Tag Archive: friendship

While I first heard about Pink Floyd from Tanya and the youth group when I was single-digit age, my first real experience with The Dark Side of the Moon came from my friend Joe, when we were in high school. Joe’s dad is a musician, so his tastes became even more eclectic as he grew up.  I tried to get him into Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. in high school (in the interest of his own enlightenment, of course…), but his interests drifted more towards Steve Taylor and Carman, but also Earth, Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder, but also classical mad scientists like MussorgskyDvořák and Grieg.

As you can see, Joe isn’t one to tow any party line unless he actually believes in it (he’s a staunch Republican and a fervent 5-point Calvinist, for instance). He likes what he likes and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and I admire that. Probably through my prompting, he did eventually come to appreciate Smashing Pumpkins, but he came to it on his own terms and only after I had stopped pestering him. More than anyone else I know, his musical tastes are his tastes, and no one else’s.

Joe may not always know a good thing when he sees it, but he zeroed in on Pink Floyd a lot sooner than I did. I remember he had discovered the Floyd in his dad’s record collection, and like a typical teenager, thought everyone needed to know about this incredible thing he had been the first to unearth. “Neal, you HAVE to hear this! It’s amazing!” The first song he played for me was “Us and Them,” his favorite song. I was extremely unimpressed.

If you know the song, you might think it’s not the best introduction into the world of Pink Floyd. It’s like saying, “Never read Shakespeare? Try Cymbeline.” The reason it’s little less relatable than other Pink Floyd songs is an issue of space. “Us and Them” takes up a lot of space. By that I don’t mean length, though it is almost 8 minutes long, the longest on Dark Side.

“Us and Them” is slower than a lot of other songs, even others by Pink Floyd. But it also has long distances between chord changes. Whereas a normal rock and roll song would take 2 measures to make a chord change, an “Us and Them”-type song would take 4 (or maybe 8). It’s quiet and subdued for all of it except the chorus, which is grand and sweeping without being energetic. Energy has never been Pink Floyd’s strong suit, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’d do a lot better with Green Day or the Ramones.

Room to stretch out is one of the things Pink Floyd does particularly well. Allowing a song the space to move at its own pace and not hurrying through it takes a skilled artist. Don’t get me wrong; hurrying through has its place. In fact, there’s an entire genre of rock music dedicated to hurrying through – it’s called punk. But Pink Floyd takes a completely different approach, one of taking their sweet time to bring a song to full closure. “Us and Them” is almost like a jazz song; all the musicians work within a general framework of D-B-A-B-D, and in the long pauses between those changes, they’re free to do what they wish.

While “Us and Them” took me a while to really sink in (a few years…), Joe keyed into it very quickly. I’ll admit that some of my hesitancy towards the song (and Pink Floyd in general) was because the suggestion came from Joe. Growing up, Joe and I had a very adversarial relationship – each of us was always trying to convince the other that what we liked, what we did, or what he thought was better than what the other liked/did/thought. Smooth peanut butter vs. chunky, chunky applesauce vs. smooth.

But as we developed into men, our opposition to each other gradually became a healthy iron-sharpens-iron. While I still find frustration in Joe’s opposition, I also find comfort. It lets me know that the world doesn’t end with me and my opinions; there are more things in this world than are dreamed about in my meager imagination. Most of all, though, I’ve come to respect Joe’s unflinching devotion to his own preferences. You can tell him up the Wazoo that something is lame, but you can’t tell him he shouldn’t like it if he does.

And with “Us and Them,” Joe found something that I didn’t, or at least not right away. I’ll happily concede that when it comes to Pink Floyd, he was right and I was wrong.


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.

A word of caution: what follows is how I remember things, but not necessarily how they actually happened. An event can happen, but if it doesn’t happen to someone, did it really happen? To a certain extent, the meaning of a thing is assigned to it by the person describing it. So bear in mind that what follows is my version, which is probably different from other people who were there.

The high school I went to (7th-12th) was very small – 15-20 students in the entire school. It was a little private school in Amherst, MA that’s not there anymore, called Harkness Road High School, or HRHS. My older sister went to HRHS, too. I was still in 6th grade, not yet old enough for HRHS, when I first laid eyes on Debbie. HRHS was holding its annual prom-like event (not a dance, but rather a themed dinner). I was there, since families of students were invited. Debbie was one year older than me, and was close to finishing her first year at HRHS. I remember I was struck dumb that first time seeing her.

