Three Relatively Obvious and Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing Right Now

As I mentioned in Testing, Testing…Is This Thing On? I have a lot of material that I wrote with the intention of submitting somewhere, but never did. This is one of those articles.

Ironically, it’s also probably one of the few pieces that certain Web sites would have eagerly accepted – if I had stuck with the initial plan. Indeed, I started off with a common SEO key phrase – in the original title – but quickly went astray. What’s somewhat interesting about this article is the discussion (and inclusion) of the first chapter of an ill-fated audiobook which I recorded at home (including the opening theme music) and you can hear by scrolling down and clicking on the MP3.



Three Relatively Obvious and Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing Right Now

The following three ways of improving your writing are obvious and simple yet seldom discussed in the writing forums because they’re obvious and simple. But it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to revisit them right now.

1. READ YOUR SHIT OUT LOUD (RYSOL)

RYSOL is by far the most effective and efficient method of proofreading; and the most legitimate way to evaluate the clarity of your writing.

Reading your shit out loud might not be fun at first, but it will improve your writing. To keep it interesting, you might consider recording yourself.

Allow me to tell you a short story about a short story that perfectly exemplifies the importance of RYSOL.

Several years ago, I pitched an autobiographical short story and the publisher asked me to narrate an audiobook version. Having a fair amount of experience in audio production, professional voice-overs, and extensive experience in home and commercial recording studios, I said OK.

The publisher asked for a price: How much to do the whole thing?

That, I replied, I didn’t know, because I had never recorded an audiobook. However, I have all the necessary professional sound recording equipment at home and it might save him a few bucks if I did it myself, rather than going into a commercial studio. *

* I have done shitloads of flat hourly-rate voice-over work for this publisher, and he has a preferred studio, let’s call it Champion Audio, owned and operated by his friend. All of the publishing company’s in-house audio materials get recorded at Champion. So I had a good idea of how much it would cost at Champion vs. on my own, but I didn’t know how long it would take. If I had to quote him a flat-rate for an entire audiobook, I might have screwed myself to the wall. I’m glad I didn’t do that.

The 15,000-word short story is spread out over 10 chapters. Each 1,500-word chapter equals roughly 4 minutes of recorded audio. Intro and outro sections are 15 seconds each. Although I routinely bang out the voice-over shit in record time, this is “voice talent” work, which is completely different.

The bulk of voice-over work is:

Woman UK: Hi, Greg. How are you today?
Man US: I’m OK, Marsha. How about you? Had enough of this rainy weather?
Woman UK: Yeah. It sucks. My roommate killed herself the other night.
Man US: Really? That’s too bad. How?
Woman UK: She slit her wrists and bled out in the bathtub.
Man US: Oh, that’s a common way people do it.
Woman UK: So true. She was nothing special. An under-achiever, that one.
Man US: So I guess you’re looking for a new roommate?

In light of the ambiguities both stated and implied, I offered to record just the first chapter in order to formulate an estimate. The logic being: However long it took me to do the first chapter would be multiplied by 10 = The Price.

We agreed on a fair hourly rate, shook hands, and I went to work.

I’m going to skip most of the technical pre- and post-production related issues involved in recording an audiobook. I’m also going to skip the formatting details and the differences between a manuscript and a transcript. At this point, I’m just going to assume you’ve heard an audiobook and you know there’s more to it than Stephen King starts talking: “Hi, I’m Steve. This is my book. It’s called Shawshank Redemption.”

Once I started recording, I hadn’t made it through the second paragraph before I had to stop and edit a line. Although it looked fine on the page and read well in my mind, it sounded weird.

That’s OK, isn’t it? Change it. Right?

Not so fast.

The publisher had already accepted the final draft and I was told the manuscript had been through the complete food chain of editing, formatting, and proofing. I had to stop what I was doing, call the guy, and ask if the story had gone to the printer.

Fortunately, it hadn’t. I was able to continue working. But FAR MORE IMPORTANTLY, I was able to prevent an inferior draft of my story from being published. All told, I wound up making a dozen changes to the first chapter of the story in question.

Eventually, even though the audiobook deal didn’t happen – I went ahead and recorded the entire story and made dozens of changes. The act of telling the story made my lips turn numb. Hearing the story brought my language to life and tears to my eyes. The print version was published and I guess everybody liked it. I dunno. The publisher didn’t ask me for an original piece of writing for at least a year after that.

Obviously, I had not practiced what I’m preaching about here – RYSOL – because if I had, I would have made those changes long before I sat down to record an audiobook, and certainly saved everybody down-line a lot of heartache and my pet peeve: having to do shit twice.

Moreover, when was the last time you recorded yourself talking for five minutes at a time? When was the last time you spoke non-stop for five minutes? When was the last time you read a 10-minute speech out loud? Something to think about, kids.

Nowadays, I’m reading emails out loud before I send them.

2. SIT ON STUFF (SOS)

It may seem counter-intuitive in terms of improving your writing right now, but there’s no easier method to improve your writing right now than SOS. Write it, polish it, file it away, and come back another day.

Unless a piece of writing is on a deadline, it will go through an extended process of intensive engagement followed by at least a week of complete neglect. The better I think it is the longer I’m going to sit on it. This is why it’s important for a writer to have many different works in-progress.

The first way SOS improves your writing is the implied perspective. Perhaps at the time of writing you were particularly aroused or impassioned about the subject. Or maybe vice versa. Whatever words are on the page will not change in the interim. However, you are a changeable human being. You might be a thousand different people on any given day.

Coming back to a solid piece of writing after a break gives you fresh insight. And if the writing is good, you’ll be excited about finding ways of making it even better. If it sucks, you either salvage or jettison the wreckage.

The second way SOS improves your writing is related to the first in as much as we change as human beings on a daily basis, we also learn shit, too.

Many years ago I wrote for several obscure music magazines and I was pretty much able to write whatever the fuck I wanted and they’d print it. At some point, I pitched and wrote an article about how I believed two rock stars in particular “ruined it for everyone.”

The publisher jumped out of his skin: “Yes! Yes! Write it now!”

And so I wrote the piece, which was full of snarky, bitter rancor, and yet managed to present an argument, back it up, and ultimately make the reader decide: Do I agree with this guy or not?

The first draft came back from the publisher with a few notes about “toning down” some of my rhetoric and whatnot. In those days, I wouldn’t say I was terribly sensitive to criticism, but the fastest way to alienate me [from writing for you] would be to ask me to “tone something down.”

And so I said, “Listen, I gave you that other piece about dive bars ’30 Days in the Hole’ – it’s ready to go and you already said you like it. Just run that one this month, huh?”

Humble 1

The publisher, who had forgotten about the dive bar piece, immediately agreed to run “30 Days in the Hole”. It was a relative hit as far as the magazine was concerned. The “ruined it for everyone” essay got filed away and forgotten about.

Until a decade later, I was waiting tables in a fancy restaurant in a major city and guess who I had the honor of waiting on? One of the two rock stars I’d previously accused (and convicted) or “ruining it for everyone”.

You can read about it here (“Robert Plant Didn’t Ruin It For Anybody” ), but the TL:DR version is: He was an amazing human being and he absolutely didn’t ruin anything for anyone. He made it possible for thousands of people to do what they do.

I was incredibly humbled and I made a point of going home and reading a draft of that unpublished 10-year-old article. My only thought was: “Jesus, I was such an asshole in 1995.”

3. THE LITTLE, BROWN HANDBOOK

Little_BrownDo you have a copy of this (or any other style manual) within arms’ reach at this moment? No? Tsk-tsk. Bad writer. You’re not interested in simple ways to improve your writing, are you?

Look, I’m not some wise old geyser who thinks he knows everything. Hell, I’m not even that old. But even at this stage of my career, if I’m writing, one of two books is with me:

A Writer’s Reference by Diane Hacker (Third Edition); and/or

The Little, Brown Handbook (Thirteenth Edition)

The Internet puts reference at your fingertips. You don’t necessarily need hard copies of The Chicago Manual of Style or The Book of Lists on your desk (or preferred writing station), unless you enjoy reading those books in your spare time, which I do. For instance, the other day I had a poignant semi-colon dilemma and reached for The Little, Brown to resolve it. Once I started reading about semi-colons, it led to colons, and I wound up re-reading the entire section on punctuation – for about the 100th time in my life.

Writers-RefBecause you’re clearly online, you should have already bookmarked myriad word, grammar, reference, and writing-themed sites. You should visit those sites on a daily basis. You should visit Fairlex Free Dictionary just to see what their word of the day is. You should visit Wikipedia to see what their page of the day is. You should read your horoscope and check the weather forecast. You should do all of this before you think about writing.

You can never know enough about writing and language itself to venture out into the world of words without some kind of beacon, no more than an experienced camper would enter the wilderness without a light source.

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Testing, Testing…Is This Thing On?

It’s been seven months since the last post and I have a fairly decent explanation for my absence: I’ve been busy.

I’ve been busy with work, family, travel, music, and of course, writing, since that’s what I do for a living. And I’m fortunate to have this life.

Work-wise, I’m still doing 9-to-5 at a publishing company in Taipei, and freelancing on the side, which makes it possible for me to do everything else.

My son Henry is now five and a half years old and in kindergarten. My wife Janice recently started a new, hopefully much better job.

Rev-Now_01Musically, I’ve become as active as I’ve been in at least 10 years, and two months ago began playing a weekly solo gig at a cool joint in Taipei.

Writing…yeah, I’ve been writing every day. The freelance situation has been hit-or-miss; mostly miss. It’s not for a lack of effort though.

The problem with me and writing is simple. I’m only interested in writing about what I’m interested in writing about. Unless there’s cash involved.

Even when money is the motivation, the material has to be within a certain set of parameters. If nothing else, I know myself.

Anyway, I have a backlog of stuff that was written for other publications and for whatever reason – like the previous post – didn’t get accepted.

In some cases, I wrote something and then decided not to send it to anybody. Christ, you have no idea how often that happens.

Additionally, I’ve been sitting on a small mountain of (recorded) original music and want to get that out for the few people who might want to hear it.

I feel like I’ve fallen into a nasty habit of letting stuff sit “in the can” for too long, and it’s now time to make some room in the ole storage space.

So the next few posts – might be more than a few, actually – will consist of material that needs to be set free, for lack of a better term.

At some point, I’ll get around to talking about the solo gig and what that’s all about. It’s been…interesting.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.

Freelancer’s Delight: Top 10 Questions You’ll Be Asked in China, and How to Respond in Mandarin

Freelance writing is by far the most variable, infuriating, and futile work I’ve done in my life…so far. Have you seen my resume of dead-end jobs? It’s pretty impressive.

Barback, barista, bartender, busboy, carpenter’s apprentice, delivery driver, doorman, dishwasher, entertainer, ESL teacher, file clerk, food runner, garde manger, general construction laborer, general manager of small Italian bistro, grocery clerk, guitar teacher, fry cook, hardware salesman, house-sitter, janitor, landscaper, landscape designer, maintenance man, office temp, manager of a coffee shop, parking lot attendant, personal assistant, phone clerk (Chicago Board of Trade), prep cook, publisher’s intern, retail clerk, runner (Commodities Trading Floor, CBOT), quasi-sommelier, sound engineer, substitute high school English teacher, telemarketer/recruiter, tour guide, valet, waiter, and last but not least, window washer.

window-this-winter

I’m forgetting a couple of truly hellish gigs, but that window-washing job was the worst: Winter in suburban Chicago. Exposed to the elements all day everyday, frequently 20-50 feet off the ground in windy conditions, perpetually wet, wearing a tool belt of specialized squeegees, and the boss is a total dick who doesn’t care what happens, those fucking windows are gonna be washed.

Even though I desperately needed that approximately $12 an hour gig, I finally quit after two months of torture. Today, there are times when I would gladly trade this freelance writing nonsense for a squeegee and a bucket, strap on the safety harness and eagerly mount the scaffold, thrilled to be washing the windows of a four-story medical clinic in Lemont, Illinois, on the most raw, abusive December day in recorded history.

So why do it? To be honest, the only reason I’m still in the freelance writing game is for the sport: the occasional but massive rush of satisfaction when a payment for services rendered finally comes down the pipe. And I like writing; it’s nice to get paid doing what you like.

However, because I’m not interested in content farming, listicles, product descriptions, trending subjects and categories, mobile tech, K-pop, or SEO bullshit, I’m basically ankle-deep in a kiddie pool of potential clients. Overall, outlier writing gigs for guys like me are few and far between, and the competition is infinite.

screen-shot-jobs

Typical job listing board

Editing and writing are two separate aspects of the same discipline, and I’m good at both – I’ll edit the shit out of the average screenplay – but creative writing is what I think I do best.

As a writer-for-hire, I’m accommodating only up to a certain point, i.e. admittedly not the easiest and most flexible guy to work with. And that’s cost me more gigs than I can count. But the one thing I have never compromised is my writing style. This is how I write and if it appeals to the client, we can do business. If it doesn’t, we can’t. No hard feelings.

And even though I consciously maintain a strict policy to never write anything for free, the fact is I write a lot of shit for free.

Thus, part of the freelance game is writing stuff in lieu of an interview – a sort of test. The client says, “Hey, write me something and let’s see how it goes.” And so, I spend anywhere from 15 minutes to 24 hours working on the article or whatever, and send it off.

Before I click SEND, I remind myself that I’ll never hear from one out of every three potential clients. Another third will write back to say no thanks. And the final third will write back enthusiastically, “That’s great! Can you do ten of those a day for three dollars each?”

I could, but I’m not going to.

Every so often there’s a stitch in the fabric of the universe and you come across a great gig where the client is legitimate; meaning, they pay; and you like the work – or at least, don’t mind the work. Even better if it’s an on-going project.

Freelance writers have to be sharks in that we can never stop looking for gigs; you’ve always got to be swimming, metaphorically. Even though I have three on-going gigs with work on the table, plus my regular job, I’m always on the prowl for new shit. So the other day I came across a job listing for the rare gig that seemed to be right up my alley: Blog writer to share their experience in China.

Lazy-BASTARD_book-cover_Final_2-

Oh, hello. Did you mention “experience in China”?

After going through the application process, I was contacted by a rep for the company, who complemented some of my previous work (from The Lazy Bastard Guide to Mandarin), and offered me an interview-by-example.

After accepting, I spent the next 10 hours crafting a piece on the topic of their choice (a topic I had suggested during the application process). When the article was finished, I sent it off to the rep and for the first time in a very long while, I thought to myself, “I think they’re going to dig that.”

Silly freelance writer…

The next morning I received an email from the rep saying thanks and we’ll look it over and get back to you soon. A few hours later, I received a BCC email informing “us” that due to personnel issues at the company, they have suspended the hiring process until further notice.

Normally, I would have simply chalked it up as par for the course. Oh well. At least I enjoyed writing the piece.

And then I thought, well, why not just publish it myself? Isn’t that what I’ve been doing for the last however many years?

At the same time, writing the article revived my interest in the second edition of The Lazy Bastard Guide to Mandarin, which has been sitting in cold storage for over a year.

So here is what might have been a paid blog post for a potential client.

A couple of things to note: First, the assignment required Simplified Chinese characters, while I’ve generally used the Traditional characters – this is the main difference between Mandarin in China and Taiwan. Second, because I used a series of translation devices, some of the characters may appear kind of funky – bolded out n’ shit – in different browsers. Sorry about that. Finally, the potential client was a website that caters to people currently learning Mandarin, from beginners to high-intermediate students. Were this genuinely a Lazy Bastard piece, I’m sure some things would be different. Wink, nudge.

10 Common Questions You’ll Probably Be Asked in China – and How To Respond in Mandarin

A Theory of People

Inspired by eight-plus years of living and working in Taiwan and China, my Theory of People formulates that there are only three main types of human beings in the world: The Curious, The Indifferent, and The Afraid.

  • The Curious are always asking questions. They want to know all the basics of a story: Who, how, what, where, when, and why? They’re far from innocent; but as a rule, decent people with a genuine sense of wonder.
  • The Indifferent couldn’t care less who you are or what you’re doing in their part of town as long as you don’t cause trouble. Mind your own business: 管好你自己的事 (guǎn hǎo nǐ zì jǐ de shì), or 少管闲事 (shǎo guǎn xián shì). Sure, they notice you’re not from around here, but whatever. The Indifferent have better things to do.
  • The Afraid are suspicious, resentful, self–destructive, and often times hostile toward anything or anyone who doesn’t fit into their personal game of Global Jenga, i.e. 外国人 (wài guó rén) – Foreigners. The Afraid fear change and progress, but you can’t blame them; you don’t know their lives. And vice versa.

Sometimes when you have more than two of anything that multiplies, they’re going to intermix: What is the color orange but a combination of red and yellow? What is a mule but half–horse half–donkey?

Extra–extra generally speaking, you’re going to encounter all three types of people in China, plus the hybrids; for instance, Curiorents and Infraids.

  • Curiorents are those guys who come up to you at a party and say, “Hey, whatcha drinking? Smirnoff Ice? Coooolll….” And that’s basically the end of the conversation. Their curiosity has been satisfied and you are dismissed, 老外 (lǎo wài).
  • Infraids accidentally bump into you at the same party, causing you to drop the bottle, and the first words out of their mouths are: “What was that, Smirnoff Ice? Yeah, I thought so… foreign scum.”

The Curious Way

The Chinese are curious for one obvious and simple reason: Outside of the major cities, the majority of Chinese don’t see a lot of people like you and me on a daily basis, let alone an uncensored basis, except in Hollywood films and on TV; the latter being far more evil and misleading than the former, but herein is the point. The media is not reality.

So when a real–live westerner bearing a teeny–tiny slight resemblance to Moby on the worst day of his life rolls through a remote tourist village in Fujian Province, a shitload of people are going to stop and take notice, and they might want to take a picture with you – get used to it. That’s human nature and the backbone of The Curious Way.

Above all, both The Curious and The Indifferent mean absolutely no harm.

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Making some new friends at 武夷山 (wǔ yí shān), 2008


Essential Fact(s) and Impressions Before We Proceed

According to the Sixth National Population Census of the People’s Republic of China (2010), there are approximately 600,000 foreigners in China on a semi–permanent basis, making up 0.04% of the population. That means, and I’m sorry for the math, a ratio of approximately 1/23,000.

For every Hong Kong Disneyland full of Cantonese pop stars, there’s one of you.

To be frank, I was prepared to draw limited yet entertaining but unnecessary attention everywhere I went in China based on my appearance – I own a mirror. But I may have misinterpreted the overall intention of the general public. And I hadn’t yet formulated my Theory of People.

At the time of my first visit it seemed like people judged me [with a sly grin], “Well, well, well, what do we have here?” And to a certain extent, I was right.

Except most people were actually thinking: “Shit! A foreigner! [Pause] Goofy lookin’ bastard, innit he? The hell is he doin’ ere?”

Elevator Mandarin: Keeping It Short and Simple

All in all, these questions form the backbone of what I call Elevator Mandarin, arising in a wide variety of settings, from a bus station in Guangzhou to the executive lounge at the top of Jin Mao Tower, and mostly based upon random interactions with complete strangers. In other words, small talk.

[In more formal contexts, it’s common for the host to introduce the foreigner by name and home country, and so, several questions will be already answered.]
jim-mao1000x400

Jin Mao Tower, Shanghai, China. Photo credit: Bamboo Compass

Nearly every single question has been asked of me in the elevator of my apartment building in Taipei, Taiwan, and asked by neighboring residents – Curiorents who’ve seen me coming and going for the last eight years but never gave me as much as a 你好 (nǐ hǎo). Some already know the answers (thanks to local gossip) and others are genuinely in the dark, and thus, curious. All of a sudden, they find themselves stuck in the elevator with me, going up. It’s actually pretty funny.

No matter what the situation, be polite and keep it short and simple.

The Questions and Responses

1a. Where are you from? / Where do you come from?

从你在哪里? (cóng nǐ zài nǎlǐ?) – From where you are?

你来自哪里? (nǐ lái zì nǎlǐ?) – Where you come from?

The number one question you will be asked, everywhere, almost guaranteed, if it were possible to guarantee anything: The Origin Question.

Unfortunately, The Origin Question takes at least two different forms as seen above. Thanks to countless regional dialects and myriad accents, there are more. And worse, the grammar is unique and odd to the western ear. That’s why we have…

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: nǐ, cóng, nǎlǐ (you, from, where)

Listening and understanding is more important than responding. You’re free to challenge me on this; however, in my experience, comprehension is the egg before the chicken.

Graciously, sometimes elegantly, less is almost always more in Mandarin Chinese. And therefore, this question is extremely easy to answer – if you know where you’re from and how to say the name in Mandarin. But it is that simple. Because I’m from the U.S., my answer is one word, two syllables: 美国 (měi guó).

Now, I don’t want to get into the nuts and bolts of language and semantics, but listen for the keywords and know that if you’re from France, the answer is: 法国 (fà guó).

Of course, you could get fancy and say: I’m from the U.S., or I’m French: 我是法国人(wǒ shì fà guó rén), but it’s completely unnecessary. Skip the , shì, and rén.

