Archive for October, 2012


Though it’s not one my top 10, a movie I greatly admire is Dead Poets Society. It was released when I was pretty young, but I was aware of it because my older sister loved the artistic passion it portrayed and the lightly angsty atmosphere it had floating above it. And that it had a bunch of hunky young guys in it probably helped her along. However, it stars a rather un-hunky guy, Robin Williams. He plays an English teacher at an expensive prep school who ignites his students’ passions to create and be bigger than they currently are, which motivate them to seize life and take some fantastic chances. Unfortunately for one of them, this also meant not knowing where to go when everything was pulled out from under him.

Williams’ character gives a speech to his students, the highlight of which is this: “We are food for worms, lads. Believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold and die.” A pretty morbid statement on the face of it, but he was explaining the Robert Herrick poem To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time. The Latin language can sum up that whole poem with two words: carpe diem.

That Latin phrase means “seize the day,” but if you didn’t already know that… well, nevermind. The sentiment means living life to its fullest each day, and never letting an opportunity pass you by. On the one hand, I see this as foolish. There is no better way to set yourself up for failure than to set unachievable goals for yourself, and carpe diem, in its most literal form, is impossible. One simply cannot take advantage of every opportunity because opportunities are split into two; for every road you go down, you sacrifice going down another. If you take the left fork, you’ll never know what’s down the right one.

On the other hand, that, I think, is not what carpe diem is supposed to mean. It’s not meant to be treated like a goal, but a platitude. In Dead Poets Society, the correct usage of carpe diem is summed up in a scene in which Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) is at a party, a few drinks in him, when he sees the girl he’s madly in love with passed out on a couch. The room is filled with drunk people, she’s asleep and not gonna remember this anyway, so what’s the harm in giving her a little kiss? Big harm, apparently, because her burly quarterback of a boyfriend catches him in the act, thinks he’s doing a lot more than giving her a kiss on the forehead, and punches his lights out. But he DID kiss her, and set in motion a chain of events that ended with the girl dumping her boyfriend for Knox. Score!

you tell ’em, Mr. President!

Carpe diem is translated far and wide as “seize the day,” but that’s just a more poetic and less useful way of saying “don’t waste your time.” Pink Floyd understood this concept, and they fully explore it with “On the Run” and “Time.” “On the Run,” like “Speak to Me,” is not really a song. It’s just a collection of sound effects and a little dialog set over a frantic bass line. It might also be the first dubstep song. That bass line is made out of four notes being played on the keyboard of a synthesizer, sped up to about 50x speed, and then looped. It’s so fast that it doesn’t even sound like notes anymore.

But if one shifts their understanding and doesn’t think of it as a song, it becomes clear that it’s about hurrying. When we speed through life without even an occasional pause, we miss out on what could be most important. The frenetic pace of running at such a speed can only have one result, as the explosion that ends the piece makes clear.

After the explosion and long fade-out that ends “On the Run,” “Time” starts with just the quiet sounds of ticking clocks. They tick for a few seconds, then all chime the hour at the same time in a cacophonous flurry of noise that makes you cover your ears. The first time I listened to it, I was incredibly frustrated with Pink Floyd; we were 8 and a half minutes into the record, and they had only given me 2 minutes and 45 seconds of actual music! And this is one of the greatest albums ever made? It’s just frickin’ sound effects! I’m getting my money back…

But then about a minute into “Time,” a powerful note strikes, followed by its minor 3rd (I guess those music theory classes were worth something) and my ears prick up. This is slow, doomy, and standard Floyd. Then comes the first verse and chorus, delivered with much more oomph than Floyd listeners at the time were used to.

“Time” relates to the concept of Dark Side as the first idea that’s explored in this series of about Why People Go Nuts. “On the Run” communicates what happens when we go too fast, and here we have the opposite. Enjoying life’s little moments can become inactivity, and that’s taking it too far. All too often we realize too late that we haven’t actually lived, even though so much time has passed. Before you know it, as the movie Inception says, you’re “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.”

The guitar solo of “Time” simply blows me away, particularly with its volume and intensity. A prerequisite for a great guitar solo seems to be that the faster the notes come the better, but this one’s different. It’s not the number of notes that are packed into that tiny space, because “Time” doesn’t have a lot of speed to it. What matters are the sound and the force of the solo. David Gilmour is like Jimi Hendrix slowed way down; he plays with the same intensity, but he’s not in any hurry.

Next: the best things in life are free, but you can give them to the birds and bees… or some crap like that.

Concept-ish

My wife is really smart. I’m smart too, in my own way, but she’s smart in a way that’s much more acknowledged by the world. She even has a PhD to back it up. Not only is she a lecturer in chemistry at a very large state-run university, but she’s in charge of an entire lab space that is about 20x the size of our apartment. She has a very analytical mind, and she’s pretty good at ferreting out the truth of a thing as long as the information given to her is accurate. She has a phrase for when something seems legit, but isn’t: it’s a “bunch a’ hooey.”

bonus points/ridicule if you can name all 4 people on this cover

Several things have qualified for the bunch-a’-hooey status in her mind, but in mine, a chief one is the “concept album.” The best bead I can get on the definition of a concept album is that it has a unified idea that it puts forward. Back in February, when I started this blog, I mentioned that all the best albums are like this, that indeed this is something of a requirement for it to be considered an album and not just a collection of songs.

