Tuesday, December 30, 2008

the meaning of "platonic"

United Feature Syndicate's Mr. Know-It-All was recently asked the following question:

I'm a male and have been involved in several platonic relationships. What does the word "platonic" mean?

In case you hadn't noticed, it means you ain't gettin' any.

Friday, December 12, 2008

a crying shame

If Illinois' first lady, Patti Blagojevich, cries on camera to Barbara Walters or someone of that sort and apologizes for using salty language to express her feelings about the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago Tribune, then I hope a newspaper headline the next day uses my favorite riff on her maiden name: "Patti Melts."

I saw an ad on TV last night for AmeriCash Loans, which used fake newspaper headlines to illustrate all the bad news about the economy that people have been receiving lately. It didn't point out, of course, that newspapers are suffering right along with banks, real estate companies, the auto industry, etc. Newspaper headlines are still the norm for quickly conveying information in ads like the one for AmeriCash Loans.

Even in last Sunday's Simpsons episode, when Homer had a vision of the future in which honey didn't exist, he was alerted by a "Honey Famine Continues" headline on the front page of a Springfield Shopper lying on the ground. This future also included a WALL-E robot that scavenged for valuables such as a bear-shaped honey dispenser. Thanks, Homer, for imagining a postapocalyptic future that has room for robots and newspapers, but a lot of people would place bets on robots—and political corruption, which will never go out of style—being more commonplace than printed news 100 years from now.

Monday, December 8, 2008

a photo on Wikipedia that needs a caption

After struggling in vain to remove a wind instrument from his lips, smooth-jazz superstar Dave Koz implores soul singer and 2008 Black Yul Brynner Lookalike Contest winner James Ingram to not turn around and answer fans' questions about the status of his tailored suit.

Friday, December 5, 2008

recent sighting

A few minutes ago I was walking behind a man outside the Reader's office who had some sort of doll still in its packaging in his left hand. In his right hand was a glass of white wine. I'm going to guess that he was disappointed in the door prize he received at his company's scaled-back holiday party this year, so he decided to take his glass of wine with him. (Cash bar only this year, staffers. Sorry, but we are in a recession.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My grandmother would've turned 90 today.

In 1997 my grandmother, Martha McKay Stovall, passed away ten days after her 79th birthday. Below is a picture of her and my grandfather, George Walter Stovall, who died last year at 90. When this photo was taken in the summer of 1947 she was 28 and he was 31. Both were younger than I am now.

Here's something I've wondered about for a while now: Theoretically, heaven is, well, heavenly. You lived a good life, so you're rewarded with eternal happiness. But people generally die when they're old, and who wants to arrive at the pearly gates only to discover that you're going to spend eternity with arthritis, cataracts, and liver spots? 

I wasn't the wisest or most even-tempered 21-year-old, but physically speaking, that's the age at which I was the least self-conscious, so I'd like God to restore my legal-drinking-age features once I get to heaven. And I'd like to be reunited with my grandparents, but would they be in their early 20s—or whatever period of their lives at which they were the least self-conscious—when I meet them again? I'd recognize them, of course, but are family reunions in heaven filled with people who look like they're all in their teens and 20s, with no middle-aged or elderly bodies in sight?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

the morning after

The honeymoon will end sooner rather than later, and the punch-drunk goodwill of election night will give way to the sober reality of economic and military crises, but what excites me the most about last night's election is thinking that the first president my young nieces will be conscious of is Barack Obama. Their generation may have some racial barriers broken down before they even know those barriers once existed. It's a long shot, of course, but it's nice to think about. For them, it won't just be lip service that anyone can become president of the United States of America.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

You can still pull this one out with one more negative ad, Republicans!!!!

I know the polls have closed and McCain's way behind in the electoral-college vote count so far and there's absolutely no chance of him winning ... but dammit, you pulled a fast one in 2000 and you can do it again! So listen up ...

Barack Obama's middle name may be Hussein, but something about his name smells even fishier—his initials.

That's right—Barack Obama's initials are B.O. America, do you really want B.O. in the White House—and in your lives—for the next four years? Think about it. Or is it already too late?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

TV vs. print, suave international assassins vs. racist rural assassins

Last night one of the top-story teasers for the 10 PM newscast on Channel 2 (WBBM, the CBS affiliate in Chicago) concerned two white supremacists' plans to assassinate Barack Obama. In today's Chicago Sun-Times the story gets eight short paragraphs and is on page six, mainly because the would-be assassins were arrested October 22 in Tennessee and never got anywhere near Obama, though authorities took their threats seriously, which included targeting a "mostly black school." Even the senator himself said on the newscast that he wasn't worried about the suspects' threat. But I wouldn't have seen him say that if I hadn't taken Channel 2's teaser bait, now would I? Good work! Also, shame on you.

Here's my favorite part of the assassination-threat story: according to court documents, "Both individuals stated they would dress in all-white tuxedos and wear top hats during the assassination attempt." Hey, who doesn't appreciate a touch of class?
Maybe these white supremacists are just two overgrown kids who like to play James Bond in their backyard (which is surrounded, of course, by signs that say "Trespassers will be assassinated on sight"). Well, James Bond if he were a hateful bigot, at least. I bet their favorite Bond film is 1973's blaxploitation-influenced Live and Let Die, the one that introduced Roger Moore as Bond. If that's the case, then they deserve to go to prison—nobody would pick Moore as their favorite Bond. (Objection! The prosecution is jumping to false conclusions and committing character assassination.) (Overruled! I don't care if "Who's the best Bond of all time?" isn't even the issue at hand. Verdict: guilt by association.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Colin Farrell isn't married.

But if he was, I doubt his wife would let him out of the house wearing this shirt.

Can't wait for "Flashdance II," Colin!

This is a picture of Instant Karma, a Chicago-area John Lennon tribute act, walking across Abbey Road just like the Beatles did in 1969 for their famous Abbey Road album cover. At first I laughed, because there is absolutely no "rock-star cool" emanating from this photo. But then I realized they're not trying to look cool (which isn't an easy thing to do when you're wearing shorts and ankle-high socks); they're just fans of Lennon and the Beatles, and they probably got a huge kick out of walking across the same intersection their idols did almost 40 years ago. It also occurred to me that they all traveled to England together to take this photograph, which says a great deal about their friendship.