EXTRA LEARNING SECTION: List of the most common foreign nationalities in China (other than American and French, which you’ve already got).

mainland_china_foreign_nationals_by_country_of_origin_2010

韩国 hán guó – Korea

日本 rì běn – Japan

缅甸 miǎn diàn – Myanmar (Burma)

越南 yuè nán – Vietnam

加拿大 jiā ná dà – Canada

印度 yìn dù – India

德国 dé guó – Germany

澳大利亚 ao dà lì yǎ – Australia

1b. Where in U.S.?

The more ambitious folks could take this a couple of steps further and explain exactly where they’re from, especially in the U.S., where according to U.N. statistics, a quarter of all Chinese immigrants wind up. Odds are good whoever you’re talking to has family in California. [It’s very common to hear, 我的儿子是在斯坦福大学的学生(wǒ de ér zi shì zài sī tǎn fú dà xué de xué shēng) – My son is a student at Stanford.]

Plus, the Chinese are crazy about traveling abroad; they may have already visited your home country, so they want to know if they’ve been to your hometown – or within a 500–mile radius. To have something in common helps the conversation continue, for better or for worse.

2. How long have you been in Shanghai?

多久你在上海 (duō jiǔ nǐ zài shàng hǎi?)

I’ve never set foot in a Mandarin class, so I’m assuming that some of the first stuff they teach you is the numbers, days, dates, times, etc. At least, that’s what I learned at the beginning of my on-going crash course in Survival Mandarin, emphasis on the word crash, and to this day I still count with my fingers.

Anyway, you’re 死定 (sǐ dìng) – screwed without knowing numbers 1 through 10 and the difference between days, months, and years.

Let’s say six months. “I’ve been in Shanghai for six months.” All you need to say is: 六个月 (liù gè yuè). There is absolutely no need to complicate things. Just answer the question like you were on a gameshow.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: duōjiǔ, nǐ, zài (how long, you, here)

Honestly, sometimes people ask this in ways I’m not even capable of explaining or translating. They use duōjiǔ in Taiwan, where I spend the bulk of my time, so it might be a little different in China.

3. How long are you planning to stay? / How long you will stay in China?

多久你会在中国留下来吗? (duō jiǔ nǐ huì zài zhōng guó liú xià lái ma?)

Man, I hate this question because it’s very easy to confuse with #2, but at the same time, I love it because it taught me the proper way to say 我不知道 (wǒ bù zhī dào)I don’t know to just about everything under the sun. What I do know is that liú means “stay”, and that implies the future. I think. Don’t quote me on that.

我不知道 (wǒ bù zhī dào), to put it bluntly, is awesome. It’s my second favorite Mandarin phrase after 我不在乎 (wǒ bù zài hū) – I don’t care.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: duō jiǔ nǐ huì zài zhōng guó liú xià lái ma

Yeah, I know, that’s all of the words. You really need to anticipate the question and memorize the pattern.

You know what’s weird? Here we are a couple of sentences into a relationship and we already know where you’re from and how long you’ve been here, but we don’t know your name. In fact, 你叫什么名字? (nǐ jiào shén me míng zì?) – What’s your name? isn’t even in the top 10 of questions you’ll be asked. I can’t remember the last time someone asked my name in Mandarin.

4. Do you speak Mandarin? / How’s your Mandarin?

你会说普通话吗? (nǐ huì shuō pǔ tōng huà ma?) – Do you speak Mandarin?

你会说国语 (nǐ huì shuō guó yǔ?) – Do you speak Chinese?

如何是你的普通话 (rúhé shì nǐ de pǔ tōng huà?) – How’s your Mandarin?

I’ve heard it phrased a bunch of different ways, but the gist is really, “Can we have a conversation in Chinese, or is this going be a pain in the ass? Cuz my English sucks.”

First of all, in a non-scientific estimation, there are three main ways to interpret Mandarin. There’s 普通话 (pǔ tōng huà), the official form of Chinese based on the Beijing dialect; 国语 (guó yǔ), the “national language” taught in schools; and 中文 (zhōng wén), which refers more or less to the written forms.  And sometimes, I hear 中国话 (zhōng guó huà), which literally means “spoken Chinese”, but my listening skills are questionable.

如何是你的 普通话 (rúhé shì nǐ de pǔ tōng huà?) – How’s your Mandarin? is probably the most common way I’ve been asked, mainly because I’ve already demonstrated the most basic linguistic skills by answering Questions 1 through 3.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: huì shuō (speak)

Not to be a wise guy, but consider the context; they’re never going to ask if you can speak Arabic, right? All you need to hear is 会说 (huì shuō).

How you respond is going to depend on your level of skill and motivation to continue the conversation. Since I’m a jaded and cynical old bastard, even though I’m capable of some decent Mandarin, I always, always say: 我讲一点点 (wǒ jiǎng yī diǎn diǎn) – I speak a little, mainly because I know what’s coming next.

5. Are you an English Teacher? / What do you do? / What’s your gig?

你是英语老师? (nǐ shì yīngy ǔ lǎo shī?) – You’re an English teacher, I assume.

你做什么工作 (nǐ zuò shén me gōng zuò?) – You do what work?

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Taipei Cram School Graduation Day, 2008. The kid is probably running his father’s factory in Dongguan, I dunno.

I’m only half–joking when I say that the Chinese see a foreigner and assume you’re an English teacher. This applies mainly to Caucasians. Couldn’t tell you how many hundreds of times I’ve been jammed with the 老师 (lǎoshī) question. And to be fair, I’ve briefly taught English in both Taiwan and the U.S. And I look like somebody who’s read a few books and written a few pointless 10,000–word essays on Chaucer.

If you’re a teacher, you say, “我是一名英语教师” (wǒ shì yī bǔxí bān jiàoshī) – Yes, I am an English (cram school) teacher. To keep it real simple and stupid, just say, “对” (duì) – Correct.

If you’re not a teacher, you’re about to enter a whole new world of complications. 我是一个作家 (wǒ shì yīgè zuòjiā) – I’m a writer, so that leads to questions like, “What kind of writer?” or “What do you write?” and honestly, it’s almost easier to say I’m a teacher and let it go at that.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: shì, yīngyǔ, lǎoshī, gōngzuò (are, English, teacher, work)

At this point, I hope I’ve established a routine of common sense. But 补习班 (bǔxí bān) – Cram school.

6. Do you like it here? / How do you like it here?

你喜欢它在中国 (nǐ xǐhuān tā zài zhōngguó) – Do you like being in China?

你喜欢住在台湾?(nǐ xǐhuān zhù zài táiwān?) – Do you like living in Taiwan?

It’s not terribly surprising that it seems important to the Chinese that you like being in their country. They want to know that you’re happy. Now, I’m not telling you how to live your life, but I will advise you that there’s really only one response to this question.

我喜欢中国非常 (wǒ xǐhuān zhōngguó fēicháng) – I like China very much. If no one has mentioned this before, nobody, nowhere, wants to hear you talking shit about their country, especially when you’re in it. I don’t care if you’re ready to slash your wrists – lengthwise for results. You like China. End of.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: xǐhuān, zhōngguó (like, China)

7. Where are you staying? Where do you live?

你住在哪里? (nǐ zhù zài nǎlǐ?) – You stay where?

你在哪里居住在厦门 (nǐ zài nǎlǐ jūzhù zài xiàmén) You live where in Xiamen?

Of all the questions, this one leads to the most advanced vocabulary contingencies. Here’s what I say:

我 住在大安区,信义上道 (wǒ zhù zài dà’ān qū, xìnyì shàng dào) – I live in the Da’an District, on Xinyi Road. I don’t know if I’m right, but everybody seems to get the idea.

Now, in the elevator of my building, they usually say, 你住在四楼,对不对? (nǐ zhù zài sì lóu, duì bùduì?) – You live on the fourth floor, right?

foreigner-4Semi-well known Chinese superstition: the word for “four” 四 (sì) sounds like the word for “dead” 死 (sǐ), so people don’t like to live on the fourth floor of buildings, which is why a lot of foreigners live on the fourth floor. Personally, four is my favorite number, and I don’t care what floor I live on as long as it’s above ground.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: zhù, zài, nǎlǐ (stay/live, where)

8. What do you want? / What do you need?

你想要什么 (nǐ xiǎng yào shén me) – You want what?

你需要什么 (nǐ xū yào shén me?) – You need what?

This is somewhat specific to shopping and other service-related transactions. It’s pretty uncommon to hear, “我怎么帮你 (wǒ zěnme bāng nǐ) – How can I help you? Which is what we’re used to the West. The problem is how they ask: in one breath, so it’s all jammed up and sounds like “xiàoshénme”. Walk up to any convenience store counter and the kid will say, “xūyào shénme?” And you better be ready to tell him.

给我一个打火机 (gěi wǒ yīgè dǎhuǒjī) – Give me a (cigarette) lighter.

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: yào, shén me (want, what)

9. For here or to go?

在这里吃还是带走? (zài zhèlǐ hái shì dài zǒu?) – For here or to go?

外带? (wài dài) – For take away?

带走 (dài zǒu)? – To go?

McDonald’s. 麦当劳 (mài dāng láo). The Golden Arches. 麦当劳叔叔 (mài dāng láo shū shu) – Ronald McDonald kept me alive during my first few months in Asia. No matter how I butchered the Mandarin: “我要两个起司汉堡” (wǒ yào liǎng gè qǐsī hàn bǎo), I got my two cheeseburgers. Oh, and, 带走 (dài zǒu).

ronald-mcd

You could say, “这里” (zhèlǐ) – For here, but I wouldn’t, even if I’m planning on eating it right there at the counter.

Also Good To Know:

可乐 (kělè) – Coca-cola

炸薯条 (zhà shǔ tiáo) – French fries

KEY WORDS TO LISTEN FOR: wài dài, dài zǒu

10. Where do you want to go?

你想去哪里 (nǐ xiǎng qù nǎlǐ)

I thought it would be nice to close the segment with something simple but useful. Even the most hardcore, tree-hugging environmentalist is going to use some form of motorized transportation.

In light of the possibilities, I’m not going to suggest a spoken response to the question. No, I highly recommend that you have your destination printed out in Chinese; whether you ask someone to do it for you, or use Google Maps and do it yourself – get that shit in writing, so the ticket agent or taxi driver can read it. This is also why I always, always take a business card of an establishment, if it’s offered. I have shoe boxes full of business cards. You never know when you might be coming back, or, you never know when you might need to visit a place that’s just down the street from said venue.

taxi

Of course, you could be adventurous and rely on your Mandarin skills.

Robert Plant Didn’t Ruin It For Anybody

I used to think that Robert Plant ruined it for everybody.
One could argue that rock music does not have a single, universally-beloved figure, for lack of a better term. Nobody can agree on The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones; some people never liked Elvis or Bob Dylan; Nickelback may be the most hated band to have been certified platinum. The rock niche of music appreciation may forever lack consensus, but, there is one near-to-universal-as-possible truth. You may not like them, but you can’t deny Led Zeppelin.

1001_Zeppelin_Houses-of-the-Holy-Album-cover

I’ve asked random strangers, “Hey, do you like Led Zeppelin?” and the responses have run the gamut from:

“They’re the greatest rock band of all-time!”

To my personal favorite: “Yeah, he’s OK.”

Only on the rare occasion have I heard someone say, “They suck and I despise them.” Keith Richards and Pete Townshend have both said they hated Led Zeppelin’s music – but liked and respected them as individuals. According to Townshend, that bias is based at partially on competition; The Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin were each at one time the biggest band in the world.

Fair enough. But if you like rock music, at the very least, you appreciate Led Zeppelin. To deny them is saying you don’t appreciate the taste of fresh, clean water. They are rock music, more so than any other band before or after them; they defined what we all know today as Rock Music.

Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s sweet; sometimes it’s tender, sometimes it’s tuff. The Velvet Underground may have released their “Rock n’ Roll” before Led Zeppelin IV, but the two were light-years apart. At that point, there was rock n’ rol; and there was rock.

Rock. No rolling. Well, maybe every now and then. But Rock.

Zeppelin arguably consisted of three of the world’s finest rock musicians…and Robert Plant.

Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones were among the best at what they did, no question. Plant, on the other hand, was certainly one of the best rock front men of the era; but sometimes he… “Does anybody remember the laughter?”

For a long time, this put me in a catch-22 situation, viz a viz dive bar conversations about music. You can still love the band and have grumbles about Robert Plant. Not his talent, maybe his voice, sometimes—but it’s him: Robert Plant the Golden God rock star; the guy every rock singer from 1969-forward wanted to be.

Robert Plant Didn't Ruin It For Anyone

At some point in my life, I could no longer listen to Zeppelin without thinking about the concert film The Song Remains the Same (1973), which is not quite as bad as Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Opera (1979) – more cringing, fewer chuckles.

As a true Zeppelin fan, I’m an odd ball; my favorite album, Presence (1976), is their least popular in terms of everything—sales, criticism, airplay. Ask an Average Joe to name a song off Presence and he pulls “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” out of thin air? We will be fast friends, guaranteed.

In the end, Robert Plant is an inimical performer, but that didn’t stop a phalanx of next-generation front men from aping his routine.

This why for the longest time I believed that Robert Plant ruined it for everyone—everyone being front men of rock bands – which by the way, is not nearly as easy as Plant made it look. And I was the front man of a series of bands from 1989-2006.

If he hadn’t have come along and created the Golden God character, perhaps we would not have seen questionably embarrassing lead singers like Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, David Lee Roth, David Coverdale, Bret Michaels, Vince Neil, Axl Rose, Jani Lane, E-T-C. Honestly, I like music by all of those guys, that’s just me; I’m into transsexual birthday party clowns – none of whom could actually sing, by the way.

Poison rose

And it all started with Plant.

********

From 1999 to 2008, I worked at a few upscale restaurants in San Francisco.

Wait tables in any big city for nine years and you’ll probably meet some famous people.

By far, the best thing about waiting on famous people is when they surprise you. Sometimes it’s in a good way; when [famous actor] leaves a $200 tip on a $300 tab.

Sometimes it’s not so good; when [notorious infomercial salesman] turns out to be an even bigger douche than he appears to be on TV. You get a story out of it, at the very least.

Years earlier in Chicago, I once valet-parked [superstar athlete’s] car, which was the first and only time I ever drove a Lamborghini—never been so scared to get behind the wheel of a vehicle in my whole life; and also, waited on some pro baseball players.

Playing in a band, I got close to some relatively famous people, but the highlight of my life was meeting Cheap Trick and getting their autographs on my 30th birthday.

1001_Cheap-Trick

In S.F., I started as a food runner at fancy place in the Financial District. As a lowly food runner, I didn’t actually take [A-list comedic actor’s] order, but he seemed to be slightly more comfortable talking to me as opposed to his server. After the shift, I told my friend, “They must beat [Hollywood actors] within an inch of their lives on those movie sets, because [famous actor] had less on the ball than Muhammad Ali.” It was my first week; I was still green.

Not long thereafter, I brought Neil Young‘s entree to his table. “Mr. Young, it’s a pleasure to serve you this Chilean sea bass in a shitake mushroom bisque.”

While training to be a lunch server, I was nearly fired after an experience with [big rock star and his drummer]. In general, the biggest sin you could possibly commit is to forget that you are a food runner in a ridiculously over-priced and over-rated eatery, and they are big stars. Don’t do that.

Meanwhile, I moved to a different restaurant frequented by the rich and famous. I met dozens of household names, and for the most part, everyone was nice, or nice enough. Only on the rare occasion was somebody a dick, so it was cool to be in their rarified presence. And then after so many years, we became jaded.

“Oh, you waited on [A-list actress] last night? She’s either borderline retarded, or really, really high, isn’t she?”

One Tuesday night in July 2005, it was getting close to closing time and I was working a section that was more or less the dumping ground for people without reservations. This was the kind of joint that didn’t say “No” to anyone or anything, period. My section was essentially one super-long picnic table, however, cut from one massive piece of exotic hardwood, and one of the coolest tables I’ve ever seen. Anyway, my diners had cleared out and I was idling in back near the dish room, arguing with one of the bussers.

As I was headed to the bar to cash out, the on-duty manager walked past me and said “Set the family table for 12, now. Thank me later.”

I spun around and said, “What?”

“Just do it.”

This manager wasn’t the power-tripping type. He never stuck me with late night scraps if he could avoid it. He had my respect, as did almost every manager we ever had there. So I grumbled under my breath and caught my busser by the scruff of the neck.

“Para los doce.”

“Ay mamon!”

Ten minutes later, Robert Plant, followed by ten members of his band and crew, walked into the dining room and sat down. They had arrived via limo following their sold-out performance at Oakland’s Paramount Theater. Plant was touring in support of his latest release, Mighty ReArranger, with his backing band, Strange Sensations.

Robert Plant Didn't Ruin It For Anyone

My first thought: Man, he’s taller than I thought he would be.

Plant is listed at 6 ft. in cowboy boots, which he was wearing. His ensemble was very very suburban rock star dad mixed with Nashville songwriter. No kidding, he was wearing a gray t-shirt with some wolf or bear face, tucked into his tight jeans. Also, turquoise belt buckle? Check. There was something very angular and asymmetrical about his posture, as if he’d had a bad automobile accident (or several) and will never walk completely straight or upright for the rest of his life. Hair? Grayer but still there, all of it. Plus two or three day goatee—how would I know the last time he shaved? He had a light beard.

Robert Plant Didn't Ruin It For Anyone

Fortunately, I didn’t drop to my knees and bow at Plant’s feet. This is what being professional is all about, haha. You never let any of your personal anxieties get in the way of getting the job done.

Plant took a seat at the head of the table and got my immediate attention. The next 15 minutes were a blur; I remember making eye contact as he told me how to run the table (in terms of ordering and whatnot), and I felt as if I was looking into the eyes of a wise yet familiar magus from ancient times.

Seriously, I have never experienced that before.

“Holy Christ! All that nonsense about Golem and the Evil One was actually true!”

This guy isn’t old; he’s ancient, possibly prehistoric. From another planet. He had the most knowing expression I’ve ever encountered.

At the 15-minute mark, with food coming to the table and wine in every glass, I walked away and posted up at the barista station to resume my observation. A few minutes later, my presence was requested at the bar. I was gone for maybe a minute.

In that time, Plant took a bite of food and immediately winced while raising a hand to his jaw. He then sort of masticated a bit and casually removed the food from his mouth, setting it on a small plate. He examined the food for a few seconds, returned his hand to his jaw, and then, as if he heard something, stood up, pulled out his chair, got down on his knees, and went under the table. That’s when I came around the corner and saw him on all fours.

My immediate reaction was to scream “No! What are you doing!” but what I did was get down on the floor next to him, pull a lighter from my apron, click it, and say, “Did you lose something?”

Robert Plant Didn't Ruin It For AnyoneAt that point, one of the crew members came over and got down on his knees and R. Plant said, “I’ve lost a crown.” Not more that two seconds after he said that, I felt a small piece of metal under my hand. “I think I found it.” I don’t remember exactly what R. Plant said but it was something along the lines of: Great, now I know where it is. While I was horrified and concerned that we, meaning the restaurant, might be fucking destroyed for causing Robert Plant to lose a tooth, he was actually kind of happy-go-lucky about it all. Like, yeah, crown came out!

Meanwhile, my manager heard about the commotion but he didn’t need to find me, I was already looking for him.

“What happened?” the manager said, bracing himself.

“He bit into something and one of his crowns fell out,” I replied. “Landed on the floor. We found the crown. He’s cool.”

“British dentistry,” the manager quipped. Pause. “You’re sure he’s cool?”

“Yes.”

The manager adjusted his glasses and lowered his head. “You know, I gotta call [the General Manager, the big boss].”

“I would assume so.”

It wasn’t long before I was on the phone with the G.M., retelling the story without contradiction. [The G.M.] paused for a moment and said, “Dr. Larry [one of the owners] is a dentist.”

Right, I’m gonna go get Robert Plant and put him on the phone.

As it got near midnight, most of the other diners had cleared out, not without a few gawkers to come by and ask for photo ops and autographs, which Plant handled with ease, grace, and I might even say a certain amount of enjoyment. He seemed to light up when someone approached. By now, the band and crew were all jawing in their British accents and they had spread out down the table.

Plant got up, asked for a toothpick, and then took a seat at the far end of the table and put his legs up on an empty chair. I walked up and said, “Mr. Plant, is there anything I can get for you?”

“Oh bollocks [or rubbish], call me Robert.”

“OK. How about another drink?”

“No, thank you. M’ leg up here on this chair and give my back a rest.”

“Is that a result of the 1975 crash in Greece?”

He sat up a little bit, shook his head, and made eye contact. “Right, it was Rhodes, actually. Tiny island.”

“There’s one thing I’ve read a lot about but never quite understood.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, all the music guides say you recorded the vocals to Presence—which is my favorite album by the way—in a wheelchair, as a result of an accident you had in Greece.”[2]

“Sit down, what was your name?”

