Imperial Bedrooms

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Elvis Costello is one of the most gifted lyricists of our time. His prolific run of albums between 1977 and 1983 rank among the most memorable song collections in music history.Attractions

With the passing of one of Costello’s many collaborators, Allen Toussaint on November 10, I thought it was worth tossing in my two cents on Costello’s masterful memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.

Here are ten points on the book. Much more in depth reviews are available elsewhere.

  1. Buy the audiobook. It is narrated by Mr. Declan McManus himself. He alternates between his Liverpudlian lilt and west London twang as the story requires. He is animated and brings the fantastic prose to life.
  2. The book is at its best when Costello discusses the inspirations for his songs. The studio crafting of Imperial Bedroom is particularly mesmerizing.
  3. The book is not totally chronological. This adds a unique series of tangled webs throughout the book that is far more colorful than a straight passage through time.
  4. McManus’ father Ross is an ever-present character. His long career as a performer in the Joe Loss Band exposed young Declan to the rigors of show-business and the glories of performance. The grind-it-out schedule and his frequent absence are sources of pain for both father and son alike.
  5. Like me, Costello needed an editor. I will admit that I didn’t finish the book which clocks in at over 600 pages. His relationships with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, George Jones, among others, are interesting but these chronicles eventually become tedious. Costello’s encyclopedic knowledge of music is, however, incredible.09BOOK1-master180
  6. Britain in the Thatcher era is on full display. The miner’s strikes, the hopelessness of youth, the sense that one can’t rise above a working class level are palpable. If anything, Costello downplays his own rise from country western pubs to American tours and record deals. He worked hard.
  7. The Attractions get short shrift. The relationship is strained between the quartet, but we never really get to the core issues. Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas and Pete Thomas are genius musicians and they deserved far more attention.Nieve
  8. Costello gets off a little easy when he talks about his failed relationships. His allusions to affairs and bad behavior are not explicit enough for a true memoir.
  9. His explanation of his most controversial moment: alleged racist comments made in a Columbus, Ohio bar during 1979 about black music luminaries such as Ray Charles gets an impassioned defense, but it feels like he performs an escape act rather than uncovering a full character analysis. In Costello’s defense, this topic has been Beaten to the Punch like a King Horse over decades. Its been so debated and discussed that it really is last Year’s Model. There is no question that Costello more than made up for his possible transgression: The influence of R&B is significant throughout his catalog.
  10. Did we really need all that Brodsky Quartet information? Snooze.09BOOKCOSTELLOJP3-articleLarge

Anyone who appreciates Costello at his peak, knows that his true gift to the music world was (is?) the ability to wrap up biting sarcasm and satire in the sweet and sugary beauty of a pop hook (just listen to Get Happy and you’ll find 20 songs that hit on all Five Gears – not in reverse). Unfaithful Music delivers the background for these awesome songs. The Beatles loom larger than expected (and why wouldn’t they?). The bitterness of politics (Radio Radio, Oliver’s Army) and misguided relationships (The Long Honeymoon, Man Out of Time) are laid bare in these pages.

Nirvana wasn’t exactly nirvana at the time.

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I really did interview Nirvana. It was 1991. Smells Like Teen Spirit had been the “Screamer of the Week” on WBRU in Providence. It was not unusual for bands to drop by the station on promotional tours and Kurt, Dave and Kris made an appearance during the “afternoon drive”. Nirvana hadn’t gone mainstream yet, so it was not a remarkable event at the time. Obviously, if it had been remarkable, my entertainment career would have probably lasted longer than four years.
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I think the interview with Nirvana went ok. I remember them being friendly. I do have a cassette tape of the session. But what would I hear if I was to load it into “Ye olde boom boxe” and press play?

My biggest fear is not what I will hear on that tape, it’s the fear of what I won’t hear. Could it be a barely imperceptible silence lasting milliseconds, or a gap of Nixonian proportions?

It’s called dead air – those awkward moments of silence that are just about the worst possible hell that a live radio dj can endure. To this day, I still have nightmares about a song ending and not having anything cued up. Cold Sweats.

Dead air during an interview was always lurking around the corner. Get a group of nice guys like Miracle Legion or Soul Asylum and you can have a party, get the Goo Goo Dolls and you have crickets.

Logistics added to the risks. If you had an interview with a band, you were likely to play multiple songs during their visit. Unless you had two copies cued up in both CD players, you needed an assistant standing behind you to manually re-cue the CD to a different track. Otherwise, you’d have to re-cue it yourself. This involved turning your back on the guests immediately after you asked a question. Under the best circumstances, a voluminous answer would follow that provided one with the precious time to adjust the disc.

Occasionally, you’d fail to listen to the answer while completing this twisted-torso motion. (Multi-tasking was not perfected until the early 2000’s.) If your guests were less than loquacious, the response to your question might conclude just as you were fumbling for the buttons. Suddenly, like Wile E. Coyote spinning his legs in mid-air before plummeting below, you’d have – that momentary panic – dead air.

We were woefully under-prepared for most interviews. I had known virtually nil about Nirvana. Established bands were blessed with a description in our Google of the day – a dog-eared copy of The Trouser Press. To bone up for newer groups, you generally had to rely on a two paragraph bio that the record company sent over. I’m sure I asked Nirvana about Seattle and the album art and…

If the Nirvana interview had been one of the high points of my brief radio career, then it was desperately needed as redemption for the disaster that had been my interview with Blur earlier in the same year. This was a classic case of zero preparation. I think I asked the band if they hung out with The Stone Roses (because, shit, of course you would if you lived in England during the early 90s).