Finally, I sure do hope this naysayer is proven wrong next Tuesday. If he isn't, may he wear Colin Farrell's ballet blouse until he's learned an important lesson about optimism.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

the reality of the situation

The September 25 Chicago Tribune included an article about Army scientist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide on July 29 as the Justice Department prepared to charge him for the post-9/11 anthrax mailings that killed five people. The article's focus was an e-mail Ivins sent to himself on September 7, 2007, in which he declared that he'd discovered the identity of the anthrax mailer even though he was the authorities' prime suspect. The parts of the e-mail quoted by reporter David Willman include lots of exclamation marks: "Yes! Yes! Yes!!!!!!! ... I've pieced it together! ... I'm not looking forward to everybody getting dragged through the mud, but at least it will all be over ... I should have been a private eye!!!!"

"The e-mail," Willman wrote, "along with other correspondence [shows] that Ivins more recently mused about how to blind or kill a reality TV participant...."

Wait a second—Ivins killed five innocent Americans in 2001 and "sickened or injured" 17 others, but he could only find enough motivation to harm one reality-TV star? How twisted can a man's morals be?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Whoop! There it is!

Whooping cough is a highly infectious respiratory illness caused by Bordetella pertussis, a known player in the infectious disease world since the 16th century.

Play on, player, play on!

In its heyday it was responsible for at least 200,000 cases a year just in the United States.

Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

These cases were reduced significantly with the development of the vaccine in the 1940's.

You were the coolest infectious cat on the block for 400 years, BP, but every party has to end sometime. Still, I gotta give you props. Y'all give it up for BP! Everybody put your hands together for BP!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Here's another freebie for you, Republicans.

Late-night TV comedy writers and talk-show hosts regularly make fun of politicians, especially during election years like this one. So why aren't they making fun of Barack Obama?

They say it's because the Democratic senator from Illinois is "perfect," but the real reason is because he's black (for the most part). And they're white (for the most part). And because black comedians can make fun of white people but white comedians can't make fun of black people. (Don't go there, girlfriend.) It just isn't kosher, though Holocaust jokes can be enjoyed by everyone, of course. (Ancient history, people. Let it go already.)

American voters, do you really want a president who's too "perfect" to be made fun of on TV? Do you really want four more years of white actor Fred Armisen impersonating Obama on Saturday Night Live? Even he looks bored already, and he's only been playing the Illinois Muslim terrorist senator for a month. (In blackface, no less! ... Okay, more like grayface, but don't act like that doesn't make you squirm, white-guilt bleeding-heart liberals.) Don't you want a president everyone can laugh at regardless of their race?

On November 4, vote for John McCain, a president we can all ridicule. Plus there's his running mate—I mean, is she hilarious or what?

(Paid for by the Coalition of African-Americans and Cracker-Ass Crackers to Elect John McCain.)

Monday, October 6, 2008

Read the newspaper story about the Train while you're on the train reading the newspaper.

Jake Austen's cover story about Soul Train's beginnings in Chicago was published last week in the Chicago Reader and can be found online here. It's well worth your time if you're interested in the show, which aired in black-and-white on Chicago's WCIU, or '70s soul music. The photos that were unearthed from Soul Train's modest early years feature Curtis Mayfield and the Staple Singers, and "while [host Don] Cornelius's sharp suits became his signature when the show went national, early publicity photos show the host in bolder attire: despite being in his mid-30s, he wears a low-cut tank top accented by chains, studs, and leather."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

You can have this one for free, Republicans.

This photo was taken on Thursday, September 11, in New York City, when senators John McCain and Barack Obama participated in a Time magazine-sponsored forum on national service at Columbia University. Doesn't Obama look scary in this picture? Doesn't he look like he's threatening the white-haired old white man? That's not what he was doing, but doesn't it look like that's what he's doing? And isn't that worth more than the thousand words Democrats could use to justify the thousand other things that were probably going through Obama's mind at that particular moment?

Do you want your next president to threaten your sweet, defenseless, white-haired grandpa, America? On November 4, vote for the white-haired man. He only threatens our godless enemies. Plus his running mate is totally do-able!

(Paid for by the Committee to Elect a President Who Isn't Mean to Grandpas or Grandmas or Puppies or Rainbows.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

memories that hang by a thread

As we get older, our brain pushes out older memories for newer ones. Sometimes that's not such a bad thing, like when someone from high school reminds you of a pretentious thing you said when you were 15 and you have no recollection of it whatsoever. Therefore it never happened. I savor this kind of small victory.

But there are other times when you have only the thinnest strand of a memory still trapped in your head, like an image from a movie or a TV show or a music video, but the image isn't enough to help you identify where it came from, even in the Internet age, where information on seemingly everything is available whenever you want it.

In January I mentioned that I'm glad to go into a grocery store these days, hear a song I haven't heard before on the PA, and not be able to identify it even if I write down a line or two and then look up the lyrics on Google when I get home. (Some people, of course, can access the Internet on their phones or PDAs and would be able to identify the song right away. But I don't want that much Internet in my life.) It's nice to not know. And yet a part of me still wants to know, especially if I want to hear the song again.

I remember a video that came on MTV in the summer of '87 that featured some sort of jungle setting, though the jungle was created on a soundstage and was meant to look fake. That summer I looked for the cassette that featured the song while I was with my grandfather in a music store in Douglas, Georgia, where my grandparents used to live. But that's all I remembered about the song—not the title, not the artist's name, not even a basic melody. Just a vague image from the video and a vague recollection of the location where I briefly considered buying the entire album so I could have that song. (I'm sure I just wanted to buy something that day, no matter what. That allowance money/spoiled-grandchild money was burning a hole in my pocket.)

On April 23 Dave Steed helped me solve this minor mystery in his Popdose series called Bottom Feeders, where he meticulously tracks down every song that peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1980s below #40. On that day he featured a song by Jon Astley (no relation to Rick) called "Jane's Getting Serious." I thought I hadn't remembered anything about the melody of that mystery song from 21 years ago, but something clicked when I listened to Astley's minor hit. I love how the brain works that way.