Despite the fact that we [employees] really weren’t supposed to sit down on the job, what transpired was a 10-minute conversation which started with several additional questions about Presence (he was genuinely surprised it was my favorite. Quote: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that!”) and ended with him saying (paraphrased):

The whole [music business] is completely rigged and if I were you [independent musician], I would just do whatever the fuck I wanted, and completely ignore everything and everybody else. If your work has some sort of marketable value, something the suits think they can make money from, they will let you know. 

You bet I took that home with me.

As a coda, the next morning, Dr. Larry fixed up R. Plant’s dental situation and I’m told everyone was happy.

When it was all over and I had time to reflect, I felt ashamed and humbled for ever having any qualms with Robert Plant. He was and still is, the coolest rock musician I have ever met and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for the music he has so willingly given us.

And I admit I was wrong, Robert Plant really didn’t ruin it for anybody.

He made it possible.

 


[1] It was (to the best of my knowledge, still is) almost mandatory for American rock radio stations to have a certain time of day set aside to play a block of Led Zeppelin songs, almost always called “Get the Led Out.” Live 105 in S.F. used to get the Led out at 7:00 p.m. sharp, Monday thru Friday. Meanwhile, and I’m a slacker for not seeing this one coming, there is a Zeppelin tribute band (audaciously self-described “The American Led Zeppelin”) with the same name. Click on this link and thank me later. You know, God bless anyone in tribute bands giving it their all and following their dreams but look, fellas, this is Led Zeppelin’s dream. Get your own gig.

[2] Despite what it says on the Wikipedia page, Robert cleared up this bit of disinformation. He was in fact confined to a wheelchair for the majority of the sessions, however the wheelchair didn’t fit through the door into the vocal booth, so he said, right, get me a crutch. So his assistant would wheel him up to the vocal booth and he would then limp over to the microphone and prop himself on the crutch. That’s how he recorded all of his tracks, the performance of which he described to me as “a desperate cry for help.” He also talked about the disparity between the previous record, Physical Graffiti (1974) and Presence, describing the former as having a “celebratory mood” while the latter was “dark and twisted and not at all a pleasant record to make or listen to at the time,” although conceding that it has aged quite well. A lot of the stuff he told me about making the record I already knew from my own independent study but you really cannot put a price on hearing it directly from the source.

Let the Drummer Have Some!

Drummers are the foundation of modern rock music, but let’s face it; a good drummer rarely if ever carries a middling band. Televised network “talent” shows never feature standalone drummers because (almost) nobody wants to hear two minutes of drums and nothing but drums. Neil Peart wouldn’t make it past the second round of American Idol – not that anybody is suggesting he should.

Neil-Peart_1

My favorite drummer joke goes like this.

Q: How many drummers does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Five. One to change the bulb, and four to stand around and talk about how much better Neil Peart would have done it.

If you think of music briefly as a structure, there’s usually nothing fancy about the foundation of a building. It needs to be solid, serviceable, and enduring. There are plenty of shitty-to-decent bands with utilitarian-to-fantastic drummers; for example, Bad Company, perhaps the most plodding and mediocre of all platinum classic rock bands that rarely if ever played anything faster than 120 beats per minute.

Simon-KirkeBad Co.’s Simon Kirke was a solid drummer. He got the job done and didn’t leave a flyer in your mailbox or a business card wedged under a windshield wiper.

Furthermore, AC/DC’s Phil Rudd never played anything other than four-on-the-floor. If Rudd ever played a rolling set of triplets in his career, I never heard it.

However, there are no phenomenal bands with sad-sack-to-mediocre drummers – and bite your tongue before you say the Beatles and Ringo Starr.

“In his extensive survey of the Beatles’ recording sessions, historian Mark Lewisohn confirmed that Starr was both proficient and remarkably reliable and consistent. According to Lewisohn, there were fewer than a dozen occasions in the Beatles’ eight-year recording career where session breakdowns were caused by Starr making a mistake, while the vast majority of takes were stopped owing to mistakes by the other three Beatles.”

Lewisohn, Mark (1988). The Beatles Recording Sessions. Harmony Books. ISBN 978-0-517-57066-1.

Name one great band with a terrible drummer. I don’t think you can. Gratefully, rock music in particular does not accept half-ass when it comes to drums; we do not have a Leaning Tower of Pisa on the skins. At worst, popular bands use drum machines.

Ringo-Starr

Fact: I have seen at least 100 shitty bands in my life, but I’ve never seen a complete disaster on the drum kit. However, I have never seen the Grateful Dead live, nor Kiss with Peter Criss on drums, so there’s clearly a margin of error. To be honest with you, I hate them so much I won’t even name the drummers of the Grateful Dead. But the only time I was ever in the presence of a fairly decent band with a shitty drummer, it was my band and I was the drummer.


 

Rock bands are generally no different than any other operation. There is a protocol – a pecking order of sorts.

The chain of command in a rock band usually starts out front with the façade. The lead singer (or front man) is running the show. Everybody else is jostling for position, and this has nothing to do with the strength of personalities within the organization. We could jawbone all day about bands that dissolved from conflicts of personality and sock puppet lead singers. It doesn’t matter.

Even though the drummer will be counting off “1-2-3-4!” and responsible for establishing and maintaining the tempo, whoever is out front with the microphone is (A) on the hook for entertaining the audience, and hence, (B) calling the shots. If your intractable lead singer doesn’t find something agreeable, you either capitulate or you find a new lead singer. Conversely, if your drummer gets out of line, you initiate a campaign of psychological warfare and physical abuse until he gets with the program.

Though many bands operate on a democratic basis, the top-down hierarchy trumps all. What this means is nine out of ten times, hypothetically, if Stone Temple Pilots drummer Eric Kretz says, “I don’t feel like playing ‘Interstate Love Song’ tonight,” but lead singer Scott Weiland says emphatically that he does feel like playing the jam, Kretz is most likely going to be told it’s not a fucking choice. We aren’t even going to vote on it, man. The jam is on the set list.

STP

And this is not to imply that Scott Weiland ever came within a yard of composing a STP set list; I’m simply saying that if he wanted to play “Interstate Love Song” tonight, that was the end of that.

Now, I’ve been in bands where the drummer could and would say, “I don’t want to play that jam tonight” and I’d ask why, and he’d say, “Cuz I’m not into it.” I’d maybe counter with an argument, but we wouldn’t play the jam, strictly on principle. I am firm believer that if the drummer isn’t feeling the jam, you’re gonna be spinnin’ your wheels.

Moreover, my long-time and gifted drummer Matthew Tucker (Whitey, Golden Tones, Henry Miller Sextet) was usually right about the jam in question. There were a lot of times where I’d come in with an extremely questionable cover song – for example, there was a time when I desperately wanted to play Sammy Hagar’s “There’s Only One Way to Rock” – and Matt would say, “The fuck is wrong with you?”

MattOB

Matthew Tucker

The difference between Stone Temple Pilots and whatever outfit I was operating should be obvious. Money was not at stake. There were no “fans” to consider. You wanna talk to the manager? I’m the manager.

This is strictly a matter of opinion, of course, but paradoxically, regardless of general musicianship, and with very few exceptions, the majority of rock drummers are considered the weakest link in the chain of command. It’s not that they aren’t good at what they do; in fact, many drummers may be the best musicians in their respective bands. It’s just that in many cases, that’s all they can or should do – hit the skins, keep the beat, and stay out of the way.

And yes, of course there are exceptions. Lars Ulrich was deeply involved in the Metallica songwriting process. Levon Helm sang some of the Band’s most beautiful jams. And our pal Neil Peart was clearly more than just a drummer in Rush.

Helm BW

The Band – Sept. 2. 1974, Varsity Stadium, Toronto. Photo by Dick Loek.

But, there was a reason John Bonham (usually*)didn’t have a vocal microphone – he couldn’t sing, and he probably didn’t have a whole lot to say, except, “Thanks for coming out to the show! I’m John Bonham, greatest rock drummer of all-time.” What I’m saying is that many drummers don’t get the credit they don’t deserve.

BonzoAnd I should theoretically be cool with that.

*Bonham occasionally contributed backing vocals both live and in the studio, receiving credit most notably on “Bron-Yr-Aur Stomp” (Led Zeppelin III). It’s also noteworthy to mention that according to Richard Cole’s Hammer of the Gods, Bonham was semi-notorious for going off on drunken rants when availed of a microphone. In a non-scientific Google search, the vast majority of photos (and videos) of the Zeppelin-era do not show Bonham having a vocal mic.

The title of this piece is borrowed from a track on fIREHOSE – Fromohio (1988), and a nod to George Hurley, one of the more under-rated drummers of all-time, but I’ll get around to that in a little while.

“Let the Drummer Have Some” is a 59-second drum solo – played mainly on cymbals and hi-hat, plus a few toms rolls – and theoretically book-ended on the same record by “Nuf That Shit, George”, a 46-second ‘proper’ drum solo, and a stunning demonstration of percussive virtuosity whose title perfectly demonstrates the most common and appropriate response to a drum solo: Anything longer than a minute is more drum solo than most of us need to hear.

 

In both Minutemen and fIREHOSE, Hurley’s distinct, organic style transcended the manic fervor of classic punk rock. Heavily influenced by jazz players, particularly Max Roach, Hurley’s propulsive grooving provided an uncommon rhythmic background for the often edgy and angular melodies of D. Boon, Mike Watt, and Ed Crawford. Over 30 years later, the music of Minutemen and fIREHOSE continues to bristle with raw, explosive energy, thanks in no small part to George Hurley.

George-Hurley_1

After fIREHOSE folded 1994, Hurley continued to play in various projects including the Red Krayola, but there is one thing George Hurley never did. He may have played 1,000 drums solos in his career, but he never recorded a solo album.


 

Of course there are and have been a surprising number of multi-talented drummers who are equally adept at other instruments and aspects of music-making, and on the rare occasion, even better than they are on drums. “Better” must be qualified in this position, and we must approach this in terms of productivity in addition to technical prowess.

Phil-Collins_1

For example, Phil Collins – one of the most maligned rock musicians of the modern era – is a phenomenal drummer, but he’s also an award-winning songwriter and producer. If you look at his career, drums only took him so far. It wasn’t until Genesis got into the Power Ballad Racket (“Follow You Follow Me”, 1978) that their records started going platinum.

Fact: Phil Collins as a solo artist has outsold Genesis by somewhere in the vicinity of 30 million records. Phil’s No Jacket Required (1985) sold RIAA-certified 12 million albums in the U.S. alone – which is precisely double the sales of the best-selling Genesis record (Invisible Touch, 1986). Both are shitball, populist rubbish.

1001_Genesis_Invisible

So, Phil Collins was far better on drums than he was keyboards, but he was far more productive and successful as a standalone pop machine.

Dave-Grohl-Rockstar-Data-Storage

Dave Grohl capably stepped out from behind the kit. Is he better as a front man than he is a drummer?

I think so.

He’s superb on the skins and hits as hard as anyone ever did, but Grohl has a type of charisma that can’t be contained to the drum riser. He appears to be an accomplished guitarist and a shouty-screamy if not entertaining vocalist; he’s been far more successful as a band leader, and ostensibly, a songwriter; and thus, his contribution to the fabric of modern music goes way beyond playing drums in the most over-rated band of all-time, Nirvana.

Though the following statement reflects a guilty pleasure Dave Grohl doesn’t believe in, I believe there are more than a couple of Foo Fighters’ cuts that belong in the pantheon of classic rock anthems.

So there are some drummers who are allowed to “have some.” They just need the chops to come out from behind the kit and get it.


 

Believe it or not, on more than one occasion I have literally said out loud to myself, “There are only two types of bands in the world – bands with guys that make solo records, and bands that don’t.”

1001_DLR_Eat_Em_And_Smile_Cover

One day, I ventured off to investigate: Just how many band members of general, across-the-board rock bands made solo records, and how many didn’t?

But wait, how many of those bands had drummers that made solo records? That was the most important question. That’s where I wanted to go.

Just about all of my favorite rock bands had at least one guy make a solo record – and let’s not even get into the David Lee Roth vs. Van Halen imbroglio. I was thinking particularly about Cheap Trick.

1001_Cheap-Trick

Robin Zander and Tom Petersson both made solo records, and Bun E. Carlos played in other projects, but he did not make a solo album per se. Rick Nielsen has never made a solo record. And I kept coming back to the first Zander solo album (Robin Zander, 1993) – he’s made two; 2010’s Countryside Blvd. was not released.

Now, I’m sure there are bigger fans of Robin Zander in the world, but he is my favorite rock vocalist. This is going off in a tangent, but I’ll keep it brief. Clearly, I love Robin Zander. But his eponymous first solo album could stand as THE reason people shouldn’t branch out and make solo records.

Never mind that Cheap Trick was living off greatest hits reissues and playing the state fair circuit in 1993. Forget that Mike Campbell (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) co-produced the album and co-wrote a bunch of material. Look beyond the cover of Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire”.

Just listen to the only charting single from the album, “I’ve Always Got You”.

 

Thirty seconds into the cut and I’m done. There is not much I hate more than slick, over-produced, radio-friendly, soccer mom choogle that somehow gets categorized as “rock”. Cuz there is not one ROCK thing about the song. And that’s why most guys shouldn’t make solo albums. Robin Zander, I love most of your work in Cheap Trick, and I’m glad you’re headed into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But please don’t make another solo record.


 

As with everything related to this writing gambit, there must be parameters. The solo record criteria needed some fine tuning. From the start, there are usually two ways a solo record happens.

Either the guy/girl makes the record while still a member of the band; or, he leaves the band to pursue a solo career. In the end, both are acceptable. For my purposes, it’s also important to distinguish between a true solo record and a side project.

At first, I wanted to focus on solo albums made whilst the artist was still a member of a group, but no, no – too limited. And to me, a solo album always implied some kind of intrigue. A drummer making a solo record is just short of a paradox.

Now, let’s get down to it.

The BSM Criteria for Inclusive Solo Album Discussion Eligibility

  1. One-off singles and EPs are NOT acceptable.
  1. Album MUST be eponymous, c.g. Tommy LeeTommyland: The Ride (2009); Bill BrufordSounds Good to Me (1973). Piggybacking is acceptable, c.g. Mick Fleetwood and the Zoo.
  1. Roger-Taylor_1Album MAY contain any number of guest appearances by current or former band mates; however, the record MAY NOT feature the current lead vocalist of said band, i.e. DQ’d if Freddie Mercury had sung lead on any of Roger Taylor’s five solo albums.
  1. Artist MUST be the most recognizable [drummer] of the band. For instance, Megadeth has had no less than eight different drummers, and I couldn’t even guess a name. Jethro Tull had at least three drummers, including Clive Bunker and Barriemore Barlow. Bunker played on everything up to Aqualung (1971), but Barlow went on to play with Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, and Yngwie Malmsteen. The Jethro Tull Connudrum is considered a push. As it turns out, Bunker released two solo records; Barlow, zero.

Rick-Allen_2

The first drummer that came to mind was Rick Allen (Def Leppard), who, much to my disappointment has not made a solo record. In case you’re wondering if I’m being facetious – Def Leppard, snickering – I’m not. The two-armed Rick Allen is one of my favorite drummers, and next to Bonham, Rudd, and Peart, the fourth cornerstone of influence when I was learning to play drums. I spent countless hours playing along to side one of High N’ Dry (1981). The one-armed Rick Allen is nothing if not admirable.

1001_Def_Leppard_-_High_'n'_DryAnyway, The Thunder God has participated in various side projects, but nothing with his name on the marquee. Much respect. While lots of guys go off and form other bands, to me, it only counts as a solo project if the guy’s name is part of the band’s name, like for instance, Ginger Baker’s Air Force.

Speaking of Ginger Baker, which we will be doing for the next however long, the solo album concept parameters were set when I considered Mr. Baker, who, as we all should know by now, made a few solo records.

Over the years, at least three artists have been consistent targets of my bitter criticism, and sometimes, outright dismissal: Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and Jerry Garcia (and by digression, almost everybody who ever played with him). However, no other artist has been shaded as often and with such disdain as Eric Clapton – with whom Ginger Baker is intimately associated.

DylanNow, I’m probably wrong about this, but Bob Dylan is incredibly over-rated as a songwriter and performer. He is my watermark of comparative merit. I call it the Bob Dylan Bell Cow. Like a lot of major artists, he’s got maybe three or four good jams, and the rest of his material consists of lesser versions of those jams. I never listen to Dylan on purpose – except for maybe once a year I need to hear “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”. However, his influence on popular music is genuine and undeniable.

Pink Floyd was Syd Barrett and when he split they should have changed their name to something more appropriate, like Beige Marvin or Mauve Otis. With few exceptions, everything they ever did post-Barrett was boring, repetitive, and unimaginative bullshit. Granted, they have a few isolated post-Syd jams I don’t find offensive, cg. “Comfortably Numb” and “Wish You Were Here”.

And I realize that I’m clearly in the minority, but I have never and would never sit through Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall. I thought it was bullshit when it came out, and that’s not going to change. Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) and three minutes of Saucerful of Secrets (1968; Barrett’s only contribution to the record, “Jugband Blues”) are all the Pink Floyd I will ever need. End of.

Syd-Barrett

For starters, Jerry Garcia basically ruined guitar for everyone with his incessant noodling and lack of discipline. Look, I love guitar solos. Especially when they clock in under five minutes. Jesus, 30 seconds is a long time for a guitar solo. Garcia’s average solo covered side two of a triple-LP live set. And I can think of maybe three Grateful Dead jams which I could sit all the way through.

Jerry-Garcia

You can talk about the magic of improvisation all you want, but I’ve played in bands that improvised and let me tell you, about 10% of ALL improvisation – from Miles Davis to Widespread Panic – is listenable, at best. I’m being generous. The rest of it is the sonic equivalent of six guys trying to figure out where the fuck everybody else is playing tonight.

Anyway, Garcia is at least partly responsible for the jam band Whack-a-Mole that reached an apogee of sorts with Dave Mathews Band, and let’s just leave it at that.

Eric Clapton represents the most egregious and reprehensible cultural appropriation in the history of music (that I’m aware of). Every single note he has ever played has been played before, and played better by the original artists – who received little credit, and certainly didn’t feast on his royalties.

Here’s my Eric Clapton recipe. (Prep time: 5 minutes. Cooking time: 60 minutes. Serves 35 million.)

  • 3 lbs. USDA prime ground Buddy Guy, B.B., Albert, or Freddie King (80% lean)
  • 2 cups extra virgin John Lee Hooker
  • 3 cloves Muddy Waters, diced

Combine ingredients in a bow and whisk until the consistency of oatmeal. Let stand in the refrigerator for an hour before serving.

Garnish with several flakes of heroin, crack cocaine, or meth substitute.

ClaptronAnd Clapton made billions from this gruel. I can’t speak about him as a person, but as an artist, he’s devoid of substance. Never mind the generations of guitarists who slavishly bow at his altar of shoddy blues pantomime. I get a genuine kick out reminding people that Clapton’s biggest hit is a cover of “I Shot the Sheriff.”

So it goes to reckon that I didn’t care much for Cream. I thought they had a couple of good cuts, for instance, “White Room” and “I’m So Glad”, but they turned sour on the blues routine. You wanna see me agitated? Drop the needle on “Crossroads”. That’s some bullshit right there, kids. If there was one musician I could raise from the dead in modern times, just to show him what’s been done to his legacy, it would be Robert Johnson. I’d dig him up and say, “Look what you did, Bob! The fuck were you thinking?!?

Cream_on_Fanclub_1968_(2)

Furthermore, I only owned any Cream albums because they were handed down to me. There has never been a time in my life when I thought to myself, “Hey, I’m in the mood for some Disraeli Gears.”

Cream was a short-lived group, which is nice because they only made four records. The majority of their cuts were not particularly radio-friendly, so that meant there were five or six songs you ever had to hear on an involuntary basis. “Sunshine of Your Love” was inevitable on AM and FM radio. You know that jam. Although Clapton was clearly a big part of the Cream equation, it really could have been anybody wanking on the wah-wah pedal during “Tales of Brave Ulysses”, so it was almost easy to forget he was in the band. The guitar playing was so unremarkable, you never thought to wonder who it was.

Jack Bruce (on bass and vocals) was all right, I reckon. Never had a beef nor took a shine to his work. If the band had a redeeming quality, and in my advanced age I’m starting to believe they did, it was Ginger Baker.

Back in the 1970s when I was just a youngster learning to play drums, there were a handful of drum solos in rock music that made a permanent impact on both my development and appreciation for music. Believe it or not, drum solos were “a thing.” And by far, the most influential drum solo was the first drum solo I ever heard in a rock n’ roll context, Ginger Baker’s “Toad”.

 

In fact, the only reason I ever put Fresh Cream (1967) on the turntable was to marvel at all five minutes and eleven seconds of Baker going bananas on the kit. And that shit stays with you. I can think of two other drums solos that I could probably tap out on the desk right now: John Bonham (Led Zeppelin) on “Moby Dick” (Led Zeppelin II, 1969); Neil Peart on “Working Man/Finding Your Way” (All the World’s a Stage, 1976), and I could probably do most parts of the “YYZ” solo on Exit Stage…Left (1981), but enough of the humble brag.

