Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Tuesday, Apr 12, 2011
Among all the fervent eulogizing of the late LCD Soundsystem, a backlash has kicked up some funereal dirt. So, where to lay the band to rest -- with the hippest of the hip, or the bright-but-empty space with most of the other Madison Square Garden clientele?

What else to say about the early demise of LCD Soundsystem? The blogosphere already let the digital tears roll with eulogies ranging from the fantastically extensive to the cut-and-dry to, yes, remarks from the naysayers. For those who couldn’t make either the week-long victory lap at Terminal 5 or the final blow out at Madison Square Garden on April 2, setlists and reviews and videos abound. The show at MSG was as explosive and far-reaching as promised, a sea of black and white (and occasional spots of color from those who either didn’t get the memo or were too embarrassed to indulge in some fan-boy dress code respect) and palpable energy, even when James Murphy scrounged deeply into his pockets to pull out b-sides rarely or never heard live (“Freak Out/Starry Eyes”, anyone?).


But LCD Soundsystem was always tremendous live, so none of that should be any surprise. What is actually astonishing—not surprising, but really something to stand back and look at without the sense of irony that surrounds so much of our dialogue about indie music—is how this outpouring of love for the band reveals just how much LCD Soundsystem came to mean to so many people over a relatively short amount of time. It’s no real mystery how James Murphy pulled it off: he’s a damn good songwriter and a seemingly tireless workhorse, to boot. Still, how many bands in 2011 could call it quits and hear such an immense gasp of real sadness from every corner of the globe? We’re talking genuine emotion on the Internet, folks—and on a massive scale. Chew on that one for a second.


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Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011
Gerry Rafferty died too young, embittered and ravaged by alcoholism, added to the strange but poignant list of people we’ve never met but still miss. He leaves behind a perfect song, an aching, sad, beautiful story attached to a sax solo forever lodged in the right brains of millions of music fans.

I heard it on NPR. “You might not know the singer”, Melissa Block announced.  “But you’d know that solo anywhere”.


The swelling saxophone filled my Dodge Caravan. I was driving home from work on a freezing Wednesday afternoon.  More precisely, I was sitting at the red light where the Alameda turns onto Solano Avenue.  From my vantage point I could see all the way to the coast, where the sun lowered into the sea. 


“Baker Street”, I said to the empty van.  “Gerry Rafferty”.


On this chilly, darkening afternoon driving in Berkeley, I piloted my van down the narrow street, carefully avoiding the pedestrians hurrying through the crosswalks, willfully oblivious to traffic as only Berkeleyans can be.  I wove around BMWs threatening to back into the street. A few stores still had Christmas lights up. Melissa Block announced Gerry Rafferty’s death.  He was 63 years old.  She mentioned “Right Down the Line”, and “Stuck in the Middle with You”, made notorious by Quentin Tarantino.  But I was not there.  I was back in Detroit, in my childhood home, where “Baker Street” played through most of 1978, that sax solo you’d recognize anywhere blaring through the custom speakers my father built in our basement.  He had in fact built the entire stereo system, save the Pioneer turntable.  Speakers, tweeters atop them (don’t ask me what they are or why he built them; all I know is they “boosted” the already impressive sound.), receiver, amplifier, pre-amplifier.  The stereo had to be turned on in order, starting with a light switch my father put on it’s own circuit for that purpose.  From there the order had to be followed or you would “blow up” the stereo system.  I could never remember the proper sequence and lived in fear of the stereo, which I never touched.


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Tuesday, Jan 11, 2011
Hopefully even in his most lonely moments when he could not see the light, Gerry Rafferty's heart was less heavy knowing how many lives he had improved with the gift he shared

A considerable component of what made the ‘70s so awesome has, sadly, left the building we call Earth. And so it is on the unfortunate occasion of Gerry Rafferty’s premature passing that I’m compelled to talk about myself. Bear with me, this sentiment is not as inappropriate or solipsistic as it sounds; in fact, it is arguably the highest form of praise. In other words, I am incapable of talking about Rafferty without discussing how large his music loome—and looms—in my own life. I suspect I’m not alone here.


Anyone who drew breath in 1978 knew Gerry Rafferty (if you didn’t you were too young; if you still don’t it’s never too late).



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Monday, Dec 20, 2010
If Captain Beefheart should be worshipped for anything it’s that he never once pandered for the sake of critical or commercial expediency.

As Ian Anderson said, “We’re getting a bit short on heroes lately”.


And Ian, while he wasn’t speaking of Don Van Vliet, nevertheless would—and has—endorsed the man better known as Captain Beefheart. Indeed, the list of well-loved and iconoclastic artists who have cited CB as an inspiration and hero include the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, P.J. Harvey and Matt Groening. When the people lots of people worship name you as someone they worship, you can safely conclude you have done influential work, even if it didn’t necessarily pay the bills.


To say Don Van Vliet, who passed away on December 17th, was unique is rather like saying the sun radiates heat: it doesn’t quite capture the enormity and impact of the subject. To assert that he was brilliant would be almost insulting, if that is possible. A genius? Let’s just say that if he wasn’t, then no other pop musician has ever been either. Even that is not quite right, since pop refers to popular and Captain Beefheart was anything but popular. He was highly regarded, and always will be, but the circle of aficionados who gravitate to his uncanny catalog is likely to get smaller, not bigger. Also, it just doesn’t work to call what he did pop music; he was an artist. Literally. When he walked away from music, forever, in the early ‘80s, he concentrated on his painting and made far more money from that (calling to mind another eccentric genius, Syd Barrett, who turned his back on the scene and quietly tended to his paintings and his plants).


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Thursday, Dec 9, 2010
Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn't particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn't be.

December 4, 1993: impossible as it is (at least for me) to believe, it’s been 17 years since Frank Zappa passed away.


Zappa, to me, has always functioned as a corrective sort of converse to the Grateful Dead: he was around so long, was so productive and had (has) such a fanatical following, it’s difficult for the uninvolved observer to make heads or tails of his legacy. Unlike the Grateful Dead, once the dust clears, it becomes obvious that Zappa’s dense catalog of recordings is serious, ceaselessly rewarding, and likely to be dissected several generations from now.


Zappa was never commercially huge for the two most uncomplicated and inexorable reasons: he didn’t particularly want (or, to his credit, need) to be, and more, he couldn’t be. His music was too complex, challenging, and ultimately unclassifiable for mass consumption. Where many (most?) of the more adventurous prog-rock bands of the mid-to-late ‘70s were reviled for taking themselves entirely too seriously (a common sin), they also made music that sucked in almost direct proportion to their augmented self-regard (an unforgivable sin). Bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer wore out their welcome not ultimately because of their insufferable pretension (although naming their double album Works was an invitation for a critical backlash that was well-earned), but because their inspiration could not keep pace with their egos. Or, to put it as plainly as possible, they just started to suck in the mid-to-late ‘70s.


Zappa, on the other hand, appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro”, and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he understood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music; he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious, and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.


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