Now that I had the title, I started looking for the video for "Jane's Getting Serious" on YouTube. It wasn't there, but I did find a sentence or two on another site about it being set in a jungle, which made sense in terms of "Me Tarzan, you Jane." It took 21 years, but I'd finally identified the Song With No Name. And a few months ago the video showed up on YouTube:

Another vague image that's never left my memory comes from even earlier in my life—I was probably four or five when I saw a TV show in which milk was poured on a person's head while he was sitting at a kitchen table. I thought maybe it came from the TV series based on the film The Paper Chase, though I wasn't sure why. Memories get jumbled over the years, especially the ones from the first years in which your long-term memory is active.

About a month ago a rerun of Eight Is Enough came on Me TV, and at the end of the episode ("Triangles," 9/28/77) Tommy Bradford (Willie Aames) made a sarcastic comment about money to his sister Mary (Lani O'Grady), who retaliated not by yelling at him for ripping her off but by kissing him softly on the cheek, then opening the refrigerator and pouring a carton of milk on his head. Tommy didn't seem that confused by the out-of-nowhere kiss, nor did he get mad at Mary for dousing him with milk. Tommy wasn't the brightest Bradford.

But as soon as Mary kissed him on the cheek, something in my head clicked once again. I didn't know what was about to happen, but I was glued to the screen. Once the milk hit Tommy's head, another minor memory mystery was solved.

Me TV's sister station, Me Too, ran an Our Gang short recently that I remember very strongly from childhood, one in which Jackie Cooper gets caught trying to play pranks on his new teacher, Miss Crabtree. She tells him and his co-conspirators to go home and explain to their parents what they did, but right before they exit, the rest of the class is given cake and ice cream. As Jackie sits in the schoolyard crying, ashamed at what he was planning to do to his lovely, sweet new teacher, she brings him a plate of cake and ice cream.

Once again, I was glued to the screen, even though my memories of
"Teacher's Pet" from Little Rascals reruns in the 1980s have never been vague like the other two examples I mentioned. I was just glad to see it again for the first time in many years. It's a tearjerker for the kindergarten set.

I also have a vague memory of where I put my wallet yesterday, but you probably don't want to hear about that.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I'm doing my part to keep the American status quo alive and well.

A few weeks ago, right after Sarah Palin was chosen by John McCain to be his running mate, this anonymous comment showed up in a Chicago Sun-Times "reader reaction" sidebar:

Well, why didn't they choose Condi? She's a good Republican. She likes to travel, too, and she wears nice suits. She's even educated like Obama. She had no experience, but look at what a fine job she has done.

lady opinion

To imply that most African-Americans aren't educated and don't dress well is condescending, ignorant, and downright offensive. Now get back in the kitchen where you belong, you silly, stupid bitch.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I was never crazy about the ending of Raising Arizona, but while I'm daydreaming ...

It makes me smile to think that in 70 years my nieces will have these same smiles, which will be captured in pictures much like this one. Side by side. Sisters and friends. With nieces, nephews, daughters, sons, and grandchildren of their very own. (The purple pajamas are optional, but if the mood strikes them, why not?)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Old Sweat

Singer Keith Sweat turned 44 in July. In the highly scientific realm of R&B evolution, that makes him "a grown-ass man."

I heard Sweat's new album, Just Me, recently at work. It contains the song "Just Wanna Sex You," on which Keith banishes all thoughts of his impending prostate exam so he can tell his listeners how much he wants "sex in the morning, sex in the evening, sex in my Jeep." He also wants to "have sex on my lunch break, sex after work, and sex in a strange place." Does your nephew's high school graduation count as "a strange place," Keith? (No, you're not invited to his graduation party.)

I think recording desperately horny songs in your mid-40s to reaffirm your verility puts you in "a strange place"I call it the land of overcompensationbut you're not the first middle-aged singer who's refused to let go of his early glory days, and you won't be the last.

This isn't to say that people over 40 can't love and lust just as intensely as a 19-year-old. Not at all. It's just that it's embarrassing when someone over 40 compares himself to the Energizer Bunny because he can "keep goin' and goin' and goin' and goin'," especially since Sweat needs the help of Auto-Tune, a.k.a. vocal-cord Viagra, throughout Just Me to help him hit the required notes.

You can grow old gracefully in pop music and still be accepted by your fans, but both sides have to acknowledge that being young at heart doesn't equal being young in the flesh. Otherwise you risk becoming a Chris Rock joke: "Every man has to settle down eventually. You know why you gotta settle down eventually? Because you don't want to be the old guy in the club. You know what I'm talking about. Every club you go into, there's always some old guy. He ain't really oldjust a little too old to be in the club."

Maybe Keith Sweat really is "an addict when it comes to making love." (If that's the case, Keith, seek counseling like Michael Douglas and David Duchovny did.) But I do think anyone would agree, no matter how old they are, that sex on their lunch break would be a refreshing change of pace from eating yogurt and reading Us Weekly in the break room.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Soul Train is about to reach its last stop.

We received this e-mail at work yesterday from an employee of WGN-TV:

Got a call last week from someone at Chicago Reader regarding our final airing of "The Best of Soul Train." The timeslot has changed to 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 20.

I'm not the one who called, and I don't know why anyone from the Reader would've called, but it is news, because after September 20 Soul Train may be gone from the air for a long time.

According to Wikipedia (sorry, it's the only source I can find), "The future of
Soul Train," which hasn't produced new episodes since the end of its shorter-than-usual 35th season in the spring of 2006, "was placed in further uncertainty with the announced closing of Tribune Entertainment's syndication division [Tribune Company owns WGN] on December 18, 2007, leaving Don Cornelius Productions to seek a new distributor for the program. DCP then secured a deal with Trifecta Entertainment & Media, which also distributes another former Tribune Entertainment series, American Idol Rewind. In May 2008, the rights to the Soul Train library were purchased by MadVision Entertainment, whose principal partners come from the entertainment and publishing fields. The price and terms of the deal were not disclosed."

