Friday, October 9, 2009

It's Johnny's Birthday...

This is a very short song from George Harrison’s first album after the break-up of the Beatles, All Things Must Pass. The “Johnny” he sang about was his old partner in madness, John Lennon. October 9th, 1940 is the day John Lennon came kicking and screaming into this world (or was it singing? I don’t know which…). Had he been alive, he would have been 69 this year. Rather than wait until the anniversary of his death to put pen to paper and express some thoughts about John Lennon, for once I thought I’d do it on or near the anniversary of his birth.

Every Beatles fan has a favorite. Many people say that Paul is their favorite. He was the “cute one.” My sister’s favorite was George. My wife’s favorite was George. He was “the Quiet Beatle.” Mine was John. He was way different than the others. He was from a different planet. He wasn’t the best all-around musician of the group (that would be Paul), or he wasn’t the best guitar player either (that would be George), but he did have a very quick wit, had a wicked sense of humor with a keen gift for words, and damn he could sing! If you need any evidence on that last point, give “Twist and Shout” a spin. Or "Yer Blues" from the White Album, or "I Want You [She's So Heavy]" from Abbey Road. That’s all you need. He was “the weird one,” which above all else is probably the reason he is my favorite Beatle. He was the one among the group that would be the first to face the fire. In short, he was the pack leader.

I became a Beatles fan at a very young age, and it’s all my sister’s fault. She’s 12 years older than I am. She experienced Beatlemania as a teenager. She gave me my very first record. She probably gave it to me so I would stay out of her room while she was at school (obnoxious little meddlesome kid that I was – some things never change). It was the song “Help!” - a 45 on the old Capitol yellow-and-orange swirl label. It was a “John” song. It’s my favorite song to this day. Only “Comfortably Numb” from Pink Floyd even comes close. My poor mother - she had two Beatlemaniacs in the family. She put up with Beatlemania during the ‘60s, and when I was old enough to start buying records of my own, she got it again.

John Lennon was the one who would be more willing than the others to experiment with sounds on his songs. When I first got “Help!” I just thought it was a neat little 2-minute song. When you’re three or four years old, your thoughts don’t go any deeper than that. It was just a cool song. It was only when I got older, a lot older, that I realized “Help!” was one of the Beatles’ first songs that wasn’t a love song. It was a real cry for “Help!”, which I thought was odd because here you’ve got this guy who was (at the time) one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, yet he was miserable. This was the first of many autobiographical songs. “Nowhere Man”, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, “In My Life”, “A Day in the Life”, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, “Cold Turkey”, “Watching the Wheels”, “Beautiful Boy” – all of the autobiographical variety. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is another such song, but it’s different – very different. It started off as a very simple song that John wrote while filming “How I Won the War” in Almeria, Spain after the Beatles quit touring in 1966. As it began to take shape in the studio, it became a production masterpiece. Plainly put, it’s a very cool “headphone” song. It’s got some very clever words – “living is easy with eyes closed/misunderstanding all you see,” "nothing is real/nothing to get hung about," “no one I think is in my tree.”

Then there’s the “weird” songs. These are the ones that I think capture John’s unconventional essence. “Rain”, the flip side of Paul’s “Paperback Writer,” fits into this category because of the last verse - it's sung backwards. The circumstances of this came about because John got stoned after the recording session for “Rain,” recorded during the "Revolver" sessions. He took a tape of the song home to listen to, only he threaded the tape backwards onto his tape machine (well, he WAS stoned). Whilst in his stoned state he played the song and heard himself singing backwards. He liked what he heard, and that’s what ended up on the finished product. Also, the song was recorded at a slower than normal speed, so when played back AT normal speed the listener has the sensation of listening to someone who is groggy, sleepy or, dare I say it again, stoned. Also from the same “Revolver” period is the song “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the last song on the album. It was done like an Indian raga, all in the key of “C”. The song is a series of tape-looped sound effects, backwards-recorded guitar from George with a droning Indian sitar playing along (also done by George), and some very heavy drumming from Ringo. The lyrics come from John’s “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” period. Not satisfied with just the “instrumentation” he told George Martin, their producer, that he wanted to sound like the Dalai Lama singing from the top of the Himilayas. Somehow their recording engineer Geoff Emerick figured out how to run his voice through a Leslie rotating speaker from a Hammond organ, and the results were otherworldly. John loved what he heard, and so do I. You wouldn’t catch Paul creating work like this [not for public consumption, anyway] – he was too busy writing hit songs or other more "conventional" stuff, not that there’s anything wrong with that. “Sgt Pepper” was Paul’s baby, after all. "Abbey Road" was too. Don't get me wrong - I like a lot of Paul's songs. It's just that Paul's songs, while they were the hits with much greater appeal than John's sonic experiments, were also very "normal."

