook that came home with me. Malcolm Young made playing rhythm guitar seem deceptively simple, yet he had a very deft touch that would take a few more years to somewhat crack(though I never really cracked it.) Everyone talked about Angus and his schoolboy uniform, his stage antics, and yes his raw, bluesy lead playing. His sound was perfect after all. It was electric, buzzing, and always on point. But when you get older and you can look back on those old AC/DC records you see and hear the true secret ingredient to those albums was Malcolm Young’s rhythm playing. He laid a solid foundation, along with Cliff Williams and Phil Rudd, on which Angus could bewitch us with his SG wizardry.

I can’t imagine anyone else playing “Kicked In The Teeth”, “Dog Eat Dog”, “You Shook Me All Night Long”, “Beating Around The Bush”, “TNT”, “Who Made Who”, “Highway To Hell”, “Back In Black”, “Gone Shootin”, “Shake Your Foundations”, “Bedlam In Belgium”, or ANY other AC/DC tracks with the same amount of restrained, simple dexterity and spot-on timing than Malcolm Young. He, along with legends like Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Chet Atkins, James Burton, and Jerry Reed elevated the rhythm guitarist into as vital a role in rock and roll as the front man. Malcolm turned being a rock and roll rhythm player into an art form.

Malcolm Young died today. He was 64 years old. It’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll, but Malcolm Young made it. He even added a few floors above it.

Monk at 100

Not that the man is celebrating given that he’s been on the other side now for over 37 years. But if Thelonious Monk was still among the living he’d be celebrating a century on this earth. Even though he only lived to be 64-years old, the man blazed a musical trail of legends. His work was unlike anyone before or after. He played like an alien interpreting the wonky rhythms of ragtime. His songs were like a Lemonhead in that they were tart on first taste, but as you let those tunes melt down there was a hidden sweetness you couldn’t deny. I couldn’t deny it, anyways.

Thelonious Monk was the first jazz artist I ever got into. I bought Monk’s Dream on a whim when I was 21. I think I’d read an interview with Flea where he name dropped the man so I figured if Flea dug him maybe I would too? Turns out Flea has great taste as Monk’s Dream became an obsession of mine. It was an obsession that has lasted to this day. I’ve collected countless Monk albums, with Straight, No Chaser, Underground, Solo Monk, Monk, and Criss Cross as favorites. There’s a double LP I found with Thelonious and John Coltrane that’s pretty stunning, too. And the Clint Eastwood-produced doc Straight, No Chaser is a favorite as well. In that doc filled with tons of wonderful archival footage you see the strange and beautiful in him. He just wasn’t on the same plane as the rest of us. He didn’t just think and write outside of the box, he thought and wrote outside of our universe. He was a true original that will never be duplicated, matched, or remotely replaced.

So on this day, October 11, 2017, let us celebrate Thelonius Sphere Monk. One of the coolest far out cats to ever sit at the ivories.

 

The End Of The Rainbow Is Always A Long Ride : R.I.P Tom Petty

There are a few musicians that I connect with on a very personal level. The music feels like walking through the front door on a particularly lousy day at work, and the warmth of home melts all those bad vibes away. A certain song takes me back to a car ride in the summer of 1983 to my grandma’s house for a day of fishing. Or an album puts me in the dead of winter with the blue, Midwest air freezing my lungs on first contact. There are a few artists that take me to certain places when I hear them and Tom Petty has always been one of those artists.

Though, it took me years before I truly appreciated the man.

As a kid he was a soundtrack in the car, much like Steve Miller, The Eagles, Foreigner, and Styx. He was part of AOR soundtrack of my childhood. Most of that stuff I hear nowadays and I just want to turn it off immediately. Steve Miller is an exception, as is Tom Petty. “American Girl” “Listen To Your Heart”, “Even The Losers”, “Refugee”, “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, and “Breakdown” were always welcomed ear candy when I was a kid. There was something inviting in the songs of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Something that felt familiar. When I saw pictures of Tom Petty he reminded me of the gaunt, stick figures I’d see at family reunions. He looked like the smoking long hairs I called relatives. He looked as if he should be in the basement playing pool and drinking a Strohs with my mom and dad and uncles. He just seemed like a dude that would show me a couple bar chords and let me swig some of that half warm Strohs.

