R.E.M. -Pop Song ’89

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It took you long enough.

I mean, I know we don’t keep in touch anymore, but you usually don’t let the other bands, the other artists, push you to the back of the line like this. It’s not like I’m best friends with Billy Idol or Paul McCartney. Plus, the type of sleep necessary for a song to become embedded in my early morning slumber is LITERALLY IN YOUR NAME.

I’m just glad you didn’t choose the next song on your double-platinum selling album Green to torture me with. Cause as much as I really don’t like “Pop Song ’89”–the sing-songy, quasi-dorky melody, the intentionally banal lyrics, (Hello, I saw you, I know you, I knew you/I think I can remember your name/Hello, I’m sorry, I lost myself/I think I thought you were someone else) –it sounds downright thought-provoking and musically complex compared to “Stand.”

I am all for stepping outside the box, for trying new things–I love your use of mandolin for example–but “Stand” sounds like a bad nursery rhyme. Was this really the same band that wrote and recorded Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)?

If you are confused, check with the sun/Carry a compass to help you along/Your feet are going to be on the ground/Your head is there to move you around….

I’m OK with “Pop Song ’89” pop-songing up in my noggin’, but don’t you dare try and force me to internally sing

Stand in the place that you live/Now face north/Think about direction, wonder why you haven’t now..…GODDAMMIT! OK, YOU WIN!

But why do I even know these words? What I loved about you was that I could only pick out a few of your lyrics and just made up the rest by playing the songs over and over and making an educated guess. On Green I can understand every word you sing. Without a lyric sheet! What the fuck? What happened to the mumbling? Did the record company add an enunciation clause to your contract?

I will admit that I wasn’t prepared for your explosive popularity.

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Not my actual folder

I had fallen in love with you from the start, at least from your recorded beginnings. I remember listening to the 12-3am underground music show on the local college radio station, KCSN; it was the summer between 10th and 11th grade, right after my family moved from Agoura, CA to our new home in Northridge. Your song “Gardening at Night” came through my headphones as I lay in bed, trying to decide if I was prepared to make new friends. Your music sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Jangly and moody, sorta sad but sorta creepy. When the DJ announced that the band was named R.E.M., I wrote it down on my Pee-Chee folder so I wouldn’t forget. The next day I rode my Schwinn dirt bike to three San Fernando Valley record stores until I finally found your debut EP, Chronic Town, at Tempo. I didn’t take it off my turntable for months. I played it for my new friends and we were all hooked.

And then came the albums: Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Life’s Rich Pageant. From 1982-1987, from 11th grade until my Junior year of college, I played your albums religiously. Your popularity was growing, but not so much that you changed your sound to please the masses. And sure, I couldn’t see you perform at The Troubadour anymore, but my favorite of the 5 shows I’d seen R.E.M. play to that point was at the Universal Amphitheater, on the Fables tour, so it appeared you were adjusting to the increasing limelight as well.

But then I moved away, transferred to UC Santa Cruz in ’87. We talked a good game. I proclaimed my love, said I was sure we could maintain a long distant relationship. But like such romantic notions of youth, once I arrived at my new home at UCSC, once I made new friends, was surrounded by like-minded peers, I found myself attracted to new sounds. Funk and Hip-Hop. Heavier alt-rock bands like Jane’s Addiction. I wasn’t wanting to break up, but I felt we needed to have an open relationship.

I tried to discover my true self separate from you, but you were everywhere. You’d just released your new album, Document, and it was your most popular album yet. At first I liked it. It wasn’t too dissimilar from Life’s Rich Pageant; the jangly guitars were there, your moody, murky vibe still permeated. (“Oddfellows Local 151” being a favorite back then, and still today.) You even showed that you had a sense of humor. “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It)” was funny and still maintained a satirical political bite. It seemed that every time I walked across the quad, someone was blasting that song from their dorm room stereo.

But your biggest hit to date ended up being the next song on the album, “The One I Love.”

This one goes out to the one I love/This one goes out to the one I left behind

I don’t know if it was the melody, if it was the lyrics, if it was the fact that you finally jumped from being a college rock band to a large concert hall band, but I could see that our relationship was changing. I was OK with you seeing other people, but did you have to be such a slut? I thought we would grow to appreciate each other’s changes, but even if we were breaking up, did you have to share our dirty laundry with the public?