RushBut despite being amazed by Ginger Baker’s prowess, I never had to separate his drumming from his personality, mainly because I didn’t know much about him, and I didn’t aspire to his style of playing – which I used to call “popcorn” because of his double-bass technique. I didn’t know there was another Ginger Baker euphemism for drumming called “playing and puking” until I started dabbling in narcotics, like, 10-15 years later.

As an enthusiast of the rock genre, I was vaguely familiar with Baker’s surly reputation and heroin addiction. It seems like common knowledge that among active rock stars, he may have been the most unsavory of the bunch.

But I read all the rock magazines every month – Creem, Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Guitar Player, Rolling Stone, Spin – so what did I know? But to me, to us, the music appreciationists, it shouldn’t matter. Does it make Scottie Pippen any less of a basketball player to learn that he had a reputation as a skin-flint tightwad who would rather chew off his own arm than leave a tip for a waiter?

Ginger_2_Beware-of-Mr-BakerI’m not a movie-oriented individual but there are several dozen films which I’ve truly enjoyed, and I’m content to revisit them on occasion. Every so often I catch a new film, particularly on trans-Pacific flights. Comedies are my preferred genre of mainstream cinema, but I would much rather watch a documentary than any other type of film. I’m the same way with literature. I would much rather read a biography of Mozart than any bit of fiction Jonathan Franzen has ever written.

Therefore, when I am on the lookout for something to watch, I veer toward films like Beware of Mr. Baker, a 2012 documentary film by Jay Bulger about drummer Ginger Baker.

I can give no higher recommendation of a film except to say that I have already watched Beware of Mr. Baker three times, and I would gladly spend another 92 minutes watching it again if I didn’t have other stuff to do. If you or someone you know is a drummer, or simply interested in drums, you have to watch this documentary. Your life cannot be complete until you do. The film literally opens with Baker breaking Jay Bulger’s nose. You gotta see that.

 


Oh, you’re back? Ginger Baker is something else, in’nit he?

It will save everybody some time to say that approximately half of rock drummers have made some sort of solo album. Except these guys.

Alex-VH_1

  • Alex Van Halen
  • Neil Peart
  • John Bonham
  • Matt Cameron
  • Kenny Arnoff
  • Joey Kramer
  • Bill Berry*
  • Mitch Mitchell*
  • Lars Ulrich
  • Richie Heyward (Little Feat)
  • Jai “Jaemoe” Johanson (Allman Brothers)
  • Dennis Elliot (Foreigner)
  • Brian Downey (Thin Lizzy)
  • Mike Joyce (The Smiths)
  • Martin Chambers (The Pretenders)
  • Tommy Ramone
  • Laurence Tolhurst (The Cure)
  • Budgie (Siouxsie and the Banshees)

Budgie_2If I had a reason to name only one under-rated drummer from the 1980s post-punk movement – nah, pretty much any rock genre or period – Budgie would be the automatic response. However, the vast majority of drummers are fairly under-rated. Imposed modesty is inherent in the world of percussion, and few stickmen have ever been charismatic enough to take center stage in popular music. Sorry to be redundant, but Buddy Rich was an anomaly. Like Elvis, there will never be another Buddy Rich. EVER.

Anyway, I’m not here to debate the greatest drummer of all-time. Budgie is an artist who quietly influenced at least one generation of drummers, yet you rarely if ever hear anyone mention his name. That ain’t right. And even though Budgie never made a solo album per se (check out his side project with Siouxsie, The Creatures; and absolutely don’t sleep on The Slits’ Cut (1979) we should have a listen to some of his work. A bunch of it, actually, but here’s the my introduction to his work.

  • Earl Hudson (Bad Brains)
  • Brann Dailor (Mastodon)
  • Larry Mullen Jr. (U2)
  • Stan Lynch (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)
  • Phil Rudd
  • Danny Carey (Tool)
  • Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine, etc.)
  • Bev Bevan (Electric Light Orchestra)
  • Rick Allen
  • Murph (Dinosaur Jr.)
  • Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction, etc.)**
  • Steve Gorman (The Black Crowes)
  • John Farris (INXS)
  • Will Champion (Coldplay)
  • Vinnie Paul (Pantera)
* Both released one-off singles.
**Has played in numerous other projects, including Banyan, which credits him as “leader and co-founder”, but couldn’t in any way be considered a solo project.

Tico-TorresWe learn lots of new stuff every day, and today I learned that a fellow named Tico Torres plays drums for Bon Jovi. Hey there, Tico. You look like a nice guy who owns a fashion line for babies called Rock Star Baby (baby clothing, strollers, soft toys, jewelry and furniture, etc.), at http://www.rockstarbaby.com

Tico Torres has not released a solo record. Pity.

Meanwhile, I also learned that a chap with a name plays drums for Coldplay. Green Day’s drummer’s real name is Frank Edwin Wright III. Some cat named John Otto drums for Limp Bizkit. A fellow named Michael Derosier played drums on Heart’s “Barracuda”. None of whom have made a solo record – yet.


 

The following drummers have made fairly unremarkable to vaguely decent to downright awful solo albums. [With occasional commentary.]

  • Steven Adler (Guns N’ Roses)
  • Mickey Dolenz (The Monkees)
  • Matt Sorum (The Cult, GN’R, etc.)
  • Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe)

Tommy-Lee_1I have nothing against Tommy Lee or Mötley Crüe, for that matter. Especially when they support my overall thesis. Their music? Eh. “Too Young to Fall in Love” is kind of funny jam if you think of me saying this in a Russian accent.

Anyway, some record label gave Tommy the green light for not one but two solo records to date. Never a Dull Moment (2002) is neither original nor offensive; but Tommyland: The Ride (2005) is one of the worst records I’ve ever heard by any artist in any medium. Released in conjunction with Lee’s book of the same name, as well as his short-lived reality television series (Tommy Lee Goes to College), Tommyland aims for alternative, metal, and rap metal genres, but generally winds up in the cringe-worthy neighborhood of Nickelback and Everlast.

  • Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
  • Bill Ward (Black Sabbath)

Based on what I know about the history of Black Sabbath, including their interpersonal relationships, but particularly their often arduous writing and recording process(es), it almost shocks me to learn that Bill Ward has released a pair of solo albums, Ward One: Along the Way (1990), and When the Bough Breaks (1997). He is the last guy I would have suspected of having an idea, let alone a song to sing. And it only takes a few seconds of listening to realize that Ward had neither.

Bill-WardMy favorite Sabbath anecdote goes like this: One day in the recording studio, guitarist Tony Iommi asked Bill Ward if he could set him on fire. Ward responded, “I’m busy now, so not just yet.” Later on he said to Iommi, “I’m going home now, so if you want, you can set fire to me.” Iommi doused Ward in rubbing alcohol and set him on fire. Result: third-degree burns on his legs.

My second favorite Sabbath anecdote goes like this: During the recording of Volume 4 (1972), the band was renting a mansion belonging to John DuPont of the DuPont chemical company. Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, and Geezer Butler found several spray cans of gold DuPont paint in a room of the house; finding Ward naked and unconscious after drinking heavily, they proceeded to cover the drummer in gold paint from head to toe. Ward was eventually rushed to the emergency room, where he almost died of suffocation – the paint sealed his pores.

  • Jimmy Chamberlain (Smashing Pumpkins)
  • Dennis Wilson (The Beach Boys)
  • Simon Philips (Brian Eno, Jeff Beck)
  • Kevin Godley (10cc)
  • Grant Hart (Hüsker Dü)

hart500I like this guy as a member and co-prinicipal songwriter of the greatest punk band to emerge from the Midwest, and more than a few of my old friends really dig his first solo EP on SST Records (2541, 1988). However, his solo career leaves him vulnerable to the idea that Bob Mould may have been the better songwriter in Hüsker Dü, and if you really go back and listen to those early records, Hart’s drumming was so-so, at best. Just sayin’. I saw them on the Warehouse: Songs and Stories Tour (1987), and while he wasn’t falling off the throne, he was holding on for dear life.

  • Roger Taylor (Queen)

Like many of these cats, I had literally no idea that Roger Taylor has released five solo albums to date – his last effort came out in 2013. Fun in Space (1981) is the only record on which Taylor wrote every note and played every instrument. Fans of Queen’s Hot Space (1982) will dig this crap, for sure.

  • [1] Don Henley (The Eagles)
  • [2] Nick Mason (Pink Floyd)
  • [3] John Densmore (The Doors)
  • [4] Simon Kirke (Bad Company)

OK, we’re got getting out of here without a word on all four of these guys. In order:

  • Don-HenleyIf [1] Don Henley is not the Antichrist, he’s certainly on the payroll. Just look at that asshole on the bongos in the silly suit. Hate is not a strong enough emotion. Whatever is beyond hate, keep going and going and going until you hit some kind of interstellar wall. You still haven’t reached the dimension of antipathy I have for Don Henley. I know a lot of people say “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” is the worst song of all-time, but I can counter that with an absolute hydrogen bomb of suck – “The Boys of Summer”.
  • As the drummer of the least nimble of all lumbering dinosaur rock bands, [2] Nick Mason didn’t exactly have his work cut out for him. In fact, you couldn’t have blamed him for being incredibly bored, and thus, going off to make a few solo albums. Which he did, and they aren’t terrible.
  • Aside from his work in the Doors, I find it hard to imagine anybody seeking out the drum stylings of [3] John Densmore. He’s really groovy on those Doors records, but one of the ultimate rock wallflowers in terms of personality. I dunno, I’ve seen the Doors post-Morrison and I won’t even watch ’em like an episode of Friends, or worse, Frazier. Was anybody influenced by John Densmore? Probably.
  • My regard for Bad Company notwithstanding, I certainly have due respect for Simon Kirke and his place in rock history. That said, literally nothing could have prepared me for his James Taylor cutout bin singer-songwriter bullshit.
  • Mick Fleetwood (Fleetwood Mac)
  • Mo Tucker (Velvet Underground)

Mo-TuckerMo Tucker wasn’t the most technically proficient musician on the planet, but she was the ONLY person who could play drums for the Velvet Underground. She’s released at least half a dozen solo records, mostly playing guitar (?) none of which I’ve really had the patience to hear outside of uber-hipster clown show coffee shops on the West Coast.

  • Jimmy Carl Black (Mothers of Invention)

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

JCB has literally dozens of solo records, my favorite title-wise being Hamburger Midnight (2002), which is technically not a solo album, but look at those guys! I want to hang with that crew.

  • Artimus Pyle (Lynyrd Skynyrd)
  • Chester Thompson (Genesis)
  • Max Weinberg (E Street Band)
  • Nigel Olsson (Elton John)

Talk about a drummer who did his job and stayed out of the way, how many of you even knew Elton John’s drummer had a name? Nigel has released six solo albums (and counting) to date.

  • Herman Rarebell (Scorpions)

Although I’ve never seen physical copies, apparently the drummer of Germany’s finest hard rock band made a couple of solo records. Who knew?

Then there are solo albums from bands in which I couldn’t even name the drummer, for instance, Dave Holland of Judas Priest, and man, that was a disappointing Wiki search.

Dave Holland played in a bunch of projects outside of Judas Priest, but he did not make a solo album.

However, in 2004, Holland was found guilty of attempted rape and several indecent assaults against a 17-year-old male with learning disabilities to whom he had been giving drum lessons.

Dave Holland


Groups from about Year 2000 forward are all but completely anonymous to me. I can’t name one member of the following bands, never mind the drummer:

Killswitch Engage, Mumford and Sons, MGMT, Trivium, Opeth, HIM, Down, The Gaslight Anthem, Avenged Sevenfold, Lamb of God, Machine Head, Jimmy Eat World, Funeral for a Friend, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Dead, Bullet for My Valentine, Panic! At the Disco, Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys, Wolfmother, The Black Keys…
E-T-C. Name a band. I’ve never heard of any of them.

I can name at least one member of the following bands, but not the drummer:

My Chemical Romance, Blink-182, Oasis, Sublime, Paramore, Muse, TV On the Radio, Alice in Chains, Queens of the Stone Age, Marilyn Manson, System of a Down, Deftones, Fall Out Boy, Weezer, Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, 30 Seconds to Mars, Kings of Leon, Nine Inch Nails, The Darkness. Built to Spill. Modest Mouse. The Shins. The Killers

But don’t worry. We’ve plenty of material left to consider.


 

Even though I have become the grumpy old bastard I’ve always wanted to be, every so often I do a quick scan of the Billboard Hot 100 charts.

I’m not looking for anything to listen to; I just want to know what’s currently hot and fresh. I think it’s important to have at least a vague idea of what the kids are into these days, although not for any purposes of appealing to them. Anyway, I’m now at the point where I can hear the difference between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. For the longest time, I thought they were the same gal.

The Billboard website used to allow you to hear samples of each song, and in some cases, the whole jam, without having to navigate to Spotify, which was perfect for me. It meant I didn’t have to open another tab and run a YouTube search on Shawn Mendes, for example – whoever that is. I see his picture and that’s all I really need to know.

Shawn-mendesNow, I’m NOT logging into Spotify, you know why? Because those fuckers remember your shit. They keep a history. And I don’t need anybody knowing that I just listened to the first 30 seconds of a new Justin Bieber song – on purpose.

Before I go any further, let me say this: If you have a $ sign in your name where an S should be, I cannot take you seriously, and neither should anybody else. Likewise, if your chosen moniker is a “clever” misspelling of a word that generally isn’t used as a personal pronoun, I have no use for you. At all.

Travis-ScottBearing in mind this music is squarely in the Middle of the Road, here are the top 20 songs for the week of December 19, 2015.

  1. Hello – Adele
  2. Sorry – Justin Bieber
  3. Hotline Bling – Drake
  4. What Do You Mean? – Justin Bieber
  5. The Hills – The Weeknd
  6. Stitches – Shawn Mendes
  7. Love Yourself – Justin Bieber
  8. Here – Alessia Cara
  9. Like I’m Gonna Lose You – Meghan Trainor Featuring John Legend
  10. Same Old Love – Selena Gomez
  11. 679 – Fetty Wap Featuring Remy Boyz
  12. Ex’s & Oh’s – Elle King
  13. On My Mind – Ellie Goulding
  14. Wildest Dreams – Taylor Swift
  15. Jumpman – Drake & Future
  16. Can’t Feel My Face – The Weeknd
  17. Focus – Ariana Grande
  18. Watch Me – Silento
  19. Antidote – Travi$ Scott
  20. Lean On – Major Lazer & DJ Snake Featuring M0

Having listened to at least 30 seconds of every song listed above, as you might imagine, I heard a lot of shit. A lot of bullshit. But you know what I didn’t hear? Drums. Real drums. A dude sitting behind a kit, keeping the beat. Only one of the above 20 songs features anything in the vicinity of real drum. The songs contain countless samples and programmed rhythm patterns, but only one song contains a beat that was actually played by a human being, and I’m as surprised as anyone to say, it’s “Hello” by Adele.

AdeleIf you didn’t know Adele was a drummer, it’s because she isn’t. She is credited with having played some kind of drums on the recording, and if you’ve heard the song, literally anyone with a pair of drumsticks and a foot could play that drumbeat. But I’m not here to throw snark or shade at Adele. In fact, I’m here to say kudos. Apparently, there are a lot of drums on her new album (25), some of which may or may not have been played by Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.), a fine drummer of reputation.

  • Keith Moon (The Who)

Kitsch is a low-brow style of mass-produced art or design using popular or cultural icons. The word was first applied to artwork that was a response to certain divisions of 19th-century art with aesthetics that favored exaggerated sentimentality and melodrama. Hence, “kitsch art” is closely associated with “sentimental art.” Kitsch is also related to the concept of camp, because of its humorous and ironic nature.

KitschTo brand visual art as “kitsch” is generally pejorative, as it implies that the work in question is gaudy, or that it deserves a solely ornamental and decorative purpose rather than amounting to a work of true artistic merit. The term is sometimes applied to music.

– Text source: Wikipedia; photo credit: God only knows

I’ve never been an enduring fan of kitsch. In most cases, I find excessively garish or sentimental art to be vaguely amusing at best. Nor do I prefer to seek out work that is usually considered in bad taste; for example, mid-80s glam metal. At the same time, I’ve heard 95% of the records I’m probably going to hear in my life. I’m now in search of that remaining 5% of music that I either never got around to, or simply missed the first time around.

Keith Moon’s lone solo album, Two Sides of the Moon (1975) has been alternately described as “the most expensive karaoke album in history” and a cheeky parody of rock star solo album excess. The kitsch is strong on this motherfucker. And as more than one critic has noted, nobody expected a serious effort from Moon, and nobody was disappointed. The album is an uncomfortable mess of drunken self-indulgence so fascinatingly bad that it has assumed a certain cult status. The fact that Moon chose to sing, even though he was tone deaf by his own admission, is a clearly a tongue in the cheek.

Keith-Moon_Two_3However, perhaps the record’s most surprising revelation is Moon’s enthusiasm for surf rock, which explains the presence of Dick Dale. Additionally, some really big names contributed to the record: Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, David Bowie, Joe Walsh, Jim Keltner, Bobby Keys, Klaus Voorman, John Sebastian, Flo & Eddie, and Spencer Davis. In fact, by virtue of Moon’s record industry connections, he was one of the first people outside of the Beach Boys inner circle to possess a copy of Pet Sounds. And that explains his cover of “Don’t Worry Baby”, which isn’t that bad, even though it is rumored to have moved sandbox-era Brian Wilson to tears of anguish.

The casual rock music appreciationist is going to have little use for the fact that Keith Moon made a solo record, and even less for the actual recording. However, upon further consideration, Two Sides of the Moon is an interesting piece of work that deserves some post-mortem limelight, if for no other reason, as a historical document. Anything involving Keith Moon is going to be worth a look-see.

 

  • Peter Criss (Kiss)

As a dumbshit 10-year-old in the fall of 1978, I reluctantly went out and bought all four Kiss solo albums at once. The reluctance was based on my waning enthusiasm for the band’s music and their extraneous merchandise. Laying out nearly 40 bucks for a quartet of solo albums from a marginally talented coterie of musicians was a highly speculative gamble for a 10-year-old. The purchase was eventually justified by the confidence that I would have no problem unloading these records if necessary; and by necessary I mean if they were terrible, which they were.

At home, I put on the Ace Frehley record first. There were a couple of cool jams, but I skimmed through more than I didn’t. Next up was Paul Stanley. Eww. That guy is gross. OK, Gene Simmons, show me what you…don’t got. Ugh. Holy Christ, an hour into the session and I’m really disappointed. But I’ve been saving the best for last, or what I thought would be the best. As a drummer, the Cat Man was technically my favorite member of the band.

Peter-Criss_1Long before the first spin of Peter Criss, I had a solid foundation of music under my belt, and I knew what I liked, and what I didn’t. But my novice-level of appreciation absolved me of the burden of judgment; that not liking something automatically meant that it sucked. Sucking had not yet been a part of the musical equation for me. There were some kids in jazz band that weren’t very good, but it never occurred to me that they might suck. It was inconceivable. At the same time, I never heard a Bad Company song on the radio and said, “Aw, that sucks.” I just changed the station until I found something I liked. In a way, this ignorance of discretion was a type of innocence about to be lost.

Disco came along and literally overnight, I found something that sucked. Or it found me. Whatever. Disco came prancing into my life and there was suddenly something to actively and genuinely hate. Up until Saturday Night Fever, I operated exclusively on a live-and-let-live basis. So in hindsight, it doesn’t seem coincidental that my favorite band at the time was Kiss. There is no accounting for taste, and I learned that lesson the hard way.

Peter-Criss_GreenThe Peter Criss solo album isn’t just bad; it doesn’t just suck. It goes well beyond the traditional parameters of taste or appreciation. It is unquestionably a record that never should have been made, never mind made available in every K-Mart record department in America. I cannot imagine what the people involved in the making of this record were thinking when they unloaded it on the public, other than, “We’re probably going to make some money on this piece of shit.” And they did. On release, Peter Criss was certified platinum (1,000,000 copies) in the U.S., went to #43 on the Billboard albums chart, and has since been reissued a total of four times on three different labels. Every remaining and self-respecting Kiss fan has a copy of this record, which they have played exactly 0.5 times.

  • Phil Collins
  • Aynsley Dunbar (Frank Zappa, etc.)
  • Cozy Powell (Jeff Beck, etc.)
  • Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson)

As a drummer, Bill Bruford ranks among the elite players of modern music, and thus, impervious to criticism. His work with King Crimson and Yes quite literally drafted the blueprint for progressive rock percussion.

Bill-B_2As a general musician, I don’t like everything he’s ever been involved with, but it’s never poorly executed, with the lone exception of Yes’ Union (1991), which Bruford himself called “the most God awful, auto-corrected mess you could possibly imagine. The worst record I’ve ever been on.” Indeed, the only interesting aspect of Union is its back story. Definitely worth a look-see on Wikipedia.

