Sunday, December 27, 2009

Remembering Vic Chesnutt - 1964-2009

As a fan or as a journalist, I have tried not to become too angry when an artist has taken his or her own life — "Oh, what a waste." Musicians and actors are, in the end, just like everyone else. For some, accomplishment, fame, and the admiration and love of friends and fans are just not enough when one is alone and weary and the demons — both of the mind and of the physical world — come calling. Try as you might, you can't put yourself in another's shoes, so exercises in speculation and judgment are as ignorant as they are pointless.

Having said this, the world lost an astonishingly gifted artist when singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt passed away Dec. 25, after several days spent in a coma induced by an apparent overdose of muscle relaxants. He was 45. To many, including some of his musician peers, Chesnutt's death was not a complete surprise. The Georgia native spoke openly of his depression throughout his career; he had said that the condition pre-dated the 1983 car crash that left him confined — physically, at least — to a wheelchair.

I did not mention the wheelchair — either to him or to the readers — in an interview feature I wrote about Chesnutt's Silver Lake album in 2003.

Aside from being an overused topic, I didn't think it was relevant. Perhaps I was wrong. Obviously, Chesnutt's experiences and ongoing challenges heavily influenced his work. And what a body of work it was. Some 17 albums, with two in '09. Moreover, Chesnutt's quality surpassed, by leaps and bounds, the quantity of his output. A rare feat.

Vic Chesnutt was a unique songwriter with a unique voice. Like his friend Van Dyke Parks or Rufus Wainwright or even the esteemed Leonard Cohen, there was no one quite like him. He wrote and sang and spoke with an inimitable, Southern Gothic fashion that put the listener right in the middle of the story. With guitar perched on lap, Chesnutt examined humanity and his own human condition in the timeless style of an eccentric-genius writer of books, rather than a composer of lyrics. In that sense, he was frequently compared to his literary heroes, including Faulkner. Indeed, his songs were not cocktail-party accompaniment, trite Top-40 singles or catchy ringtones; by and large, Chesnutt songs were to be absorbed, considered, savored.

Most of all, Vic Chesnutt was bold; he had the sort of artistic strength that many of his more well-known admirers wish they possessed. Bold not just in choice of intimate or unusual topic (on Silver Lake, for example, he sang for 8:15 about a eunuch in a sultan's harem), but in style. As a singer and as a writer, he had the courage to develop an atypical approach all his own, and it worked. Chesnutt, who was no Orbison, had no qualms about shifting pitch or changing inflection to add flavor to his song-stories' characters; conventional tempos and structures were often fodder for tinkering. He was seemingly fearless.

After learning of Chesnutt's passing, one of first impulses was to dig out that interview tape to see if some insightful nugget had been edited out. I resisted the urge; maybe someday I'll re-write the whole thing, as my newspaper articles — with their prerequisite "Who Is He?" introductions to the artist — often make me wince when I re-read them. I don't think anything of importance was removed; while being gracious and thoughtful and extremely interesting, the songwriter replied to my queries pretty succinctly. I remember us talking at length about the eunuch and the harem ("Sultan, So Mighty"), and his fascination for observing people. It was a brief, somewhat enigmatic interview that I've thought about, now and then, ever since.

Finally, it would not be shameless, exploitive or insensitive to mention that plaguing Vic Chesnutt in recent years were his medical bills for surgeries and regular treatment. It would not be any of those things because he was a very vocal critic of America's health care system, and was reportedly in debt and in need of further operations at the time of his passing. If medical-related financial problems were a trigger for a working, touring, internationally acclaimed American musician's suicide... then the shame, exploitation and insensitivity are to be found elsewhere.

Mr. Chesnutt, may you find the peace elsewhere that so many wish you could have found in this world.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I've built my dreams around you

A tale of a stormy relationship between a woman and her eternally drunken louse of a lover, sung by a songbird princess and an infamously inebriated musical genius.

With such unusual subject matter, "Fairytale of New York" nonetheless became an instant Christmas staple 22 years ago. Captured on tape and film reel, this unlikely-yet-classic romance — with the Irish experience in America as a backdrop — has charmed millions on both sides of the Pond, including many who normally wouldn't include Pogues or Kirsty MacColl records in their cabinet.

And, as with the best Irish songs, one doesn't have to hail from the Emerald Isle to shed a tear over it.

One rare gem I've discovered this December is "The Story of... Fairytale of New York", a BBC documentary about both the song and equally epic video that helped catapult it up the charts at Christmas, 1987.