Blur_770 The microphones cut out during an acoustic session and I got a little angry when Damon Albarn dropped a cuss. I made a ham-fisted attempt to scold them but it was a miserable failure. I wish I could have that one back. They ended up becoming one of my favorite bands (along with everything everything else Albarn and Coxon have put on vinyl).

The one way I find solace in these historical ramblings is that I was just a kid back then. So were Blur and Nirvana. Damon Albarn and Dave Grohl are still kicking ass, so I guess there’s something to be said for having the Lama on your side if you’re looking for nirvana. Lama’s a big hitter. Gunga Galunga.

Desert Island Discs

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This is more for my own enjoyment than anything else. This entire blog is for my own enjoyment, for that matter. If anyone derives any pleasure from these self-indulgent posts, then…well…that’s on you.

The Clash.

The Clash.

We used to play this game all the time when I worked at WBRU Fm in Providence, Rhode Island in the early 1990’s. It would start with some basic questions: “What’s the best concert you ever saw?”, “What’s the first album you ever bought?” After some rocket fuel had been ingested, we’d blast off into questions of an obscure nature:

Q: “What’s the best concert you saw from which you expected nothing?”

A: INXS after their arena days were over (post-Kick) at Paradise in Boston, 1993. There was maybe 500 people in the house.

Q: “Worst concert with the highest expectations?”

A:  Happy Mondays in Boston 1992. I think Shawn Ryder actually sat in front of the drums for 30 minutes before they drifted off. I paid $40 for that ticket. (note: If someone asked me this today the answer, hands down, would be Bob Dylan in Omaha, 2007. I walked out.)

“When did punk music start?”

A: Britain, 1976. Sorry fans of The Ramones, Jonathan Richman, and Velvet Underground. I would however, give an honorable mention to Iggy Pop.

And on and on it would go… If you saw High Fidelity with Jack Black and John Cusack, you know what I’m talking about.

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But the most important list of them all was the Desert Island Disc List. If you were washed up on a deserted island and only allowed 10 albums, what would you bring?

This leads to logistical questions, of course. Presumably, you would have no ability to leave this island or reach other humans, but you would have a portable stereo system with enough battery power to last long enough to listen to said collection. Perhaps these items, as well as your discs, would wash up on the beach in some FedEx boxes along with a volleyball.

Here is my self-indulgent list. Wait…wait…some rules first. We always had rules!

No greatest hits or compilation albums allowed. No soundtracks. No pretentious prog-rock bullshit that your friend, brother, cousin told you was mind blowing (read: Can, Captain Beefheart).

Dark Side of the Moon, Exile on Main Street, The White Album or Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds, any Zeppelin, any Steely Dan is/was banned for being cliché. And no, you can’t list some fucking Grateful Dead bootleg of a show in Cincinnati in 1974 or some wildcard like that.

Bowie was never allowed because one guy loved Bowie (in an almost unhealthy way) and we banned Bowie just to piss this guy off.

Now, rap presented a conundrum… Ah, yes, hip-hop albums were set as a bear-trap in the underbrush for the uninitiated parlor game player. You disagree and you are a racist. You emphatically agree and you look like you’re trying too hard. Invariably someone would throw in a Public Enemy reference or maybe NWA. I think they never actually loved the albums that much, but it made them sound culturally wise. Best to remain agnostic on the topic and move on.

As you can plainly see, with one exception, my list is stuck in the late 80’s to mid 90’s. These were years during my impressionable youth, and naturally when my brain had been most pliable. Neurons had been programmed towards the north of England. As a teenager, I must have identified with the post-industrial cynicism of Thatcherite Britain. This is an obvious choice for a middle class boy from Omaha. The parallels are uncanny.

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Metal Box

Here we go then…

  1. Public Image Limited – Metal Box.
  2. The Fall – Wonderful and Frightening World
  3. Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom
  4. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
  5. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy
  6. Radiohead – OK Computer
  7. Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare
  8. Massive Attack – Mezzanine
  9. The Clash – Sandinista
  10. Wire -154

Whoa, you say. Sandinista? Not London Calling? Yes, my friends. London Calling is pretty polished for all the talk of how innovative they were  in 1979 (sorry, ripping velcro to sound like fire is not really experimental it’s just screwing around in the studio). Sandinista is full of dub experiments, reggae, occasional pop, and biting sarcasm. The Clash had discovered New York City and some of the hip hop elements started trickling in.

No Smiths? Nay. Meat is Murder gets an honorable mention. Hatful of Hollow is one of the first albums that blew my mind. But I never got the “Best Smiths Album Ever” title bestowed on The Queen Is Dead. Vicar In a Tutu? Please.

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Albums that slipped off the list from earlier times: Happy Mondays, Pills and Thrills sounds slightly comedic upon today’s listens. The Mondays’ “Madchester” peers Inspial Carpets’ album Life aged much more nicely.

New Order’s Love Vigilantes fell off the list. The frog sounds on Perfect Kiss are a little too gimmicky in hindsight. What about Power, Corruption, and Lies? No argument there…should be on the list.

REM’s Reckoning was and is a masterpiece. It fell off the list by sheer association with their later efforts. Shiny Happy People sullies the catalog beyond repair.

No Jam? Not even Modern World? Sorry, as much as I like the Jam, none of their albums can sustain 45 minutes of ecstasy. Paul Weller’s first solo album, however, now that’s a solid record from top to bottom.  

What’s on your playlist?