Bruford’s debut solo album* Feels Good to Me (1977) features guitarists Allan Holdsworth and John Goodsall, bassist Jeff Berlin, keyboardist Dave Stewart, and Kenny Wheeler on flügelhorn. Read that again: flugelhorn. It is considered a “vanguard of progressive jazz improvised music”.

Allan-Holds_1Not to veer too far off the target, guitarist Allan Holdsworth is really the only reason anybody in their right mind should listen to Feels Good. He makes Eddie Van Halen sound like a student, and when he’s not doing 24-fret arpeggios and spoon-bending legato runs, Feels Good sounds real, real bad.

*Technically, Bruford was considered a band; however, the band was assembled for the purpose of making Bruford’s first solo album. So that’s kind of like the snake eating its own tail.
  • Ian Paice (Deep Purple)
  • Charlie Watts (The Rolling Stones)

Not surprisingly, Chuckles has put out a bunch of solo jazz records (as the Charlie Watts Quintet) that like the man himself, neither offend or inspire on any level. Except he’s always well-dressed, you can count on that.

  • Ringo Starr
  • Albert Bouchard (Blue Öyster Cult)

The odds are strong that you couldn’t name a drummer of Blue Öyster Cult. There is almost zero chance you’ve ever heard of his “solo” album, Imaginos.

ImaginosBouchard left B.Ö.C. at the generally accepted peak of the band’s career (Fire of Unknown Origin (1981) containing “Burnin’ for You”). After leaving the band, Bouchard spent five years working on a solo album based on Sandy Pearlman’s poem “Imaginos”. As the group began to flounder on the charts, they reunited with Bouchard for a California tour in February 1985. This arrangement was only temporary, and caused more tensions, as Bouchard had thought he would be staying on permanently, which was not the case. The band had only intended to use him as a last-minute fill-in until another drummer could come on board – which is a total dick move on behalf of the band, by the way. Cocks.

Al-BouchardAnyway, I’m going to give you as close to a nutshell version of this record as possible. Imaginos was released in 1988, credited to B.Ö.C as their last recording for Columbia Records. The album took nearly eight years to complete and was originally intended to be the first in a trilogy of solo albums by Bouchard (and produced by Sandy Pearlman). Many musicians contributed to the project over this eight-year span, including Joe Satriani and Robby Krieger, but some band members were barely involved in the recording process.

After Columbia rejected the album in 1984, the material sat untouched for several years until Pearlman negotiated a deal with 415 Records to bring in B.Ö.C. guitarists Buck Dharma and Donald Roeser to sing – replacing Bouchard’s unbelievably awful vocal tracks. Everything after that is a wash of names and places, but the end result is that Columbia wound up with the record after demanding that B.Ö.C. deliver the final album of their contract.

Blue_Oyster_Cult_1988

Imaginos is a tedious labyrinth of scripts and poems by Pearlman, cake-frosted into a concept album and stupid rock opera about an alien conspiracy that is brought to fruition during the late 19th and early 20th century through the actions of Imaginos, an agent of evil. They basically hijacked an H.P. Lovecraft trope and called it “a bedtime story for the children of the damned” whose lyrics contain more than a few obscure historical references over the limit of good taste.

However, it is often considered one of the heaviest albums released by Blue Öyster Cult, its music more akin to true metal than the commercial hard rock of their two previous works. The album received faint critical acclaim, sold fewer copies than The Real Milli Vanilli’s The Moment of Truth (1991), and Columbia ended their contract.

MilliVanilli03For whatever reason, Albert Bouchard, excluded from the recording progress of Imaginos after the initial rejection from Columbia, and then sued the band and the label to get his own back. He certainly can’t be seeking any royalties from a record that didn’t make a dime, can he?

I’m kind of tired of saying stuff sucks. Check it out for yourself.


I really wanted to end on a high note, so I saved the best for last. You’ve probably thought to yourself that you’ve slogged through this whole thing and haven’t seen one name in particular. He should be, by now, conspicuous by his absence.

I’m talking about Stewart Copeland.

Stewart-Cope_FuckoffFollowing the breakup of the Police, Copeland went to Africa, ostensibly to make a film and a record which he called “a musical odyssey through the heart of Africa in search of the roots of rock & roll.” Combining field recordings with syncopated drums and percussion against a backdrop of atmospheric synthesizers, his first official eponymous solo release The Rhythmatist (1985) is several astronomical units (AU) removed from his relatively lighthearted work as Klark Kent. The album was largely ignored upon release, except among fellow drummers and die-hard Police fans – basically, me. I was the only 17-year-old kid in Darien, Illinois who bought the cassette when it came out, and wondered why nobody else was on the StewCo tip.

Stewart-Copeland_RhythmatistSome of you may be familiar with my views on “world music” and realize the unfortunate coincidence of hypocrisy in that here I am, jawboning about a decidedly intentional fusion of world music, which I might add, was far more interesting than the other Police solo efforts of this period. Pulsing, hypnotic, and strangely likable, The Rhythmatist was one of those tapes I would pop in late at night, pull a couple of bong hits, and soar off to sleep.

I don’t think it’s common knowledge that in addition to his work in the Police and as a fairly prolific solo artist, Copeland has established an impressive career composing soundtracks for film, television, and video games. His resume includes the soundtrack of Good Burger (1997) starring Kenan Thompson, Kel Mitchell, and the recently departed Abe Vigoda – God rest his soul. The film also includes appearances by Carmen Electra, Shaquille O’Neal, George Clinton, and Sinbad, which to me, is reason enough to watch the movie. I love me some Sinbad, brother.

Good_Burger_film_posterNo, seriously. It’s an excruciating cinematic experience. I’ve made it through about 40 of its 92 minutes. And it’s important to note that Copeland was responsible for the music used in the film, and not Good Burger: Music From the Original Motion Picture (1997) which consists of subpar hip-hop, R&B, and rock tracks from the likes of 702, Warren G, and Less Than Jake.

Anyway, good night and good luck. And remember, let the drummer have some! Just don’t overdo it.

Bill Dolan Interview Part 2

Click here to read Part 1

Bill 6Guitarist Bill Dolan is one of my favorite musicians and one of the most under-rated, unsung guitar players of my lifetime. He also happens to be my friend.

Twenty years ago, Bill and I – along with Ronnie Kwasman and Matthew Tucker – played in a couple of bands together in Chicago.

I don’t like telling people what they should and shouldn’t do – despite spending seven months and 100,000 words on 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die…Or Not.

However, in the case of this interview, you almost have to read Part 1, especially the introduction.

JengaAn abbreviated version of the original introduction from Part 1 occupied the screen where these three paragraphs now sit. In the end, it was an awkward game of creative writing Jenga. The structure got a little bit weaker every time a piece was removed.

Of course, it’s up to you. Part 2 picks up smack-dab in the middle of a four-hour conversation. And one of us was…impaired. Nevertheless, we now move forward with the interview, which, for the record, took place March 9, 2013.


Bill Dolan: Hey, you wanna see some of my paintings real quick? Because I’m exploring those avenues, too.

Christian Adams: Hell yes! You’ve been talking to me for an hour and you haven’t told me about your paintings?

[Bill goes off-camera to retrieve some of his work. Returns and holds up a painting.]

Bill_Painting_4CA: Oooh, that’s super cool.

BD: That’s the Hutchison effect having a direct influence on my art. You were asking how that’s going to work? This is it, buddy. This is the Hutchison effect, in effect.

CA: That’s great.

BD: Well, I’m glad you’re enthused about it.

[Bill holds up another painting.]

CA: Oh!

Bill_Painting_2BD: It’s not finished either.

CA: OK, now I understand why you’re not playing guitar.

BD: Chris, I am playing guitar.

CA: I mean, you’re not touring, you’re not making records.

BD: I’m not touring because I don’t have the gumption to make it happen. I don’t want to book a tour and nobody wants to book it for me. It’s an expensive endeavor and, I don’t know. Maybe if we put another record together, because I do have another record ready in my head. It’s rehearsed. We just have to make it.

CA: So SixGunLover [Das Boton’s record label] is not giving you any cash. You’re not getting any tour support. Man, that’s a travesty.

BD: It takes money to go on the road, and I just don’t have it. But it’s OK. I like touring; I just can’t do a lot of it. It’s just not for me.

CA: But…what about during the 90s? You guys toured all the time. I just saw this video of you guys playing “Vic Firth” in Glasgow or somewhere.

BD: That was Leeds, but the video you’re talking about was in 2008. That was part of a fifteen, sixteen show tour, and that’s great. But people go out on the road for like three months at a time, I mean, I can’t do that. I don’t want to do that. My health won’t allow it.

Das Boton – Vic Firth

CA: Did you lose money on tour?

BD: On that European tour? Absolutely. We didn’t make anything on that tour. But I’d never been to Europe and played my music. I’d played other people’s music there, but not my own.

CA: Who did you play with over there?

BD: Wait, I did play there with Five Style, once. It was one show. I went over there with Jeremy Enigk.

CA: What was it about Jeremy that you liked?

BD: Well, I loved his voice.

CA: He seems to be a very charismatic dude. He’s tall, right?

BD: He’s our height, dude. What are you, five-eight?

CA: Five-nine.

BD: Yeah, he’s probably five-eight, I’d say.

CA: Maybe it’s his eyebrows that give him the height. I was just watching a live version of [Fire Theft’s] “Chain”, and I was thinking, “Oh that’s my boy Bill on guitar!” But it’s not.

Fire Theft – Chain

BD: No, but there’s another Chicago dude on there.

CA: What do you want to next?

BD: I wanna make this record and continue with my paintings. Spread good cheer…and love [smirking].

CA: [laughs] What are you a fucking hippie?

BD: [deadpan] Whatever.

CA: So that leads me to the next question. You don’t have to say yes to this, OK? But I was wondering if you’d be interested in playing on my record.

Bill_Painting_1BD: Sure, man. I’d love to.

CA: Now, that’s not the reason I got in touch with you for the interview.

BD: Acutally, I was kind of wondering about that. I wasn’t dwelling on it, but it did cross my mind that maybe he’s calling to ask if I’d play something, I mean, I didn’t know.

CA: Well, I wasn’t going to ask, and don’t feel obligated to do it.

BD: Not at all. You could just send me the MP3 and I’ll download it into my Pro Tools.

CA: Exactly. Super easy.

BD: I’ve done some of that before. Like with the Hella Sound [Running Music] thing. This guy had the drums tracks, and he sent it to me. I did my stuff, sent it back to him, he refined it and sent it back to me. And it went like that. I like doing it that way. Unless you want me to sing on it?

Bill on Hella Sound

CA: Sure, if you want to. But I think you’ll find my stuff is a bit more pedestrian than what you normally do.

BD: I don’t know about that. I know your music from before, so I…

CA: OK, well, I’ll send you the tracks and you can decide what you want to play on.

BD: Yeah, I can do a couple of tracks.

CA: When I was corresponding with Carol Kaye, I kind of asked her about it, too.

Carol 5

Carol Kaye

BD: Oh yeah, I want to talk about that.

CA: We will. But at the end of our correspondence, I asked if she still played on other people’s stuff and how much it cost, and it turns out she has a flat rate of a grand per track.

BD: What?!

CA: That’s cheap, I think.

BD: A grand?

CA: Per track.

BD: That’s a lot of fucking money. I wouldn’t ask you for that, Chris. Not unless you were sitting on a giant pile of cash, I wouldn’t ask anybody for that.

CA: But she’s Carol Kaye. She played on Pet Sounds. She came up with the bass line for “California Girls.”

BD: Oh that’s right. She played with the Beach Boys.

CA: But she also just had her house foreclosed on. So she needs cash.

BD: We all need cash. I wouldn’t charge you. You’re a friend.

CA: But she said she hasn’t played on a rock record since 1969, either.

BD: Maybe it’s because she charges too much.

CA: [laughs]

BD: Hey can we take a quick break? Like, ten minutes?

CA: Sure. Make it fifteen.


Conducting an interview is analogous to driving a car in that it’s pretty easy to learn and even easier to do, once you get the hang of it. And one of the worst thing you can do as a driver is to over-think the driving experience.

My drink of choice - 2010 Don Vinico Carinena Tempranillo, NT$229 (approx. US$7.65). It's a palatable yet cheap guzzle.

My drink of choice – 2010 Don Vinico Carinena Tempranillo, NT$229 (approx. US$7.65). It’s a palatable yet cheap guzzle.

The conversation lasted almost four hours—we had a lot of catching up to do. Fortunately, I was able to ask a fair amount of decent questions in Part 1. Taking a break right here gave me time to jet down to the 7-11 for a quatro of Kirin tallboys. The second bottle of wine was long gone by this point.

Two bottles of California red is slightly below the average of what I would drink on any given night. It’s nothing to me. My wife says she can barely tell the difference in my demeanor between the first sip and the end of bottle number two. Anyway, I thought I was coherent. The tape tells a different story.

Returning from the break, Bill and I picked up where we left off, but my state of inebriation really begins to interfere with my ability to interview anyone, let alone Bill. A fair amount of what was said between us would neither constitute an “interview” nor be of any interest to anyone on the planet, and thus, is redacted. Though we hardly strayed from the topic of music, a lot of my statements/ramblings were along the lines of, “Man, Bill, you should be/do/see/hear” and Bill did his best to wrangle me back into a dialogue.


CA: Have you seen your Allmusic – Bill Dolan/Five Style/Heroic Doses pages?

BD: Maybe. I think so.

CA: When you started Five Style, did you consider it what Allmusic calls a “funk-jam” band?

BD: No, I didn’t consider it that, but LeRoy had that band Uptighty, and they were very much a funk band. So I knew I was getting into that territory. I was fine with the funk element, but I never wanted it to be strictly that. I knew funk from like, James Brown and that other guy, Rick…

CA: Rick James.

1001_Rick_James_-_Street_SongsBD: Yeah, that guy. I had a cassette of Street Songs.

CA: But weren’t you also into Skynyrd?

BD: I got into them way later.

CA: I’ve always heard a twinge of Jerry Reed in almost everything you do.

BD: I don’t know Jerry Reed.

CA: Really? Jerry’s the shit.

BD: Name one of his songs.

CA: He did “Eastbound and Down.” What’s great about that is, you don’t even know Jerry Reed but you’ve instinctively played a bunch of his licks. Well, I mean, he got those licks from other people. I’ll pull up something from YouTube. But I remember at one point you were listening to a lot of The Fall.

BD: That was Kurt Niesman’s doing. He was the house DJ. Well, LeRoy [Bach], too, but a lot of my influences came directly from whatever Kurt was playing.

CA: Refresh my memory on this Kurt Niesman guy.

BD: He was a friend of mine from high school who eventually moved to the Loft. He’s the guy playing bass in shorts that you don’t like.

CA: I didn’t say I didn’t like it.

BD: You said it was a rock and roll faux pas.

CA: I guess.

BD: There was another thing I wanted to tell you about that Leeds video. A guy named Matt Woodward connected me through MySpace and said, ‘I know your work. Would you consider playing some dates?’ That was 2008. So ultimately that happened. He booked the dates with his band, and that’s the Das Boton experience.

CA: Oh, hey, I found the Jerry Reed video.

[Plays “Jerry’s Breakdown”]

BD: I think I hear Les Paul in there.

CA: That’s Chet Atkins.

BD: It’s great, but I can’t really do that. It’s not really what I do, whatever that is.

CA: Where do you think your style comes from?

BD: Well, my first guitar teacher was a “picker”. It might come from some of that.

CA: What was his name?

BD: Greg Whitson. In the 80s he was allegedly going to Nashville to do sessions. But I’ve gotten that question before, you know, where do you get that kind of twangy thing? But I mean, there was this band Soul Asylum. They were kind of a hillbilly punk rock. But you could also say that about the Cramps. They don’t sound anything like Soul Asylum but…

CA: The Cramps are fucking nuts, man.

BD: My point is, the country-twangy thing, I don’t know where that comes from. Oh, I had a Chet Atkins record when I was a kid. My dad kind of turned me on to him.

Leo 6CA: Me, too. Leo Kottke. That’s what I was pointing out about “Marmy the Count”. I was thinking, ‘Man, he’s doing sort of a Leo Kottke thing.’ But as it turns out, of course, that was totally not the case.

BD: I remember you used to say that about Steve Howe from Yes. You told me, ‘You’re playing just like Steve Howe.’

CA: Hell, yes! I remember that. We were into certain Yes jams at that point in the 90s—we played “South Side of the Sky”—and I always though that you and Steve Howe were in the same realm of guitar – your phrasing and your note choices.

Steve-Howe

Steve Howe

BD: I like him a lot but I don’t think I ever listened to him to play like that.

CA: So who do you listen to in that way? You were into Fela Kuti for a while, if I’m not mistaken.

BD: I went through phases of trying to play like so many different people, like, the obvious: Hendrix, Page, and Van Halen. All the typical white-boy wanna-be guitar kids have their Rock God influences. Then finding more obscure punk stuff like the Dead Kennedys. East Bay Ray? His guitar playing is pretty twangy. It’s pretty surfy, actually.

CA: Dude, East Bay Ray is the most under-rated guitar player of the 80s. If I have it, I’ll send you a video of me doing an acoustic 12-string version of “Calfornia Uber Alles”.

John-Hammond

John Hammond

BD: Awesome. He’s got a distinct style. John Hammond [Jr.] is another country-twangy bluesy thing that I did try to listen to and pick up on. I don’t know if you know him.

CA: I’ve heard a few of his jams but he hasn’t really been on my radar. Other people have mentioned him.

BD: And when a white boy like myself tries to play funk-blues like The Meters, it just lacks so much authenticity and soul that it sounds like hillbilly music, you know what I’m saying?

CA: I never got the sense, especially with Heroic Doses, that you were going for a white funk thing. Did you and Ryan ever say, ‘Oh let’s do a funk groove?’ For me, it’s just a lot of fun to listen to your music and try to figure out where it comes from and where you’re trying to go with it. Sometimes I hear Gentle Giant and other times I hear Captain Beefheart.

1001_The_Meters_-_Look-Ka_Py_PyBD: I don’t know. I think you’re talking about after Five Style, we were not doing funk as deliberately. So I agree with you there, but at the beginning of Five Style, we were so taken with the Meters, that we were literally doing five or six of their songs just to cultivate the spirit. And then from there, we started writing music. When I moved in with LeRoy, he had a Meters record and I just fucking loved it right off the bat.

CA: Which is somewhat of a dichotomy, since you also loved Skynyrd. At one time I thought that was one of the things that brought us together, since Whitey was totally down with Skynyrd, and you were like, ‘I dig that.’

BD: “On the Hunt”. Did we do that song?

CA: Yes, we did.

BD: That’s a good one. I liked that.

CA: We continued to play that jam in Golden Tones, too. It was a staple of our practices.

juke8-Lynyrd-Skynyrd-Nuthin-Fancy-137866BD: You kept it in your set? That’s cool.

CA: Skynyrd was probably for me, one of the most listened-to bands in the second half of the 90s. And then when I moved out to S.F., I kept going with it. But the point is, your taste in covers was really interesting. Like, [AC/DC’s] “Dog Eat Dog”.

BD: Well, that was a direct influence from being a kid, I mean, that record [Let There Be Rock] was in heavy rotation. As a kid, literally that was my favorite record, along with Kiss and Cheap Trick. But that’s not unusual for any kid growing up on rock in the U.S. to own those records.

CA: Did you ever meet Cheap Trick?

BD: Well, yeah, they’re from Rockford. I’d see them around town and be awestruck.

CA: I mean actually meet them and have a conversation? Who are some of the famous people you’ve met since becoming a famous person yourself?

BD: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, Chris.

CA: I just did, so you don’t have to. That’s fine, Bill. I get it.

CheapBD: The most high-profile person that comes to mind is Nate Mendel, the bass player for the Foo Fighters. He was an acquaintance. And I’d hear all these stories about Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain, but I didn’t know them and I don’t know them. But speaking of Dave Grohl, and that movie Sound City. Did you know that some of [the] Masters of Reality [first album] was recorded there?

CA: I do now.

BD: That movie was pretty cool.

CA: It’s all right.

BD: You didn’t like it.

CA: I like anything with Rick Nielsen in it, and Dave Grohl is an undeniably likeable character. There’s just something about him. Charisma, I guess. I loved watching him play drums, man. When I got back into playing drums, I would think about the way he goes for it on every note. I love that. His guitar playing is OK, too, but for me, it’s his spirit on the drums that sets him apart.

[Redacted bits about rock stars and whatnot.]

BD: Anyway, you were asking earlier about the Five Style record [Static Disco] we did at Ghetto Love, I did happen to find the cassette. Can you see it? I’ll take it out of the case if you want a screenshot.


Ghetto LoveHi. Christian here. You really need to read Part 1 in order to have some context. At one point in 1996-97, my band [theoretically, Whitey] and Five Style were recording at the same studio, Ghetto Love, owned and operated by Dale Meiners, formerly of Wesley Willis Fiasco. Neither band ever released anything from this period. However, a cassette of Five Style’s aborted recordings found its way into my possession, and I’ve held on to it for nearly 20 years.