An all-encompassing study of the "Fairytale" phenomenon, the 2005 film is first-rate and faultless. It's centerpiece is bringing the Pogues together, for the first time, in the studio where their masterpiece album If I Should Fall With Grace From God was recorded. Around commentary from the band (if you wondered, in 1987, what Shane MacGowan would look like if he lived to the 21st century — here's your chance), the filmmakers weave the song's unusual origins, some interesting early footage of both the Pogues and MacColl, and inspired commentary by the likes of Nick Cave and Jools Holland. Famed producer Steve Lillywhite, MacColl's husband at the time, shows how the song was constructed while band members reminisce.

And, of course, there's the video. The documentary thoroughly examines the amazing clip, with recollections by actor Matt Dillon, set extras and members of the NYPD Pipe Band filling in for the fictitious "NYPD Choir."

Fittingly, this film honors the late, great Kirsty MacColl; in the wake of her untimely death in 2000, "Fairytale" has become her greatest musical legacy; "The Story of..." captures many sobering moments of remembrance from her family, friends and fans.

For Pogues/MacColl fans or for those who merely enjoy the song, "The Story of... Fairytale of New York" is a poignant must-see, particularly at this time of year. It's never been released on home video, but someone has painstakingly posted the hour-long documentary in six, high-quality segments on YouTube. So please steal ten minutes here and there and watch it, you'll thank me later.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Josie Cotton Meets The Ventures

A number of guest vocalists have dropped into the Ventures' world for a song or two over the years, but Josie "Johnny Are You Queer?" Cotton? Check this rare clip out, and you'll see it's not such a stretch.

After flourishing in the Japanese market in the 1970s, the Ventures enjoyed a lasting Stateside comeback that began in the early 80s, partly due to some inspired musicians paying tribute, either in the press or on record. Suddenly, surf music and twangy guitars were back. For example, the flip side of the Go-Go's "Our Lips Our Sealed" single, "Surfin' and Spyin'," was written as an homage to the band.

And then came Josie. After finding this 1985 performance of "Secret Agent Man" by accident on YouTube (looking for Cotton videos), I rang up Ventures co-founder/bandleader Don Wilson in hopes that he remembered some details about his encounter with the super-sexy New Wave icon.

"Of course I remember her," Wilson said, laughing. "It was love at first sight -- she was gorgeous, and that leather outfit..."

Wilson explained that the performance was part of a Japanese-produced special/documentary, filmed in NYC, that paired an eclectic array of Ventures admirers with the band onstage. Also featured were the Doors' Robby Krieger, Chris Spedding, Peter Frampton, David Johansen, the Doobie Brothers' Jeff Baxter, the Raybeats, Rick Derringer and Max Weinberg. According to Wilson, Cyndi Lauper was scheduled to appear, but when she couldn't make the gig, Cotton jumped in.

"And (Cotton) was great, she did a fabulous job, I think... great voice," Wilson added.

The special was never aired in the U.S., but is now available on DVD at The Ventures official website.

The Ventures -- who are about to celebrate an astounding 51st anniversary -- will perform at the Brian Setzer Orchestra's Christmas Rocks! Extravaganza, Dec. 17-18, at Universal City's Gibson Amphitheater.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Barbara's B - Sides

"B sides" have this traditional connotation of being throwaways, session discards that take up the space on the other side of a 45 rpm single. For the uninitiated, then, Trentalange's new 5-song digital EP might lead to confusion: "If these gems didn't make the cut, if they're not deemed worthy to 'sell,' how impossibly good are the albums?"

I'm sure that Barbara Trentalange didn't mean to show off when she released this free download Dec. 1 at Bandcamp.

In fact, she claims that these tracks, recorded between 2004-2008, just didn't fit with their respective album sessions. Whatever. The fact remains that the Seattle-based singer/songwriter's "extras" are more compelling than many of her peers' banner-year creations. I've referred to Barbara Trentalange as a chanteuse, a Siren; many local hipsters would agree that she' s one of the West Coast's best female vocalists. However, the former descriptions are criminally incomplete; the latter, myopically sexist. Multi-instrumentalist, arranger, songwriter; possessor of an amazing voice, beauty and style to spare, Trentalange is one of Seattle's finest and most multi-dimensional talents, period.

A brooding response to U2's "Love is Blindness," of all things, kicks off "B - Sides." A dirge-approaching, noir-ish mini-epic, "In This Darkness," as with many of Trentalange's creations, must be played with the lights turned low for maximum effect.

"Way Down Where The Wind Blows" should be a single, a hit single played regularly on radio. Former Screaming Tree Mark Pickerel's crisp drumming underscores vibrato organ and jazzy embellishments, with Trentalange's vocals flowing through the arrangement like a river of chocolatey goodness. A caffeinated Portishead meets Burt Bacharach.