Since December of '06 Soul Train has been airing reruns from the '70s and '80s under the name The Best of Soul Train. I first discovered these reruns on WGN last October when Bunny Sigler appeared on my TV screen. It turns out that episode aired again last Saturday, and now I'm a little mad that I didn't check the schedule so I could tape it.

I haven't watched the Soul Train reruns in a few months because more and more episodes from the '80s were being shown, and they just aren't as interesting to me as the '70s installments, mainly because the soul music of the '80s didn't hold a candle to that of the Me Decade. Plus, The Best of Soul Train keeps repeating the same two dozen episodes, making me wonder if the show's staff is very, very selective about what's considered "best" or if they lost most of their assets in a fire a long time ago.

By the '80s Don Cornelius had learned a thing or two about how to start off an interview, which meant fewer mind-boggling but highly entertaining faux pas like "Your new single sounds a lot like the last one" or "You look like you've put on some weight since I last saw you." That second comment was made to Village People producer Jacques Morali, who was French (he died in 1991), so I'm not sure he fully comprehended what the Soul Train host and former Chicago radio personality was saying to him. Too bad he didn't reply in pidgin English, "And I see that you are still, uh, how you say ... socially awkward, yes?"

According to Wikipedia's list of Soul Train episodes, the September 20 rerun will be from December 15, 1984, with Donna Summer and the Staple Singers as the guest performers. After that you'll only be able to hear the sooooooooooul train in the distance until Trifecta Entertainment & Media finds it a new home.

Monday, September 1, 2008


Paul Westerberg wasn't the only artist to give his fans almost-free music this summer. On Friday, July 25, California rapper Murs released Sweet Lord for free over the Internet. It's his third collaboration with producer 9th Wonder, following 2004's Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition and 2006's Murray's Revenge. Sweet Lord isn't up to the level of Murray's Revenge, but it would've been tough for Murs and 9th Wonder to have reached that peak again. Besides, it gives the listener more hooks than Westerberg's 49:00, and in less time.

Though Sweet Lord was free, donations were accepted. I gave $10, partly because Murray's Revenge is one of my favorite albums of the past few years, but I heard it through a free promotional copy at work, which I still have. I feel a little guilty about that, so I was happy to donate.

Earlier this week I bought Classic, the 2005 album by Living Legends, a rap collective of which Murs is a member, along with Luckyiam, Sunspot Jonz, the Grouch, Scarub, Eligh, Bicasso, and Aesop. I heard tracks from Classic last summer at work thanks to a departed coworker whose computer still contained all the music he'd loaded onto the hard drive. Classic has a half dozen or so terrific cuts, including "Blast Your Radio," on which Murs declares that Beverly Cleary's The Mouse and the Motorcycle is a classic (I wonder if he's a Judy Blume fan too); the soulful, sultry "Good Fun"; and "Down for Nothin'," which drips paranoia and seething anger ("He's always up to somethin' ... / Forever huntin' someone / Screw over loved ones"). Classic also contains "Even Though," the best rap breakup song I've heard. The chorus is "Even though we don't get along, I still love you," sung in unison by the Living Legends at their most wistful.

On "Blast Your Radio," one of the Living Legends
(sorry, I can't tell whose voice is whose except for Murs's) says, "Now, just because it's retro don't mean that it's classic / Just because it's classic don't mean it ain't brand-new." Another Legend responds, "That's true / The Love Below was new, I considered it a classic / Like a pickle made by Vlasic." I'll give it a few more years, but I'd wager that Classic already is.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

In the future Paul Westerberg will be famous again for 49 minutes (and one second).

On Saturday, July 19, Paul Westerberg released 49:00 through Amazon.com, charging only 49 cents for his latest album. Except it's not really an album—it's a single MP3, with no track listing and no breaks between songs, and some of the songs are just fragments, with one fragment playing on top of another in certain spots. 49:00 isn't 49 minutes long, either—it lasts 43 minutes and 55 seconds. But Westerberg is 49 years old. Except he's not—he turns 49 later this year.

Paul Westerberg is a mystery wrapped in a riddle, smothered with beef and cheese inside a crunchy enigma shell.

On Tuesday, August 5, Westerberg completed the puzzle, at least in terms of 49:00's length: he released a new MP3 called "5:05," which can be bought at Tunecore.com for either 99 cents or $5.05, depending on how much you want to support Westerberg, I guess. Add 5:05 to 43:55 and you've got 49 minutes. Except "5:05" actually runs five minutes and six seconds. Intentional? I'm not sure.

Amazon stopped offering 49:00 for purchase on Thursday, July 31, after less than two weeks, supposedly because Westerberg infringed on some copyrights by covering the Beatles' "Hello Goodbye," Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild," and Elton John's "Rocket Man," though only a few seconds of each song are heard. (In the last few seconds of "5:05," he sings the first line of the Beatles' "Oh! Darling," which J. Neas at Aquarium Drunkard sees as a sly acknowledgment of 49:00 being pulled as well as a reminder from Westerberg that his old band, the Replacements, copied the melody of "Oh! Darling" note for note in their song "Mr. Whirly" 25 years ago.) He does sing the majority of the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You," an example of the type of AM bubblegum Westerberg fell in love with as a child. Could it be that Reuben Kincaid is behind all this?

No one seems to know the real reason for 49:00's disappearance from the digital marketplace, but it wasn't sold as a "protected" MP3 like the kind you buy from iTunes, which means anyone can e-mail it to their friends and post it on their websites, making it a collector's item only in spirit.

Earlier this week Westerberg released two new MP3s to add to the mystery of his recent output: "Finally Here Once" is three minutes and 27 seconds long, and "3oclockreep" runs 20 minutes and eight seconds, which qualifies it for status as an EP all by itself, if you ask me. They can be bought together for $3.99 at Tunecore. When "5:05" was released and made available for 99 cents or $5.05, 49:00 had already been removed from Amazon, leading some buyers to think that if they paid $5.05 at Tunecore they'd receive 49:00 in addition to "5:05." They didn't. They paid more than five dollars for one song. Westerberg's funny that way.