Though I wasn’t buying up Petty albums growing up he was always around, making weird videos I’d catch at friends houses or playing on the local classic rock station 97.7 out of Elkhart, Indiana or 95.3 out of Niles, Michigan. Then my freshman year of high school he released his first solo album, Full Moon Fever. Hearing songs like “I Won’t Back Down”, “Free Fallin'”, “A Face In The Crowd”, and “Yer So Bad” were like a revelation. They were like this reinvention of the middle-aged rock and roll guy I’d heard for so many years in the backseat. Petty’s Wilburys collaboration created this long standing working relationship and friendship with ELO’s Jeff Lynne. Lynne gave Petty a new sonic imprint; he brightened the drums, brought the vocals front and center, and gave Petty a spotlight on his more personal songwriting style.

He made Petty cool to the kids.

As much as I loved Full Moon Fever, it wasn’t until 1994s Wildflowers that I completely fell for Tom Petty. That album to me feels like a sonic work of art. It sits among my all time favorite records as this regal musical piece. It was well-aged the day it was released, chock full of absolute masterpieces. To me, this feels like the record where Tom Petty found himself. Yes, even after nearly 20 years of making music, gold albums, and number one singles it wasn’t until this Rick Rubin-produced record did Petty find Petty. There’s a looseness on this album that evokes visions of bearded guys sitting around a studio with smoke(of the cigarette and “Mary Jane” variety) swirling around as amps buzz, basses thump, and drums groove. The atmosphere of those Lynne records, however great they were, were very tight and uniform. There seemed to be no room for letting the tape run and see what would happen. “Honey Bee” and “Cabin Down Below” under those conditions might’ve come out sounding pinched, or worse yet twee. Here they’re gruff and unruly, just the way the Lord intended.

There isn’t one song on this album that I don’t love. It brings back the winter of 1994. It was cold, but the inside of my little Nissan pick up was warm and inviting thanks to songs like “You Wreck Me”, “It’s Good To Be King”, “To Find A Friend”, “Hard On Me” and “A Higher Place”. This album also inspired in me the need to create myself. Even more than Rubber Soul or Village Green Preservation Society, Wildflowers songwriting and sonic stamp made me want to make songs like those. From both writing and engineering standpoints this album was that bar I needed to reach. It sounded like an album you’d find in some dusty record store bin from 1972, not 1994. It was well aged, much like the vintage Fenders and Rickenbackers used to make the record.

I think the song that hits me hardest on this album and always has is “Only A Broken Heart”. There’s something very fragile about it that feels like a punch to the gut every time I hear it. From Petty’s nearly whispered, gently delivered vocals to the mellotron to his acoustic strumming it hits all the right emotional notes for me. There’s loneliness and pain being given out in dollops of musical beauty. Petty sings lines like “I know the place where you keep your secrets/Out of the sunshine, down in a valley” and “I know your weakness, you’ve seen my dark side/The end of the rainbow is always a long ride” with almost the innocence of a child. I think this song is an absolute masterpiece, and it connects me to Tom Petty forever.

There’s not much more I can say. I loved Tom Petty as a songwriter, singer, and musician. If I’d known him I’m sure I would’ve loved him as a friend, too. Mentor, even. He is, was, and always will be one of the greats in the pantheon of rock and roll. So long, Tom Petty. Thank you for everything.

And the days went by like paper in the wind

Everything changed, then changed again

It’s hard to find a friend,

It’s hard to find a friend…

If you haven’t seen the doc Runnin’ Down A Dream by Peter Bogdanovich do yourself a favor and clear about 4 hours for it. It’s the ultimate history on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. 

Saturday, Harry, and Beaches

We’ve gone from an incredibly mild beginning of the month to slowly making our way back to some summer heat. Hell, we had a high of 65 degrees just a few days ago and are back to mid-80s and balmy(thanks Obama!) After I ran to the bank(and the comic book shop and Karma Records) I took to the yard for a serious round of mowing. Despite the cooler temps the grass still felt it necessary to grow way out of hand. I put on the latest Marc Maron podcast and proceeded to sweat like an atheist at a church social. Even after a good two hours, a spinach, strawberry, pineapple, wheat germ and almond milk smoothie and some Greek yogurt and a relaxing shower I’m still sweating(am I dying?) It’s okay, I’ve got some new tunes spinning. I’m sure I’ll survive.