Was I a simple prop? To occupy your time? Were you using me from the beginning? I couldn’t tell if I should feel taken advantage of, if our relationship was a lie from the start. I mean, maybe I should have paid more attention to the mumblings on your early albums. Were you making fun of me then, too? Was “South Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” just an attempt to get to get in my pants? Well, it worked. I hope you’re proud of yourself. I accepted your apology, snuck you through my upstairs bedroom window, believed you when you said you hadn’t felt this way about anyone else before. I let your music permeate my soul. Your Reckoning was my Reckoning. But I was young and inexperienced. I didn’t see the signs that were flashing in bright neon all over that 2nd album. I was so quick to flip the album over, so quick to ignore that you followed the song “Time After Time” with “Second Guessing.” I never thought to question what you might be second guessing. I just thought you were so mysterious, so poetic, so deep. I told myself that it didn’t matter if I didn’t understand, it must be me: I’m too young, too dumb to follow. You were a Pretty Persuasion; we would lie in bed all night and you would Talk About the Passion, and I felt it too. It was palpable. I never felt it with anyone else. iron-maidenI was afraid to reveal my full self with you. That I used to be a metalhead. That I used to listen to Iron Maiden and Scorpions, that I used to make fun of bands like yours. That was the old me. What’s past is past. You were my here and now and I was excited for the future. Our future. You would help me segue from the awkwardness of high school to the new exciting world of college.

I would be taking a Pilgrimage to UC Santa Cruz, and you would leave your label, IRS for the big- time world of Warner Bros. We were both embarking on big changes, but we promised each other we would still be the same underneath. But that’s just what you say when you can’t say goodbye, when you are afraid to make a clean break.

Document was a transition album. I see now that it was your way of making sense of us. It was your way to let me know that there were no hard feelings, but we were just headed in different directions. You wanted to change the world, and believed that mass appeal was the way to do it. I was just beginning to find my voice. Who was I to stop you?

But I have to admit, I was not ready for Green. I was not ready to be Orange Crushed, to Stand behind songs like Pop Song ‘89. Even my parents knew those songs. I didn’t know who you were anymore. It was too fast. I figured it would take at least 3 albums before I would move on and not care what you did anymore. Before I was completely over you. The world had embraced you. You were selling out stadiums, headlining festivals. I never attended any of those shows, couldn’t stand the thought of watching you on 100 foot monitors above a humongous stage. I should have supported you, should have rejoiced in the glow of your worldwide success. But I didn’t. Sorry.

I think, in your unique, mumbling way, you were saying to me, “It’s not you, it’s me” and for that I thank you. It took me many years to realize that you wanted to break up with me slowly, but we can’t control the speed of our hearts.

We were Out of Time, but at the same time, time heals all wounds, and I found that over time I was able to be friends with you again. Not best friends, not even close friends, but friends with a shared history who would smile when seeing each other at a party. How have you been? we might ask, genuinely hoping that each other is doing well. 

Rock It – How Satellite Radio Keeps Me a Perpetual Teenager

Newtons Cradle

Newtons Cradle

I’ve come to the realization that I have a distorted perception of how old I am, and, like one of those devices, the ones with the shiny metal balls that hang from thin metal rods and perpetually clank and swing from left to right, I too, seesaw between feeling much younger and older than my numeric age.

I’ve had this flip-floppy tendency to feel alternately like an awkward teenager and a bitter old man for a while now. I tell fart jokes and follow them up with bad puns. I avoid eye contact and then stare accusingly. It’s a quality that keeps me from having to manually thin out the throngs of adoring fans. I’ve come to realize, though, that these personas are not necessarily opposites. That what both of these sides of myself have in common is an almost reverential relationship to complaining. The main difference is that the 17 year old complains mostly about himself. I’m so awkward! I’m so shy! No girls would ever be interested in me! Whereas the pepto-bismol chugging complainer aims his barbs outward. Kids these days! With their goddamned devices permanently stuck to their faces, what with the Instagrams and the SnapChats and the Twitters. I’d like to see any one of them build a fire to keep them warm when all the power goes out!

The fact that I will be turning 50 in a little more than three months is more than a little mind boggling. It feels like some sort of elaborate prank, like maybe my high school friends hajustined locked me away in some sort of cryogenic tank, and they’d accidentally lost the key and 30 years later the latch rusted out and here I am, balder and fatter, but still an 18 year old virgin, excited to see the new John Hughes movie, wondering if Justine Bateman, my celebrity crush, replied to the letter I’d sent to her through her fan club.

But this doesn’t take into account my other dominant self, my easily annoyed curmudgeonly side. The time machine is an illusion; apparently I have traipsed through this world through the better part of 6 decades; apparently I graduated college, got married, have a career, own a home, and have begun to receive notices from AARP.

I do feel pulled in two directions though, feeling like I’m still a part of the zeitgeist, of the popular culture, while at the same time counting the days until I can retire, buy an RV and cruise the backcountry roads of the US of A.

It almost feels like a game, a contest of sorts to see if I can come up with new ways of blaming The Millennials for all the world’s ills. But half the time I think: I’m a millennial. It’s disorienting. I regularly visit the music sites Pitchfork.com and HypeMachine.com. I subscribe to music podcasts that feature new bands I’ve never heard of. I try and keep up. Certainly not to the extent that I used to, but old habits are hard to break. I want to find something to connect with in the new music I hear, but it all sounds so banal and derivative, lacking in urgency and rebellion. The truth, I have come to realize, though I struggle to accept it, is that modern music isn’t meant for me. It’s meant for the kids. And I am no longer longer one of them.