I looked up lists of the greatest concept albums of all time and found things like Sgt. Pepper, The Dark Side of the Moon, and Ziggy Stardust. With those, you could be just prattling off the easiest answers to “best album of all time” and avoiding telling me anything about concept albums. Still others were so obscure they’re hardly worth mentioning. Paste Magazine’s list was 90% you’ve-probably-never-heard-of-them. I forgot for a second that Paste may as well be called Hipsters Only.

Despite the questionable status of the term, it’s generally agreed upon that The Dark Side of the Moon is the best concept album of all time. To the rock music press in general, this is the Mack Daddy Holy Bible of all albums, in some cases trumping even IV and the mighty Sgt. Pepper. I respectfully disagree; it’s not even the best Pink Floyd album. And if the definition of “concept album” is just “it has a theme,” there are albums with much stronger themes that stick to them more.

Reading all this, you would think I don’t hold The Dark Side of the Moon in very high esteem, so I didn’t do a very god job of representing my thoughts. Let me be clear: The Dark Side of the Moon is AWESOME. It’s hard to believe this album was made in 1973; it seems about 10 years ahead of its time. It’s still influencing musicians even to this day. It doesn’t behave like normal albums of music do, but it doesn’t spiral down to esoteric obscurity as you would expect. It innovative and different while still having loads of appeal, which is a difficult trick to pull off.

The Dark Side of the Moon’s theme (it does actually have one) is madness. The album goes through phases that highlight a particular thing that drives people towards insanity. I can’t say it moves from song to song, since Dark Side is much fuzzier than that. There are 9 tracks (and technically 10 songs), but only four subjects are explored, with an intro and outro speaking about insanity in general terms.

The beginning of the first phase, the intro, is just a collection of sound effects that occur elsewhere on the album. “Speak to Me” isn’t really a song; instead, it includes a heartbeat, ticking clocks, helicopter noises, the sounds of a cash register, and some frantic screaming. “Speak to Me” also contains parts of a series of interviews Roger Waters had with members of Pink Floyd’s band crew, as well as people who just happened to be in the studio at the time. Waters started the interviews with mundane questions like “What is your favorite color?” Then he moved on to things like “When was the last time you were violent?” followed by “Were you in the right?” Everyone was a little sheepish with the former, but vehement in the affirmative with the latter. A female interviewee talk about an altercation she had with an older gentleman, saying “that geezer was cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”

This leads directly from a backwards cymbal crash into the next song, “Breathe.” This is what Floyd is known for; soft, spacey music that both excites and woos. “Breathe” discusses madness in terms of doing what’s expected of you by everyone from society to your girlfriend. According to Pink Floyd, that leads to insanity. There must be a lot of insane people out there, then…

Henry David Thoreau, the original punk rocker (I’m only half kidding)

But maybe, just maybe, that’s the point Pink Floyd is trying to make. In another song, “Time,” the lyrics are “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.” Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and the Floyd calls on Thoreau’s tradition of absolute liberty and freedom to pursue any dream that enters your head to combat the attitude of complacency and inactivity. By falling in line, doing what you’re told and fulfilling everyone else’s expectations of you, you may be ignoring yourself and thus losing yourself. And what is insanity if not what happens to you once you lose yourself?

Next: an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone…

Anonymous

Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon – 3/1/1973

I’ve talked about personality-based bands before; most of the best bands are based on not just music but who is making that music. The Beatles are an excellent example. So much of their popularity (at least initially) came from who they were as people, not just musicians. The fact that they were four very visible and appealing youngsters gave their fans something visual to latch on to, something that went beyond mere music. The Beatles’ fans felt that they knew them as people, that every time they played one of their records they were inviting friends into their home.

Personality is a distinct advantage, but the flipside is when you don’t have the musical chops to back it up. Countless artists and bands use up their musical cache in one shot, creating the cliché of the One Hit Wonder. OHWs get by on their one hit and make up for the rest in personality. Their flame is bright, but it quickly burns itself out.

And then there are personality machines, the boy bands and girl groups and the like. These musical acts are all personality, with little to no musical merit to them. Only a miniscule portion of the thought and energy put into their creation is spent on the music they perform.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Pink Floyd. If acts like the Spice Girls, One Direction, Ke$ha, and the New Kids On the Block are all personality and no music, then Pink Floyd is the exact opposite – all music and a distinctly absent personality. Granted, they were around before this modern age of musical artist being recognized for how they look just as much as how they sound – we have MTV to thank for that. But the fact is that Pink Floyd are really just four quiet, shy, unobtrusive Englishmen, and much more representative of the typical British citizen than other more flamboyant and radical acts. Where Brits like Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Johnny Rotten explode in a fury of “look at me, look at me,” Pink Floyd is almost anonymous.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a visual element to what they did – quite the opposite, actually. Pink Floyd is one of the pioneers of visual spectacle in rock music. At their live shows, they used to have a huge screen hanging from the roof of the stage on which they would project multi-colored psychedelic abstracts, moving and pulsating like the band itself. And in 1982, they made a feature film to go along with their 1979 concept double album, The Wall.