Trentalange dims the lights again for two edgy, slinky, seductive numbers, "Lover" and "Changed Love" - two explorations of a popular topic with quite possibly dangerous undercurrents.

"B - Sides" does end with a bona fide extra; "Time" almost sounds like soundcheck riffing, the sort that has the bartenders tapping their feet while watering down the vodka.

This holiday present for her fans is bound to also serve as a gratis introduction for newcomers seeking new sonic thrills. The gift that keeps on giving.

For more holiday candy, one should check out Trentalange's oh-so-addictive latest full-length, Awakening, Level One at her official website.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Every dog will have his day

You could conceivably separate pop-music listeners into two camps: those who have never heard a Paul Kelly album, and Paul Kelly fans. Perhaps I occupy some skewed plane of existence, but I've never heard anyone say a bad thing about the man or his music.

Five, 15, 25 years ago, one common complaint among this legendary Australian pub-rocker/country balladeer/epic storyteller's admirers was his near-absence from American airwaves. While Down Under acts such as Crowded House, INXS and Midnight Oil made various degrees of headway in the States in the 80s and 90s, others — including the Hoodoo Gurus, Hunters & Collectors and Australia's lyrical king, Paul Kelly — were more or less left behind. Oh, there was an occasional video to be caught, and singles heard once or twice on the radio — these wonderful, seemingly rare jewels that prompted thorough searches of record stores.

Nowadays I think Kelly's overseas audience is quite satisfied to keep their little secret to themselves. They keep up with the songwriter's consistently fabulous CD output, and pull a few more fans into the fold with them when Kelly tours abroad every few years.

On observance of Kelly's 30-year anniversary as a solo artist, Famed Australian radio station Triple J hosted two all-star concert nights of tribute on Nov. 13 & 14. I thought I'd do my part by "hosting" one of Paul Kelly & the Messengers' (then named "the Coloured Girls") early videos.

"Before Too Long" was a breakthrough hit for him in 1986, and was the first Kelly single I heard. I remember going down to the store that day to buy the album, Gossip; I literally wore it out.

Happy Anniversary, Mr. Kelly, and may you have 30 more years of songwriting ahead of you.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What made it special, made it dangerous

The term "genius" has been liberally applied to all sorts of musicians over the years, but in the case of teenaged prodigy-turned singer/Fairlight synthesizer goddess-dancer-composer Kate Bush, "genius" is a very appropriate description.

For many (including myself), the best example of Bush's genius, to date, was 1985's Hounds of Love.  Always known for her multi-media presentations, Bush offered several promotional videos for this exquisite album, topped by the short film for "Cloudbusting."

"Cloudbusting" was about controversial psychoanalyst/inventor Wilhelm Reich, one of the more unusual and tragic figures of the 20th century's intellectual world. Like the song, the video is an encapsulation of some of Peter Reich's thoughts of his father, published in the 1973 biography A Book of Dreams.

I can't imagine how much Cloudbusting cost to film — but remember, this was the 80s, and labels were tossing money with shovels. Donald Sutherland, in hindsight, was the only choice for the role of Reich; amazing. If this looks like a snippet of a Terry Gilliam film, it's because Gilliam collaborated with Ms. Bush in conceiving it; additionally, Cloudbusting was directed by Julian Doyle, who worked on Brazil.

Accomplishing the rare feat of  matching the beauty of the song it promotes, Cloudbusting deserves some sort of honorary Oscar for one of the most gorgeous, best-crafted music videos ever made.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"YouTube Friday" debuts with the Lonely H

Beginning today (knock on wood), I'll select a music video or film clip for contemplation, discussion and sheer enjoyment to pass the time on the most anxious of workdays.

First up, the music video for "The Singer" by the Lonely H, viewed above.

The Lonely H are near the top of a list of fantastic Seattle-area artists who deserve their Big Break. Out of the peninsula town of Port Angeles and now residing in Seattle proper (at last check, most or all of them were UW students), this band frequently falls under the "Too good to be true" assumption. However, they wind up proving themselves to be both too good and very true every time.

The group has recorded three albums, and its oldest member is 21. They are frequently dubbed a "young CSNY" or "young Allmans," and that has some merit. However, the Lonely H's sound is not an affectation developed by listening to "Wooden Ships" over and over; though the group is very familiar with the Woodstock generation's music, their songwriting is obviously organic and original.

And the long hair, sideburns and late-Byrds clothing? Also genuine, not a gimmick. Some of the most surprising things develop out on the Northwest coast, many miles and many trends away from Los Angeles and New York. Oh, they're aware of their image, and acknowledge it in an "aw-shucks" sort of way. Sometimes to unusual success. These talented young men — nice guys, all — told me once about a sightseeing jaunt, in full regalia, through SF's Golden Gate Park. A guy came running — not sauntering, but running — up to them from across the lawn, wanting to sell the band some pot. They respectfully declined, but I got the feeling they regarded the incident as a badge of honor.