Then there are what I call “the Seinfeld songs” – songs about nothing. “I Am the Walrus” was one such Seinfeld song. One day while reading some of his fan mail, he came across one letter that told the tale of some music teacher trying to explain the meaning of Beatles songs. Thus inspired, he wrote a song that strung lots of nonsensical words together, accompanied by a string section written by George Martin that sounds as if he was tripping on acid. “Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye” always grossed out my friend Brian when we were kids. The bit that always got me was “elementary penguins singing Hare Krisha/Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.” To go along with the music, there’s a boy-girl choir adding “ho ho ho hee hee hee ha ha ha,” “oompa-oompa stick it in your joompa” in the background. While mixing the song, John plugged a radio into the mixing board and changed the station until he found a BBC production of Hamlet. This is probably one of the first examples of what’s known as “music concrete”, the introduction of non-musical elements into songs. This is a technique that Pink Floyd later used to great effect. The result is all very surreal. As for the song as a whole - go ahead, figure that one out – I dare you. It’ll give you an aneurism if you try. When he finished the song, John told one of his friends “there, let the fuckers try and figure that one out.” The result – another very cool "headphone" song. For the record, John WAS the Walrus, and it’s “goo goo ga joob”, not “koo koo ka choo.” While Paul came up with such songs as “Hello Goodbye” and “Penny Lane”, John was coming up with stuff like this. Any wonder why the Beatles broke up? Don’t blame Yoko – John and Paul just weren’t on the same page anymore.

John has two other “Seinfeld” songs – “Hey Bulldog” and “Come Together.” “Hey Bulldog” is from the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, but instead of using weird sound effects, surreal strings and the boy-girl choir, this is a straight ahead rocker (and it DOES rock). Recorded five months after “I Am the Walrus,” “Hey Bulldog” uses the same lyrical approach, but the musical approach was just straight-ahead rock and roll. When I burn CDs of Beatles songs I put these two one after another because lyrically they are similar in that they don’t mean a damn thing – just bits of words strung together. “Come Together” begins the Beatles’ last album they recorded, “Abbey Road.” Here is another song with bits of words strung together for poetic effect sung over a snakey, swampy song that John Fogerty would kill for.

John had his “message” songs as well. “Revolution”, “All You Need Is Love”, “Give Peace a Chance”, “Gimme Some Truth”, “Imagine.” I loved the song “Imagine” when I was a kid because I thought it was a good song with a nice melody. At that time I didn’t pay any attention to the words about “no heaven,” “no possessions,” “no countries”, and “living life in peace.” But those concepts (and the song) really annoy conservatives, so I like the song even more because of it. John’s been gone for almost 29 years and he can still annoy “the man.” Would the “artists” of today (and I use that phrase very loosely) have such an effect on people 29 years after they’re gone? Only Bob Dylan and Neil Young (both from John’s generation) come to mind. The others from today’s generation? I somehow doubt it.

John Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan on December 8th, 1980. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news. I was watching Monday Night Football with my dad. The Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots were playing. I have since forgotten the outcome of the game through the mists of time. Given what happened to John Lennon it didn’t matter. My first musical hero was dead and I was heartbroken. I remember at the time the Russians were getting ready to crack down on Poland and Solidarity. Walter Cronkite led off his broadcast the next day with a short mention of Poland, but he said the biggest news of the day was about “the death of a man who sang and played guitar.” I was 18 years old then. After all this time, I still miss him.

Happy Birthday John, wherever you are.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Alice in Chains

A long time ago at an Air Force base far, far away, the wife and I used to watch MTV. This was back in the day when the "M" in MTV stood for "music," and they used to show music videos. Every Saturday night we'd watch The Headbanger's Ball. We were young, just starting our lives together, didn't have a whole lot of money, so on Saturday nights we'd have nothing better to do than watch heavy metal videos. Back then, most of the heavy metal acts were of the "hair band" variety like Poison, Cinderella, Ratt, Dokken, Winger, Warrant, etc. Their music pretty much sounded the same, which is to say, lame. But one particular Saturday night in 1990 we saw a new band from Seattle. Their sound was different, as was their look. No hair spray or make-up for these guys - they were real. The band - Alice in Chains. The song was "Man in the Box." There was just something about having your eyes sewn shut that set them apart from everyone else and made you want more of the same. These guys were heavy, so heavy that I thought they were the demon spawn of Black Sabbath [not a bad thing, by the way]. The singer [Layne Staley] was this skinny little dude who sounded like he was this big fat sweaty guy who could put a lot of power into his vocals. The guitar player [Jerry Cantrell] was this dude from Oklahoma with long blonde hair, who played de-tuned G&L Rampage guitars [even the name of his guitar sounded cool]. This guy played skullcrushing chords like Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi, tasteful solos, used talk-box and wah-wah, and never tried to break the notes-per-second ethos of the day. He was like David Gilmour of Pink Floyd - when he played a solo, people paid attention. Jerry Cantrell was a triple threat. He wrote most of the songs, played excellent guitar, and was a damn fine harmony singer who took the occasional lead vocal.