Debbie was incredibly quiet, passive and introspective. She didn’t talk very much, and probably wasn’t noticed a lot in her family of 8 siblings, her being the youngest. She wasn’t unusually good-looking, but she had a killer smile. It was probably so powerful ‘cause she didn’t use it very much. Seriously, she could level mountains with that smile; she leveled me.

There’s just something about girls like Debbie; a lot more is hidden from view than is shown. Most guys just pass them by, but I’m intrigued by a girl that doesn’t just give her gold away to any passing stranger. For me, though, intrigue lead to attachment which lead to kinda creepy behavior. Being a teenager, everything was a big deal for me, and thus my infatuation with Debbie became all-encompassing, 10 times larger than the vessel that held it.

For her part, Debbie viewed me as an annoyance, an unfortunate bug in her ear she couldn’t get rid of. But as irritating as my unrequited affections were, it’s regrettable that she didn’t respond with more grace, or even more temperance. Because of the people we both were (she wasn’t very direct and I wasn’t able to take a hint), things got messy. Instead of just telling me flat-out that she would never date me, she withdrew further inward, hoping I would just go away. In such close quarters – and in a school of only 20 students, everything is close quarters – I couldn’t; not completely.

Throughout my 7th grade year, Debbie and I pretty much ignored each other, though my feelings were still lightly simmering. But in my 8th grade year, they started boiling over. Everybody knew – granted, “everybody” is relatively few – including Debbie.

If the story had gone on like that, it probably would have been fine. My feelings would have eventually faded (a fire that hot can’t burn for long), and Debbie would have relaxed about me. But around a month into my 8th grade year, Debbie started dating a friend of mine, named Nick. Nick was my “bad” friend, the one friend your parents think is a “bad influence.” He was into some stuff I wasn’t, like gangsta rap and weed and smashing mailboxes. I went over to his house after school sometimes, and we spent the summer after 7th grade working for the same guy, doing random manual labor jobs around his property – if I never see another post-hole digger as long as I live, it will be a-okay with me. I didn’t really understand Nick, though I thought I did. His life was a lot harder than mine had been, and he had a large will to rebel.

But obviously, Nick didn’t value our friendship very much, at least not enough to keep him from saying yes to Debbie’s advances. Debbie might have just started dating Nick, a friend of mine, to get me to leave her alone, but it pained me for more than just the obvious reason. Other than the blatant scorn that I felt, there was that Nick didn’t view women as human beings who had actual thoughts and feelings. Instead, he thought of them as walking sets of tits, objects to be used and discarded. Or at least that’s the big talk he advertised to me, anyway.

So there you have a real-life soap opera-like love triangle, rife with teenage stupidity and groan-inducing melodrama. It seems like a much smaller thing 17 years later, but back in 8th grade, it was the literal destruction of the universe.

So I can totally understand Clapton’s wailing, moaning and sobbing over a woman he loves that just doesn’t love him back. When he sings in “Layla” to the title character, “you got me on my knees,” I get it. ”Layla” and the rest of the album it’s on mean so much to so many people because his pain is our pain. And nobody that album touches hasn’t felt that pain in some form or another.

Sometimes a musician presents his pain so honestly that it’s like watching someone committing suicide. But when you share a little empathy with the musician, it changes. His pain is your pain, so his catharsis becomes your catharsis. Art is therapeutic, but not just for the artist; it works for the spectator as well.

Tomorrow: oh, the damage a simple zipper can do…

Get the Led Out

The first time I met my friend Mike, I was standing in line at the Dugout, the fast food joint run by my college that was in the Student Center. In line in front of me was my friend Colin, and he was engaged in conversation with a short, thick-bodied guy with a Fonzie hairstyle and a bomber jacket. I don’t remember any of the details of their conversation, save one: at some point, Mike said, “Tom Waits is a fucking genius!” Colin then noticed my presence and said, “Hey Neal. This is Mike.” We exchanged nods and heys.