Pink Floyd’s album covers, though, are probably the most striking way they set themselves apart. Seven of them were designed by Storm Thorgerson, and a few more by Hipgnosis, the studio he heads. Pink Floyd had a very lucrative partnership throughout the 70s until he and Floyd bassist Roger Waters had a falling out. In the early 80s, Roger had a further falling out with his band mates and quit. David Gilmour kept making Floyd records, and Storm came back to design those.

Storm’s work is vivid, unsettling, and a special and unique sort of beautiful. When you look at a Storm picture, it’s like you’re an alien looking quizzically the strange planet called Earth you’ve just arrived at. In many instances, they have subtle yet scathing messages, while others are simple yet difficult to interpret. And Hipgnosis is responsible for one of the most famous covers in all of rock and roll history, and it’s nothing but light passing through a prism.

The cover for Muse’s Black Holes & Revelations, designed by Storm Thorgerson

Those who know of the relationship between Thorgerson and Pink Floyd just assume that he designed the cover art for The Dark Side of the Moon, but actual credit goes to George Hardie, a designer at Hipgnosis. It came out of Floyd keyboardist Richard Wright’s request for something “simple and bold.” The folks at Hipgnosis came up with seven different designs, and the prism one was agreed upon by the band members to be by far the best.

The triangle features into the design of the album in more than just the cover, too. Inside the gatefold is an infrared picture of the Great Pyramids at Giza, designed by Storm and Hipgnosis co-founder Aubrey Powell. The original LP also came with several triangle-themed stickers. I’m not sure what the triangle symbol means, but my guess would be something to do with the triangle’s long association with mysticism and esoteric knowledge.

Next: that geezer was cruisin’ for a bruisin’.

Wrong Side of the Tracks

Hope United Methodist Church

From as far back as I can remember until I was about 10, my family attended Hope United Methodist Church in Belchertown, MA. My parents were leaders of Hope’s youth group while they were there. It started out with about 6 kids, but grew to about 20 or 22. They ran it for about 6 years. I was young, so my memories of that are obscured by the clouds of passed time, but I remember a few things. One of them is Tanya.

Tanya was the best friend of a girl who lived on our street and went to our church, named Crissy. Crissy was a Christian and Tanya wasn’t, but they both came to youth group; it started as Crissy dragging Tanya, but it was such a warm place that she stayed.

I wasn’t yet a teenager, so it wasn’t my youth group (my own youth group is a whole different ball of wax), but I remember my parents’ tried to make it as welcoming and as spiritually nurturing a place as possible. They made no bones about it being Christ-centered, and it was no secret that if you came, you were gonna hear about God. But my parents also tried to meet the kids where they were, and for some of them, that meant not really knowing much about God or Christianity.

Back to Tanya. She was a Belchertown girl that was the stereotypical from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks type. “Wrong side,” which implies a “right side,” really means “less accepted side.” As such, Tanya didn’t feel much acceptance from society, small as her world was at the time.

Also, she didn’t have a very good home life. Hers was one of the poorer families in Belchertown. I remember I tagged along to a progressive dinner the youth group did, and the night ended with dessert at Tanya’s house. Her house was very small, poorly lit, not well-painted, on the main road of the town, and had loads of assorted junk out on the front lawn. All of us were huddled around a linoleum-covered table in the kitchen with metal and vinyl chairs. And we had to keep a little quiet, because her dad was watching TV in the other room, about 20 feet away.

I didn’t know much about her parents, but I got the feeling they were not the most attentive or loving. And so, Tanya got all her love and affection from her best friend (Crissy), her best friend’s family, and her best friend’s youth group. After not too long, it became her youth group. And my parents purposely constructed it to be it a safe haven for kids like Tanya; a place they could go to get something they might not get anywhere else, and know it comes from the Lord.

Pink Floyd

Life circumstances influence what type of music you get into as a teenager. Combine that with personality and what a person’s been exposed to, and their musical choices start to make sense. For Tanya, it was Pink Floyd. According to my father, Tanya was a sweet girl and not a troublemaker. Someone less sweet with her background could have easily taken to hard rock or heavy metal bands; that would have worked out their angst and given voice to their discontent. But Tanya, being generally mild-mannered and introspective, found solace in Pink Floyd and their wide, spacey soundscapes. The Floyd makes music that encourages the listener to retreat into their own head, and that would be attractive to someone like Tanya.

Then there’s the other dimension to Pink Floyd, which is the general angstiness of their lyrics. They talked about some weighty subjects other bands weren’t at the time, like greed, the loss of self, and defying authority. To someone like Tanya, their “be your own person and everyone else be damned” ethos might have been attractive as well. It probably made Tanya feel more able to do everything her circumstances were hindering her from doing, being the person that her parents and how much money they didn’t have were keeping her from being.

My very first experience with Pink Floyd comes from Tanya, and that’s why I mention her. It was seeing the cover for A Momentary Lapse of Reason on a cassette Tanya had and was passing around at youth group. It was probably Storm Thorgerson’s brilliant artwork, but I was captivated from the first time I saw it. The kids in the youth group probably thought it was amusing – someone so young being interested in such “adult” music.