Before I even had my first cup of dark roast I started seeing folks posting pictures of Harry Dean Stanton and got a bad feeling in my gut. Sure enough, one of the greatest character actors to grace a screen had passed away. I was pretty bummed about this. I was thinking to myself “Man, he was probably in his late 70s or early 80s by now.” Turns out I was wrong. Stanton was 91. 91?! I think maybe because of the fact that he’s looked to be in his mid-60s for the last 40 years I just assumed he was in his 70s. He was always this thin, skeleton of a man wrapped in secondhand clothes in the films he was in. He always looked like a guy that had seen far more in his life and had experienced even more than that than everyone in the room combined, yet never felt compelled to share too much. Quiet, unassuming, and someone happy to share a longneck(or two) and a pack of Reds at the local watering hole with anyone willing to buy a around or two.

He could’ve been any number of guys I’d see when I was a little kid and my grandma would take me to the Moose Lodge for lunch. She worked there as a waitress and bartender when she and my grandpa lived on Lake Manitou back in the 70s and 80s. We’d go over there when my mom and I would visit during summer. We’d sit in a booth and I’d eat a hamburger with fries and a Coke while a cavalcade of regulars would come by to say hi to my grandma. Maybe Harry was one of them, I don’t know.

First time I remember seeing Harry Dean Stanton in a movie was Alien. He was the unfortunate soul that tried getting the cat and was bit in the face by the Xenomorph for his troubles. Then in the mid-80s we rented Repo Man and I think it was that movie that made me think, “You know, I kind of like this guy.” Repo Man was an insane, head trip of a film that put me onto both Alex Cox and punk rock. It was also one of Emilio Estevez’ finest films. Stanton was the crusty old timer showing the young punk the ropes and trade of repossessing vehicles. It’s a classic. Then in the early 90s when I worked at a video store I started bringing old Betamax tapes home(because nobody rented them anymore and I had our newly repaired Toshiba at home.) There were lots of movies that they never replaced with VHS copies and only had the Betamax left. There was literally a giant box filled with old Betamax tapes in the back that I could take whenever I wanted. One of those was Wim Wender’s beautiful Paris, Texas. It was this European arthouse film that was shot in the heart of Texas with grizzled American actors. It was this tome on loneliness, the open road, regrets, and how insignificant we are in the scheme of things. For me, that film defined the lonely soul that Stanton could play so well. He was also featured in several David Lynch films and was even in The Avengers as a security guard that finds a naked Bruce Banner in an abandoned factory.

So long, Harry. 91 years. You had a hell of a good run.

What am I listening to, you ask? The new Beaches album Second of Spring. It’s a double LP of dreamy psych rock from this all female rock outfit from Australia. I absolutely loved their 2013 album She Beats. It had a lo-fi vibe to it, yet never came across as amateurish. It felt like a well-aged rock record you might find in some collection sitting and collecting dust. One of those rare treats of an album that had a special appearance by none other than NEU!s Michael Rother.

Second of Spring is a double album clocking at over 75 minutes of psych, dream, shoegaze, and grungy garage rock. These ladies lay on the hazy guitar vibes beautifully this time around. It’s been four years, but Second of Spring was worth the wait.

That’s all I got. There’s some PBRs in the fridge with my name on ’em. The boy and I plan on marathoning the Alien collection tonight. We watched Prometheus and Alien: Covenant a couple weekends ago and are doing the original Scott film, along with Cameron’s Aliens, tonight. If we’re so inclined, maybe we’ll finish up Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, too. If we’re feeling crazy or something.

A little “my two cents”, in regards to Scott’s newest Alien films. I think they’re great. It seems that there’s either the “we loved it” or “we hated it” camps. I don’t get all the jeers for these films. They looked great and had great acting. The effects were amazing and the story, though a little dense, starts to make sense after my second viewing of Prometheus. Plus, Michael Fassbender was fucking brilliant. So there’s that.

