Sunday, March 28, 2010

I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House's Doghouse Blues

Tucked amongst the farmland scattered somewhere between Seattle and Bellingham, The Doghouse is the closest thing the area has to an old-fashioned roadhouse. The invitation-only, private parties held on an expansive property happen only a couple of times a year — special events, indeed. Fittingly, the wild Doghouse — the property's large, stage-equipped shack — hosted a reunion of Portland's infamously wild-and-woolly   one frigid Saturday night in March.

Around bonfires and kindly supplied heaters, numb hands held Pabst and Jack Daniels as the band's diehard fans waited for their turn at bat inside the Doghouse — which is about the size of a three-car garage. And there was a lot of diehard fans, from far and wide; I heard a rumor that someone had arrived from Nevada. SOB had played Dante's in Portland the night before, but one show was obviously not going to satisfy the group's still-loyal subjects in their former, far-reaching kingdom.

When I eased the Dodge Dart into the field-turned-crowded parking lot around nine, the party had been going on for quite some time, and a number of bands had already played. I sat with the guys and talked about everything but music, catching up on the three years that had passed since they last played a show. It seemed that nothing had changed, really. Bassist and deep thinker Mole Harris was still frozen in time, eternally 17. Drummer "Flapjack" Texas regaled us with a hilarious, bawdy story from his college baseball days. "Handsome" Jon Burbank was still baby-faced, and as nice a guy as a guitar monster could be. David Lipkind still resembled a super hero-musician-genius waiting for the release of stored-up energy that playing his harmonica brings. And brawler-turned-poet Michael Damron... Mike D seemed a bit older, a bit wiser, simultaneously stronger and more fatigued after three years of going solo.

Then the Doghouse beckoned, the bonfire-circle evaporated, and five oh-so-talented men transformed into a band one more time. Heavy coats were shrugged off, guitars were plugged in, a bottle of Maker's Mark was opened. A familiar, darkly joyous surge of dirty sonic power that we had all missed so terribly was unleashed.

It was so good to hear it again.

Friday, February 19, 2010

An interview with The Knack's Doug Fieger (1952-2010)

If you were alive and cognizant of your surroundings in 1979, you couldn't escape the pounding bass of "My Sharona." Everyone on earth seemed to follow the album's advice, and got The Knack — you couldn't listen to a radio for an hour without hearing them.

The Knack's reign was short, but incredibly influential — not just for the New Wave acts that immediately followed them in the early 80s, but for power pop bands of another generation. The Knack's blend of the bombastic, feel-good pop of their youth (Dave Clark 5, Paul Revere & The Raiders) with the Mod, lyrical sensibilities of The Kinks, in turn has doubtlessly inspired the punchy, chord-driven alternative rock of today. Green Day comes to mind.

Sabotaged by the very label that once touted them as the next Beatles, The Knack disappeared, then reappeared with a lower radar visibility — but nonetheless kept making great music.

Tragically, The Knack's career has come to a close with the passing of frontman/songwriter/guitarist Doug Fieger on Valentine's Day 2010. Fieger had been battling cancer for several years, a cancer that finally interrupted a flurry of activity for the band — who had enjoyed a noticeable rise in popularity at mid-decade. (Incidentally, the loss of Fieger was preceded by the passing of original drummer Bruce Gary in 2006).

As I listened again to an interview I had conducted with Fieger a few days after his 53nd birthday in 2005, I was struck by how much the singer was in love with music, after all this time. Fieger was an extremely gracious and genuinely nice man, and we had a remarkable, long conversation — we talked about all sorts of things, from his love of gardening to his appreciation of the Raiders' Mark Lindsay as one of the greatest rock singers, ever. But mostly about his love for his beloved band.

I saw The Knack a week or so later, at the new Tulalip Ampitheatre north of Seattle. Woefully under-promoted and under an unusually chilly August night sky, Fieger and Co. played for a few hundred people as if they were performing an arena show. Impossibly tight and as dynamic as one could imagine, The Knack erased decades of time passed as if their guitars were magic wands. It remains one of my most memorable concert experiences, ever.

Doug Fieger, may there be Telecasters in heaven.

SS: I still can't get over how you lost on Hit Me Baby, One More Time.

Fieger: Oh, it was much better that we lost. I'm serious... it generated controversy, and it kept the whole thing alive a lot longer. It was great.

SS: But you blew everybody away, and lost to Vanilla Ice!

Fieger: It's not about how good you are on television, with a "TV audience." Vanilla Ice had been on “The Surreal Life,” and his popularity was up.

SS: Did you have fun doing the show?