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So, I suppose I don’t really feel like a millennial. At least not a millennial as defined by today’s standards. I see myself more like what the millennial equivalent would have been in 1986. Before cell phones and the internet. When streaming technology meant you were lounging by the side of a lake with a boombox, blasting the new Wang Chung album.

it’s not the millennials I should be blaming for my age-istential disorientation. This 80’s musical vortex I find myself spinning round and round in is entirely the fault of Sirius XM satellite radio.

 

When I bought my car 5 years ago, it came with a 3 month free subscription to Sirius XM, which to an eclectic music geek like myself, was like giving a tweaker a 90 day supply of meth and saying, “OK, trial period is over, now you’ll have to pay for it.” So I did, and even though the audio fidelity leaves something to be desired, I can’t see ever quitting. It’s like having every FM radio station that ever existed, all at once, with no commercials. There are hundreds of stations, covering most every genre, save for the styles of music that never had radio equivalents to begin with.

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I get 24 presets, in 4 groups of 6 that I can toggle through and I’ve divided them up into 4 categories: modern-classic (alternative rock, hip hop, 60s/70s rock) talk (NPR, BBC), eclectic (honky tonk, electronic, ambient, garage) and 80s. The 80s grouping gets the majority of the attention in my car. There’s the 80s New Wave channel (First Wave), the cheesy 80s hits (80s on 8), Backspin (Old Skool HipHop), Ozzy’s Boneyard (Hard Rock/Heavy Metal), Hair Nation (Glam Metal) and Groove (Soul/R&B). Most of these channels have DJs that come on between songs, much like terrestrial radio. These DJs are the same folks I grew up listening to in L.A and on MTV. Jim Ladd (KMET), Richard Blade, The Swedish Egil (KROQ), Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn, Nina Blackwood. Those last three, if you grew up during the early days of MTV, you probably recognize as the original VJs. So you can see why it takes a glimpse of my face in the rearview mirror to remind me that I don’t sport a mullet and parachute pants, that 30 years have indeed passed since all this amazing music came out. But for the few minutes on the way to work, the hours when I’m on a road trip, these songs, these iconic DJs voices, give away no clues that are in their 50s and 60s, have gained weight, lost hair, sport wrinkles and have had plastic surgery.

And even though the technology has changed, the experience hasn’t much. It’s still listening to music in the car. For me, it’s not Old School, it’s not Classic. It’s what is, and what matters. And it brings me back to that time, an era when music thrilled me, surprised me, scared me, confounded me, seduced me. When a song like Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” could be followed by an instrumental, jazzy, break-dance anthem like Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It.”

Which is what started this whole rant in the first place. Instead of a song lyric spinning over and over in my head, I awoke to the record-scratching, forward and back chugga-chuggas of this 1983 (dare I use the word?) classic. It leads me to wonder, what other instrumental songs (other than Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire” and Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme”) have been big hits? Anything since 1990? Discuss amongst yourselves and let me know in the comments.

Billy Idol – Cradle of Love

I warned you that the 80s would be featured prominently here.

But embedded with such awareness, I’m still quite surprised that this was the Billy Idol song to occupy my entry into traditional consciousness. Not “White Wedding,” not “Rebel Yell,” or even “Dancing with Myself,” which is probably my favorite of the bleach-blonde sneerer’s hits. It’s also a song I could have written a compelling post about: the joy, heartache and liberation of partnerless dancing. I could have waxed poetic about my awkward teen years, perpetually afraid to ask any girl to dance. How I would sashay and shimmy, alone, around my room to the B52’s “Rock Lobster” and New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Never finding the courage, until a few years later at college (and in liquid form), to show that free-spirited and loose-limbed side of myself in public. But these coming-of-age tales of will have to wait for their proper ear worm trigger.

Now I must backtrack a bit, and explain my process for writing these posts.

Usually I just start writing whatever pops in my head and go back later and fill in the details utilizing my go-to music research sites: allmusic.com, wikipedia and AZLyrics. But sometimes my off-the-cuff remarks and unchecked historical tidbits are way off base and I have to rewrite entire sections, because even I have standards. Like for example: “Cradle of Love” came out in 1990. But it feels so 80s, doesn’t it? I could have sworn it was on Billy Idol’s second (and best) album, Rebel Yell. Or if not that, then surely it was on his third (and pretty decent) album, Whiplash Smile in 1986. But no — and I’ve double checked — this song is on Idol’s 4th album, Charmed Life. But, to my credit, even some 80’s New Wave compilation releases have “Cradle of Love” on their song lists.