Few though they are, I have some very vivid memories of the kids in my parents’ youth group. They were like heavenly creatures to me, ineffable and perfect. I didn’t try to imitate them (I didn’t know how), but I looked up to them for certain. Though the passage of time does funny things to the memory, they will always hold a unique and honored place in my mind.

Danger

Brian and Curt

David Bowie granted Iggy Pop (born James Newell Osterberg, Jr.) a second chance. He was simply enamored with Iggy’s style, energy and reckless flailing about. The movie Velvet Goldmine plays it as a jealousy; Brian Slade has a desire to possess Curt Wild’s uncontrolled flair for the animalistic, probably because his own style is so opposite. Slade is cold, nihilistic and near-sociopathic, things which are much harder to come by genuinely, but the grass is always greener on the other side. Velvet Goldmine also translates it into a sexual desire; Slade has lust for Wild’s body as well, and his sexual appetites are a big part of his undoing.

Now, Todd Haynes can make up any story he wants, but Bowie and Pop’s real relationship was much brighter and not wrought with nearly as much drama. It was a good partnership, mostly because while David and Iggy worked well together, they were also friends. When you look at their dual appearance on The Dinah Shore Show, it’s clear that they’re very chummy with each other, and there’s genuine affection there.

Like any friendship worth having, it must have taken work. For instance, shortly after the dawn of Iggy’s resurrection, he was left to his own devices to record his comeback album. He produced Raw Power on his own, and presented the finished product to his record label, like a 6-year-old with a finger-painting. It was a monstrous mess.

The issue with Raw Power in its initial form, as far as the folks at Columbia saw it, was that the whole thing was mixed on merely three tracks: the vocals on one, lead guitar on another, and the rest of the band on a third. In my opinion, this lends Raw Power a lot of rawness, an untrained quality that’s eminently appropriate. Sure, it doesn’t make for the most pleasant listening, but the Stooges weren’t the most pleasant band. You can’t dress a lion up in a tux and monocle and expect it not to eat you.

David and Iggy (and Lou Reed as the famous Third Wheel)

Nonetheless, the Columbia execs were shaking their heads in disappointment. But rather than just drop Iggy from the label and have done with it they called up David Bowie and said, “you convinced us to take on this joker; you deal with him.” So Bowie was given the near-impossible task of remixing Raw Power, polishing it to an acceptable level. When he put in the 24-track master tapes of the album, just three were used. When Iggy said, “see what you can do with this,” David responded with “Jim, there’s nothing to mix!” It’s kind of like being handed a paper clip and a stick of chewing gum and being told, “now get out of Russia.” Unless you’re MacGyver, it’s not gonna happen.

But because they were friends, Bowie took a deep breath and did it. With Iggy at his side, he spent a day going over the mix on an ancient sound board, doing little more than adjusting the volume up and down in places. For that, David Bowie enjoys producer credit along with Pop. Tracks 2-8 may have Bowie’s improved mix, but Iggy insisted that his original mix be used for “Search and Destroy.” Good thing, too, since it’s the most fire-powered song of the eight, and Pop’s messy mix really plays it up.

For the most part, the record execs left Raw Power alone, but they imposed themselves in one of the most horrid ways that exists. The only made one demand about the content of the record, and it was that it needed to contain two ballads, one for each side of the vinyl.

I can just imagine Iggy’s reaction. “Ballads? You want me to do ballads? Who am I, fuckin’ Andy Williams??” But from what actually ended up on the record, I think one of several things might have happened. Either Iggy doesn’t know what a ballad is, the record execs don’t know what a ballad is, or they came to some sort of middle ground – it might be all three.

The two ballads were supposed to be “Gimme Danger” and “I Need Somebody.” The latter has a slower tempo, but that’s the only thing ballad-ish about it, and that’s only if you use the pop music definition and ignore the classical poetry meaning of ballad. The lyrics of “I Need Somebody” are about a bad boy finding a good girl. In other hands, they might be seen as sweet and endearing, but Iggy makes them sound dirty and dark with his snarling whine.

“Gimme Danger” stands out on the record as being filled with exactly what its title implores for. The Stooges have always been a dangerous band, but “Gimme Danger” is the first place the danger ceases to be an accident; here, it’s downright malevolent. This is the perfect theme song for a classic villain, like Professor Moriarty or the Joker, hinting at a kind of evil that giggles maniacally, hunched over in the dark, unendingly amused at the depths of corruption it could bring about.

Iggy went on to a solo career, several hits and several million dollars. He now stands as one of the most respected names in punk rock, one of the success stories/cautionary tales of the genre. Where aspiring pop icons have Michael Jackson and Madonna to look up to, punk rockers everywhere have Iggy Pop.

The Sponge

The Stooges – Raw Power – 2/7/1973

Iggy Pop is among the more fascinating rock stars that graced the planet. There is a great amount of material to sift through, and Iggy shows many different sides to himself through it. But no matter what facet of himself he’s letting shine on any particular day, he’s always honest about who he is, sometimes brutally so.