Alright, enjoy your weekend my lovelies. Grab a beer and watch Paris, Texas.

 

Goodbye Kid Charlamagne : Walter Becker 1950 – 2017

Image by © Neal Preston/Corbis

It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I fell for Steely Dan. It took one of my oldest friends to make me a tape mix of the “highlights” of their storied 70s discography for me to finally get it. I picked up the famous Steely Dan Gold best of at a used CD store in 1995 and I was off and running. The hits brought me in, but “FM” kept me coming back. “No static at all”.

I think what it was that I didn’t like about Steely Dan growing up was the exact thing that I loved about them once I was all in. There was this almost muzak-like vibe to their songs that as a uninformed teenager I found boring and safe. It sounded like leashed-up jazz, meaning jazz that wasn’t able to run wild and explore. But once I found my way to albums like The Royal Scam, Pretzel Logic, and Countdown To Ecstasy the easy listening vibe I realized was just a front for some of the most subversive, slyly dark and humorous music the 70s spit out at us. Those two Bard jazz and sci fi loving dorks named Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were writing breezy, jazzy odes to drug dealers, outlaws, prostitutes, and safe sex(“ain’t gonna do it without your Fez on, oh no”), as well as plenty of beatnik and science fiction references to fill a couple notebooks. They slid these dark and seedy worlds inside groovy and funky three minute tunes that would get stuck in your head, whether you wanted it to or not.

For the longest time Donald Fagen was the face of Steely Dan to me. He was the voice. He was the slinky ghoul behind the electric piano that told these tales of degradation and seemed to be the puppet master to a handful of studio wizards. But while Fagen may have been the narrator, Walter Becker was just as prominently helping to build the worlds within those Steely Dan albums. Fagen was the glitz, while Becker added the greasy grime. He made those tunes dirtier with his bass playing, and on Pretzel Logic he made tracks like “Pretzel Logic”, “Night By Night”, and “Monkey In Your Soul” down and dirty with his excellent guitar playing. You see, Walter Becker came into the Dan songs with the grit of a Chicago blues guitarist and the mind of some trans-dimensional traveler from some other plane of existence. Fagen brought things back to earth once Becker took us out into far reaches of reality. His guitar work on “The Fez” was also exceptional in its funk and groove delivery. Whether Becker was playing the parts or not he was meticulously writing them for guys like Larry Carlton, Denny Dias, and Elliot Randall to perform on album. He was a player, but he was also a master curator, along with Fagen.

Walter Becker died yesterday, September 3rd, 2017. He left behind some seriously great records. Can’t Buy A Thrill, Countdown To Ecstasy, Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam, Aja, Gaucho, Two Against Nature, and Everything Must Go are all class act SD albums. Doesn’t matter which one you pick, cause each one has some magic.

RIP, Charlie Freak.

Tobe Hooper : 1943-2017

I was sad to wake up to the news that we lost yet another “Master of Horror”, Mr. Tobe Hooper. While he never quite had the career or accolades of guys like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and George Romero, he still contributed to the genre in a big way.

His biggest and most prominent work was 1974s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For me, that film felt like watching a snuff film. It was jaunty, awkward, and seemed to be cinema verite for horror. The way Hooper shot the film it almost seemed like a found footage movie. The frankness in the deaths made my stomach churn. The Leatherface family was scarier to me than any boogeyman hiding in my closet. It truly seemed to be the  bloody, violent death knell of the peace and love crowd. It was like Hooper was saying “The grand experiment failed, so here’s what you get. Don’t choke on your own rib while you’re at it.” This was one of those movies that sat on the wall of the video store with a gnarly layer of dust on it, taunting me each time I’d come in. It was daring me to take it home and destroy my psyche with it. When I finally did, it did not disappoint. In the 80s he made the sequel and did something amazing. He turned a horrifying, gut-wrenching film into something more. He added gallows humor and made the Leatherface clan into joke-cracking psychopaths and created something as equally entertaining as the original. It was much maligned when it was released, it’s now considered a cult classic. It was also the start for Bill Moseley, a Rob Zombie regular.