If I were engineering their near future — and, no doubt some are — I would suggest skipping the natural urge to relocate to LA. Instead, the Lonely H should do a late-60s Beach Boys and spend some time in Europe — Holland? — next summer. Now, that would be a great, genuine environment for recording the next record.

"The Singer" is the Lonely H's most recent video, released this summer to coincide with a U.S. tour.  This beautiful song represents the "easygoing" side of their sonic duality. To hear a more rockin' offering, check out their video/single from last year, "For Barbara."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sex and Advertising - Mad Men 3.1

Don Draper, il castrato? Tell me it isn't so.

Mad Men's season three opener proved to be an eye-opener, on many levels. Mr. Draper's slow, uneasy and somewhat voluntary immersion into "family life" the reality, versus family life, the image, was strongly hinted at at the end of last season. Last night, we saw the coolest cucumber of them all almost revert to his not-so-old ways.

It's going to be a rocky road. Television's most intriguing character can't help himself; this major morality play — "Who is the Real Don Draper?" — will doubtlessly will weave it's way through the series' conclusion. My early vote is for Draper, the don't-look-back playboy — much more fun.

As far as the third season is concerned, it looks like Don will probably be keeping his pants zipped outside the home, which leaves someone in the office to pick up the slack in the sex department.

Will it be Salvatore? His closet is about to explode, given the frenzy of his almost-rendezvous. Now Draper is in the know, but the top ad man is keeping mum, naturally.

The limey acquisition of Sterling Cooper is a powder keg with a slow fuse; one of those sneaky fellows is likely to be tossed out a window by season's end. Speaking of windows, I expect Pete — now co-Head of Accounts — to either jump out of one or experience a complete mental break real soon. Then again, we've been thinking that since the show started.

As Mad Men slides deeper into the 60s, "progress" is indeed going to be painful, judging by last night. Thankfully, the gang has a few more years of repression, denial, womanizing, sashaying, hard drinking and chain smoking left to titillate their oh-so-captive audience. Who knew slow reform could be so suspenseful?

Round two, in six days.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Deke Dickerson remembers Les Paul

Today, a seemingly immortal man proved to be mortal, after all.

When contemplating the loss and legacy of the music industry's biggest giant, my thoughts turned to Deke Dickerson, a master guitarist renowned for his passion for modern music's roots, and for his love of vintage guitars and recording gear.

From album to album, song to song, Dickerson presents a myriad of six-string stylings, but the ones that ring most sweetly to me are his most direct nods to Les Paul's classic, multi-tracked, reverbed signature (for example, "Rockin' Gypsy," from 2004's My Name is Deke).

Within moments of our afternoon conversation's beginning, my instinct to hear Dickerson's thoughts of Paul's passing proved to be the correct one. Rather than listen to someone pay lip service to an icon, I talked to a performer who was honestly mourning the loss of an inspiration and true hero.

SS: Les Paul was 94, after all, but today's news still must have been shock to you. A very sad day, indeed.

DD: I was in New York almost a month ago — I was backing up the Collins Kids and some other 50s rockabilly acts, and knew a a few weeks ahead of time that I had a few days off there. I was tryin' like hell to get out to New Jersey and interview Les — I had a bunch of questions that I don't think have ever been asked of him, questions that now will probably go forever unanswered.

It looked like it was going to happen, but about four days before we got to New York, Les went into the hospital. I said to the band at the time, this really sucks, as I don't know how many more opportunities I'll have to interview him, with our schedules and all. And, as it turns out, I don't think he left the hospital.

SS: I imagine you've seen Les play his New York gigs.

DD: I have, and I've also seen him a couple of times out here, at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. And I've been fortunate enough to talk to him a few times backstage, which was super-cool.

SS: He was one of the few people that can make any rock star — Slash, whomever — weak in the knees.

DD: The funniest thing about Les is that there's Les Paul the musician, the inventor, the recording pioneer... and then there's all these people who think of him as the signature on a guitar's headstock. I get the feeling that Slash and some other guys have never heard a Les Paul & Mary Ford record in their lives — it's the 'Les Paul' combined with 'Gibson' that gets them weak in the knees.

SS: What was one of the questions you had for Les?

DD: Well, it's very well-known that Les Paul pioneered all these recording techniques, like overdubbing, multi-tracking... he helped develop the first 8-track tape recorder for Ampex. But no one's really asked Les about how he came up with the concept of the direct guitar input.