Fieger: Oh, absolutely. I have fun doing everything. I'm happy to be still doing the same thing that I've loved doing all my life... and I get to make a living doing it. It's great.

SS: Heck, I'd do it for free...

Fieger: Well, that's the thing... I joke that I get paid to leave home and stay in hotels and fly in airplanes; that's what I get paid for. (Otherwise) I'd do it for free.

SS: Did appearing on the show garner the band some attention?

Fieger: Oh, yeah, serious attention. Audiences have been exponentially bigger not just twice, but four times the size. It's been great.

SS: How did your gig at the Fuji Rock Festival go?

Fieger: It was amazing. 100,000 people. Amazing. There was eight stages; we played the main stage with Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Beck, New Order... we were on the stage with the big boys, and it was nice to be recognized.

Back in the day, we were gigantic in Japan. We were on the Japanese domestic charts, which was a big deal for overseas artists. It was nice that we were welcomed back to Japan with such a great response.

SS: From a fan's standpoint, the story of The Knack has been an infuriating one the breakup, no big comeback...

Fieger: That's not really true. We were really only apart for four years. And then we couldn't get a record deal that wasn't our fault; it was ridiculous, I mean, we had sold eight and a half million albums at the time. Capitol cut out our entire catalog for eight years, and wouldn't allow us to earn money for an eight-year period.

If anything that should infuriate the fans, it should be the music business, and not the band.

SS: Oh, I don't think the fans hold it against the band. What I was trying to say is that you should have been on top all along.

Fieger: Thank you, that's very nice for you to say that. We've always tried to do quality work. Every time we've gone into the studio, every time we've written a song, every time we get up on stage, we try to give 110 percent. I'm proud of every song on every record we've made. We've done exactly what we wanted to do... the difference has been the music business.

For example, Get The Knack was meant to be a double album — the first two albums were actually the "first album." Capitol wouldn't release a double album. Again, the record company created a problem. If we had released a double album, we wouldn't have been slagged by people as if ...But The Little Girls Understand was an inferior product — when it was really just, as Guns 'n' Roses did many years later, a record of stuff that just had to be left off the first album. No space for it.

We did a show with Journey a couple of years ago. Neal Schon came up to us backstage and said, "Man, your second album was one of the greatest albums ever recorded."  I said that he must be mistaken — he was probably talking about our third album, Round Trip. He said, "No, no, Let The Little Girls Understand."

So, there were fans who really loved that record, but it had the stigma of being this "less successful" follow-up to the first album. But it sold two-and-a-half million copies, which is not so bad.

SS: With the revival of power pop — Green Day, etc. — perhaps the time is ripe for another shot at mainstream success for The Knack.

Fieger: Well, we do what we do. I have no fantasies of becoming successful on the charts again. The fact that I'm making a good living doing what I'm doing... and 27 years after the band started, people are still calling me up to interview me, that's great.

We just played a show at a regular outdoor concert series here in Woodland Hills last night. It was huge; 5,000 people showed up to see us. I had no idea that many people would show up!

People continually come up to us and say, "You're better than you were 25 years ago." Hopefully we are. If you don't get better at something after years of doing it, you should give it up.

SS: Did you form The Knack as a power pop, Mod act?

Fieger: "Power pop" was a term invented by Pete Townshend to describe The Who back in the 60s, at least that's when I read about it.

We did have an idea of forming a band influenced by The Who and The Kinks — our two main influences. That was the idea, but nobody called it "power pop" in the beginning.

SS: Were you impressed by The Jam's power-pop, Mod splash overseas?

Fieger: I went to see them at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go when they were on their first tour here. I wasn't that impressed. I mean, I liked their energy, I appreciated the fact that they were doing the Mod thing, but...

SS: How about your cross-town rivals, The Beat?

Fieger: Well, I had known of Paul Collins when he was in a band called The Nerves, with Peter Case and Jack Lee. I went to see The Beat, he was a friend.

I never felt we had a rivalry with anybody. We had our own scene, our own group of fans, our own thing. We weren't part of the punk crowd, or anybody else's crowd. We were fortunate that (in LA) there was no specific "big thing" going on at the time, and we found our own way quickly. We were ready.

SS: Were you scared of the sudden rush of success?

Fieger: Oh, yeah. I don't know about scared, but it was... overwhelming. I thought I was ready for it, but there was no way to prepare yourself for something like that.

And it really was instant. We were playing a club like the Troubadour — 300 people — one night, and the next day we were the biggest group in the world. It was crazy, really crazy.

SS: With that beat, that bass line, didn't everyone think "My Sharona" was going to be a huge hit after first hearing it in the mixing room?