Besides TCM, Hooper also made Poltergeist, Lifeforce, Spontaneous Combustion, and The Mangler. While he never reached the plateau of the Chainsaw films and Poltergeist, he always made entertaining bad films. I quite liked Lifeforce and Spontaneous Combustion. The 80s were a great time for decadent, sleazy horror. Hooper was a big part of that.

He also did some great television work, most notably on Amazing Stories, Freddy’s Nightmares, and Tales From The Crypt. But the greatest thing he ever created for television is easily Salem’s Lot. To this day I’ve never been more freaked out or scared than I was watching that two-part miniseries based on Stephen King’s vampire novel. I still get freaked out if I hear something that resembles someone scratching at my window. If all Tobe Hooper had done was Salem’s Lot, he could still feel solid in knowing he made that truly horrifying film.

Another horror master gone. RIP, Tobe. I think I’ll have some roadside BBQ in your honor today.

King of the Dead : George Romero 1940-2017

The first movie that ever truly got to me was George Romero’s Creepshow. At 10 years old I watched the George Romero/Stephen King horror collaboration and was more and more horrified as each story unfolded until we reached “The Crate” and I felt my blood run cold. Something about that scene where the college student goes under the stairs and is pulled into the aforementioned crate by the Tasmanian Devil and is gnawed on and killed. Blood running down his shirt as he’s pulled up into the crate to be a late night snack. That scene made my stomach curdle(and I hadn’t even gotten to the “bug” episode.)

That movie and that moment put me on a track to horror-dom that I’ve never quite gotten off of, and I owe it all the George Romero(and I suppose Stephen King, too.) That night started a journey into all things creepy, kooky, and downright disturbing. While many directors helped to fill my psyche with visions of the bizarre and bloody, no one did it with as much class as George Romero. Before Creepshow I had seen Night of the Living Dead on late night TV, but it didn’t really sink into my brain at 7 or 8 years old. Once Creepshow indoctrinated me, I was off and running. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was the game changer. It was disturbing, chaotic, quirky, gory, and it spoke to society and consumerism. You couldn’t go to the mall after seeing DotD and not see blue-skinned zombies walking around with Orange Julius cups and Hot Sam pretzels. Day of the Dead, while not as essential as Dawn, still spoke to the evil that men do went left to their own devices. It also upped the ante in the gore department.

Those two movies, along with after revisiting Night of the Living Dead felt like these massive peaks that every horror filmmaker ever since have been trying to ascend to. George Romero wanted to scare the hell out of you, but he also wanted to comment on the current state of affairs. He wasn’t out to give us cheap thrills. He wanted to show us the horrors that awaited us outside our very front doors that we weren’t willing to look for ourselves. Romero’s zombie films were like these carnival mirrors showing us the world in distorted, grotesque fashions. You could get lost in the metaphors within those films, so if you chose just to enjoy the gore, story, acting, and sights instead no one could blame you. Least of all George Romero.

Besides his series of zombie films that changed horror forever, George Romero made many more amazing horror films. Martin, The Crazies, Monkey Shines, The Dark Half, Bruiser, and even his collaboration with Dario Argento Two Evil Eyes all showed Romero’s unique eye and perspective on a genre that had been weighted down by sleazy thrills and cheap production design.

George Romero came from a place of creating art over commerce. His influences were heavy hitters and included Orson Welles, John Ford, Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Michael Powell’s The Tales Of Hoffman as one of his favorite films. His films never felt like cheap horror. They borrowed from the classics that came before and built their own worlds within Romero’s keen eye and knack for storytelling. He could’ve told stories in any genre, but horror was where he found a unique space to tell his stories. Edgar Allan Poe, with his morality plays as seen through the eyes of a doomed world and lovelorn spirit, is where Romero himself found a spot to speak out on society’s missteps and foibles. There’s nothing more horrifying than what’s lurking in our own subconscious, waiting to rise up when we least expect it.

We’ve lost one of the great voices in horror cinema, or any cinema for that matter. Romero saw the world, both the good and bad, and attempted to portray them both with equal fervor in his films. Despite the darker dispositions of his films, he was a man with heart and the desire to make great art. If he’d only made Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead and had stopped at that point we’d still be talking about the man as a genius.

Long live George Romero, the King of the Dead.