So the real question is, what years define a decade? Are “The 80s” really 1980-1989? Does it fit all nice and tidy like that? Do songs that came out in 1960 and 1961 jive with your aural image/memory of a 60s tune? Maybe the 60s–the 60s most of us correlate to hippies and free love and psychedelic rock and folk rock and protest songs–match more accurately to the years 1964-1973. Or 1965-1974. Maybe musical decades don’t last 10 years and don’t start at the turn of calendar decades. I mean, my idea of the 80s depends on so many factors. There’s the punk rock 80s, which could be seen as 1976-1986, starting with the Ramones self-titled first album. There’s the Rap/Hip-Hop 80s, with Grandmaster Flash’s first album The Message in 1982 signifying the birth of a new era. There’s the glam/hair-metal scene that took hold of the charts and MTV in the mid-80s but really began in the late 70s. And of course there is the new wave 80s: the Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, synth heavy dance music. And then Debbie Harry & Blondie come along to find a way to fuse all of those genres (except hair metal, fortunately) in the 1981 classic, “Rapture.”

I can’t even begin to define the 70s or 90s and especially not the aughts with any clear musical decade boundaries. Maybe this is an age thing. My high-school and college years were the 80s, the decade that culturally shaped who I am far more than any other. So, it makes sense that I keep being drawn back to the music of that time period. Why I’ll continue to keep writing about it ad infinitum.

 

It probably doesn’t surprise you that the theme (I hesitate to use the word message) of “Cradle of Love” is: having sex with young girls is awesome! Cause they are virginal! And quick learners! Sadly, me thinks the cradle isn’t symbolic or metaphoric here. And the lyrics read somehow simultaneously lecherous and confusing.

Rock the cradle of love/Rock the cradle of love
Yes the cradle of love don’t rock easily it’s true
Sent from heaven above that’s right
To rob the cradle of love
Yes the pages of love don’t talk decently it’s true

It burned like a ball of fire
When the rebel took a little child bride
To tease yeah so go easy yeah

Yeah flesh for your romeo
Ah yeah baby
I hear you moan
It’s easy y’know how to please me yeah

You see, the “Rebel” (which is clearly Billy himself) took a child bride to “tease yeah” and “please yeah” but also to keep the devil from getting to her first. So, of course that makes it ok, cause he was sent from heaven above to, what? Give a few pointers on bedroom etiquette? I am probably reading way too much into this; we are not talking about Bob Dylan here. But, hey, as long as it’s got a catchy chorus and a beat you can dance to! And does it ever!

Billy Idol had already written songs in a similar vein earlier in his career, most notably on his Whiplash Smile album, a song titled, “Sweet Sixteen.” Perhaps it’s the same girl from the cradle, the one he’d previously rocked and robbed, but now the tables have turned; she, at the ripe age of sixteen, has left The Rebel in the dust, run away to, well, probably to the clinic to test for STDs, apply for her GED, and then buy a one-way ticket and backpack through Europe.

I’ll do anything
For my sweet sixteen,
And I’ll do anything
For my little run away child

Gave my heart an engagement ring,
She took everything,
Everything I gave her,
Oh sweet sixteen

There are a plethora of rock ‘n roll songs that are about the wily, sexual charms of the teenage girl. (And I plan to explore this more fully soon in a later post – the songs, not the girls.)  Perhaps it’s connected to the whole groupie culture surrounding stardom. The way rock stars and movie stars become stunted, perpetual 21 year olds, hiding any signs of aging behind hair extensions, leather pants and supermodels. It’s almost expected in male rock stars. Mick Jagger has gone through so many supermodel wives, I’ve lost count. But it’s considered sad and pathetic when an average joe lusts after girls much younger than himself. It’s like the classic line Matthew McConaughey’s character Wooderson says in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, I get older, they stay the same age.”

Maybe what I should be exploring is why “Cradle of Love” entered my brain in the first place. I have always dated age-appropriate women and my wife and I were born only 6 weeks apart. The biggest age difference between me and any girlfriend was three years, when I was 29. The idea of trading in for two 25 year olds is an old sexist/ageist joke, but beyond the obvious sexual context, the mere thought that I would have no one to join me in singing cheesy Bryan Adams songs in the morning, no one to trade classic lines from Spinal Tap with, well, it cuts like a knife, and it’s none more black.

A song about being a late bloomer would have been a more fitting song choice. But I don’t choose these songs. It’s probably as simple as this: the bedroom window was open, I was chilly and just wanted to be cradled.

To be honest, I had thought that “Cradle of Love” was about the joy of becoming of parent for the first time, until I started rubbing the sleep out of my eyes to look at the lyrics. I’d thought maybe this post was gonna head in the direction of my being childless (or child-free as some would prefer I use) at almost 50 years old. That’s certainly a worthy topic, but, like my late-bloomin’ youth-escapades, that story will have to wait for another song….