CA: [laughs] Static Disco? Well, I understand the title now.

BD: The guitar riff for that song is totally copped from the “Mean Streets” solo by Van Halen. Do you want me to show you?

CA: Yup.

BD: [Plays the guitar solo, basically note for note, in its entirety] This part. [Plays the riff]

CA: Oh, so you just slowed it down.

BD: Do you know that?

1001_Van_Halen-Fair_WarningCA: The jam? Fair Warning is my favorite [Van Halen] record. So that’s how you got your inspiration?

BD: For that particular instance, yes. Are you disappointed?

CA: Hell, no. That makes me want to go back and listen to the song even more. Which track number was that again? The second track? Hang on. I gotta pull it up.

[Pause]

CA: Bill, man, you have no idea what type of effort it took for me to go back to S.F. and find that cassette.

BD: I’ll tell you a story about that…

CA: It was heroic. The effort.

BD: This dude in Madison wanted to release that record, and he was transferring all those tapes to Pro Tools, but a couple came up missing. And I thought to ask you, but you don’t know, and Dale Meiners, I have no idea how to contact that dude.

CA: Uh, I dunno.

[I finally dial up the Five Style record and hit play.]

BD: Um, that’s not “Static Disco”. That’s “Love On the Hour”.

CA: I called it “Haystackin’”

BD: That’s a good name.

CA: How about this one? This is the one that I covered.

BD: “Make a Sound”.

CA: The guitar harmonies were hard to get, but I think I got them.

BD: That song was actually influenced by Richard Thompson.

CA: Really?

BD: My guitar part was. That’s a Mike Hueneke song.

CA: I never would have guessed it.

BD: All that stuff in the chorus [hums the melody] that’s Richard Thompson-esque, I guess.

CA: Which Richard Thompson song?

BD: I don’t remember.

CA: I was thinking maybe Jerry Garcia…? I always thought that Hueneke brought kind of a Grateful Dead/Phish vibe to the band. He was into that, wasn’t he?

BD: I don’t know. I don’t remember him ever wearing tie-dye. Anyway, did you find “Static Disco” yet?

5ive Style

5ive Style

CA: I may not have it, Bill. I played everything I have from that record. I never got a copy of the whole thing. What I got was a quick mix from Dale that had six songs, and the last one cuts out with the end of the tape. I didn’t have song titles, either. But I always knew this was like, half the record, but getting the rest of it was out of the question. Dale knew I was really into what you guys were doing, and he was excited, too. Like, ‘Man, you should hear the Five Style stuff—it’s really good.’ One day I was at the studio, and he handed it off to me and said, ‘Don’t let anyone know I gave this to you.’

[Redacted]

CA: There’s a lot of chromaticism in your playing. I think guitar theory is something a lot of players overlook. But if you listen to Van Halen, they don’t pay attention to keys.

BD: Yeah.

CA: If I’m writing a song in D major, just because of my education, and maybe my ear, I always feel like it’s gotta come back to D major. Even if it’s in E flat for most of the song, I have to figure out a way to get back.

BD: So you’re saying Van Halen didn’t adhere to that.

CA: No, they do for the most part. Take “Unchained” for instance. Starts in D and ends on D, but it’s all over the map. The third chord is B flat. But I don’t think they really cared about keys—they played in the key of Eddie Van Halen.

EVHBD: Well, now you’re talking about theory that I’m not familiar with. I was talking about strictly jazz and scale theory.

CA: All that is for jazzbos.

BD: Right.

CA: But if I said to you, ‘Bill, what note you playing right now?’ You might have to look at your fingers and think for a second.

BD: Probably, but what does that mean? What does that have to do with Eddie Van Halen? That doesn’t mean anything.

CA: It means you don’t care what you’re playing, you just play what you want to hear. You don’t really care about notes.

BD: To a certain extent, yes. I would agree with that.

CA: One my favorite licks is from “Summer Salt”, it’s like a double-stop…hang on let me get my guitar.

[Pause while I get my guitar]

BD: You mean this one? [Plays the intro to “Summer Salt”] That last part is just a country bend.

[More redacted guitar talk. I play him a recording of an instrumental I wrote and recorded for the new Aztec Hearts record, “Yeah Right”, which was partially influenced by his playing on Miniature Portraits.]

BD: That sounds cool.

CA: It’s only an outtake. It took me 135 takes to get that one—and it’s still got a couple of clams [mistakes].

BD: Do I have to listen to all 135 takes?

CA: The one comment Ronnie made was: ‘If you can nail this [song], I’ll be impressed.’ I still haven’t nailed it.

BD: Kinda reminiscent of a little Jimmy Page.

CA: Maybe. But I was going for Billy Dolan.

BD: OK, that’s nice. Did you ever see the movie It Might Get Loud? There’s an outtake—just an extra on the DVD of Jimmy Page playing by himself on a 12-string and it sounds a lot like that.

CA: He’s playing “White Sunshine” or like a version of “Black Mountain Side”?

BD: No, it’s not that. It’s a new tune—he says it’s a new song—on 12-string, and there’s a camera shot panning down a long corridor and it’s just him. It’s really cool, you should check it out.

CA: Well, now that you’ve got your guitar there and we’re all about guitar, I’ve got some questions.

BD: Ask me one question.

CA: “The Lost Oar”.

Jeremy Jacobsen, The Lonesome Organist

Jeremy Jacobsen, The Lonesome Organist

BD: That’s a Jeremy Jacobsen song. You know if you’re in a band, it’s a democratic process. You say do we want to do this song? I’m not saying I didn’t want to do the song. But it’s like OK. So it’s his melody line. I think he started it on the melodica.

CA: I thought it was marimba. I saw a live version of it at Middle East.

BD: Marimba? I don’t remember there ever being a live version on marimba.

CA: Let me see if I can find it.

BD: Well, do you want me to show you the lick? I like doing that.

CA: I think there should be Billy Dolan video lessons. Like a video channel.

BD: It’s not a marimba—it’s a vibraphone.

[Redacted section including my derogatory remarks about Stevie Nicks.]

CA: So what’s cookin’, Bill? Really. What’s happening with Das Boton?

Das Boton 1

Das Boton – Soda Drip (2009)

BD: I have plenty of music for a full-length, and I have the guys to do it. We just haven’t nailed down a studio, so I don’t know. And also, I’ve talked to Ryan about maybe going out to L.A. Then I was talking to Ronnie about coming down [to Chicago] to see his place [Astrolab Recording]. That would be fun for us to get out of Rockford, and have someone from outside of our scene, like Ronnie, to give us input. But there is a studio here that me might consider. The thing about Ronnie is that he’s a super cool dude and they’re analog, so that would be cool, too.

CA: What about Five Style? Is there any chance of you guys getting back together? Are you still in touch with all of those cats?

BD: Actually, I have been in touch with all of them over the last five months via email. I just don’t think they have the time right now to do it. I would do another Five Style record, but it doesn’t seem to be happening, so I want to do something that will happen. [Laughs]

CA: How many songs have you got for the new Das Boton?

BD: Easily ten songs that I’m pretty sure about. We could probably do about 18 or 20, some of them I might be on the fence about. I have at least six songs that I know are good to me, maybe four more that are pretty decent, too.

CA: So it’s hypothetical, but if you could get anyone in the world to be the vocalist for Das Boton, who would you pick?

BD: Alive?

CA: Doesn’t matter. Anyone.

Dave-Pirner

Dave Pirner

BD: [pause] I don’t know, man.

CA: Do you hear someone singing when you play?

BD: Have you ever heard of Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum?

CA: Bill…

BD: I think he might be able to find an angle that would be suitable for the music.

CA: I bet you could get Dave Pirner to sing on your record.

BD: Well, then it would be like a studio record for him and then it would be back to I don’t have a band, so it’s kind of, I don’t know. We wouldn’t be touring—which is fine, I’ve got art to do.

CA: Have you ever asked Dave Pirner?

Jennifer-Herrema

Jennifer Herrema

BD: I’ve thought about it. But it’s… I’ve had so many people who’ve auditioned or worked with me, and then it doesn’t work out, so it’s hard for me to have people get behind the singers I’ve picked. It’s not easy. I get a lot of criticism. If I said, ‘Hey Chris, I want you to sing on this’ and then later have to say, ‘Sorry, we’re not going to use this’ or ‘We’re not going in this direction’, I just don’t want to deal with that. But I asked the girl from Royal Trux and RTX, Jennifer Herrema, and I was contacting her, talking on the phone. But she’s got better things to do, plus she lives on the other side of the country. Like I said, Danny Kubinski from Die Kreuzen sang for a while, and we made a record, basically, that still hasn’t been put out.

Die Kreuzen – Think of Me

CA: Is your relationship with Sub Pop [Records] over?

BD: Probably.

CA: Do they still send you checks?

BD: In fact, I have one right here. It came in the mail yesterday.

[Opens the envelope and shows it on camera.]

BD: A whopping fifty-three dollars.

CA: Fifty-three dollars! Do you get one of those every six months?

BD: If the amount doesn’t exceed forty bucks, they don’t bother.

CA: [Whistles]

BD: I’ve gotten checks from ASCAP, and I’ve had a couple of sizeable endorsements. Big chunks of money, but you know that doesn’t last. Life is expensive.

CA: Dude…my money is gone! Poof!

John Hutchison

John Hutchison

BD: Well, I think that’s something that [controversial inventor] John Hutchison, and all these inventors who tried to tap into free energy, were trying to free people from these dominant forces that we’re enslaved to give money to, like oil companies. I mean, there are technologies that would allow us to not have to worry about those things, but they don’t want us to have them. I believe that. Maybe that’s like a faith kind of thing.

CA: My take on it is that there’s nothing I can do about it, and I have to play the game. Like you, I need to make the nut every month, and I can’t worry about all that other noise. If I have any redeeming quality, it’s that I make the nut doing something that I’m good at.

BD: But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know about alternative energy and free thinking.

CA: Of course I know about all that shit. It’s my job to research and write articles about all that crap. I just wrote this piece about the Segway guy, what’s his name? Dean Kamen. This guy came up with a device that converts any liquid into drinking water. It’s called a Slingshot. I’ve been onboard with a lot of this for a long time.

BD: There’s a guy who promotes this thing called ProPur, which is a similar device.

CA: But the government is not interested in changing their policies.

Heroic Doses

Heroic Doses

BD: Right. They don’t want to change the military industrial complex.

CA: Which is one reason why I left the U.S.

BD: Is that the main reason?

CA: No. But once I got over here, I started thinking that maybe I might never want to live there again. Let me ask you something, do you own a gun?

BD: I have access to one.

CA: Why?

BD: Because I’m concerned about what might happen if there were a collapse of the global economy—which could happen, soon.

CA: You live in Rockford, home of the greatest rock band of the 70s—Cheap Trick! They’ll form a militia to protect your ass!

BD: What!?! The greatest rock band of the 70s? Cheap Trick?

CA: Yeah! Who was better?

Robert Plant Didn't Ruin It For AnyoneBD: Led Zeppelin, maybe?

CA: OK, I misspoke.

BD: But I don’t understand where you’re going with this gun thing.

CA: Well…[pause] I think the second amendment should be changed.

BD: Wow. That’s too bad. But that’s OK

CA: I want to live in a society where nobody has guns.

BD: That’s never gonna happen, because somebody is always going to have a gun.

CA: I mean, at least in Taiwan, which is nobody’s paradise, at least the only people with guns are cops, and probably the gangsters—but they don’t fuck with anybody except themselves. There are no drive-by shootings or high school massacres. But in the Philippines, man, everywhere you go, there’s metal detectors and security guards with .44s, and they will shoot you. It’s just fucking madness, and I can’t—I can’t even deal with the thought of my wife and raising my kid in this type of society. America is armed to the point where you have to have a gun just because everybody else has one. I get that. I understand that. But I have chosen not to exist in that place anymore.

BD: I understand your sentiment but…

CA: Let’s just drop the subject altogether.

BD: Hang on for a second.

[Bill goes off camera while I cue up “Mythical Numbers” from Miniature Portraits.]

CA: Man, that is some of the coolest shit ever. Every time I hear it, I think, ‘Why isn’t Bill playing guitar for a living?’

BD: Well, I guess we’ve been talking about that, haven’t we? I mean…

CA: The first time I heard “Summer Salt”, I was like, ‘Nope. That’s it. We’re not making another record.’ Why bother? I didn’t even want to play guitar anymore.

BD: That’s too bad. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that way about my playing. But I guess there are some Van Halen things where I think, ‘How does he do that? I can’t do that.’ It’s all relative. There’s always going to be someone that has a different angle or further ahead.

CA: Have you ever heard of this guy John 5? He’s played with a bunch of people, like Marilyn Manson. I think you’d like him. He reminds me a bit of Buckethead.

John-5

John 5

BD: No, I can’t say that I’ve heard of him.

CA: I’ve seen him do some of this super-fast, crazy country shit, and it made me want to quit.

BD: I don’t think that guy would make me want to quit.

CA: But in the end, you know, Bill, I think I said it in an email, is that once I got over that feeling, you inspired me.

BD: That’s the good part. But how did I inspire you?

CA: First of all, standard tuning. I thought, ‘OK, this guy owns standard tuning.’ So that’s why I switched over to Open G. I mean, I don’t ever try to do what you do. It just pushed me to say, ‘All right, I gotta find something here to make my own.’

BD: That’s cool.

CA: What I’m looking for now, honestly, friend-to-friend, is how you’re going to inspire me in the future. And that’s why I’m—frustrated, I guess—that you are inactive or not as active as you could be. And I guarantee you’re a better guitar player now than you were in 1997.

BD: Possibly, yeah.

CA: “Deep Marsh” is just so cool. It was the opening track for the first album. You knew it was really good, didn’t you?

Brian-setzerBD: I was really excited about it. It sounded so…I knew it was good, and it resonated with some of the things I was trying to achieve. The caliber of John Herndon and LeRoy Bach, plus John McIntyre manning the console; those were tools that I didn’t have access to before, so it was going to be that much better.

CA: Do you have any favorite songs of your own? Like, what is your favorite thing to play right now?

BD: Probably any of my new stuff. There’s one called “Timbale Jam”. But I’ve been into John Scofield and Brian Setzer. Those dudes…I don’t know that I’ll ever achieve their level of skill, but I’m in awe of them.

CA: Brian Setzer is by far the best rockabilly guitar player of all-time.

BD: He’s so good.

CA: The Stray Cats records have some of the coolest guitar jams that nobody remembers. Listen to “Stray Cat Strut”. That’s one guitar, one take, and it’s perfect. He’s playing lead and rhythm at the same time. That’s what you do. In fact, there’s really no room for a singer in your music. I don’t know that I even want to hear a singer on your music.

BD: OK, I’ll tell Dave Pirner the audition is off.

[The Skype connection drops. Five minutes pass before we reconnect. Some redacted chatter.]

Das Boton – Felt It
Das Boton – Russian Sages
Das Boton – Wonton Salad
Das Boton – Plotting Insanity
Das Boton – Does the Bat Know Where You Are?

CA: What’s your current bass player’s name?

BD: Karl Ropp.

CA: OK, that’s right. So how do you choose your bass players?

BD: [Laughs] You mean how do I meet the bass players I work with?

CA: How did you meet LeRoy?

IdfulBD: He was playing in this band called Bowery Boys that we were playing shows with. It was actually Brad Wood who introduced us, I think. I wound up being roommates with him. A couple of times. He was mainly a guitar player, he didn’t really play bass, but when we were doing the Five Style stuff, he got excited about playing bass. Oh, actually he was playing bass with Liz Phair. So he was playing with her, too.

CA: All those Idful [Music] days.

BD: Those were fun times.

CA: Brian Deck…

BD: That’s how we met.

[Redacted. More connection problems.]

BD: What were you saying about Thailand?

CA: Oh, there’s two things. I’m not sure which I want to tell you about first. OK. There’s like a weird psychedelic rock scene in Thailand, and I can’t pronounce the name of this band, but they’re really really really good. [Khun Narin Phin Sing]

BD: OK. What’s it called? Where can I find it?

CA: There’s a post on BSM. I’ll send you some links. The one band has a Facebook page…but you don’t… Anyway, the other thing is this crazy drummer in Taiwan named Vela Blue, she’s like a cute 19-year-old girl who sets up her drums in Ximendeng, which is like Taipei’s trendy kid hangout. She sets up her kit in a plaza across from an MRT station and plays along to Britney Spears and Lady Gaga songs.

BD: That’s cool.

CA: It’s fuckin’ amazing. I’ll send you that link, too.

BD: But before, you were saying something about being in Thailand.

CA: No, I was saying that I was sitting in a bar in Taiwan and Slint’s Spiderland came on the P.A. and it played in its entirety. I was like, ‘Goddamnit, there’s nowhere in the world that I’m safe from this shit.’

BD: Come to Rockford, Illinois. You won’t hear any of that. [Laughs] They wouldn’t like that kind of music.

CA: You know, it’s a good record, I guess. Now I can say it’s part of an experience. But speaking of Rockford. It’s probably the number one question and I don’t know why I waited this long to ask but, why did you go back to Rockford?

Bill_Painting_3BD: [Pause] Well, I went through some…pretty severe things. My sister is here and parents are here. One of them has passed on, but it was mainly the stability of family. I wasn’t really in a good place starting around 2001, and I wound up back here in 2004, after traveling around for a while. New York, Seattle, and I even wound up in L.A. for a second. Life got really…it happens to everyone, so…

CA: What makes you happy these days?

BD: Learning about… [Pause] A lot of things make me happy. This is making me happy. I’m enjoying it, so thank you for being my friend and talking to me.

CA: Are you kidding me? I know you probably hate it, but I’m bowing down to you right now.

BD: Well, you are supportive of my music and that’s nice. But what makes me happy? I like to paint and make music. I like the process, and getting excited about what I’m doing, that’s when I come across happiness. I get happiness from being with my wife.

CA: Do you credit her with helping you get through some of the dark days?

BD: Absolutely. She was there.

Heroic Doses circa 1999 [L to R: Nick Macri, Bill Dolan, Ryan Rapsys]

Heroic Doses circa 1999 [L to R: Nick Macri, Bill Dolan, Ryan Rapsys]

CA: Maybe this is just a personal thing, but it took me the longest time to learn how to accept a compliment. Did you ever have an issue with it?

BD: An issue? No, I don’t think so. If someone is supportive of my music, I appreciate that. It’s nice.

CA: But I would imagine that everywhere you go, people come up to you and say something. I was curious how you might deal with that. You know, ‘I love your music! You changed my life!’ That kind of thing. I mean, are you like Steven Tyler? ‘I did it for you, baby!’ or…

BD: I see what you mean. I’m appreciative, and it’s nice that my art may have had that impact, but I don’t necessarily think about it.

[Long redacted segment]

CA: What are you eating there, chips?

BD: It’s an apple.

CA: So you are completely sober now?

BD: Well, the old days of getting completely drunk and talking like shit without understanding the consequences are over.

CA: Rainbow Club.

BD: Exactly. I never need to revisit that for the rest of my life. It will do me absolutely no good. I’m just not capable of drinking. I just can’t do it.

CA: I never saw you drunk. Not once.

BD: Oh my god. That’s because you were so drunk too that you don’t remember.

[Laughing pause]

CA: That’s true. I was completely hammered.

Grizzly'sStreetShotSP

Grizzly’s Tavern, North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago; date unknown. We lived next door to the left in the picture.

BD: Yeah, we got trashed a lot, Chris. Back at your old place on Lincoln, we’d go down to the Grizzly Bar for a couple of pints or more. And then – I’d ride my bike home. That was pretty good.

CA: You know, you’re right. I’m flashing back to the interview we did at Big Horse. And the taxi doobie incident, which I absolutely do not remember.

BD: See…

[45 minutes of redacted personal conversation not suitable for the general public. Capital T-trust me.]

CA: Oh, hey. How much would you charge for guitar lessons?

BD: I don’t know. I’d have to get back to you on that.

CA: Would you take anybody, or would they have to be intermediate or advanced players? Or would you take beginners?

BD: I don’t know. Who’s the beginner? I have to know who it is. [Laughs.]

CA: Some kid who wants to learn how to play!

BD: Well, I did have a job at this rock camp where the kids came during the day, and I was an instructor-slash-supervisor.

CA: But that was like babysitting, wasn’t it?

BD: Kind of, but it was fun, and the kids were ages 14-17.

CA: Weren’t they like, ‘Teach me everything you know’?

BD: Not really. They were into whatever was current. I think it was like the Raconteurs.

CA: Have you heard of Maroon 5?

BD: Actually, I know the drummer, this guy named Matt Flynn. When I was out in New York, I was in a band with that dude. Maroon 5 started out with a different drummer, and then [they got Matt Flynn, whoever he is].

CA: Hmm. [Cheerfully] They make horrific music! But it could be worse.

Van-Halen_A-DifferentBD: Yeah, it could be worse. Did you hear that Van Halen record with David Lee Roth that came out last year (A Different Kind of Truth)?

