Archive for the ‘1992’ Category

What is it about certain artists that keep us returning to them time and again? I’ve yet to put my finger on it, other than this rather simple explanation: Their music caresses our souls. Whether one’s at a concert, in the car or at home, in the den, great music transports you away from the immediate and into a netherworld of the artist’s – and your – making. (That’s the thing critics often leave out of the equation: music ain’t played in a vacuum. Like Marvin and Kim sang, “it takes two, baby. It takes two.”)

One example: The past few days have found me flashing back to one of my favorite bands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, 10,000 Maniacs. I woke on Friday with “Hey Jack Kerouac” ringing in my ear, and have been indulging myself with their songs since. Yesterday and again today, I slipped down the YouTube rabbit hole and found many delights…

1) “Suspicious Minds.” In addition to seeing the band in September 1992, Diane and I saw them twice at the Mann Music Center during the summer of 1993. Great shows, both. One of the highlights was when they performed this Elvis Presley song. Here they are, not long before, performing it at the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts in Mansfield, Mass.

2) Live in St, Louis, 6/9/93. Clocking in at two hours, this is almost the entire concert, which was much-bootlegged at the time. Only the closing “Let the Mystery Be” is missing.

3) MTV Rock Inaugural Ball, 1/20/1993. A magnetic performance by the band, who are joined by Michael Stipe for “To Sir With Love” and “Candy Everybody Wants.”

4) Live in Buffalo, 7/4/1989. Here’s another much-bootlegged show, this one from when they opened for the Grateful Dead. 

5) Live in Milan, 9/15/1987. Here they are in Milan, performing a tremendous 10-song set for Italian TV. 

And one bonus…

“Hey Jack Kerouac.” From the band’s Unplugged swan song in 1993…

The hot August night ended with myself and fellow Bruce Springsteen fans, including Diane, huddled inside my 1990 Dodge Colt, where the chilled air blasting from the A.C. provided little solace to the heat and humidity that gripped the night like a vise. To say the others were beside themselves would be an understatement; they’d passed that mark a few hours before, when Bruce and his Non-Street Band performed “Darkness on the Edge of Town” as if it were a karaoke tune. No, they were despondent, grieving the end of Life as They Knew It.

As an example, here’s “Darkness” from MTV’s Plugged special, which was recorded on Sept. 22, 1992. It just sounds…weak.

Although I’d been a fan for some time, I should explain, it was my first time seeing him in concert – as I often say, “time and circumstance” (aka school, work and lack of cash) had kept me away. As a result, I was much less shellshocked than the others, each of whom were longtime veterans of the E Street army. Still, even to me, the night had seemed off, with much of the new material lacking the intangible that separates the memorable from the mundane. The old material, meanwhile, was more akin to mimeographed copies than anything. “John Mellencamp put on a better show,” I said, referencing the January show I wrote about yesterday. 

Diane agreed and the others – not Mellencamp fans, as I recall – refused to argue. They were aghast at the comparison, mind you, but were so disappointed by Springsteen that they couldn’t and wouldn’t disagree.

Let me back up: 

In 1992, for those who don’t know the backstory, Bruce Springsteen released two solo albums, Human Touch and Lucky Town, on the same day, and then hit the road to promote them with a band that didn’t include the famed E Street Band (Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, Nils Lofgren and/or Steven Van Zandt, and Max Weinberg), just the professor and Mary Ann (aka Roy Bittan and Patti Scialfa).

To my ears, Human Touch – which he worked on from late ‘89 to early ’91 – housed few solid songs and many flaws, including oft-generic lyrics and a sterile production that made it sound as if Bruce had joined Toto. Two good examples: The stark renditions of “Soul Driver” and “Real World” at the 1990 Christic shows are hypnotic, while the recorded versions sport sheens that seemingly court the fans of “Rosanna,” not “Rosalita.” (That’s not a snarky gibe directed at Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro, by the way, as he actually keeps a steady rhythm alongside bassist – and future “American Idol” judge – Randy Jackson, but at the gloss Springsteen and his production cohorts embossed onto the songs.)

Lucky Town, on the other hand, was (and remains) a smart 10-song set that finds Springsteen caught in a crossfire that he’s attempting to understand. The songs were primarily recorded at the end of ’91 and possess a zest lacking on much of the Human Touch material; they don’t sound labored over (though, no doubt, they were). If anything, they maintain the stripped-down template he utilized for Tunnel of Love. He handles the bulk of the instrumental chores himself, backed only by drummer Gary Mallaber, though Bittan, Jackson, keyboardist Ian McLagen and Trickster all make guest appearances.