Friendship is a strange thing. Some friendships are like popcorn chicken; you gobble them up quick as a flash and don’t expect to get much out of them. Others are like cigarettes; they give you a high, but are ultimately really bad for you. Still others are like breathing; you take them for granted about 95% of the time, but you have a few moments when you realize if you didn’t have them, even for a short time, you would die. When they’re not there, something is definitely wrong.

You could probably tell already, but my friendship with Mike is like breathing.

I imagine every music enthusiast (or film buff, or television expert, or literary scholar) has a friend like Mike: someone who, no matter your amazing depth of knowledge about a particular subject, makes you look like a blathering idiot. Seriously, when Mike starts talking about the socio-economic context of Black Sabbath or the sexuality inherent in Judas Priest, I feel like my entire musical scholarship amounts to “duuuuuh, I like Jimmy Eat World.” And I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t trade him for 600 kajillion dollars.

L to R: John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones

It was under Mike’s tutelage that I first got the Led out. Sure, I’d heard of Led Zeppelin since I was little, but they, like so many other bands, were nothing more than a historical fact. When I first heard “Stairway to Heaven” when I was 7, I thought it was pretty boring. But Mike opened my eyes soon after we met. This is just one of the things he did for me, showed me, and brought to the forefront of my mind. I owe him the biggest debt of anyone for my musical education.

A lot has been said about Led Zeppelin over the years. They’re almost mythical figures, untouchable and ineffable to mere mortals. Even so, they have rather humble beginnings. Their roots are in another group called the Yardbirds, which saw a literal host of great British guitarists go through it. Strangely and perfectly enough, the Yardbirds saw those guitarists when they were young and green, just beginning to do great things, and they would do even greater things once they left that band. Jeff Beck would go on to create the Jeff Beck Group, which in turn launched the careers of Rod Stewart as well as Ronnie Wood, later of the Rolling Stones. Eric Clapton went on to fame and godhood with Cream, then Blind Faith, then Derek and the Dominos, then solo. But perhaps even greater was a bass player turned lead guitarist, a young hotshot named Jimmy Page.

Jimmy was known from the beginning of his stint in the Yardbirds for his showy and lacy dress, but more for his guitar antics. They included playing his Telecaster with the bow of a violin. Alas, Jimmy was a member of the Yardbirds in their last configuration. Their disintegration left Jimmy without a job, so he started thinking about a supergroup; the likes of Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, Ansley Dunbar and The Who’s rhythm section were considered for it, but in the end he recruited session bass player John Paul Jones and near-unknown drummer John Bonham. The suggestion of Bonham had come from Page’s chosen singer, a 20 year-old swaggering peacock named Robert Plant. Jimmy Page said this about Plant:

“When I auditioned him and heard him sing, I immediately thought there must be something wrong with him personality-wise or that he had to be impossible to work with because I just could not understand why, after he told me he’d been singing for a few years already, he hadn’t become a big name yet.”

Jimmy’s amazement was warranted, and Plant was just as pleasant and polite as a guy can be. All that remained was the name.

The most popular story about the name is also unconfirmed. Keith Moon and John Entwistle of the Who once said that a supergroup including them and Jimmy Page would go down like a lead balloon. Jimmy was amused, and dubbed his new group Led Zeppelin. “Lead” was purposely misspelled, at the suggestion of Led Zep manager Peter Grant, to prevent stupid Americans from saying “Leed Zeppelin.”

And thusly, one of the most important and influential bands in the history of rock and roll was born.

Tomorrow: Mothers, lock up your daughters.

Our Parents’ Vinyl

Ruthanne and I lived in New York for 2 years. We often joke that our potential kids won’t believe that we actually existed in that fast-paced, un-Mom-and-Dad-like environment. There’s probably a moment in every kid’s life when they have to look at their parents in a new light.

In that scant 2 years, we found a fantastic church and made some incredible friends. It seemed there were a strange number of late 20s, childless married couples at that church, and we found our place rather quickly. It was like putting on clothes you’ve never worn before that fit eerily perfectly. It was in New York that I found a different kind of intimacy with peers that I haven’t been able to duplicate. I always felt like a bit of a misfit among Massachusetts Christians. Most MA denizens are pretty liberal in their politics, so a lot of Christians feel they need to dig in their heels in response to what’s around them. But for Christians like me who don’t feel there’s a 1-to-1 connection between Christian faith and the Republican Party, Massachusetts can be a sometimes uncomfortable place. What I really liked about New York City was there was so much diversity that Christians of any stripe could have room to breathe. I felt comfortable enough to just be myself.