Two years after Facelift [their debut] came Dirt, Alice in Chains' magnum opus. The themes of the album-drug addiction, loss, depression, regret, nihilism, hopelessness, come across as very real. The album has a thematic coherence that the singer is well and truly screwed, in a prison of his own making, and he knows it. You just knew these guys had been there, done that. And guess what - they had. Dirt generated three singles that got massive airplay - Down in a Hole, Rooster [a tribute to Jerry Cantrell's Vietnam-vet dad], and Would. I heard Would first because it was on the soundtrack to the movie Singles. That song was the hook that got me to want to follow Alice in Chains until the bitter end. Dirt can be very depressing, but serves as a warning - a sort of morality tale of "if you want to do heroin, look what it did to me." I read one review on that pretty much sums it up - "Each song has a terrific, intense riff, and one or two killer solos. These songs are instantly catchy and memorable. The songs combined the sludgy guitars and riffs of Black Sabbath, and the beauty and melody of the Beatles." A strange combination, but it's effective. It works!

In 1993 Alice in Chains confounded all expectations by following-up this sludgy, riff heavy album with an acoustic EP, Jar of Flies. The arrangements are lush, almost achingly beautiful. There is no heavy sledgehammer riffage to be found. Where Dirt has the subtlety of a piledriver, Jar of Flies derives it's power from Jerry Cantrell's undistorted guitar tones and more sparse arrangements. The themes expressed herein deal with acceptance the consequences of ones actions as told in Dirt, so Jar of Flies is a logical follow-up to Dirt. Such was the success of Dirt with the listening public, Jar of Flies debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and spawned another single that received massive radio airplay, No Excuses. These records were quite the "one-two punch." They're that good. Put the two records on the same CD and you have an excellent combination of skullcrushing riffage with light and shade a la Led Zeppelin.

After Jar of Flies came a year of silence. We heard nothing from Alice in Chains. Rumors were rampant about Layne Staley's imminent demise due to drug abuse. Then in 1995 came the Alice in Chains CD. That's the one with the three-legged dog on the cover. This third CD had good songs like Heaven Beside You and Over Now, but it was a bit of a letdown for me. The letdown was not due to the songs, but to the album's production. It has no ambience to it, no spark. It feels like the life had been sucked out of the band and it's music. Alice in Chains was another #1 hit, but as fate would have it, it would be the last studio album by the band for fourteen years. In 1996 the band recorded a well-received Unplugged show for MTV. One hint of how things had been going for the band was a comment Layne Staley made about the Unplugged show being the best one they had played in three years, to which one of the bandmembers responded "Layne, it's the ONLY show we've played in three years." Two years later, the entire band would record just two more songs, Get Born Again and Died, for their Music Bank box set. These songs have the distinction of being the last Alice in Chains songs recorded with Layne Staley.

In 1998, Jerry Cantrell made a solo album, Boggy Depot, that was an Alice in Chains album in all but name. Most of the AIC elements are there - the AIC rhythm section of Sean Kinney and Mike Inez, heavy riffage, de-tuned sludgy guitars, and of course Jerry Cantrell's songs and voice. The only thing missing was Layne Staley, whose vices had forced him to become a recluse. The song Bargain Basement Howard Hughes, which appears on Jerry Cantrell's second solo effort Degradation Trip, is about Layne Staley. Such was Layne Staley's state of being that he wanted nothing to do with his own band. He didn't want to be seen what he had become, an addict on the downward spiral. To the band's credit, they never blamed their inactivity on Layne's condition, they always told interviewers that Layne's problems were a private matter that were nobody's business but his own. Sadly, on April 19, 2002, Layne Staley died as a result of a heroin-cocaine overdose [a "speedball"]. Jerry Cantrell dedicated Degradation Trip to his memory. Alice in Chains died with him. Or did it?

In 2005, Jerry Cantrell, Mike Inez and Sean Kinney regrouped as Alice in Chains with several different singers and played a benefit show for victims of the 2004 Christmas tsunami. The following year they toured with William DuVall as their new vocalist. William DuVall came from the band Comes with the Fall, which had played with Jerry Cantrell when he toured in support of Degradation Trip.

Fourteen years after their last studio release, Alice in Chains have put out a new album called Black Gives Way to Blue. I love this album. William DuVall does not try to ape Layne Staley. He does his own thing and harmonizes very well with Jerry Cantrell, as did Layne Staley. Black Gives Way to Blue has both the heavy elements of Dirt and the light-and-shade moments of Jar of Flies. It is a welcome addition to the Alice in Chains canon. The songs? My favorites so far are Acid Bubble, Last of My Kind, Your Decision, Check My Brain, and the title song. The title song is an homage to Layne Staley, and is a first for Alice in Chains - a song with a piano [played by none other than Elton John] as part of the arrangement. I read a recent review of a show Alice in Chains did in Seattle. As the first song of their encore, Jerry Cantrell came out alone, sat on a stool and started playing the song Black Gives Way to Blue. All through the song, the spotlight shone on an empty chair next to Jerry, a reminder of their missing friend.

Welcome back Alice - I hope it doesn't take another fourteen years to produce another record. This new one is a good one. I think somewhere Layne Staley must be smiling - at last.