I haven't heard the two new releases, but I did buy 49:00 in July, and I got "5:05" for free off of a music blog. Sorry, Paul, but the irony is that I wouldn't have minded paying 99 cents for "5:05," since it's better than anything on "43:55."

Not that I'm complaining about paying 49 cents for an album-length MP3. But 49:00's most memorable hooks are provided by another Paul—McCartney—and a fake band created for a TV sitcom almost 40 years ago. I thought I remembered reading an interview with Westerberg last spring, when the first wave of Replacements reissues came out, in which he said that he didn't have plans for a new album but that he had recorded a bunch of new material and passed it along to his manager to see what he wanted to do with it. Maybe I imagined that. But in an interview with Billboard.com in April, Westerberg did say that his manager and he "are kicking around the idea of selling the [new] songs online, having like a song of the month club. That might be the best way."

Well, 49:00 does contain some songs, but I'd rather hear a proper album and pay $12 for it. The last one Westerberg recorded, Folker, came out in 2004, and though it has its share of filler like any other Westerberg album (he's the first to admit it), songs like "Anyway's All Right," "What About Mine?," and "Folk Star" are as good as anything he's recorded since the Replacements broke up in 1991, and "My Dad," a tribute to his father, who died in 2003, is a genuine tearjerker that avoids cheap sentiment.

Westerberg is the best lyricist of his generation, and "As Far as I Know," my favorite song on Folker, shows he hasn't lost his gift: "I'm in love with a face that I've never seen / Once upon a place, long time ago / I'm in love with a time that never took place, that's easy to trace / As far as I know." For anyone who's ever worried that they'll never find "the one" or worried that they've already peaked in life and it's all downhill from here, Westerberg elegantly reminds us that "the one" is a myth and the glory years we long to return to have been filtered through the forgiving haze of nostalgia. The title of the Replacements' 2006 best-of sums up that second point the best: Don't You Know Who I Think I Was?

Folker was the fifth album Westerberg had put out in a span of just over two years: Stereo and Mono were released in 2002, and Come Feel Me Tremble and Dead Man Shake came out the following year. Mono and Dead Man Shake bore the name of Westerberg's pseudonym, Grandpaboy, which he uses when he wants to release some lo-fi, ballad-free "rawk." But almost everything Westerberg's released since 2002, either under his own name or Grandpaboy's, has been pretty down and dirty, even the ballads. He records by himself in his basement at home in Minneapolis, generally using the first take, even if the tape runs out before the end of the song, like on Stereo's "Don't Want Never." Even 1996's Eventually, which seems to be considered the slickest of Westerberg's solo albums by critics and fans, includes a major flub that thankfully wasn't edited out: on "Hide N Seekin'," there's a long pause between the first and second verses, as if Westerberg has forgotten the words.

49:00 takes the DIY warts-and-all aesthetic as far as it should probably go, even if Westerberg does sound like he's having fun layering those song fragments on top of each other and skipping from one to another, creating the illusion of a radio dial being controlled by an impatient listener. Impatient for a memorable song, maybe?

Westerberg has said that he has attention deficit disorder, so this approach feels honest, but it doesn't compare with, say, the song suite on the second side of the Beatles' Abbey Road, or a real ADD-style album-length masterpiece like Todd Rundgren's A Wizard, a True Star (1973). On that album the listener is left with the impression that the artist has so many wonderful melodies in his head that he wants to get them all out right now before he forgets any of them, not that he's reached a dead end after only 60 seconds and is moving on because he's bored and thinks you probably are too. In the end 49:00 feels like an experiment, a storage shed of random thoughts being emptied out.

I assume that artists like Westerberg enjoy the freedom of releasing their music when they want in whatever format they want, without a record label telling them, "Your new album is amazing! Oh my God, Paul, you've outdone yourself. Seriously. No, really. But this one's going to need special care on the marketing side, so we're going to put it on the shelf for now, and we'll let you know once we've come up with a good strategy for selling it, okay?"

But the more I hear self-distributed music like 49:00, or Josh Rouse's last two albums, which were distributed through the Nettwerk label but paid for by Rouse, I wish these artists did have a label questioning some of their decisions and saying, "I don't hear a single." That sort of thing drives artists mad—always has, always will—but creative tension between artist and label, or artist and producer, can often lead to stellar results.

Geffen Records financed Aimee Mann's Bachelor No. 2 but never released it. When it finally came out in 2000, after several years on the shelf, it was through Mann's own label, SuperEgo. Near the end of 1995 Mann released her second solo album, I'm With Stupid, through Geffen, but it'd been financed by Imago Records, which went bankrupt in 1993 right after releasing her first album, Whatever. It took two years for Mann to get out of her contract with Imago and shop I'm With Stupid to other labels. (The album's title was a dig at Imago, though Mann would soon be calling Geffen stupid as well.) Previously she'd been absent from the music scene for three years as she attempted to get out of her contract with Epic Records, the label she was on with her former band, 'Til Tuesday.

It's easy to see why Mann doesn't like dealing with major labels; anger and frustration sometimes lead to creative breakthroughs, but not many artists willingly seek out collaborators or superiors who want to infuriate them. After Geffen executives heard Bachelor No. 2 for the first time and didn't like what they heard, they sent Mann back to the studio to record some potential singles. She came up with "Red Vines" and "Nothing Is Good Enough," the latter a relationship song that was also directed at Geffen ("Nothing is good enough for people like you / Who have to have someone take the fall / And something to sabotage / Determined to lose it all").

The thing is, those are two of the best songs on Bachelor No. 2. Mann had been forced to come up with new songs that could be played on the radio, and even if they didn't get played, she still succeeded in creating pop singles that didn't compromise or betray her songwriting talents. The push-pull had worked.

(Other successful examples of push-pull between artist and label are Wheat's sole release on Columbia Records, the 2003 album Per Second, Per Second, Per Second ... Every Second and Sara Bareilles's "Love Song," a 2007 single that's still going strong on radio this year, but it wouldn't even exist if Bareilles hadn't been asked by Columbia's sister label, Epic, to deliver a certain kind of single; she responded with an irresistible melody and ironic lyrics: "I'm not gonna write you a love song / 'Cause you asked for it / 'Cause you need one, you see.")

