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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.


Tagged as: frank zappa
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Thursday, Dec 2, 2010
Music just lost a visionary who pushed sonic boundaries into dark, unexpected territory.

In late 1975, as legend has it, an angry young punk named John Lydon used to gallivant around town in a Pink Floyd T-shirt over which he’d inscribed the words “I Hate”, causing the shirt to inadvertently read “I Hate Pink Floyd”.  Oddly enough, the man who would take the first press photos of Lydon’s future band the Sex Pistols was probably the same one who designed the image on that T-shirt (not to mention a controversial window display at Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s SEX shop, where Lydon would often loiter).  Even more unlikely is the fact that the same man would soon after join a band that was far more extreme in its art-terrorist tendencies than anything punk would ever conceive.  Not only that, the same band expanded the musical palette in far vaster directions than punk ever would.


On November 24th, the world of music lost an immeasurable talent in the form of one Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson.  In his absence, music seems to already be a less interesting place, sonically, visually, and conceptually, but the outpouring of grief on Twitter of just about every musician that matters illustrates just how vast his influence spread and how his spirit lingers on in much of the vanguard music being made today.


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Friday, Aug 27, 2010
Stevie Ray Vaughan died just as 'In Step' was signaling a major musical departure for an artist who showed every intention of being around long enough to change the landscape of rock and blues several times over.

My introduction to Stevie Ray Vaughan came from the nerdiest of sources: an MTV News special about the ‘80s. When the 1989 segment came on, the familiar chaotic images of Tianamen Square were displayed with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s hit “Crossfire” playing in the background. Though the association got me into the library to read all I could about the massacre, I didn’t pick up Stevie Ray Vaughan’s In Step. Less than a year later, Vaughan would be buried in Dallas, Texas.


Being a sophomore in high school in 1990, Vaughan’s type of music didn’t totally reach me. I, like thousands of other teenagers, was slowly trying to deprogram myself from years of listening to hair metal, and was just discovering bands like Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction. Still, when MTV News announced that Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash on August 27, 1990, I can safely say that his death was the first “rock star” death that affected me. “How can someone who wrote a song that good die?”, I kept asking myself naively. Sure, other rock stars have died, but those deaths came years after they had reached their peak.


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Wednesday, Aug 25, 2010
Listen to the Call now and there is no denying some songs sound dated, thanks to an overabundance of keyboards. But singer Michael Been's songwriting remains a rarity

A general rule: It’s far harder to be an optimist than a cynic.


That rule easily applies to everyday life, but it especially reflects music. Looking over my music collection, I can roughly estimate the negative/morose CDs outnumber the wide-eyed, joyous ones by a margin of eight to one. As Jack Black’s character taught us in School of Rock, one of the best ways to write a song is to write about something that pisses you off.


The Call rarely wrote such music (with the exception of the band’s minor hit “The Walls Came Down”). In the height of the U2’s reign as idealistic rock icons, the Call was writing their own anthems. Peter Gabriel and Bono each professed their admiration for the band and with songs like “Let the Day Begin” and “I Still Believe” (which was featured in one of the iconic movies of the ‘80s, The Lost Boys). But while U2 embraced everything from the blues to irony and Peter Gabriel moved to more atmospheric compositions, the Call continued to record the same style of anthemic music.


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