In 1977, he appeared with David Bowie on The Dinah Shore Show, a very strange venue for the two punk sires, to promote Iggy’s album The Idiot. During the performance, Iggy was his usual self; shirtless, scrawny and wiry, moving his body in a wild and worry-inducing way. In the interview, Dinah says in a demurely shocked voice, “And you were causing great harm to yourself!” Iggy responds with a giggle and a smile and says, “Yeah, and to other people.” He used to take a glass bottle, smash it to a jagged weapon, and scrape his naked chest several times until his front was a bloody mess. He must have been a real shock to the housewives who were Dinah’s primary audience. Given that, though, he was extraordinarily pleasant.

Just a few years earlier, right before the Stooges broke up for the second time, their last public concert was in February of 1974 to a bunch of bikers. Learning about Altamont has made me think that any time bikers go to a rock show, it can’t end particularly well. That concert had people throwing things at the band; things like eggs, jelly beans, ice, and beer bottles. At the end of their cover of “Louie, Louie,” you can actually hear glass breaking over guitar strings on the official bootleg of this concert, Metallic K.O. Iggy, like he usually did during his Stooges day, antagonizes and berates the audience, insulting them, ridiculing them, and swearing up a storm all the while. He takes the hate they give him and absorbs it like a sponge, spitting it back out even stronger. The bile and vomit grow more and more repugnant with each cycle of hate given between audience and performer.

Yet other aspects of Iggy shine through, too. He’s quite a savvy businessman, as his dealings with the advertising industry prove. And now that he’s completely drug-free, he’s actually very polite and well-spoken. He also has a certain wisdom about him; most wisdom is born out of horrible decisions that leave you with the thought, “I probably shouldn’t have done that…”

But for the most part, Iggy is a roaring lion, a slithering snake, a laughing hyena, and a charging, pissed-off bull, all at once. The place it’s most on display is every song on Raw Power. “Search and Destroy” and “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” are intense and over-driven like nothing had been before it. In “Search and Destroy,” the guitars are loud and clumsy, but Iggy sings almost in a falsetto. There’s a balance between ferocity and sibilance, until it all goes to hell and Iggy ends up hollering with abandon at the end. “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” on the other hand, features Iggy’s growl all the way through. His voice sounds like he’s breathing out rocks.

But for some reason, that same chaotic force serves only to bludgeon instead of excite on the title track. Perhaps that’s because “Raw Power” lacks the hookiness of other songs on the album. But the hooks return with “Shake Appeal” and “Death Trip.” The Stooges are not only intense and forceful – anybody can be those things, so that’s not what sets them apart. Under all the grime and clutter, there’s a kind of musical genius to the Stooges, and it’s something second generation punk musicians have been trying to emulate ever since. They’ve had little success.

Like a Martin Scorsese picture, over half of Raw Power plows over you with its brutal austerity. But there’s something else in the music of the Stooges, too, which only got bigger once Iggy went solo: a sense of fun. It’s a subtle message that the world is going to go down in flames, and Iggy will be playing a fiddle.

Iggy: the Sequel

Before the late 2000s when I first started actively listening to the Stooges, my biggest experience with Iggy Pop was in commercials. They were for everything from cruise lines to diet plans to greeting cards to luxury cars. (click here to see a 90s ad for Carnival cruise lines). Iggy had granted blanket permission to any company to license his music for their use, regardless of what they were selling. He made a lot of money from it, but I don’t think that’s why he did it. He says the songs weren’t commercially conceived, so he doesn’t care how they’re used commercially; in his mind, those are two separate things. I imagine some shoe company was bugging him to use one of his songs on a TV ad, and Iggy finally said, “do what you want; I don’t care.”

Iggy’s thought process is similar to a lot of other artists’, but he ends up in the opposite place that most people would. Every artist out there would say (or pretend) that their art didn’t have any commercial element to it. Making money is looked at as somehow beneath people who make art, even though it’s always part of the goal. So many musicians would completely reject a thing like a song of theirs’ being used in an advertisement. If I were a musician, I’m not sure where I’d fall in the spectrum.

Iggy making lots of money off of corporate America is pretty ironic when you consider Iggy’s place in the punk music pantheon. If somebody came to Johnny Rotten asking for licensing, he’d probably do his best to defecate on them. Punk is all about disobeying the rules and not falling in line, so that includes a middle finger to big business. But give punk music just a little money and public exposure and it becomes a corporate brand, much like anything else.

Grrr… off-topic. This is supposed to be about Raw Power

Dave Alexander, died in 1975 at age 27

By 1971, the Stooges were effectively broken up. Rock and roll stardom is not the only thing that brings on decadence and drug abuse; it also comes when you have almost no success at all, like the Stooges. Bassist Dave Alexander was fired from the band in August of 1970 for showing up to a gig too drunk to play. Alexander is one of the many less-known members of the 27 Club, musicians who died at age 27. After leaving the Stooges, his alcoholism only got worse. He died in an Ann Arbor hospital from fluid in his lungs, admitted for pancreatitis due to his extreme drinking. In 1977, Iggy released “Dum Dum Boys” in which he talks about him.