But when Geffen's parent company, Seagram Universal, bought Polygram in 1998 and consolidated its old and new assets, Geffen was lumped into a trio with Interscope Records and A&M Records. When Interscope-Geffen-A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine heard Bachelor No. 2 in 1999, he reportedly said, according to Mann, "Aimee doesn't expect us to put this record out as it is, does she? If Aimee just wants to put out a record for her fans, this is not the place to do it."

So she left, luckily without all the legal hassles she'd had when she left Epic and Imago, plus she now had an Oscar nomination for Best Song thanks to "Save Me," from the movie Magnolia (1999), whose hit soundtrack featured nine songs by Mann, four of which reappeared on Bachelor No. 2 six months later. Magnolia's writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, said he originally conceived of the soundtrack as an Aimee Mann mix tape because he was such a big fan of her work, even using a variation on the opening lines of her song "Deathly"—"Now that I've met you / Would you object to / Never seeing each other again?"—as dialogue in the film.

(I saw Mann on her "Acoustic Vaudeville" tour with Michael Penn and comedian Patton Oswalt shortly after Bachelor No. 2 came out. Worst concert experience of my life thanks to two women almost getting into a fight while Mann was singing "Wise Up." How appropriate. But the woman who started the fight was right, and the offending loud woman and her loud yuppie-scum friends left before the encore, even though it was clear they were there to hear just two songs, 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry" and Michael Penn's "No Myth." Both were played during the encore. Ha!)

Bachelor No. 2 earned a lot of critical acclaim, and Mann's follow-up, 2002's Lost in Space, was recorded and released without any label interference whatsoever. It also happened to be really really dull.

I'll admit that by the fall of '02 I'd gotten over the quarter-life malaise that'd attracted me to Mann's music in the first place, but if I'd been a label head at that time and she'd tried to pass Lost in Space off on me, I would've told her, "Sorry, but I only hear two or three songs worth keeping."

Rick Rubin, one of the music industry's most successful producers over the past 20 years, said in a New York Times profile last September that when artists come to him with new songs they've written, "Most people will write 10 songs and think, That's enough for a record, I'm done. When they play the songs for me, invariably the last two songs they've written are the best. I'll then say, 'You have two songs, go back and write eight more.'"

I can imagine that's painful for any artist to hear, whether a newbie or a veteran, but if it pushes the artist to dig deeper for better lyrics or melodies, he or she will be grateful in the end for the creative push, right? Well, maybe. Sometimes the end result isn't worth the pain that can go hand in hand with the creative process. I don't think any musician can completely erase memories of heated arguments with bandmates or producers (though drugs can help), just as they can't judge their work objectively from the inside looking out the way a listener can from the opposite direction.

Westerberg has produced his own work all by himself since Stereo and Mono in '02, and even Don Was, who coproduced 1999's generally ignored Suicaine Gratifaction with Westerberg, ended up using several of the singer's home demos on the finished product. Westerberg knows what he's doing at this point, but I'd still like to hear a proper album. (Between Folker and 49:00 he recorded some songs for the soundtrack to Open Season, a 2006 animated film, and Don't You Know Who I Think I Was? The Best of the Replacements included two new songs—both "Message to the Boys" and "Pool & Dive" were written by Westerberg around the time of the Replacements' breakup in '91 and are terrific additions to the band's resumĂ©, a far cry from lackluster pseudo-reunions like Big Star's 2005 album In Space.)

In an interview with Pitchfork.com's Joshua Klein in April, Westerberg said the Replacements' best producer was Matt Wallace, who produced 1989's Don't Tell a Soul. "With Matt Wallace, we'd do 48 takes but use take two ... After a couple of weeks he realized that first take we came rolling in and did was the one that captured it rather than have us play 50 takes hoping the 50th would be great. It was not that way with us, and still isn't for me."

Klein then said, "A lot of people seem to pick the Replacements album they heard first as their favorite, since your songwriting is so consistent from record to record. If someone heard Don't Tell a Soul first, I could even imagine that being their favorite Replacements album."

Good grief, Charlie Brown: "I could even imagine that being their favorite." As a matter of fact, the band's next-to-last LP is the first Replacements album I heard, way back in 1991, courtesy of my older brother, and in many ways it still is my favorite.

Once I really started digging into the Replacements' discography in college in '95 I read that Don't Tell a Soul is considered by critics and fans to be their weakest album, but I still like it more than 1985's Tim, and I'm glad Westerberg has defended it, saying that the final mix of the album, which gives the songs their all-too-'80s cavernous drum sound, is what dates it, not the songs themselves.

I don't think Rhino's reissue of Don't Tell a Soul, which comes out next month, will include a bonus disc of the entire album unmixed, but I wonder if such a copy exists, sort of like the 2003 Let It Be ... Naked reissue of the Beatles' Let It Be, which stripped away Phil Spector's wall-of-sound production from the original album. (Of course, the Replacements recorded their own album called Let It Be in 1984, using that title as a nothing-is-sacred joke on their manager-producer, Peter Jesperson, a huge Beatles fan, but also because titles can't be copyrighted.)

Some fans saw Don't Tell a Soul as the Replacements' first blatant attempt at reaching for a radio hit, and "I'll Be You," one of their best songs, did reach #51 on the Billboard Hot 100. But as Joshua Klein acknowledged, the songwriting on Don't didn't deviate from previous releases, though Westerberg's writing did mature with each new release. It's a great album. Don't let that big-bam-boom drum sound fool you.

Besides, by the time Don't Tell a Soul came out, the Replacements were finally sobering up and delivering the kind of concert performances that fans of their music, not the rubberneckers who just wanted to see them fall down drunk onstage, had always hoped they could give on a consistent basis.

Or so I'd like to think.* After all, I was 13 at the time. I admit that it would've been something of a thrill to go to one of their shows and have absolutely no idea whether it was going to be a triumph or a disaster, but as bassist Tommy Stinson said in his own interview with Billboard.com in April, "When I get people coming up to me saying, 'I saw this show back when, and you guys were so f*cked up. You didn't even play any of your songs. It was the greatest show I ever saw' [laughs]. It's like, 'Well, dude, that just sounds bleak. How could that possibly have been the greatest show you ever saw? You must be really living a small life.'"