If he’d only released Lucky Town, or glommed the best Human Touch tracks to it in some sort of Lucky Touch hybrid, perhaps the initial underwhelmed reaction to the recordings would have been better than it was. And if he’d gotten the E Street Band back together for the tour, but kept the legion of backup singers, including the legendary Bobby King, in the mix?

We’ll never know the answer to that, of course. Instead we have this, which occurred toward the end of the August night in question, when we were analyzing the show: Diane mentioned, and she wasn’t being hyperbolic, that Crystal Taliefero brandishing the saxophone during “Born to Run,” the second-to-last song of the evening, was akin to a dagger through the heart.

In retrospect, however, my hunch is that the show was better than we, as a collective, perceived. I expected the night to match the legendary bootlegs I knew like the back of my hand, while the others expected something in keeping with what they’d experienced firsthand. Instead, we saw a band that was still in the process of becoming, and should have expected as much. Bittan, former Lone Justice guitarist Shayne Fontaine, bassist Tommy Sims, drummer Zachary Alford and Taliefero, the group’s resident Captain Many Hands (guitar, percussion, saxophone and backing vocals) had only played together for a few months, after all.

The next night’s 32-song bonanza, which we also took in, was no better, just longer. But by December, when the band returned to Philly for two shows, the group was tighter and more cohesive, though Taliefero’s sax solo during “Born to Run” still hurt the heart.

The set:

  1. Better Days
  2. Local Hero
  3. Lucky Town
  4. Darkness on the Edge of Town
  5. Growin’ Up
  6. 57 Channels (and Nothin’ On)
  7. Trapped
  8. Badlands
  9. Living Proof
  10. If I Should Fall Behind
  11. My Hometown
  12. Leap of Faith
  13. Man’s Job
  14. Roll of the Dice
  15. Gloria’s Eyes
  16. Cover Me
  17. Brilliant Disguise
  18. Soul Driver
  19. Souls of the Departed
  20. Born in the USA
  21. Real World
  22. Light of Day

Encores:

  1. Human Touch
  2. Glory Days
  3. Bobby Jean
  4. Thunder Road
  5. Born to Run
  6. My Beautiful Reward

All in all, as I’ve written before, 1992 was a good year. Diane and I were young and in love, spring was in the air and magic was everywhere – especially within the concert venues in and around Philly. Memories of many of those shows have turned to mush, unfortunately, but I’ve retained vivid imagery of a handful – including John Mellencamp at the Philadelphia Spectrum on January 15, 1992.

Although “Hurts So Good” and “Jack & Diane” turned my ears and eyes in 1982, as videos for both were in rotation on MTV, it wasn’t until Uh-Huh – which was released during the summer of 1983 – that I plunked down cash for a Mellencamp album. Is there a better opening stretch on vinyl than “Crumblin’ Down,” “Pink Houses” and “Authority Song”? (FYI: I’m trading in hyperbole here.) “Play Guitar” was a crunchy good time, too. Aside from those glimmers of greatness, however, the album was solid, not stellar. Yet it set the stage for what came next: Scarecrow, one of the best albums of not just 1985, but the ‘80s as a whole. The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987 explored many of the same small-town themes while expanding Mellencamp’s sonic palette – fiddle, accordion and other Appalachian folk instruments. The underrated Big Daddy (1989) continued in the same vein. In 1991, however, Mellencamp shed the Appalachian vibe and returned to the straight-up rock of Uh-Huh with Whenever We Wanted – and, like Uh-Huh, it mixed the sublime with the so-so.

During the ‘80s, he was often (unfairly) compared to Bruce Springsteen – a heartland rocker with a conscience. But, really, the better comparison (if one is to be made) is probably to fellow heartland rocker Bob Seger, as he also kicked around quite a few years before coming into his own.

Work, school and cash had kept me from seeing him prior to this night, unfortunately, so I was beyond excited to finally see him in concert. I assumed that the night would emphasize Whenever We Wanted – and that was okay, as the songs I liked, I really liked. The title track, for instance, is sheer grace set to song… 

…though it may just be the guitars that get me. (The same’s true for much of the album. Though longtime consigliere/guitarist Larry Crane is missed, new guy/guitarist David Grissom, ex of Joe Ely’s band, elevates even the most mundane tracks, such as “Get a Leg Up.”)

In any event, Diane and I scored decent seats: The last row (on the aisle) of whatever first-level section we were in. The show was either sold out or close to it. (I don’t remember seeing any empty seats, at any rate.)

My first memory is of the oddballs we often attract at concerts. Simple etiquette dictates that standing vs. sitting is set by those in the front rows, not those in the back. After the initial thrust, most folks take to their seats – but, in our section, the two (drunken) guys right in front of us decided they wanted to dance the night away. After some back and forth, we reached a quick compromise: We traded seats.