You've got to understand, he came from doing a very typical thing — playing an arch top guitar in a big band — and within the space of a couple of years, he decided to plug his electric guitar directly into the input of the recording board. This was a fairly revolutionary idea; it was probably 20-25 years before people began really picking up on the stuff that Les was doing in the late 40s.

One thing that I find interesting is that in almost every other avenue of technology, we've taken these things that were invented in the 1940s and 1950s and improved them, surpassed them by leaps and bounds, or replaced them. But if you go down to Guitar Center and look at ninety-nine percent of the guitars on sale, they're pretty much using the same technology that Les Paul was using in the 1940s. And pretty much everyone agrees that most of those [guitars] suck compared to the old ones.

SS: The aspect of the 'Les Paul legend' that appeals to me most is that he had such a can-do, Rube Goldberg-type engineering spirit — an attitude you don't find often anymore. Didn't he fashion a recording head out of a Ford flywheel, or something like that?

DD: Well, it was more like a turntable... the first records were before recording tape, they were recording directly onto disc. Back then, you needed an extremely dense turntable so you wouldn't transfer the vibrations from the motor to the recording. Les figured he could use a Cadillac flywheel for that purpose. Now, they did have some expensive transcription recorders at that point in time, but he used something that cost a lot less money to do the same thing.

SS: When was the first time you heard a Les Paul record?

DD: My dad was sort of a record collector, and he got me into a lot of those types of records. I started playing guitar at age 13, and I was a typical teenage kid, into rock and heavy metal and all that stuff. When I first heard Les Paul and Mary Ford, I didn't really understand them, but I knew that they were significant and impressive enough that I needed to keep them until I could understand them. I had a few of the 10" records, and when I played them again when I was 20 or 21, I was really knocked out.

SS: Have you considered how modern music might have evolved without him?

DD: It's sort of hard to put into words what Les did, because he was like the first caveman to rub two sticks together and make fire. Now, one could assume that at some point another person would figure out how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together, but I think the music world would have come along much differently without him.

SS: I would have to guess another slew of Les Paul tributes are around the corner...

DD: When Les would play these gigs at the House of Blues, it would be billed as something like "Les Paul and Friends." It would be packed, because everyone knew that big rock stars would be showing up.

Les would start the show with his trio, and I'd be right up front, all excited — 'Wow, Les Paul is playing his songs with the trio!' — and I'd look behind me, and no in the audience gave a crap. They were just waiting for the rock stars to play. And when they came out, Les would just unplug and go backstage.

A while ago, I had the chance to buy a very cool Les Paul Black Beauty; I got Les to sign the pick guard. I later joked to some friends, 'I'm probably the first guy in 40 years to buy a Les Paul because he wanted to sound like Les Paul!'

SS: Perhaps you should round up some of your SoCal, old-school friends — oh, the Paladins, Billy Zoom, those sorts of performers — to record a tribute album.

DD: That would be nice. But I'm sure there will be the tributes by Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, etc.... we'll have to wait for that to die down first.

Deke Dickerson's new CD, King of the Whole Wide World, is in stores now. A US tour — plus dates in Spain and Finland — continues on Aug. 14.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Remembering John Hughes

Upon hearing of director/producer/writer John Hughes' death, one of my first thoughts was, what would the 80s have been like without him?

And the other half of my brain couldn't answer, because the concept is so unthinkable. To someone who turned 16 in 1984, Hughes was an omnipresent companion who had a habit of giving wonderful gifts that complemented and supplemented our adolescent development.

The purely irreverent National Lampoon's Vacation, containing little educational value, was a hilarious exception.

For a thirty-something adult, Hughes had an uncanny knack of updating age-old teenage crises, re-wrapping them in contexts that we could understand. His teen drama-comedies correctly portrayed "Me Decade" parents and authority features as self-absorbed, upwardly mobile foils of rebellion, but he also subtly acknowledged the fact that there is no one more self-absorbed than a teenager. Sure, bullies were cut down to size and tormenters were delightfully stymied, but Hughes reminded us along the way that people were often not as they seem.

Indeed, while many of his contemporaries chose black and white palettes, Hughes often preferred to work in shades of grey.

As we awkwardly waded into true relationships with friends, lovers and unrequited loves, Hughes reinforced our realizations that people behave in certain ways for a reason — and that family disfunction was hardly unique to our own addresses. In many John Hughes films, we not only found cinematic heroes, but allies in our struggles for acceptance and empowerment.

In the frightfully shallow pool of emotion in which the 80s floated, a Hughes film added the gentle weight of humanity as ballast. And, as we grew older and the end of the decade drew near, he gave us hilarious, poignant glimpses of the pitfalls of adulthood that lie just over the horizon.