And as Klein pointed out in his Pitchfork interview with Westerberg, "When you were on, you disappointed the people who came to see you sloppy and falling down. When you were sloppy and falling down, you disappointed the people who came to see you on. You could never make everybody happy." Westerberg replied, "Lots of times we would try to balance it. We'd get up there wasted, but by the end of the set we'd sober up." He laughed, "We'd bring it together at the end!"

The best Replacements bootleg I know of is Shit, Shower & Shave. It contains portions of two concerts from the second leg of the Don't Tell a Soul tour, which found the band opening (unhappily, according to them) for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Six songs from the band's show on August 28, 1989, in Mansfield, Massachusetts, are included, as are 12 songs from the August 31 show in Bristol, Connecticut. (Happy 19th birthday, Bristol show!)

The Replacements sound terrific on both sets, especially the August 31 show, as they storm their way through classics like "Bastards of Young," "Alex Chilton," and "I'll Be You," while "The Ledge" sounds much more urgent live than it did on 1987's Pleased to Meet Me. Their cover of Chuck Berry's "Around and Around" (titled "Round and Round" on the back cover of Shit, Shower & Shave, like David Bowie's version) has a swagger I don't think they could have managed if they'd been wasted. Here they don't end songs early like on bootlegs I've heard from the Tim and Pleased to Meet Me tours, where they're too drunk to remember all the chords and lyrics and try to blame the lighting guy for breaking their concentration.

They're also funnier when they're sober. For instance, when Stinson does pass along some constructive criticism to the lighting guy, it's "Hey, Joe, I don't want no spotlights tonight. I don't feel very pret-ty." And right before "Around and Around," which the Rolling Stones covered on 12 x 5 in 1964, Westerberg tells the crowd, "The Rolling Stones are playing in Philadelphia tonight. But we're better, so fuck 'em."

During "Nightclub Jitters"—the Replacements do stumble their way through this one, but it's charming, not frustrating—Stinson does his Axl Rose impression, which he repeated at the Replacements' final show in Chicago on July 4, 1991, captured on the It Ain't Over 'Til the Fat Roadies Play bootleg. (Chris Mars had angrily left the band before their final tour. He was replaced by Steve Foley, who died of an accidental overdose of prescription medication last weekend in Minneapolis.) Ironically, in 1998 Stinson joined Rose's band, Guns n' Roses, whose new album still hasn't been released, even though recording allegedly began in 1995. Stinson told reporters earlier in the decade that the eccentric Rose is much easier to work with than Westerberg, who replied in an interview with Harp magazine in 2004, "Wouldn't Van Gogh be more difficult than Norman Rockwell?"

The bootleggers behind Shit, Shower & Shave were also nice enough to include the entire Inconcerated promotional EP from Sire Records that came out in '89 after Don't Tell a Soul was released. It includes five songs recorded at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on June 2, 1989. (I bought Shit, Shower & Shave six years ago in Athens, Georgia. Come to think of it, I bought it on Friday, August 30, 2002. Happy belated sixth birthday, 8/30/02! Who knew there'd be so many birthdays to celebrate today ...)

I'll end this long, long one-sided conversation with one final quote from Westerberg, who told Joshua Klein that the trick to making timeless music "is doing it in a hurry without thinking about it." 49:00 certainly doesn't sound like it was fussed over for very long, but Westerberg's written so much timeless music, especially as the Replacements' frontman, that I can easily forgive him for a time-consuming, interference-free head-scratcher or two every now and then.

* I thought wrong. According to Bob Mehr's terrific biography, Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements (Da Capo Press, 2016), Chris Mars had started to sober up by the time of the Don't Tell a Soul tour, but the rest of the band was still drinking heavily. Westerberg wasn't sober until the band's tour to support All Shook Down, its final album, in 1991.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

new/old music to look forward/backward to this fall

I found out yesterday from Jeff Giles at Popdose that the Lemonheads are planning to release a new album next month. I knew there was talk of Evan Dando and his revolving-door bandmates releasing something in '08, but I hadn't heard anything official.

It turns out the new album is a holding-pattern type of releasetitled Varshons, it contains 11 covers, or versions, including Gram Parsons's "I Just Can't Take It Anymore," which the Lemonheads have been playing in concert for a while now, and Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." That one may seem like an odd choice at first, but almost from the beginning the Lemonheads have covered songs originally sung by women—Suzanne Vega's "Luka," Linda Ronstadt's "Different Drum" (performed with the Stone Poneys), Patience and Prudence's "Gonna Get Along Without Ya Now," Whitney Houston's "How Will I Know." I could listen to Dando sing the phone book, so Varshons will be required listening, but I was hoping for a new album of original songs. Dando's never been a prolific songwriter, though—4 of the 11 songs on 2006's The Lemonheads were by other writersso I'll take what I can get.

In addition to the Lemonheads' new album
which doesn't have a firm release date, so it may not come out next month after all—new releases and new reissues by several other artists I flipped for in college a dozen years ago, back when people still used phone books, will be coming out this fall. Ben Folds's Way to Normal comes out September 30, his first album of new material in three years, and Todd Rundgren's Arena comes out the same day, his first album since 2004's Liars. There's also George Clinton and His Gangsters of Love, which hits shelves September 16 and features a cameo from the once-great Sly Stone, who hasn't appeared on a record since 1987, I think. Since no new Sly and the Family Stone album is forthcoming, and since the band is still canceling concerts at the last minute after all these years, including one in Chicago back in April, fans have to take what they can get from Clinton's album.

Unlike the Family Stone, the Replacements haven't reunited in a new configuration
, which is a good thing, but their four albums for Sire Records, which came out between 1985 and 1990, will be reissued by Rhino with bonus tracks on September 23. And a box set called Love Train: The Sound of Philadelphia comes out October 21, featuring the usual Philadelphia International Records classics but also tracks that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff produced before they founded PIR, plus songs that Thom Bell wrote and produced for Philly groups like the Spinners, Delfonics, and Stylistics.