They carried on, hiring James Recca to fill in for Alexander, and even adding childhood buddy of the band James Williamson as a second guitarist. But even apart from Alexander’s drinking, all the other members except Ron Asheton were hooked on heroin. Iggy’s addiction was particularly bad. Their live shows moved from wild and unpredictable to disappointing and dangerous. The Stooges were sick, like an end-stage cancer patient, and could not sustain itself for much longer. Elektra saw it coming and dropped then unceremoniously from the label. After that, there was nowhere to go, not even down. The Stooges were kaput a mere 3 years after they started.

you know you’ve been watching too much Velvet Goldmine if…

Enter David Bowie. A year after his band split, Iggy met Bowie and became good friends (not that kind; you’ve been watching too much Velvet Goldmine). Their friendship was based on Bowie’s admiration for Pop and his talent, and since virtually no one had heard of Iggy or the Stooges, his desire for Pop to get his due recognition. Iggy relocated to London, and Bowie’s management company agreed to sign him as a solo artist. Bowie also convinced his label, Columbia Records, to sign Iggy to his very own contract.

With this rebirth, Iggy contacted his old friend James Williamson, member of the Stooges in their last iteration. The two of them set out to record another album with British supporting musicians, but couldn’t find any good enough. This would become Raw Power. Since no suitable English studio men could be found, original Stooges members Ron and Scott Asheton were flown over. It’s not exactly the Cinderella reunion story you might have been expecting, but it worked… sorta. Ron Asheton was very annoyed with his and Scott’s “second choice” status, as well as his relegation to bass while Williamson took all the guitar duties.

There was also the unevenness of the new project being named Iggy & the Stooges; Ron had to be asking why Iggy was suddenly the top dawg. The answer is David Bowie; if Iggy hadn’t been resurrected under Bowie’s wing, we wouldn’t even be talking about him now.

Next: You can call me Jim… or Iggy… whatever you’re more comfortable with… Jim, Iggy… yeah, call me Iggy.

Long Songs

A few days ago, I asked a rhetorical question on a Facebook status update: what’s the longest song ever made? I thought I had answered that question in the blog post I linked to, the answer being Longplayer, but I got several responses in the form of guesses. Friends of mine guessed “American Pie” (8:33), “Free Bird” (9:06), “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” (17:04), and “Alice’s Restaurant” (18:34), which are all really good guesses, but miss the mark by a long shot. So I started thinking about an actual answer to that question.

It’s a little tricky, because you have to ask, “what is considered a song?” Upon analysis, I determined Longplayer isn’t really a song; it’s just a bunch of singing bowls, something that just barely qualifies as a musical instrument. That’s the reason I’ve excluded Mike Oldfield, too. His music is only music in the barest sense of the word: because he and his fans say it is.

I also decided to limit it to pop songs, which eliminates symphonies and other classical compositions. To qualify, they also had to be one continuous or contiguous song, and not separated by other songs. Suites, or individual songs all strung together (with no break in playing) and united by a common lyrical theme, are permissible. I also decided to let in songs separated by division of the physical media, such as sides of vinyl; it’s not really Jethro Tull’s fault that CDs hadn’t been invented when they made “Thick as a Brick” and it was too long to fit on one side of an LP. But songs on live recordings don’t make it if they don’t have a studio counterpart equally as long. Other than that, I use a combination of my instincts and trust placed in the artist. If they say it’s a song, I give them the benefit of the doubt, excluding clear and obvious attempts to have a really long recording while injecting little to no musicality or effort.

An undeniable finding: almost all the artists on the list I’ve compiled are either progressive rock or progressive metal. This says one of two things. Either only prog fans have the attention spans to listen to a song that’s much longer than 5 minutes, or prog artists are completely insane. I think it might be both. The only non-prog group on here is Pink Floyd, but they’re foundational to most of the other groups on here. Heck, most of them learned to do long songs in the first place from Pink Floyd, among others.

Neal Morse

That being said, Dream Theater is probably the guiltiest single culprit, having four songs on this list. It could have been five, though; their suite “In the Presence of Enemies” is over 25 minutes long, but it doesn’t make the list because parts II and III are separated by the rest of the album the suite is on. But the undisputed king of long songs is Neal Morse. He’s in two different bands on this list, and also has multiple songs as a solo artist. He’s in the band that takes the cake, too.

That band is Transatlantic, and the song that wins the award for Longest Song (with the restrictions previously mentioned), is “The Whirlwind,” clocking in at 77 minutes and 54 seconds. “The Whirlwind” is the name of the album it’s on, too, and it’s the only song on the album. You’ll notice that the song is just shy of 80 minutes, which is the maximum length of a CD. When a physical medium longer than that comes into widespread use, you can be sure that Neal Morse will make a song that matches its length.

Anyway, here’s the list, in ascending length order.