After we left New York, the friendships remained. Every time we come back into the city, we’re welcomed with open arms and a warm spare bed by a pair of friends. One such couple had us over for a weekend, and it was the first time we stayed with them. Sitting in their living room shortly after we arrived, my wife and Sonja were happily catching up when my eye was drawn to their stereo cabinet. Among the various electronics that were there, I saw a turntable and a one-shelf collection of vinyl. I couldn’t resist taking a look.

Sonja told me that her and Blake’s LP collection was a combined effort; they were too young to have any vinyl of their own, but they each pillaged their parents’ collections and then culled their findings together. What they came up with was downright impressive. Among the most notable were several Johnny Cash records, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road and The White Album, as well as Led Zeppelin’s entire studio discography.

the first vinyl copies of The White Album had serial numbers on the cover to make each copy unique.

I had never seen an actual vinyl copy of The White Album. Blake and Sonja’s was incredibly faded and well-loved, and it had its original serial number in the bottom right corner, something the CD copies didn’t have. It may seem like a small thing, but it was a kind of mythological experience for me.; there I was, seeing with my own eyes what I had only read about. It’s like an amateur painter going to the Louvre for the first time, or a Poli-Sci student taking a tour of the White House.

I don’t think we really appreciate things about our parents lives when we’re younger; in a larger sense, we don’t appreciate our parents themselves. It’s only when we’re older that we sometimes feel a melancholy fondness for them. We had access to them anytime we wanted, but we didn’t want it until the access was no longer there. The good thing is that engenders a desire to create access whenever possible. Like it or not, we need our parents… and parents like to be needed.

Time It Was

The over-riding message of Bookends (or at least the first half) seems to be this: “at the end of your life, remember the good and the bad, because it is both that define who you are.”

After the naïve quest for self-discovery in “America,” we have a sudden moment of maturity with “Overs.” It starts with the lyrics “Why don’t we stop fooling ourselves? The game is over, over, over.” It’s as if the search for “America” was futile, and it’s time to act like a grown-up. This transitions into “Voices of Old People.” Not really a song but a collection of candid recordings of people in a nursing home, “Voices” is a little harrowing. You hear these residents as they really are. Only two minutes of footage are used, but there’s quite a bit packed in here. One woman tells of how even though her husband’s dead, she still only sleeps on half of the bed. One man states how being an “old man” is his destiny. There’s a vehement discussion between two women of a mother’s devotion to her child. And of course, there is one old person (I can’t decide on gender) who talks about mucus and coughing up blood. It seems when you hit a certain age, you become more vocal about bodily functions.

This objective example of the elderly changes to a more emotional study with “Old Friends.” With this, Simon is speculating aloud what old age will be like for him and Garfunkel. When Art sings the bridge, he asks, “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench, quietly?” In all likelihood, he’s directly addressing Simon. By this time, they’re already “old friends.” They’ve known each other since elementary school, and been performing as a duo since their teens. By 1968, that’s probably just shy of 20 years. As their friendship gets even older, how will it change?

Despite the release of Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970 – arguably their most successful album – the two parted on unfriendly terms that year. Like any good and true friends, however, they put their differences aside shortly thereafter for a brief reunion in 1972, and then again for the famous Central Park concert in 1981. The 1975 single “My Little Town” that appeared on both men’s current solo albums was proof they had buried the hatchet.

hey, they really are “old friends!”

“Old Friends” segues right into the title track, a reprise and full treatment of the 30 second intro track. It’s still a rather short song, but it puts forth its emotional impact so succinctly it need not be longer. The first side of Bookends finishes where it began; perhaps S&G are saying the progression of youth to old age is a circle that acts the same way.

I can’t help but notice that in S&G’s story of that progression, they completely skip the middle part. We go from the youthful rebellion of “Save the Life of My Child” and quarter-life crisis of “Overs” directly to nursing homes and park-bench inactivity. What about the rest? You don’t just magically wake up one day and POOF you’re old. The change comes slowly and sometimes unnoticed. It takes time. But the thing is you never think of yourself as young or old; the people around you are always younger or older than you, but you remain the age you are, whatever that happens to be at the time.