Monday, August 11, 2008

an uncomfortable fit

In June an advance copy of Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III showed up at work a few days before the album "dropped" (yeah, I'm hip to the lingo) and soon became the first album since 2005 to sell more than a million copies in one week. 

I listened to it, mostly because I knew nothing about Lil Wayne beyond magazine articles in which certain hip-hop peers of his claimed he's one of the best rappers around right now. Well, Tha Carter III didn't do much for me, but the one song I liked, "Comfortable," features Babyface, the real king of pop in the '90s (face the facts, Michael). As a producer Babyface was all over the radio back then, shepherding megahits like Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" and Eric Clapton's "Change the World," and as a performer he racked up a bunch of hits himself on the pop and R&B charts ("Whip Appeal," "When Can I See You").

On "Comfortable" Babyface provides the vocal "hook," and if it was his song alone and he had a chance to write some verses to go along with the chorus, it'd probably be terrific. As it stands, it's merely a good song, because Lil Wayne raps the verses. Aside from the line "Don't I treat you like soufflé?" his lyrics aren't a crime, to paraphrase a Babyface single from 1989, but there should be a rule for rappers whose songs utilize the talents of actual singers: Do not add your singing on top of your guest's. Babyface can sing. Lil Wayne cannot. He can grunt, but he sounds like he's out of breath throughout "Comfortable," and if you can't breathe then you shouldn't sing, especially if you're singing over Babyface near the end of the track. This isn't karaoke, dammit. It's as if Babyface's obnoxious nephew snuck into his recording studio late at night and decided to play a prank by overdubbing his wheezing onto one of Uncle 'Face's finished songs.

Remember when pop/R&B/"new jack swing" songs in the early '90s would feature a guest rapper in the slot where pop songs would feature guitar solos? Songs like Christopher Williams's "I'm Dreamin'" and Michael Jackson's "Black or White," both from '91, usually didn't credit the rapper in those days the way they're spotlighted now, with their names prominently listed on the back covers of albums and on iTunes after the ubiquitous abbreviation "feat." (For the record it was L.T.B. on the latter song, while the New Jack City soundtrack's liner notes don't list any performer besides Williams on "I'm Dreamin'.")  

And these days rappers constantly show up on each other's tracks or pop and R&B singers' tracks, sometimes making a name for themselves through cameos before releasing songs of their own. The reverse is also true, as is the case with Babyface adding class to "Comfortable." I wonder if guest rappers formed a union sometime in the late '90s after years of missing out on lucrative royalty checks. (Gangsta rappers belong to Local 187, of course.)

Tha Carter III didn't make me a fan of Lil Wayne, but judging by those first-week sales, he's got plenty already. And I have to give the self-described alien credit for one thing: "Comfortable" is more memorable than anything on Babyface's 2007 album Playlist. Would his cover of an easy-listening chestnut like "Fire and Rain" have been enhanced by Lil Wayne adding "Baby, I'm your friend / You ain't gotta pretend / We go together like the Colonel's special blend"? Maybe it's time for Wayne to actually sneak into Babyface's studio and find out.

Monday, August 4, 2008

"It's not easy being easy."

A guy I passed on the street last night was wearing a T-shirt with that adorable phrase written across the front. I didn't turn around to see if the back of the shirt said, "This syphilis ain't gonna cure itself, people."

I did some more summertime spring cleaning over the weekend, so here are three more completed drafts from a while back.

5/13: sea, air, land ... and love
5/19: Don't do drugs, especially the ones that have 500 different nicknames.
7/16: "Boy, 12, slices off friend's ear"

Sunday, August 3, 2008

old news about an old person

The following Associated Press story is from February 16, 2008. It's worth a read.

Singer, 104, takes stage amid protests
By Toby Sterling

Several dozen people protested outside a theater Saturday where a 104-year-old singer who once performed for Adolf Hitler took the stage in the Netherlands for the first time in four decades.

Johannes Heesters was never accused of being a propagandist or anything other than an actor who was willing to perform for the Nazis, and the Allies allowed him to continue his career after the war. But in his native country he is viewed by some as irredeemable.

"He kept singing for the Nazi regime, for the Wehrmacht, and he earned millions," said Piet Schouten, representative of a committee formed to protest Heesters' performance at De Flint theater in Amersfoort.

"Those are facts and we have a problem with that on behalf of all the victims" he told national broadcaster NOS.

In 1964, Heesters was booed off the stage in Amsterdam when he tried to appear as Nazi-hating Captain von Trapp in "The Sound of Music."

No disturbances were reported during Saturday's concert in Amersfoort, where Heesters was born in 1903.

Heesters, who lives in Germany, has been a popular figure in German-language cabaret since the 1930s. On Saturday, he performed "The Merry Widow," the German song that made him famous, and "There by the Windmill," a Dutch classic, among others. At times he asked his wife, on stage with him, to remind him of lines but his voice was steady.

Around 50 demonstrators gathered outside. A handful of neo-Nazis also turned up — uninvited — to support Heesters, and several were detained by police after throwing eggs at the demonstrators.

Concertgoers were forced to submit copies of their passports and undergo airport-style security scans before being allowed to enter the theater, which seats 800.

Many of Heesters' critics focus on a visit his theater company made to Dachau in 1941. He had never disclosed the visit, but it became known when photos of him with Nazi soldiers were published in 1978.

One of the protesters carried a banner reading "my grandfather was in Dachau too."

Heesters says he didn't perform for the soldiers and didn't know about conditions at the concentration camp.

After the war "I was ashamed of myself and I still haven't stopped feeling this way," Heesters wrote in his autobiography. "I am angry with myself for being gullible, credulous and naive."

In an editorial, Dutch newspaper Trouw wrote Saturday that "the stain will always remain, but Heesters is welcome home in the Netherlands — it's nice that he's appearing here 104 years after his birth."

"It's all too easy for people today, most of whom grew up after the war, to pass judgment on the collaborators then," the paper wrote. "What would we do under comparable circumstances?"