In evaluating that oh-so-formative decade, it's easy to say that John Hughes was as influential as MTV, that he gifted my "Generation X" with pop-culture icons. The truth is, however, he gave us so much more than that.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Impossible Dream, made possible

We suspend our disbelief so easily when it comes to transforming robots, the Force and pointy eared aliens, but when it comes to comprehending how men could actually journey to the moon, we're still at a loss.

Imagine, just imagine standing on a cold piece of rock that a few generations before, some folks were convinced was made of cheese — or was inhabited by exotic animals. Since the dawn of man, this bright orb in the sky was the object of wonder, of worship, of dreams and prose.  And now you're looking at rocks, dust, little hills through the visor of a suit that's keeping you alive. You look up and see a beautiful ball, a big blue marble that contains everything and everyone you've ever known. While you're taking in this astounding sight, wars are being fought, triumphs are being celebrated, old men are gasping their last breaths, babies are taking in their first. All on this bright sphere in the distance.

Hours go by in a flash, and it's time to pack up your lunar picnic basket and start the last leg of the boldest, most dangerous adventure a man has ever undertaken. Three days later, flames lick at your plummeting tin can; you and your two fellow travelers splash into the ocean, instantly becoming the most unique and most envied people on the planet.

Although you have traveled so far into the sky, you're hardly a superman back on earth. Once you were separated from your neighbors by over 200,000 miles, but you're back home now... back to lawn mowing, grocery shopping, traffic jams and barking dogs. Every day for 40 years, someone wants to shake your hand while you recall your fantastic journey, a journey that only a handful of people understand. Every night for 40 years, weather permitting, you gaze up at this moon, this alluring alien land that you once claimed for all mankind. You stare and imagine that you can see the footprints — your footprints — that still mark its surface. And you must wish, "If only I could do it again."

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Michael Jackson, and a moment of clarity

Yesterday, we mourned the tragic, untimely death of the King of Pop; his life was eulogized by the King of Opportunism, Rev. Al Sharpton, and his musical and humanitarian legacies were celebrated around the world.

But who mourned the tragedy that was the last 20-odd years of Michael Jackson's life?  

Michael Jackson, the man, or Michael Jackson, the icon, positively affected and inspired millions of people, as evidenced by the global response to his passing.  Just think what Michael could have accomplished over the past two decades if he hadn't become unhinged.

Of all the controversies that have resurfaced in the past two weeks, Michael's mental and/or emotional decline is one that has not been disputed.  Anyone who saw the re-runs of the Martin Bashir interviews was reminded of how deeply disturbed Michael had become.  The singer clearly needed psychiatric help, but apparently wasn't getting any.

Of course, Michael's fans chose to interpret the over-the-top signs of illness as the traits of a misunderstood, eccentric, child-like innocent.  They seemed to view him not as a man, but as a musical messiah or an all-powerful, benevolent alien sent here to right the wrongs of the world.  But, as they witnessed yesterday, Michael Jackson was, in the end, merely a man, a man whose children no longer have a father.

A man whose death, in all likelihood, will be linked to his profound problems.  A man who was removed from reality, a king that was seemingly above the medical profession, and quite possibly, the law.  A ruler that had more or less lived in exile for the past 10 years.  A performer with unprecedented talents and unlimited potential whose illness(es) —  undoubtedly sparked by the double-edged sword of superstardom — turned him into the butt of jokes for almost 20 years.

It's beginning to sink in that the most meteoric celebrity in world history is dead.  We've watched the videos over and over again, and mourned not only the loss of an icon, but the loss of our youth.  And now that the man is laid to rest, that little nagging nugget in the back of our minds can resume asking the question, "What the hell happened, Michael?"

The question of the ages.  Michael left behind one of the most complicated histories and mysteries of any figure, and it will never be completely unraveled.  We're at the tip of the scandal iceberg; decades of wildly conflicting views and opinions and unauthorized biographies has just begun.  The opening salvos of the legal and financial battles haven't yet been fired.  The freak show that was Michael Jackson's later life has folded its tent, but the big top will be in town for a long time to come.

As we indulge our sick, morbid curiosities and watch this circus go through it's three-ring act again and again, let's occasionally put down the popcorn and pause for a moment of clarity.  Let's shake off the cloak of denial that coats our precious memories in warm fuzziness.

Michael Jackson was a kind, generous, unique, gifted and very, very troubled man who achieved something that few have ever achieved —  and that something swallowed him up and took him to places that we would never, ever want to go.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

More popular than Neil Armstrong

Of all the unforgettable music moments captured on television, a handful truly stand out: Elvis' and the Beatles' Ed Sullivan appearances, Madonna not-so-virginally writhing on the ground at the MTV Music Awards, and Michael Jackson breaking into the moonwalk at the Motown 25th Anniversary Special.