Dream Theater, “A Mind Beside Itself” – 20:26

Rush, “2112” – 20:34

Yes, “Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil)” – 21:37

Yes, “The Gates of Delirium” – 21:50

Genesis, “Supper’s Ready” – 22:52

Dream Theater, “A Change of Seasons” – 23:06

Spock’s Beard, “The Water” – 23:10

Pink Floyd, “Atom Heart Mother” – 23:35

Pink Floyd, “Echoes” – 23:37

Yes, “The Solution” – 23:47

Dream Theater, “Octavarium” – 24:00

Neal Morse, “The Conflict” – 25:00

Transatlantic, “Duel With the Devil” – 26:43

Spock’s Beard, “The Great Nothing” – 27:02

Manowar, “Achilles, Agony and Ecstasy” – 28:38

Neal Morse, “The Door” – 29:13

Transatlantic, “Stranger In Your Soul” – 30:00

Green Carnation, “The Truth Will Set You Free” – 31:03

Magellan, “The Great Goodnight” – 34:45

Dream Theater, “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence” – 42:04

Jethro Tull, “Thick as a Brick” – 43:46

Meshuggah, “Catch Thirty Three” – 47:09

The Flower Kings, “Garden of Dreams” – 59:16

Green Carnation, “Light of Day, Day of Darkness” – 60:06

Transatlantic, “The Whirlwind” – 77:54

Feel free to add any I’ve missed in the comments section.

“How Dare I Be So Beautiful?,”  the fourth section of “Supper’s Ready,” is quiet and sibilant, almost rhythm-less due to the absence of any percussion. It ends without resolution, and then the fifth section jarringly crashes in like the Kool-Aid man barreling through the wall. “Willow Farm” is conspicuously opposite of the section before it – loud, bizarre and madness-driven. Peter Gabriel sings with just a hint of insanity. When “Willow Farm” is performed live, Peter’s showmanship is cranked to 11; he struts around the stage wearing his famous flower mask, his head made to look like the stigma. The music reminds me of a demented carnival, and the lyrics have a Lewis Carroll-like childishness to them, sort of like a Cockney rhyming scheme. “There’s Winston Churchill dressed in drag! He used to be a British flag! Plastic bag! What a drag!”

As to what the song is about, its twisted logic makes it difficult to discern. As far as I can tell, it’s about a sort of camp or retreat center like a fat farm, where people pay to go and be morphed into something else – fat to skinny, man to woman, animal to plant, living to dead and back again. Willow Farm is like a psychotic Jenny Craig’s. It’s Peter Gabriel’s first exploration of the transmutation of things (changing from one form to another), which will be a centerpiece of Genesis’ 1974 concept album, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.

“Supper’s Ready,” being Genesis’ greatest musical achievement, has as its subject the biggest topic they’ve tackled yet – the end of the world and the salvation of mankind, a parallel to the book of Revelation with a Genesis flare. While we’ve had hints of it previously, this motif gets its grandest and most high-stakes treatment with the next section, “Apocalypse In 9/8.”

Peter Gabriel as Magog

It starts on an eerie tone with a flute solo from Peter, the second on this track. In the live performances, however, the solo is played on a synthesizer while Peter goes backstage to don another of his most famous costumes, Magog. “Apocalypse In 9/8” is filled with tension that’s simply electric, briught on by it being played in not one but two time signatures. Most of the band is playing in 9/8, like the title indicates, but Tony Banks is playing the keyboards in 4/4. The entire band is playing at the same tempo, but thanks to mathematics, Phil, Steve and Mike get more and more out of step with Tony. For the first 8 beats, it’s all cool, but by the 9th beat, Tony is already moving on to the beginning of the third measure while the rest of the band is just finishing up their first. But thankfully, math works like a circle, so eventually they come to a place where they’re all finishing their current measure at the same time.

I can sense your eyes glazing over, so I’ll move on – no need to thank me.

“dragons coming out of the sea”

Anyway, this section features imagery pulled (for the most part) directly from the book of Revelation. Magog, seven trumpets, dragons from the sea, and 666 are all references to that book of the Bible. Now, the lovers from the first part have come to where all the secrets are revealed, which is what the word apocalypse means.

“Apocalypse In 9/8” has the subtitle “Co-Starring the Delicious Talents of Gabble Ratchet.” Much has been made of this over the years (who is this Gabble Ratchet, and what makes his talents so delicious?), allow me to put it to rest. According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Gabble Ratchet is not a person at all but another name for Gabriel’s Hounds, which is really just another name for wild geese.  You heard right. Legend says that the sound wild geese make is actually the souls of unbaptised children. Genesis uses a Mellatron sound effect of wild geese at the end of instrumental piece right before the second verse of “Apocalypse In 9/8.” Gabriel’s Hounds sharing a name with Peter Gabriel doesn’t hurt, too.

“Lord of Lords, King of Kings, has returned to lead His children home, to take them to the New Jerusalem”

Finally, there’s chimes and a drum roll, and a refrain of the chorus from “Lover’s Leap,” heralding the seventh and final section, “AS Sure As Eggs is Eggs (Aching Men’s Feet).” This is the completion of the cycle, and the final victory of good over evil. Evil has been having its day ever since “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man,” but the Lord of Lords and King of Kings has finally returned, with absolute certainty, as sure as eggs is eggs. “Aching Men’s Feet” is yet another Cockney rhyme, this one meaning “making ends meet.” The music uses the melody of “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man” in a more victorious and operatic motif. And thus, “Supper’s Ready” ends, 23 minutes after it started, with God taking his children to the New Jerusalem.

With a song as thick with imagery as this, me interpreting it for you would be (1) a mammoth task that would require its own blog, and (2) taking all the fun out of it for you. After all, this is one of the joys of music, and poetry, and paintings, and any kind of art: the ability of spectators to take part in the act of creation by creating their own interpretation. So now I’ve laid it out for you; have fun.