CA: [sighs] Yeah. I bought a copy off iTunes, actually.

BD: Oh, cool. I’m glad you own it. You probably don’t like it, but there’s some good stuff on there, man.

CA: Anything with DLR… You know, anything they do with Dave is going to be fantastic. It’s going to be something I want to hear. Even if I think it’s shit. I’ve never really talked to anyone about this, not even my wife, but I have this problem with Van Halen. I own the record and I’ve listened to it a bunch of times… Do you like Ween?

BD: Ween? Can you tell me what song they sing?

CA: ‘Push th’ little Daisies and Make Them Come Up’. Yeah.

BD: Who sings that song that goes, ‘Ooh we look just like Buddy Holly?’

CA: Weezer.

BD: I know I get those two mixed up – Ween and Weezer.

CA: They are the Boston of the 90s.

BD: Who? Ween or Weezer.

CA: Weezer.

BD: OK. You can see the easy mistake. Ween, Weezer.

CA: Correct. Of course.

BD: So, I’m sorry, I’ve never heard – I’ve heard of Jan and Dean Ween, two brothers or something?

CA: Yes. Haha. I was going to direct you to a super cool website called Ask Deaner. Anyway, I asked you before, what are you listening to these days?

Chico-Hamilton_1BD: Chico Hamilton. I sent you those links. You didn’t seem that interested.

CA: I thought it was spam. I’m on Chico now.

BD: I got turned on to him when I lived with LeRoy, and then I stumbled on to some of his newer stuff with John Scofield, and it’s fucking great. So I said, well, I’m going to check out John Scofield again, and he’s got online lessons, they were videotaped in 1984, but he’s still relevant, his theory on scales and whatnot. So those are two things that I dig. Sometimes when I hear stuff like John Scofield, I’m captivated, and I want to learn how to do that.

CA: What about Scofield that makes you want to learn his riffs?

BD: Check it out. Chico Hamilton “Yeh Yeh” and John Scofield. The solo is really beautiful and interesting. It’s very jazzbo, but it’s cool.

CA: I used to say jazzbo all the time until I got chased out of Chicago.

BD: Oh, I also like the new Prince.

CA: OK, listen, Bill. It’s like almost 3:00 a.m. No, it’s 3:30. I’m done. Is there anything else you might want to talk about.

Brad Wood

Brad Wood

BD: Um, just wanted to acknowledge Brad Wood‘s part in connecting me with people that were vital to 5ive Style’s inception.

CA: Right on. We’ll make sure to get that in there.

[Wood, who also hails from Rockford, IL, was one of the leading figures of the 90s Chicago music scene, and produced a whole bunch of influential albums from local artists including Liz Phair, the Smashing Pumpkins, Seam, Veruca Salt, Red Red Meat, and Eleventh Dream Day. Surprisingly, he never produced a record for Bill.]

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die…Or Not: 1991 – 1992

There was one morning I woke up in 1992 and I felt like I’d been asleep for a couple of years.

1001_cover_Right here, right now, at this very moment, I think the 1001 Albums list should end and start over. The book and list should be split into two volumes. It’s got nothing to do with me being a lazy dirt bag, which is also debatable.

This is the end of 1001 Albums Released Between 1956-1992 That You Must Hear Before You Die…Or Not.

Clearly, it’s a cumbersome title and a moot observation, but my point is very simple. We are leaving (and in some ways, have already left) the analog era of popular music. That’s incredibly important, in two somewhat related ways.

First, without dumbing it down too much, computer technology had been used in music as soon as it could be developed. Early digital recording in the 1970s and 80s was hella expensive and super inconvenient. In 1978, Soundstream built what could be considered the first digital audio workstation (DAW) using some of the most current computer hardware of the time.

1001_soundstreamBy the late 1980s, a number of consumer level computers such as the Apple Macintosh began to have enough power to handle digital audio editing. Engineers used Macromedia’s Soundedit, with Microdeal’s Replay Professional and Digidesign’s Sound Tools and Sound Designer to edit audio samples for sampling keyboards like the E-mu Emulator II and the Akai S900. Soon, people began to use these tools for simple two-track audio editing and CD mastering.

In the early to mid 90s, many major recording studios went digital after Digidesign introduced its Pro Tools software, modeled after the traditional method and signal flow in most analog recording devices. At this time, most DAWs were Apple Mac based. Around 1992, the first Windows based DAWs started to emerge.

The prominent debate over analog versus digital recording centers on sound quality, which, beyond a certain threshold of scientific measurement, every argument from every angle becomes subjective. How does it sound? I don’t know.

1001_Chips-AhoyIf you’re eating a Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookie and I ask, “How does it taste?” You could use several hundred adjectives to describe your experience of the cookie. “Is it good?” I persist.

“Yes, it is good,” you say.

1001_ Pepperidge-Farm“Is it better than a similar Pepperidge Farm Sausalito chocolate chunk macadamia nut cookie?”

“No. Maybe. I don’t know. I like it. I think Chips Ahoy has a better texture than Pepperidge Farm.”

The argument won’t ever be settled over this matter, mainly because it’s impossible.

1001_DAWOn top of DAWs, you have MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) which simulates a wide variety of electronic musical instruments, at the same time, allowing computers and other related devices to connect and communicate with one another. MIDI carries event messages that specify notation, pitch and velocity, control signals for parameters such as volume, vibrato, audio panning, cues, and clock signals that set and synchronize tempo between multiple devices. These messages are sent via a MIDI cable to other devices where they control sound generation and other features. This data can also be recorded into a hardware or software device called a sequencer, which can be used to edit the data and to play it back at a later time.

In a nutshell, digital recording made it possible for anybody to create music using a cut and paste formula. Now you have guys who never even learned how to play an instrument sitting behind a console, composing mediocre symphonic ambient trance music with an eight-key MIDI controller and a wireless mouse.

Look, if I haven’t made sense yet, keep reading.

When the actual musician part is taken out of the musical equation, you get bullshit. You get freshly manicured electronic noise. You get techno music by some guy who’s really good at programming and playing a computer, and isn’t shy about being seen in public wearing giant earmuffs and some kind of silly suit. Hand that guy a Gibson Les Paul and he’d start looking for a suitable place to put it down. By the way, DJ Clown Shoes, it’s called a guitar stand.

1001_ProTools_3Moreover, digital recording enables even the most ham-fisted musician to sound competent on their instrument. We’ve been overdubbing since the beginning of recorded sound, and the old “punch-in/punch-out” routine has saved many recordings from being trashed. Digital takes overdubbing and turns it inside out. Is the guitar player incapable of playing a jam all the way through without fucking up? Get the riff right one time and loop that shit, brother. Can’t get the drummer to stay consistent with the click track? That’s OK, we can chop it up and move it around a little bit, make that shit tight, son.

Now you can modify waveforms with unlimited precision. Cut, copy, paste, sync, loop, import, export, align, trim, sample rate, plot spectrum, file size, hardware buffer, and zero crossings are computer terms that generally have nothing to do with music. And now, with less computer aptitude than a toddler, you could open the music editing software that’s most likely on your computer, and record a song without ever getting up from your seat.

1001_Tim-Berners-LeePerhaps my argument tends toward elitism on some level, but music needs to be exceedingly discerning. And so, this is where the Internet plays an important role in the big picture. Consider this: In August 1991, Tim Berners-Lee published a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the newsgroup alt.hypertext. This date also marked the debut of the Web as a publicly available service on the Internet, and for this reason August 23 is considered Internaut’s Day, i.e. the birthday of the Internet.

Now, take that song you just recorded on your computer, rip it to MP3, and send it off into the world. Put it on MySpace, YouTube, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and Jango, and promote the shit out of it on Facebook. Congratulations, you have just released your first single! But think for a moment if art museums started opening their doors to unsolicited submissions, and upheld a promise to exhibit any and all works of fine art, just imagine what kind of thrift store menagerie you’d be walking into.

I have never believed that music is for everyone, nor is painting for everyone. Learning an instrument, playing in a band, facing and accepting failure time and time again are trials and tribulations that are part of the natural selective process. That’s why there are so few half-assed trumpet players in music. You gotta be committed to playing that horn.

1001_ProTools_1Though I don’t believe in it, I understand the idea that music can and should be for everyone, and the point of making music is not to make money, but to express something through the music, and that’s fine. Artists are free to express themselves in the digital format; it’s just that the bulk of it isn’t music. It’s something else now.

1001_Brian-Wilson_StudioYou can say such-and-such contemporary pop record is a great work of art, but it cannot be compared to a pop record made in 1966. Indeed, this has less to do with the music of the era than the way music will be made from here on out. And this is the first reason I think the list should stop and start over here.

I’m not saying that digital music doesn’t sound great – it does. If I’ve missed anything, I certainly don’t know about it. And this is not to say that great music hasn’t been made since 1992 – it has. I can think of at least a dozen post-analog albums that are very near and dear to my heart. Many of those albums were recorded on analog tape, but somewhere along the way, in order to get them on to CD, they had to go through some sort of digital manipulation. In conclusion, I may never come around to the idea of computer music, and that’s also fine. I’m content to chill out in my cave of analog rock antiquity, mainly because I’ve given up on my own aspirations.

Next.

1001_Hip-hopA recent article on CNN.com (Is rap the most important music since 1960? Scientists say they have proof by Jethro Mullen) described a study published recently in the journal Royal Society Open Science, which says the most important development in pop music in the past 50 years is hip-hop.

In the study, the researchers employed scientific severity and discounted “musical lore and aesthetic judgment”, citing a lack of empirical evidence in discussion of popular music. Using music recognition technology – similar to the apps SoundHound and Shazam – they analyzed more than 17,000 songs; 86% of the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 between 1960 and 2010.

Taking 30-second clips of each song, researchers further categorized these samples into topics relating to harmony and timbre, like “major chords without changes” and “guitar, loud, energetic.” Teaming up with the Internet music site Last.fm, the researchers then studied how the different topics fit into different genres and styles, and how their popularity rose and fell over the decades.

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Here are some of the most interesting findings of the study:

  • The rise of rap music and related genres appears to be “the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts” in the period the research covered.
  • Despite talk of a “British invasion,” bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones didn’t set off the revolution in American music in 1964. But they did benefit from it and “fanned its flames.”
  • Although many people complain that pop music has gotten more and more samey, diversity actually increased in the ’80s and ’90s as hip-hop emerged and flourished. The researchers said they found “no evidence for the progressive homogenization of music in the charts.”
  • The low point for variety was in the early 1980s, when genres like new wave, disco and hard rock dominated.

The impact of hip-hop cannot be under-estimated, said music journalist Dorian Lynskey. “It redefines what counts as a pop song and what elements you can use: the rapping on one level takes you away from the need for vocal melodies, while the production on the other is more about loops than chords and sampling.

“Hip-hop us a realization of how James Brown saw music, which is that it’s about the beats and grooves rather than chords and harmonies. It’s the realization of the innovations of funk.”

1001_U2_AchtungThe study by the researchers also identified three key years in which music evolved the most: 1964, 1983 and 1991. Lynskey said that for him, the last of these three years was the most exciting. “I think 1991 was such a diverse year for albums: You have Achtung Baby by U2, which is the sound of a big mainstream stadium act radically overhauling its sound, you’ve got Nevermind by Nirvana which sees alternative underground music suddenly becoming a big seller, continuing to this day.

“Then there are these genre-mixing albums, Screamadelica (Primal Scream), Foxbase Alpha (St. Etienne) and Blue Lines (Massive Attack) which are all empowered by sampling and new technology, and the idea that your record collection can be edited and merged to form something new. Along with Loveless by My Bloody Valentine – these albums are not just collections of classic songs, they’re about experiments and expanding the parameters – those records spawned so much.”

***

The mainstream success of alternative rock was a decade in the making and should not have taken anyone by surprise, but nobody really saw the hip-hop revolution coming except for the artists themselves.


Key:

Strikethrough indicates what you probably think it does
Green indicates highly recommended listening
Underlined indicates questionable but ultimately acceptable record
Blue bold italic indicates ABSOLUTELY MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE
Note: Suggested alternatives are from the same year as the contested entry unless otherwise indicated
Also, anything in Red generally indicates hazardous material

  1. 1001_ATCQ_LowA Tribe Called Quest – Low End Theory (1991)

The hardest thing in writing about music is that often times you’re trying to write about something that can’t be put into words.

  1. Crowded House – Woodface (1991)

On the other hand, some artists make it real easy for you, especially when they put out innocuous, middle of the road albums consisting entirely of borderline adult contemporary rock.

  1. Cypress Hill – Cypress Hill (1991)

1001_Cypress-HillAt no point in my years of music appreciationism have I been more impressed by a new artist than Cypress Hill and “How I Could Just Kill a Man”.

  1. Gang Starr – Step In The Arena (1991)

I’m not sold on these cats. They were influential on the East Coast rap scene, and in some ways, directly responsible for Wu-Tang Clan. There is a hardcore thread running through this record that definitely shows up in future artists. They had some sick rhymes with lyrical substance, but it never really gets cooking on Step. It’s reminiscent of ATCQ, but with none of the excitement or verve. It’s just kind of…there.

Suggested Alternative:
Ice Cube – Death Certificate

1001_Ice-Cube_DeathWhile Fear of a Black Planet may be the best hip-hop record ever made, Death Certificate is by far my favorite hip-hop record, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my brother Ronnie Kwasman of Bob and Ron’s Record Club for turning me on to this, and a shit load of other records that I probably wouldn’t have heard if not for him.

  1. Ice T – OG: Original Gangster (1991)

You could have knocked me over with a wave of your hand the first time I heard this record.

  1. Jah Wobble & The Invaders Of The Heart – Rising Above Bedlam (1991)

1001_Jah-WobbleYou seriously do not need to hear any more of this world music stuff than necessary. The application of “world music” heard here on Rising Above Bedlam is false. World music is bastardized, adulterated ethnic music under a convenient, marketable name. And so I bristle at the idea of taking, for instance, Senegalese folk music, and trying to dress it up in Western clothing. There’s a big difference between appreciation and Cosplay, and that’s one of the main reasons that Japanese noise punk bands are not considered world music, even though the genre is specific and endemic to Japan, and not a Western country.

The term world music arrived in the 80s as a marketing category for non-Western traditional music, and has grown to include hybrid subgenres such as world fusion, global fusion, ethnic fusion and worldbeat. Anything with the word “fusion” that doesn’t involve Miles Davis is not going on my turntable. End of.

Here’s what you need to know about Jah Wooble: He was in Public Image Ltd., thus, you’ve heard most of his good ideas.

Suggested Alternative:
Fishbone – The Reality of My Surroundings

1001_Fishbone_RelaityThese cats knew how to put on A SHOW. After seeing them on this tour, I thought to myself, “How could our measly suburban rock outfit even share the same stage with those guys?” Google it. Anyway, I was so impressed by The Reality of My Surroundings that my abovementioned rock band immediately starting covering “Sunless Saturday”, and would continue to play it for the duration of the band’s existence.

  1. Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide (1991)

Unhappy with the over-produced My Nation Underground (1990) Cope changed directions, and unfortunately, headed for double LP territory. Seventy-five minutes of post-punk Julian Cope is completely unnecessary. One critic described this album as Iggy Pop doing Syd Barrett. I’d be into hearing that – if it were actually Iggy Pop doing Syd Barrett covers. I don’t know about Julian Cope’s talent for impressionism. How’s his Bill Cosby? Can he do the “Jell-O Pudding Pops” routine? “Froofie the Dog” is a classic hit, too.

1001_Julian-Cope-Peggy-Suicide-1991-frontBut you gotta give J-Co credit for trying to keep Peggy Suicide interesting. We’ll hear about his hatred of organized religion and his interest in women’s rights, the occult, alternative spirituality (including paganism and Goddess worship), animal rights, and ecology. Halfway through the record, he sits down for an interview on NPR with Terri Gross, and he talks about John Sinclair and the White Panther Party. Riveting stuff.

Julian Cope is most definitely a best-of collection artist. He’s got a single LP’s worth of tasty cuts. A couple of them are on Peggy Suicide.

Suggested Alternative:
1001_Mercury-RevMercury Rev – Yerself is Steam

Experimental neo-psych noise pop at its finest.

  1. Koffi Olomide – Haut De Gamme: Koweit, Rive Gauche (1991)

Congolese soukous singer, dancer, producer, and composer, also known by a multitude of other names and aliases. Soukous is a genre of dance music that originated from Cuban Rumba music in the Belgian Congo and French Congo during the 1940s and gained popularity throughout Africa.

I didn’t like it as much as I thought I wouldn’t. Rumba is bossa nova’s next door neighbor. Tango lives down the street.

  1. Massive Attack – Blue Lines (1991)

1001_MassiveAttackBlueLinesHoly fucking shit! How lucky am I to have never heard “Teardrop” before today? I swear to God that I have never, ever, not once ever listened to Massive Attack on purpose. If I am ever in a joint that starts playing music even slightly similar to this, I will leave. Period. Seriously, I’m listening to this shit and it’s UNBELIEVABLE you would consider this music. Two DJs and a graffiti artist, for shit’s sake.

Fuck. You know what? For two years right after I moved to Asia, I spent a lot of time in bars, dance clubs, and KTVs. There’s a fairly good chance that I have shaken my ass to Massive Attack at some point. But look, I wasn’t there to dance; I was there to meet women. Where’s the number one place to meet women? On the dance floor. And it worked, man. It fucking worked. Still, this is not music.

  1. Metallica – Metallica (1991)

I can’t say I was disappointed when Metallica jumped the shark on this record aka The Black Album. To be honest, I was in the mood to see Fonzie on the water again.

Despite the weak effort of …And Justice For All (1988), there was still a glimmer of hope for these guys. As a huge fan of Master of Puppets (1986) and to a lesser degree, Ride the Lightning (1985), seeing and hearing the arguably best thrash metal band of the 80s put out a radio-oriented mainstream rock album was like watching Michael Jordan play baseball a few years later.

1001_Michael-Jordan-BaseballI mean, come on, Mike. You’ve already conquered one sport. We want to see you play basketball – NOT baseball. We don’t give a rat’s ass if you strike out and/or ground out to second base 8 out 10 times you step up to the plate in Triple-A ball. And I don’t think you have the wheels to play any infield position, so…that means you’re playing right field. Just stand out there, try to pay attention to the strike count and the number of outs, and hope nobody hits anything your way. If they do, go toward the vicinity of where you think the ball might wind up, and…never mind. Here’s your glove.

Metallica is a classic mainstream hard rock album and you are going to hear it whether you like it or not. To be honest with you, I’ve sat all the way through it once, which was one time too many. “Enter Sandman”? Exit, this guy.

Suggested Alternative:
1001_Ween-ThePodWeen – The Pod

This record was a personal affirmation of sorts, in that, it really was possible, in some alternate universe, for a couple of stoners to sit around with a bong, a can of Scotchguard, and a four-track, and write utterly delightful rock songs that not only thought outside the box, they took the box outside and set it on fire.

  1. Mudhoney – Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (1991)

Say hello to Seattle grunge. Good noisy sloppy rockin’, and I guess you should give it a spin, but be forewarned; it ain’t Nevermind.

  1. My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)

1001_MBV_lovelessBy far – light years – the most original, unique, and spellbinding alternative guitar record since, well, ever. People may never stop trying to figure out Kevin Shields’ guitar sound.

  1. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)
  2. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)

Honestly, I’ve never owned a recording by either artist, and I’m completely content to be familiar with their radio hits and maybe a deep cut or two. Now that I’ve actually sat through both of these albums, here are my thoughts.

If you own one of these records, there is a 76% chance you own both of these records.

1001_Pearl-Jam_TenTen is arguably as important if not slightly more important than Nevermind. It has sold more copies in the U.S., [Ten is certified platinum 13x by the RIAA; Nevermind 10x] and everybody wanted to be Eddie Vedder. Nobody wanted to be Kurt Cobain. Most of us were alternate reality versions of K. Cobain. So we knew what to expect.

To date, Pearl Jam has sold nearly 32 million records in the U.S. and an estimated 60 million worldwide – and counting. They’ve outlasted and outsold all of their contemporaries from the alternative rock breakthrough of the early 1990s, and considered one of the most influential bands of that decade. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic referred to Pearl Jam as “the most popular American rock & roll band of the ’90s.”

1001_Eddie-V_2To put a finer point on it, Ten hit the G-spot for traditional mainstream hard rock fans, some of whom, as I recall, didn’t like the “grunge shit” and “alternative faggot stuff”, i.e. the Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, and Sonic Youth were far too edgy for rednecks and whatnot. Metal was over, Freddie Mercury was dead, and by this time, it was clear that Guns N’ Roses – Use Your Illusion wasn’t the answer to the question: What does the hillbilly redneck white trash world need right now?

In the grand scheme of things, PJ turned out to be a new classic rock band. You could like GN’R and PJ without losing a lot of sleep at night, or selling your Ford F-150 to buy a Vespa scooter. And they had “jam” in their name, which fans of the Grateful Dead and Ted Nugent could relate.