The latter performance is the first thing that comes to mind when contemplating Jackson's legacy, a day after his death. The Thriller premiere was a huge, huge event that epitomized the effect of the music video, but Jackson's first TV moonwalk — people went out of their minds when that occurred. Unbelievably influential.  The next morning, people all over the world were trying to imitate his moves, and that backwards glide.

Jackson had dazzled us with Off The Wall, but this was something entirely different. He had a new look, new choreography and a new sound that was instantly omnipresent. The Thriller album was on fire for more than two years — seven singles!  And "Billie Jean," with that moonwalk... that was the groove of the decade.

And, like witnessing Elvis' "Don't Be Cruel" and the girls screaming for McCartney, you had to be there on May 16, 1983 to grasp the enormity of Michael Jackson's impact, this unbelievable display of talent.

I'm not the only one today choosing to ignore the past 20 years and remember a man at his most glorious.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Ventures’ Bob Bogle, 1934-2009

Above anyone else, Bob Bogle made me feel that I had made the "big leagues" as a music journalist. Ten years ago, I interviewed Bob and Ventures bandmate Don Wilson by phone for a story for The Rocket; they were to play a gig in Seattle, and I later arranged to meet them for the sound check and say hello to the rest of the band.

When I caught up to Bob that afternoon, he reached into his wallet, unfolded a piece of paper, and asked if he had gotten my number and address right when we had talked earlier.

Bob Bogle, rock 'n' roll legend, had my name and number in his wallet! I had made it! I told that story for years afterwards. The truth is, I was nobody special, but Bob made every journalist, fan, and fan/journalist feel important. In a band filled with the most gracious musicians one could ever meet, Bob was the nice guy. In a group of humble giants, he was the most humble. A guitar player's guitarist, he achieved a popular version of the American Dream: he was a construction worker with very meager beginnings who became one of the most-heard rock musicians in the world.

And now he is gone, and I am crushed. I knew Bob was very sick, and I thought this day might very well come, but the news of his death has hit me harder than I expected. Or I'm just selling Bob, and myself, a bit short. After all, I've been a Ventures fan since birth, and the privilege of catching a few minutes' worth of conversation with Bob Bogle here and there over the past ten years — well, that tops just about anything I've ever achieved as a writer.

I've enjoyed chatting and interviewing every member of the Ventures, but backstage, somehow I always eventually gravitated towards Bob. Everyone did. Mild-mannered, he was nonetheless a great storyteller, if asked. Before a show, he was often seated away from hustle-and-bustle in the room. Bob once told me, as he approached 70, that conserving energy was the key — in other words, he saved it for the stage. Oh, Bob had a sense of humor. I recall during that first interview how he and Don were explaining their decades-long relationship. They were best friends who never fought.

"We're not gay or anything," Bob added, "just best friends."

Professionally speaking, Bob Bogle was a supremely influential and very skilled guitarist, though he was more well-known for his bass playing and songwriting. He and Don, performing as a duo on that famous first tour of Japan, introduced the electrified rock 'n' roll guitar to that country. The two defined the relationship of lead-and-rhythm guitars in a rock band, and anyone who has ever caught a Ventures show could tell he enjoyed playing lead guitar — he would perform a couple of numbers, with Nokie Edwards or Jerry McGee switching to bass. However, Edwards and McGee were more accomplished players. So Bob simply became a great, great bassist, the band's anchor. A practical, humble man.

Bob told me on several occasions that he could never imagine retiring, could never imagine not being a Venture. And he got his wish. To my knowledge, Bob had spent time in a recording studio every year for almost 50 years. Amazing feat, amazing man.

I once prepared a sandwich for Bob Bogle, rock 'n' roll legend. I've occasionally let that tidbit drop ever since the first story got old. I think I will boast about both "events" from now on. After all, Mr. Bogle, a man who never forgot where he came from, somehow made everyone feel that they had made it, too.

My heart and thoughts go out to Bob's wife Yumi, the band, longtime Ventures manager Fiona Taylor, and especially Don Wilson, who was at his side for more than 50 years.

Photo: Bob Bogle, Steve Stav and Don Wilson, June 1998.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hit the Ground Running

Ah, we're back -- my Webmaster has fixed some technical issues, including the all-important ability for you to comment on my meanderings and sketchy work... see below.

New in the archived Aural History section are 2000 interviews with Dave Dederer, Sushirobo, Deke Dickerson, Dorkweed and my first chats with Dave Alvin and Tim Finn.

The Finn feature has particular sentimental value to me. Done to promote his beautiful Say It Is So album and an upcoming gig at Seattle's Tractor Tavern, it proved to be a revealing conversation with one of my teenage "New Wave" idols-turned-favorite singer-songwriters. Super-nice, down-to-earth gentleman with an amazing talent and great voice.