Next: You think 23 minutes is long? You ain’t seen nothin’…

Music can’t be completely pinned down to an objective perspective, much as we may try. Songs hit people in different ways because no one is in exactly the same place as anybody else. But as subjective a pursuit as music is, there are some things that remain as true as 2+2=4. One of them is this: Genesis’ best song is “Supper’s Ready.”

Longplayer being played

That’s kind of an ironic statement when you consider that “Supper’s Ready” is actually more like seven different songs all strung together. As such, it totals out at almost 23 minutes. It’s cited among the world’s longest pop songs, along with songs by Dream Theater, Jethro Tull and Valient Thorr. But if it’s pure length you want, and don’t care about the song having a shred of musicality, look to Longplayer. Not strictly a song by any particular music group, it’s more of a compositional project started by composter Jem Finer. It started playing at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 1999, and will continue uninterrupted until the final moment of the year 2999. Bet you can’t dance to it, though…

Starting with the tour after their previous album, Nursery Cryme, Peter Gabriel would intro some of their more epic songs with a story: a prose composition of his own creation, sometimes having nothing to do with the song itself. The story was bizarre, funny or off-putting, often all three, and would end with a segue into the song. The story for “Supper’s Ready” was among Gabriel’s weirder; it involved earthworms coming up from underground because they think it’s raining (it’s actually just a naked man drumming on the ground), and getting eaten by birds, for whom “the supper is ready!”

Just listening to “Supper’s Ready” is a mammoth undertaking; it’s best if you don’t have a lot of distractions. It’s meant to be listened to all at once, so a small time commitment is necessary, and it’s definitely not ideal for background music. Listening to it in the car is fine, but not with passengers. It also will require more than one listen to really understand, but you shouldn’t just put it on repeat – for one thing, that will eat up at least close to an hour.

I know, I know – I’m not selling this very well. The truth is, I can’t. “Supper’s Ready” isn’t easily digestible like other pop songs. It requires patience and resolution. But if you don’t mind, I’ll hold out hope that the modern music listener still knows what those are.

Given its length, I was expecting it to have a long build-up like “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” but it jumps right into the action with the first section, “Lover’s Leap.” While Steve, Mike and Tony all play an eerie/folksy arpeggio part of 12-string acoustic guitars, Peter sings with double-tracked vocals about an actual experience he had one night with his then wife Jill, and Genesis producer John Anthony. The three of them were having a conversation when Jill had some sort of possession experience – she started talking in a different, otherworldly voice. Peter thought he saw another face superimposed on Jill’s and held up a makeshift cross (a candlestick and something else), and Jill reacted violently, scaring the crap out of the other two. They eventually calmed her down and put her to bed, but neither Peter nor John slept a wink.

Another part of the lyrics come from an experience Peter had while at his wife’s parents’ house, where he looked out on the lawn late at night and thought he saw seven robed and hooded figures marching across it. Amazingly, he had this experience with no drugs or alcohol in his system. That time where Jill got possessed, the three of them were staying up late, but no drugs or drinking was involved there, either.

That rather straightforward story ends with a chorus that indicates the song’s name with “hey babe, your supper’s waiting for you.” The 12-string guitars continue in a hypnotic, cloud-like reverie, and Tony goes to his organ and plays a solo. That progression segues seamlessly into the second section, “The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man.” Five and a half minutes into the song, this is where it really starts to pick up. It turns from an ethereal dreamscape to a grandiose anthem with a sing-along chorus, despite its rather awkward title and tagline.

The main character of this section is a “fireman who looks after the fire.” He’s a sort of anti-Christ figure, a charismatic Messiah who makes wild promises of salvation and commands the attention of many kinds of people. He’s the leader of a high-brow scientific religion that demands complete devotion, basically the definition of a cult. Scientology, anyone? The lyrical imagery is astounding, cramming a great amount into just a few minutes.

Steve Hackett doin’ his thang

After that comes a sudden stop, a flute solo from Peter, and the third section, “Ikhnaton and Itsacon and Their Band of Merry Men.” The music picks up even more, becoming a full-fledged rock song. It even has a bitchin’ guitar solo that features Steve Hackett doing tapping, a full six years before Eddie Van Halen ripped it off. The lyrics talk of a great battle, presumably from the point of view of the army of this Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man. This starting to sound like the book of Revelation, a concept we get even surer of as the song goes on. Meanwhile, our lovers watch as this battle progresses, ending in victory for this Band of Merry Men.

There’s a brief pause with the next section, “How Dare I Be So Beautiful?,” which is no more than a delayed guitar effect and Peter’s soft vocals. The title is a reference to Narcissus, a figure from Greek myth that fell in love with his reflection and didn’t want to stop staring at it; he died of starvation. The battle of the previous section has left only chaotic and smoking ruins and a mountain of dead bodies, but a lone figure remains, staring into a pool at his own reflection. His existence begs the question: who is to take responsibility for a defeated army after they’re defeated? If no one takes responsibility, what will they become? …A flower?

More on “Supper’s Ready” and what happened to Narcissus after he became a flower… tomorrow!