Musically, Ten has eleven songs plus a hidden track that I wasn’t happy about being arsed to find. Fuck you, by the way, if you put hidden tracks on your album for any other reason except to avoid copyright infringement. Otherwise, Ten contains at least three mainstream classic rock grand slams in “Even Flow”, “Alive”, and “Jeremy”. And “Black” was a huge radio hit, but I’d change the station if that shit came on.

1001_Eddie_ClimbingThe most recent Longest Nine Minutes of My Life happened during the listen to Track 11, “Release”. Oh my god. You fucking assholes are not Jane’s Addiction, or King Crimson, for that matter, so knock. It. Off. Already. Though I never saw PJ live, word on the street was they were pretty good. Hmmph.

Whereas these two bands have clearly different record collections – Pearl Jam loved the Who and Led Zeppelin; Nirvana were informed by the Stooges and Creedence Clearwater Revival – the main stylistic difference comes down to Eddie Veddar vs. Kurt Cobain as archetypal rock star, and it can be distilled thusly.

Cobain had a raspy thin voice with two gears: slacker drawl and tortured howl. Vedder had a far more dynamic vocal range and a much more traditional approach to singing – he actually sang, a lot, when he wasn’t shouting “Yeah!” or “Whoo!” or “Uhhhh-nngghh.” And for a while there, Vedder was a dedicated front man sans guitar, so he had the luxury of climbing on the scaffolding and shit.

1001_Nirvana_NevermindIf Nevermind has any glaring weaknesses, they are two-fold. First, it’s slick as hell. That was not the band’s intention, but that’s the final cut. The songs exploded from the speakers like the Kool-Aid Man, and I would be hard pressed to name a record from 1991 with better production values. How is that a weakness? Did you hear their first album Bleach? We’re not on Sub Pop anymore, Dorothy.

This is formulaic radio-friendly quasi-grunge, and there is everything in the world wrong with the first half of this sentence. It’s an exceedingly polished and appealing collection of punk pop songs. Nothing I can say, or do, will ever change that.

1001_Nirvana_BleachSecond, it gets terribly screamy after a while. By the time we get to Track 10 “Stay Away”, I don’t think I need to hear any more screaming vocals for the next couple of days. Overall, it’s a hard-charging record, and I could easily see dialing it in during a cross-country road trip.

I don’t have anything else to say about Nevermind. It is what it is. But please note: Of the 10 million people who bought this album, yours truly is not one of them. And by “bought” I mean both purchased and fully appreciated.

  1. Primal Scream – Screamadelica (1991)

1001_Primal-CreamI’m giving scientist Dorian Lynskey and 1001 AYMHBYD the benefit of the doubt here.

  1. Public Enemy – Apocalypse ‘91…The Enemy Strikes Back (1991)

Only the true greats have been able to follow up a masterpiece with something equally worthy of best-ever status. The Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, the Who, etc. Add Public Enemy to the list. The collaboration with Anthrax (“Bring the Noize”) might be the hottest rock jam ever. E-V-E-R.

  1. Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magic (1991)

1001_RHCP_BloodThis album is probably more responsible for fraternity rape culture than beer.

  1. Saint Etienne – Foxbase Alpha (1991)

Sophisti-pop. No dice. See Cocteau Twins and Everything About the Girl.

  1. Sepultura – Arise (1991)

1001_Sepultura__AriseArise is the first truly worthwhile metal album in at least two years, if you don’t count GWAR’s Scumdogs of the Universe.

  1. Slint – Spiderland (1991)

I used to hang out with this cat who loved Spiderland, in fact, on several occasions he called it the best album ever made. And that really didn’t bother me, since we usually hung out at my joint after the pub had closed, and I didn’t have Spiderland in stock. What used to piss me off was his attitude toward my not having the record.

1001_Slint_Spider“Dude, seriously,” he’d say. “You don’t have Slint’s Spiderland.”

“Eh,” I would shrug, “they’re not my thing.”

He would sneer dismissively, “You’re a moron.”

Now, we were good enough pals that we could call each other a moron with impunity. But it rubbed me the wrong way because his attitude symbolized the exact type of elitist, art school snobbery that just about everybody who likes this record is guilty of exhibiting at one time or another. Of course, I’m not above calling someone a moron for liking an album, but in this situation, I would take a different approach.

“Look,” I’d counter, “the fact that you call me a moron for not liking Slint doesn’t change the fact that I think it’s mediocre American shoegazing with very little substance.”

“It’s one of the most influential guitar albums ever, and probably the first post-rock album.” My friend knew his stuff.

“My point exactly. All of the succeeding bands who went on to make their own Spiderland are bands I can’t be bothered with.”

  1. Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque (1991)

1001_Teenage_BandDo you remember back in 1974-75, I was going on and on about how Big Star was going to be a massive influence on a new wave of bands at some indeterminate time in the future? Well, I probably should have included Badfinger and 10cc in the discussion. But the point is, have a listen to this.

Bandwagonesque is the ambition of almost every alternative rock band on the planet in 1991. Sonic Youth meets Cheap Trick and Elvis Costello at Big Star’s house. They play foosball in the basement and… Pffft. Can I say something? The majority of alternative rock bands suck balls. They put the balls in their mouths and they suck ‘em. For no good reason.

Suggested Alternative:
Sloan – Peppermint EP (1992)

What do you get when you cross Sonic Youth with nothing more than the Beatles? Genius! “Underwhelmed” is one of the best solid rock songs of the 90s, and Sloan might be one of the greatest Canadian rock bands ever.

  1. U2 – Achtung Baby (1991)

If Metallica jumped the shark, U2 tried to jump the fountain at Caesar’s Palace ala Evel Knievel, and we all know how that ill-advised stunt ended. Not well.

When your lead singer starts wearing sunglasses on stage, he’s either Ray Charles or he’s a fucking dick. I got news for you, Daddy-O. That guy has to go…to the beach!

Why couldn’t Boner and the lads ‘ve simply called this record Your Attention, Please? Or Ahem, a Bit of Phlegm. Back in the day, somebody in our crew bought this album and from the opening guitar crunch of “Zoo Station”, instinctively, I knew this was the worst rock record since Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms (1985).

And I sometimes think Achtung Baby might be worse, and by worse, I mean, top to bottom sad. It’s a past-their-prime, let’s reinvent ourselves, rock band identity crisis collage of stupid shit. Dance music? Why? What was wrong with the post-punk alternative stadium rock format? You were the Irish Bon Jovi. Now you want to be played in the clubs? Hey, maybe Aphex Twin can do a remix! You want to hang with those tweakers in Primal Scream? Are you going to start rapping over 808 beats? Dope. You can’t front on that.

1001_U2-BBSeriously, Achtung Baby is bullshit more egregious than trotting out B.B. King for Rattle and Hum (1987), and directly responsible for Coldplay. And “One” is the most tepid, meandering power ballad since R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”, meaning last week.

Boner called Achtung: “U2 at our funkiest… Sly and the Family Stone meets Madchester baggy.” The one thing everybody liked about U2 in the first place is that they had very little “funk” in ‘em. They made white people rock music, which is generally what white people do when they are given an option. Gang of Four was not funk. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are not funk. You must be joking.

1001_MDMAIf U2 was your favorite band in 1991, they just spit in your stupid, MDMA smiley face. And I don’t have a hanky.

  1. Alice In Chains – Dirt (1992)

Alice In Chains were a marginal influence on the future of alternative metal, but…no. It’s a super-druggy record and not in a good way. Everybody involved in the making of this record had big problems. And it sounds like it. But overall, a fine piece of hard rockery.

Suggested Alternative:
Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger (1991)

1001_Soundgarden_BadPeople forget that Soundgarden was relatively popular as early as 1989 with Louder Than Love, and predate some of the bigger names were destined to encounter in the very near future. Plus, this is a delicious serving of alternative metal, and snuffs out Alice in Chains like a cigarette.

  1. Aphex Twin – Selected Ambient Works 85-92 (1992)

I like it – no, I appreciate when artists use the title to warn me of what’s actually on an album. Bands don’t “name the genre” like they used to in the old days, and I suppose they really can’t. What would a band Soundgarden call their third album? 15 Alternative Prog Rock Jams? Too clunky.

1001_AphexAphex Twin is one of the first “rock star” DJs – guys who spin dance records at dumbshit parties and call themselves artists – to emerge from the rave scene, which is now in full effect. In those days, kids who dressed in rave culture fashions are today’s equivalent to kids who wear Ed Hardy. Thank you for the advance warning.

Must Hear Suggested Alternative:
Beastie Boys – Check Your Head

1001_Beastie_CheckWe’re too far down the rabbit hole to keep complaining about obvious and egregious 1001 Albums oversights, but this one… Christ Almighty. Check Your Head is easily one of the ten best records of the 90s, if not the last 25 years, in any genre.

  1. Arrested Development – 3 Years, 5 Months And 2 Days In The Life Of Arrested Development (1992)

And one hit single. Don’t forget to mention that, while you’re at it. But, kudos.

Suggested Alternative:
Ween – Pure Guava

1001_Ween_PureWeen was our little secret for a couple of years, weren’t they? And then, ka-boom, “Push th’ Little Daisies” and MTV, here we come. Pure Guava is their third full-length album and first on a major label (Elektra), and considerably more polished though no less inventive than their previous work. Although “Daises” was good fun, the rest of this album is Pure Genius. But you had to be in on the joke. Things don’t get cooking until Track 3 “The Stallion, Pt.3”.

  1. Baaba Maal – Lam Toro (1992)

Which is the better? This, or Djam Leelii? Dunno.

  1. Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy – Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury (1992)

I don’t want to hate on these cats too hard, but that’s a fucking terrible band name. Inventing your own word is gauche. Just ask Kajagoogoo, Hoobastank, and Chumbawumba. I mean, it’s clever, but clever only goes so far.

  1. KD Lang – Ingenue (1992)

1001_KD-LangYeah, OK. Get your butch on. It’s about as classy as it gets.

  1. Lemonheads – It’s a Shame About Ray (1992)

Despite my tireless and striving efforts, I can’t seem to find a reason why this album should be a Must Hear.

You’re welcome to do the same.

Ray was mildly popular at the time it came out, but when the Lemonheads eventually faded back into obscurity, nobody missed them. Thanks to his good looks and boyish charm (People named him one of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in 1993), Evan Dando became something of a curiosity, particularly as he slid into drug addiction and who knows what.

1001_LemonheadsBut back to the album, there are maybe a couple of toe-tappers on It’s a Shame, and that’s it. Do you want me to name them? Sssssh. The cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” which brought the Lemonheads to the mainstream was not included on the original release, but eventually tacked on the re-issue. That would make a total of four toe-tappers on here, max.

Meanwhile, I can’t find one band that names the Lemonheads as a primary influence, and I suspect that’s because nobody found this throwaway pastiche of punkish indie pop, country and metal to be substantial enough to copy. I could always be wrong and Green Day doesn’t exist without the Lemonheads. Pretty sure I’m right though.

Not a Suggested Alternative But Generally More Important as an Artifact:
Soul Asylum – Grave Dancers Union

1001_Soul-AsylumThree big cuts on this album, including Dave Pirner’s first power ballad, the Grammy-winning “Runaway Train”, which is important because a bunch of bands are immediately going to start writing and recording “Runaway Train, Part 2”, ad infinitum. On the other hand, “Somebody to Shove” and “Black Gold” received substantial modern and mainstream rock radio airplay. All told, Grave has sold in excess of three million copies in the U.S. alone.

  1. Ministry – Psalm 69 (1992)

More industrial metal from Uncle Al. Would it have killed him to give us a scrap of melody here and there? Anyway, this is probably the most relentless record of the last three years or so. I don’t know of another industrial record that reeks of amphetamine sweat like Psalm 69. Tell you what. You go on without me.

Suggested Alternative:
Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine (1989)

1001_NIN_PrettyNIN released Broken in 1992, but it’s only marginally better than Psalm 69, in the sense that punching a shark in the snout is marginally as effective as gouging it in the eye socket. The band – Trent Reznor and Friends – make a Must Hear record in 1994 (The Downward Spiral), but I think we probably should give Pretty Hate Machine (1989) a spin, that is, if we’re determined to get a bellyful of is alternative industrial rock kibble.

  1. Morrissey – Your Arsenal (1992)

Given the vaguely homoerotic nature of his previous work (and album covers, natch), how could you not read the title of this record as some kind of gay/butt/arse innuendo? Poor old sad sack Morrissey. The one thing you could count on with this cat was at least one clever or slightly amusing song title per album, in this case, “You’re the One for Me, Fatty”.

1001_Morrissey_YourOn a positive note, critics say Your Arsenal is his hardest rocking album to date. Let’s get one thing straight. Morrissey may have crooned, swooned, posed and preened, but never, not once, ever rocked. He co-wrote some top-notch songs in the alternative rock genre, but he never once sounded happy about it. So Moz doesn’t “rock.” Not in the traditional sense of rocking. He’d have looked silly jumping up on stage during an Aerosmith encore.

Suggested Alternative:
The Flaming Lips – Hit to Death in the Future Head

1001_Flaming-Lips_HitNot the go-to album from this band, but it’s their breakthrough hit, and it doesn’t sound like Morrissey.

  1. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Henry’s Dream (1992)

Like Dire Straits, if you like Nick Cave, you’re going to listen to his music no matter what I think, and you are right to believe that my opinion should be punched in the spleen. If you are undecided about Nick Cave, this record just might change your mind either way. If you are unaware of Nick Cave, then you haven’t been paying attention; we have already heard the Birthday Party. If you don’t like Nick Cave, then you don’t like Nick Cave and that’s the end of that.

Suggested Alternative:
Screaming Trees – Sweet Oblivion

Sweet Oblivion is one of those records I revisit every so often and think, “Man, why wasn’t this a massive hit? Why were the airwaves clogged with Mary J. Bilge?” But I know the answers to both questions.

  1. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Devotional Songs (1992)

This is not world music; it’s Qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis. And it’s incredible.

  1. Pantera – Vulgar Display Of Power (1992)

Ladies and gentlemen of metal, I have bad news for you. This is nowhere near as good as you think it is, but then again, Metallica hasn’t touched this shit in six years. The truth is these cats have the weight of the metal world on their shoulders.

Suggested Alternative:
1001_Rollins-BandRollins Band – The End of Silence

Probably the best thing Henry Rollins ever did. Shrug. Not sure what those guys in Pantera are talking about, but I’m guessing it’s along the lines of “Low Self Opinion”.

  1. P.J. Harvey – Dry (1992)

You must hear this album before you die because if you don’t, you’re going to die thinking that Chrissie Hynde and Wendy O. Williams were the end-all-be-all of women in rock.

  1. R.E.M. – Automatic For The People (1992)

Hey, bet you didn’t notice that R.E.M.’s attempt to jump the Grand Canyon, 1991’s Out of Time, didn’t make the official 1001 Albums list. That’s too bad. It also means I have to take time to talk about the full smorgasbord of complete bullshit they foisted upon the general public.

1001_R.E.M._OutHonestly, we’re not getting out of here without a jawbone about the travesty that is now R.E.M. and the record that redefined the meaning of shitball, Out of Time. You’re free to skip this part and get to the actual discussion about Automatic For the People, but you never know. You might get a chuckle or two out of this.

Up until very recently, the gold standard for shitball pop songs had to be Starship’s “We Built This City (On Rock and Roll)”, but let’s not forget Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” and basically every power metal ballad this side of Night Ranger. So, we’re dodging shitballs every time we turn on the radio in 1991-92.

R.E.M. showed flashes of fraudulence on their previous record Green (1988), notably on their first top 10 hit, “Stand”. Had anyone suspected they would allow this treachery to dominate their music, I’d like to think that someone might have tried to stop them. Out of Time opens with our first serving of shitball, “Radio Song” featuring KRS-One, which not only contains a freestyle rap section, but Michael Stipe’s first-ever recorded “Hey hey hey!” Oh, and a string section. Pffftt. Fuckin’ assholes.

1001_StipeTrack 2 is the big smash hit, “Losing My Religion”, a maudlin power ballad reeking of homoerotica and self-loathing. I don’t know why those two go together so well, but as Morrissey can tell you, it’s like peanut butter and jelly. But instead of a glass of milk to wash it down, you get served a shitball smoothie. Holy Christ, was this a major disappointment. R.E.M. finally gets played on mainstream radio with disturbing regularity, and it’s not just probably the worst song they’ve ever done – it’s by far the worst. But wait. There’s 11 tracks on Out of Time.

Tracks 3-5 are an unremarkable slog through mediocre Beach Boy-isms, conga drums, and acoustic guitars. Shitball, for sure, but innocuously unpleasant at worst. And then we get to Track 6, “Shiny Happy People”, our new champion of Shitball – the worst song in the history of popular music. Think of all the years that we bowed and scraped before the altar of Michael Stipe, and trust that he will find the delete button of your memory.

I really don’t have to do very much here. The first time I heard this song I said, “You have got to be kidding me, R.E.M.” They weren’t. Well, not exactly, see, this is what they called an “ironic pop song”. You were supposed to think it was tongue and cheek; that they set out to write the most shitball pop song of all-time. That was the idea, the ruse, the conceit. Hearing this song on the radio or your own stereo, you might think R.E.M. had succeeded in their quest for irony. Until you saw the video.

Not a fucking whisper of irony in the video, folks. Did you see any? I saw shameless promotion of an album that will sell 18 million copies worldwide. I saw Michael Stipe wearing a stupid beanie. I saw the entire band genuinely smiling, knowing that they are about to become filthy rich.

1001_shiny_happy_peeps-1316794893No, if R.E.M. wanted to make the perfect video for an ironic pop song, they should have had ME direct it, cuz I’m telling you, it would have been four minutes of human sacrifice, disembowlments, decapitations, immolations, and tattoo removals gone horribly wrong. You want shiny happy people? How about if we actually coat a bunch of children in latex, surgically repair their faces to a permanent smile, and one by one, throw them from the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater like David Letterman’s watermelon, each with a GoPro strapped to their heads.

As for the Must Hear album in question, Automatic For the People, it picks up where “Losing My Religion” left off.

Suggested Alternative:
1001_Jesus-LizardThe Jesus Lizard – Liar

And the Jesus Lizard picked up where Public Image Ltd. left off, and took it way way way beyond the threshold of pleasure. Heavens! These cats are fuckin’ top notch.

  1. Sonic Youth – Dirty (1992)
  2. Spiritualized – Lazer Guided Melodies (1992)

Both of these albums are OK. There’s always the off-chance that one of ‘em may have changed some kid’s life. It’s possible.

  1. Stereo MCs – Connected (1992)

Rrrrrrrrruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuubbbbbbbbbbbbbiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiisssssshhhhh.

  1. Sugar – Copper Blue (1992)

Massive, enormous, staggering props to Bob Mould for being the first guy to name a band Sugar.

Wait. Was he?

It started with watching Evel Knievel, and then Robbie Knievel, and next thing I knew, I was watching compilations of motorcycle stunts gone wrong. Look, riding a motorcycle is a personal choice. Watching video after video clip of motorcyclists making bad decisions and/or being in the wrong place at the wrong time is also a choice. Being entertained by it, I suspect, is universal. Except for motorcycle enthusiasts. And to them, I would say, “Stop trying to jump over shit and I’ll stop laughing when you fail. For real.”

1001_SugarOne of the brilliant things about Husker Du is they had two songwriters in Bob Mould and Grant Hart, and for the most part, their records are split 50/50. Starting with his 1989 solo debut Workbook, Bob Mould stagnated as a solo artist. Workbook is a great and under-rated affair, but he wouldn’t make another influential record, ever.

Sugar is the closest thing to a hypothetical question of “What If Husker Du Had Survived?” It’s been five years though. And you can hear traces of Husker Du in Sugar, mainly because of Mould’s voice, but it’s a slower, radio-friendly mix of mid-tempo 4/4 tap-a-longs. Halfway through Copper Blue, there are no “hits.”

How many bands have a tambourine player? Then why would you feature tambourine on every track? Listen to “Helpless”, which would have been the best track on the LP if the lead instrument were something other than tambourine.

  1. The Pharcyde – Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde (1992)

Eh…this is a stretch.

Maybe, Just Maybe, Suggested Alternative:
Primus – Sailing the Seas of Cheese

We might have slept on Frizzle Fry (1990). The jury is out, indefinitely.

  1. Tom Waits – Bone Machine (1992)

Enough already, Tom.

Suggested Alternative:
1001_KyussKyuss – Blues for the Red Sun

Stoner rock, baby, makes real good drinkin’ music. Ho-lee-shit. This is seriously heavy rock, but I don’t know that I’d want to hear Blues when I’m sober.

  1. Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes (1992)

No dice. You’ll hear her next record. Maybe.

***

And that’s it, folks. I haven’t decided whether or not to pursue 1001 Albums Released Between 1993-2015 You Must Hear Before You Die…Or Not. If more than one person shoots me an email and says, “Hey, you should keep going,” then I might entertain the idea. Anyway, let this stand as a shining example of biting off far more than you could possibly chew in one sitting.