Interestingly enough, my future wife was at that Tractor Tavern show -- I hadn't seen her since 1987, when we parted ways in college. And I didn't see her at the gig, either; while she filed out of the club, I went backstage to sit with Tim on the Tractor's loading dock. No matter, the stars eventually aligned themselves.

The photo here of Andrea and Mr. Finn was snapped by me, backstage at the Paramount Theater after a 2004 Finn Brothers concert. If she looks a bit giddy, it's because she was.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Booker T: A side of Green Onions

I never would have imagined seeing Booker T in Mount Vernon, Wash.

Not there's anything wrong with Mount Vernon. Nice, picturesque place in the middle of farm country, west of the mountains and east of the Sound. And the gorgeous, historic Lincoln Theatre has had a lot of talent on its stage.

But Booker T? The groove-master was a long way from home.

Though the May 16 show was nearly sold out, it still seemed like a "secret show" two days before his gig at Seattle's swanky Triple Door, more than an hour to the south. And man, what a secret show it was. It took a few numbers to get used to sitting in ancient theater seats instead of at a table with drinks, listening to Booker T's Hammond. And there was no dance floor to get on the good foot to "Green Onions." But again, what a night.

On tour to support his solo "Potato Hole" record, he essentially had a pick-up band of veteran hot-shots backing him (Neil Young and the Drive-By Truckers were on the disc). By the third number from "Potato Hole," the crowd forgot all about the DBTs, or the MGs, for that matter. Smokin' Telecaster player from Mavis Staples' band, trading off with a crafty Gibson player. A classic axe combination. Good rhythm section.  Hot band, no doubt inspired by who they were performing with.

And the new material was pretty good, too; R&B with an Americana undertone. "Reunion Time" really stood out, very pretty. Oh, and Booker T didn't disappoint everyone who came for a trip down memory lane: "Green Onions" and "Hip Hug Her" were fabulous; "Melting Pot" was mind-blowing. Booker T introduced every song, and subtly reminded us that he wrote "Born Under A Bad Sign." Incredible -- and the B3 legend sang it well! The closer, an extended jam of the all-time classic, "Time is Tight" got everyone up on their feet -- where they should have been the whole night. Encored with Tom Waits' "Get Behind the Mule."

Exceedingly gracious, Booker T lingered long after the show, signing and chatting with the fans. Yes, the man was a long way from home, but we all went home feeling very lucky that he made the trip.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Welcome to

Welcome to the launch of This actually more like a "beta version" or a tentative first step; it's a little drafty in here now, but it should fill up soon. 

I know very few journalists who have neat desks, or know the exact whereabouts of an old article. I wish I could be one of those rare writers, but I'm not. My wife has been bugging me for a couple of years to get my files together, and preserve them on a website. I've always replied, "I'm too busy writing this week's piece to look at old ones." 

But I've found it is important to take a look back, and more importantly, to preserve my work digitally. Heck, I've got to dig out all those negatives while there are still labs to process them! Scan articles before the paper becomes too brittle!

Like too many journalists, I've written for a number of publications that are no longer in business — starting with the late, great Seattle institution, The Rocket.

Other magazines and newspapers don't bother to maintain their online archives very well. More good reasons to get my act together and do this. 

However, is not merely an archive — that aspect will probably take a year to complete. It will also be a collecting point, a directory of sorts, for new (or newer) arts and entertainment articles and photos that can be found elsewhere on the web.

Additionally, I will be re-editing some "classic" interviews. Some of those were unfortunately cut to fit available space, and other interviews contained some interesting comments and/or conversations that weren't appropriate or focused enough for the article, or a particular publication. So I'm going through a lot of tape; look for some expanded "director's cuts" in the future. And some never-published features will finally see the light of day. My news work? I'll keep that out of this site. Music and film is much more interesting — to me, at least.

And then there's the blog... this is the first entry, and probably the longest. will have two regular features — on Friday's blog, I'll select a clip from YouTube for discussion; the "Mixtapes" section will offer commentary on some of my favorite — and recommended — playlists.

I'd like to thank my wife for her support, and for making this site possible with a lot of work that I don't have the brains for. New York hard-rock journalist Gail Worley and her great site, The Worley Gig, has been an inspiration. A special "shout out" goes to my friend John Shoemaker, an old-school Seattle music veteran whose advice and support has always been invaluable.

Thank you very much for reading, and please come again.

— Steve Stav 

Above: Billy Bob Thornton, in a better mood, and lovely Virginia Madsen, Seattle, 2007. Photo by Steve Stav.