My second memory: The concert started strong until the end of the first set, when two acoustic numbers (“Big Daddy of Them All” and “Jackie Brown”) failed to connect in the arena as they did on vinyl. The second half all but blew the roof off the Spectrum, however.

My third memory: Mellencamp shaped the 24-song setlist more as a greatest hits showcase, with six songs from Scarecrow, four each from Whenever We Wanted, Big Daddy, Lonesome Jubilee and Uh-Huh, and two from American Fool. 

My fourth memory: The intro to “Pop Singer,” in which he railed against turning pop and rock songs into advertisements. “I don’t want to be a TV commercial,” he exclaimed. It’s a rant well worth watching, falling at about the 1 hour, 20 minute mark of this video (not mine), which features the concert in full:

My fifth memory: Mellencamp’s band was, in a word, phenomenal. It featured drummer extraordinaire Kenny Aronoff, guitarists Dave Grissom and Mike Wanchic, bassist Toby Myers, accordion/keyboard player John Cascella, first-class fiddler Lisa Germano (whose solo albums are well worth looking up) and Pat Peterson and Jenny Douglas-McRae on backup vocals and percussion.

My sixth and final memory: “Whenever We Wanted” wasn’t one of the night’s chosen songs – and, by night’s end, I didn’t much care. It was a great, great night that reaffirmed my faith in this thing called rock ’n’ roll. If you have two hours and fifteen minutes to spare, crank up the video I embedded above; the second half is a concert masterclass.

First set: 

  1. Love and Happiness
  2. Paper in Fire
  3. Jack & Diane
  4. Lonely Ol’ Night
  5. Check It Out
  6. Rain on the Scarecrow
  7. Martha Say
  8. The Real Life
  9. Rumbleseat
  10. Get a Leg Up
  11. Big Daddy of Them All
  12. Jackie Brown

Second set:

  1. Small Town
  2. Minutes to Memories
  3. Now More Than Ever
  4. Pop Singer
  5. Crumblin’ Down
  6. R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.
  7. Play Guitar
  8. Hurts So Good
  9. Authority Song
  10. Pink Houses

Encore:

  1. Again Tonight
  2. Cherry Bomb

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Last week, while flipping through my photo library, I came across pictures from just prior to our move last year from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, when we were sorting through the collected ephemera of two lives and deciding what to take and what to toss. Among the latter: cassettes I made in the late 1980s and early 90s to listen to in the car. (I know: How quaint.) The above tape, from sometime in late 1992 or early ‘93, was one.

For those who don’t recognize the songs on Side A, they represent Paul Weller’s 1992 eponymous solo debut in full, with the closing “Kosmos” spanning onto Side B. My stereo setup had the ability to fade in or out when recording to tape, so I might have done that here, but since the song also fades out and in, who knows? I may have made use of one of the natural stop, cut out the five minutes of recording groove (see Wikipedia’s entry on the album for more on that), and kicked off Side B with the 30-second reprieve that closed the album. The remainder of the second side consists of Jam tunes, most likely lifted (for expediency’s sake) from Snap! and Extras.

Paul Weller’s solo debut, which followed his days with the Jam (1976-82) and Style Council (1983-89), has never been far out of my reach since its release. In some respects, it laid down the blueprint he’s followed ever since, mixing heavy soul with jazzy touches, self-reflection and self-recrimination. It opens with the propulsive “Uh Huh, Oh Yeah,” which sets the stage: “I took a trip down boundary lane/trying to find myself again…”

Though he’d been to the top with both the Jam and Style Council, by the end of the ‘80s he seemed in danger of teetering into oblivion. This Coventry Live article delves into that fall from and return to grace, but to cut to the chase: Instead of giving up, he formed a band, hit the road and self-released a single (“Into Tomorrow”) that turned enough ears to land him a record deal.

The urgency that drives the performance coupled with the philosophical/questioning bent of the lyrics equals Paul Weller at his best, and defines the album in total. Another high point: “Above the Clouds,” which is one of my favorite Weller songs.

The early ‘90s were a time of CD singles laden with bonus tracks, of course, and Weller released a few in support of the album. (They were hard to find in the States, but I managed to locate most.) In 2009, however, a deluxe reissue made those long-ago efforts moot by gathering them all together alongside alternate mixes and demos, plus a cool cover of “Abraham, Martin & John.” It’s well worth the expense.

Of those bonus tracks: My favorite was and is “Everything Has a Price to Pay.”

(The two studio albums that immediately followed, Wild Wood and Stanley Road, are equally essential to my ears, as are a smattering of his latter-day albums, including 22 Dreams, A Kind Revolution, True Meanings and this year’s double-disc live opus, Other Aspects.) 

Here’s the track listing of the original release: