Posts Tagged ‘Rock & Roll Fantasy’

So, at some point in the 1990s, a well-lit Barnes & Noble bookstore opened its doors not more than 10 minutes from our domicile. There were copious magazine racks, shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books, wonderful books, and – perhaps most importantly to me – a cafe where one could browse possible purchases while sipping Starbucks-branded coffee, lattes and macchiatos. Most weekends, Diane and I could be found there, she making like a power reader while I leafed through magazines and downed various double-shot concoctions.

I’m not sure if we subscribed to the New Yorker at that point in time, though I know we did for a few years that decade. It matters not whether this part of the story occurred at home, while standing at the B&N magazine racks or in the cafe, however: I spotted (in the Sept. 11th, 1995 issue) Rob Nixon’s upbeat critique of British scribe Nick Hornby’s debut novel, High Fidelity, about a music obsessive’s journey into maturity. In part, the review read (and I’m lifting this direct from Hornby’s own website), “It is rare that a book so hilarious is also so sharp about sex and manliness, memory and music. Many men and, certainly, all addictive personalities will find in these pages shadows of themselves. And most of us will hear, in Hornby’s acoustic prose, the obsessive chords of the past that more often lock up than liberate our hearts.”

It seemed like something I might like, in other words. I located the book, flipped through it and decided to buy it. In the cafe, or perhaps in the main thoroughfare to the cafe, I shared my find with Diane. On the way home, we made a quick stop at the supermarket; while I ran in to get what we needed, she stayed in the car…and began to read the book.

I didn’t get it back from her until she finished.

High Fidelity was, is and will always be one of my favorite novels. The protagonist, Rob Fleming, owns a record shop staffed by music-crazed obsessives who, like him, use music as both a defense mechanism and escape hatch from life. He sorts through the frayed ephemera of past relationships to figure out why his present is filled with far too many pops, clicks and crackles; and, along the way, comes to an unsettling realization: A person’s taste in music doesn’t reflect anything but their taste in music.

In any event, I recognized the characters from a lifetime spent in musty-and-dusty record shops as well as, for a few years, managing the CD departments at two video-rental (and much cleaner) stores. They were my people, essentially; I traded tapes with customers, debated trivial matters with others, and – like Rob and his pals/employees – made tons of lists. On these shores, or at least in my circle, they were Top 10s as opposed to the book’s use of Top 5s, but that was it. Diane, a fellow music obsessive, was the same. A few years later, when I launched the original Old Grey Cat website, we even created a page that honored High Fidelity’s Top 5 concept (and I still honor it with my too-frequent Top 5 posts).

Five years later, the book was turned into a movie and Americanized, with John Cusack shepherding and protecting his emotions through music while figuring out how and why he’d made a mess of his life. We saw it in the theaters and, though we had our quibbles, liked it. A lot.

All of which leads to this: Earlier this year, I discovered that a High Fidelity TV series was set to premiere on Hulu. The dearth of originality in Hollywood has resulted in more trash than gems, so my initial reaction was to shrug it off. Why remake a semi-classic film? Then I read that the creative team had changed Rob from a guy to Zoë Kravitz and London/Chicago to Brooklyn. That the daughter of Lisa Bonet, who appeared in the film, stars in it made me feel old, but also clued me that the TV series was aiming for something more than a straight remake.

In the short term, it didn’t much matter: We were re-watching one of Diane’s favorite shows, The West Wing, anyway, and then we re-watched Homicide: Life on the Street, following it with Sex, Chips & Rock ’n’ Roll and other assorted older shows and movies. As we do. The High Fidelity TV series fell off my radar, in other words, and remained so until I read, just a few weeks back, that it had been cancelled.

We gave it a go that same week.

Like the movie, the TV series has Rob (short for Robyn) break the fourth wall – and, in one episode, allows her friend/employee Simon (David H. Holmes) to do the same. Kravitz is terrific, as is the supporting cast – Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Cherise, especially. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about the book is that it is specific to the male experience, but its overarching themes – fear of commitment, self-sabotage and qualms about adulthood and adult responsibility – are near-universal conceits. (The truth is, men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus; we both hail from Earth – and share 99.9 percent of the same DNA.) Certain aspects of the story differ because of the gender-flip, of course, but it remains true to Hornby’s core vision. At root, the new Rob – like the old Rob – is damaged. It’s not until she begins to make the necessary repairs that she has a shot at happiness.

Now, I wish we’d watched it right off the bat – if only to add one more viewer to whatever metric Hulu uses to decide what to renew or what to cancel. (Quality certainly isn’t among the reasons they rely upon; if they did, High Fidelity would be a no-brainer to bring back,)

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Songs About Music.

1) Diane Birch – “Jukebox Johnny.” Just yesterday, the Church of Birch pastor released this addictive tune about late-night salvation found in songs.   

2) Dobie Gray – “Drift Away.” A much-covered tune about losing one’s self in a melody, this rendition – a big hit in 1973 – was itself a cover version. Written by Mentor Williams (the brother of actor/singer-songwriter Paul Williams), it was first recorded by Clarence Carter in 1970 and then John Henry Kurtz in 1972.

3) The Kinks – “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” A classic Ray Davies ode to folks who turn to music for solace – and the price they pay. “There’s a guy in my block, he lives for rock/He plays records day and night/And when he feels down, he puts some rock ‘n’ roll on/And it makes him feel alright/And when he feels the world is closing in/He turns his stereo way up high…”

3) Simon & Garfunkel – “Late in the Evening.” A Paul Simon song from his 1980 One Trick Pony album/movie, this version from S&G’s legendary 1981 Concert in Central Park is equally evocative, conveying the utter magic and mystery of music and how it colors life for the better.

5) Patti Smith – “Land/Gloria.” Turn this up loud. In 2012, Patti toured as the opening act for Neil Young and Crazy Horse – and, as this fan-shot video shows, damn near blew those warhorses off the stage. (Note I say “damn near.”) Diane and I were at this show in Philly, and totally blown away by her performance – this song, especially. (Patti has said that “Land” is a metaphor for the birth of rock ’n’ roll, but all I know is it’s great.)

IMG_5448June 1979: I was a month shy of my 14th birthday and living a suburban life not that different from what was depicted in The Wonder Years or Freaks & Geeks – that is to say, I woke up, ate breakfast and left for the (school) bus stop; and, after school, hung out with friends. We played variations of baseball, football, basketball and hockey in the street, at the park and in a friend’s driveway, depending on what the sport called for.

A radio was almost always blaring.

Although a decade removed from the hurly-burly upheavals of the ‘60s, the aftereffects of that era hung in the air and on rock radio, where the same-old, same-old acts held a tight grip on the playlists. (In retrospect, it’s not a surprise that the music industry entered a sales slump right about then.) I’d begun tuning into Philly’s rock-oriented WMMR and WYSP, but listened primarily to WIFI-92, a Top 40 FM station that played anything that was a hit. If it made the charts, it played a part in my life that spring and summer simply because WIFI – like every Top 40 station known to man – had a tight playlist. Donna Summer, for instance, was hot stuff, an omnipresent force. Here she is on The Dinah Shore Show

I also bought 45s and the occasional LP, and liked just about every act I heard, though none more so than Paul McCartney & Wings, whose “With a Little Luck” the year before kickstarted my music obsessiveness – as I wrote about here.

The hits of the year can be found on “The Top 25 of 1979” playlist I created on 8Tracks/Handcrafted Internet Radio a few years back. Among the featured acts: Donna Summer, Chic, the Knack, Anita Ward, Olivia Newton-John, Rod Stewart and Blondie. It is, in its way, a good representation of what WIFI-92 was like, minus the deejay patter. They’re all songs I heard there first.

Hit TV shows that year included Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Three’s Company, Mork & Mindy, Eight Is Enough, M*A*S*H and One Day at a Time. I watched them all, and more – I was, am and will always be something of a TV junkie. Among the movies released in the year’s first half: Norma Rae, Hair, The China Syndrome, Manhattan, Apocalypse Now, The In-Laws and Rocky II. I only saw The In-Laws. (“Serpentine, Sal! Serpentine!”) in the theaters, though.

In the wider world: Foreshadowing events in the States, the Conservatives swept to power in England the previous month and installed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister. In April, the presidency of Jimmy Carter – unfair though it may have been – met its caricature when he was attacked by a “killer” rabbit. For the year, unemployment was relatively low, at 5.8 percent, but the wage-killer known as inflation was outrageously high: 11.3 percent.

IMG_5427This issue of Creem is, in its way, a solid reflection of the era. There’s the cover story on Blondie, whose “Heart of Glass” mega-hit broke them through to the big time even as some derided its disco flavoring; and includes articles on Bad Company, Dire Straits, the Police, and punk music. There’s funny advice in “A Rock Star’s Guide to Rock Criticism” for how rockers should field questions from critics; and a funny article about how doomsday is nigh – Name That Tune had gone disco! (Click on the image to the left to read the whole piece.)

Well, enough of the introduction. Here’s today’s Top 5: June 1979 (via Creem).

IMG_54261) Blondie – “Heart of Glass.” As I mentioned a few weeks back, I – like many folks – initially thought Debbie Harry was Blondie. This article is a good reason why: Blondie was a band, but the focus was on the bottle-blonde lead singer, right down to the headline that claims “Blondie Plucks Her Legs!”. The slant is, at the start, somewhat…silly. Here’s one question/comment to Harry from Nick Tosches, who penned the piece: “Your legs. They’re great. Do you shave them or wax them?”

Harry says neither, explaining that instead she plucks them “one hair at a time.…It takes about a week for each leg.” Later, regarding drugs, she offers this insight: “I know it sounds crazy coming from somebody like me, but the most satisfying feeling I have is when I’m completely straight and accomplishing something. The feeling of accomplishment is what I really like, what I really get off on. I think that love is better when you’re straight, no matter what anybody says. Everything is better when you’re straight, except fucking up.”

She also dispels the notion that Blondie is a new wave group. “We’re a pop group. We feel that we’re part of the new wave, but when it comes down to musical definitions, we’re definitely a pop group. We always tried to be a pop group.”

IMG_54462) Bad Company – “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” There’s both an article on the band and a review of their latest album, Desolation Angels. In the article, Paul Rodgers lays out his vision of rock ’n’ roll: “I don’t think you should ever, like, bring politics and stuff that surrounds you every day—all that depressing stuff—into music. People want to go and see groups to get away from all that. I know I do. The lights, the atmosphere…they can forget everything else.”

The review by Kevin Doyle is, in a word, forgettable. It takes Rogers & Co. to task, in a roundabout way, for what he hears as their generic sound without singling out any song from the new album to use an example. True, their sound was somewhat cookie-cutter; I’m not arguing that. But snideness without context serves no one but the author. Not that I care, that much, in this instance; I’ve never been a Bad Company fan, though I admit to enjoying some of their songs on the radio. One of those songs is “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” Every time I hear it, I’m thrust back to the morning when I walked into my middle school’s pre-homeroom holding pen, i.e. the cafeteria, and heard it blasting from someone’s boombox.

IMG_54333) Rickie Lee Jones – “Danny’s All-Star Joint.” I love early Rickie – and latter-day Rickie, too. Her 2015 Other Side of Desire album is among the year’s best. “Chuck E.’s in Love” was her first hit, of course, and I remember hearing it on the radio, where it was deliriously out of place no matter the station, but I didn’t buy her debut album until after hearing “Danny’s All-Star Joint” on a double-LP Warners compilation called Monsters, which sold via mail-order for an obscenely low price – two bucks, I think. This short-take review of her debut by one Michael Davis notes that “she’s nyro to Laura when she goes for them high aches and she’s closer to bratty Patti when she goes for them gutter giggles.”

IMG_54304) Joe Jackson – “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Michael Davis also pens this take on Joe Jackson’s Look Sharp LP: “1979 started out drenched in disco but as the months bumble by, it’s looking better and better. True, there’s lotsa new groups styxing to proven formulas but there’ve also been plenty of major record company by artists intent on being themselves.” (Styxing instead of sticking?! Good pun, sir!)

Next paragraph: “Like this guy, Joe Jackson. You could put him next to the Police, the Jam and early Elvis the Caustic and he’d feel right at home—in other words, he doesn’t. You could tag him as English, out front and, yeah, sharp—but after a couple of listens, the labels come off and not because of shoddy workmanship.”

Third paragraph: “Mainly, you’ll just listen to his songs—sparse farces about real life hassles, half of which stem from those thorny opposite sexers. His voice is always way up in the mix, pretty risky unless you’ve got the tunes and the ability to put ‘em across. Joe does.”

IMG_54215) The Boomtown Rats – “Rat Trap.” Before “I Don’t Like Mondays” broke them in the States, the Rats tried to make a go of it with the release of A Tonic for the Troops, their second U.K. album but first in the U.S. The record label swapped out a handful of songs for select numbers from their first U.K. LP, which met the same fate as the Jam‘s maiden efforts, though for different reasons. If the Jam were too English, the Rats were too eclectic. “Rat Trap” sounds like a Dublin spin on classic Springsteen; and other songs, such as “She’s So Modern,” echoed Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello and other new-wave acts. I was one of a few folks – and the only person amongst my friends – to buy the LP, which hit the record stores in February of that year. Until “Monday,” I never heard them on the radio; my memory says I learned of them from the Kenny Everett Video Show, which was syndicated in the U.S., but my timeline may be confused. It could well have been from a record review.

Anyway, the tongue-in-cheek Creem profile says: “After scurrying out of Dublin’s crumbling pubs to play their first gigs as the Nightlife Thugs, these rodents decided to show their true bubonic colors: much to their surprise, their furry brand of rabid rock crept across the continent like vermin on a sailor’s scalp, leaving thousands breathless and itching for more.”