Fieger: Well, Mike Chapman did. Actually, Capitol didn't want to release it as a single. They thought "Oh Tara" should be the first single. That's why the album went to Number One before the single... "My Sharona" wasn't released until two weeks after the album.

SS: What happened to your Sharona?

Fieger: She's one of the most successful real estate agents in southern California. Sharona is the mother of two beautiful children. We've stayed friends, we talk a couple of times a year.

SS: I've rarely interviewed someone who has adjusted to the ups-and-downs of the business as well as you have seemed to. I detect very little, if any, resentment.

Fieger: Resenting what happens to you that's beyond your control — there's no purpose to it. Everything in life is designed to teach you something. I certainly wouldn't resent something that's brought me such wonderful opportunities as a song like "My Sharona" has.

Also, "My Sharona" is a fun song to play. Ask anybody who's played it.

(More photos of The Knack at the Tulalip Amphitheatre)

(NPR piece that included an interview with Sharona.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Kid Creole & The Coconuts' Lifeboat Party

Embracing War-era music, August Darnall (aka Kid Creole) was a man ahead of his time. Commanding a stage filled with horns, rhythm and scantily dressed backup singers, the frontman's frenetic act pre-dated the swing-craze revival by almost 20 years.

And man, was it cool.  Cool – and unusual – enough to garner occasional airplay on Seattle's alternative music stations in the early 80s. An even more occasional appearances on MTV prompted more attention from American suburbia, though I have a hunch that Kid Creole's street popularity peaked on the East Coast and in Europe.

"Endicott," "Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy," "My Male Curiosity," "Caroline Was a Dropout," "Stool Pigeon"... the mix of funky R&B with Cab Calloway, 1940s jumpin' jive was irresistible, and reportedly was on Prince's turntable quite frequently. Though I had heard him on the radio, I first saw Kid Creole in action in the film Against All Odds, in a nightclub scene performing "Lifeboat Party." I was hooked, as the full Kid Creole experience combines the audio with the visual.

This live version of "Lifeboat Party" (seen above) is from 1985's Leisure Tour.

As we all know, sometimes an artist is too hip, too cool, too influential to reach the heights that their successors do, and such was the case with Kid Creole. Stuck somewhere on the dial alongside the Human League and Cyndi Lauper back in the day, the impresario was alone on a funky island of panama hats and wide silk ties. However, he never really left the room – Darnall and his Coconuts still perform occasionally, and an anthology was released in '09.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Gospel Truth - Blind Boys of Alabama

I've interviewed a lot of musicians, but my recent chat with lead vocalist Jimmy Carter (!) of The Blind Boys of Alabama... well, this is one I'll never have trouble remembering.

We seemed to cover everything under the sun in about half an hour, but we could have easily talked all afternoon, as well.

I sat there in my chair and watched the rain come down past my window, in my hidey-hole north of Seattle, and listened to this weathered, yet vibrant voice coming through the wire from Montgomery, Alabama. We discussed the Blind Boys' latest CD — a collection of some of their guest appearances — and the pop artists who had asked the Blind Boys to record with them. We talked about what an unlikely pairing it was, the group meeting Lou Reed. Expectedly, faith frequently popped up.

The performer told me that that God denied him his sight because He wanted Carter to lead the life he had, as a gospel singer. Which led to a pause on my end of the phone. How do you respond to something like that?

We got along famously, and laughed a lot. Carter has a rich sense of humor; I suppose a man whose formative years were spent at the Alabama Institute For the Negro Blind, before touring and performing gospel music for decades — in good times and bad — would have to have a sense of humor. I even joked once about his being blind — it was that sort of conversation, and he is that sort of man. We were talking about the group's trademarked stage attire — tailored, colorful suits. I assumed that someone was around to make sure they all matched. We laughed again.

I bluntly broached the subject of touring churches with various gospel groups in the old Jim Crow South.

"Musicians like to complain about how tough it is on the road - counting pennies, sleeping in vans, etc.," I said, "I can't imagine dealing with those kinds of obstacles, plus being a black singer below the Mason-Dixon in the '50s and '60s."

And Carter told me exactly how it was — it was sometimes quite difficult. But he obviously got by — "With determination," he said. And, he added, with some help from the Lord. Carter explained that he and his bandmates were never hassled by the Klan or anyone — people looked out for them.

"But we knew our place — let's make that clear," he emphasized.

We knew our place. He uttered that words without a touch of sarcasm or bitterness in his voice, just matter-of-factly. I'd heard the phrase before, but never spoken to me. It stopped my brain in its tracks, though the conversation just rolled along.

It pains me to think of that phrase, to think of how such a wonderful man, such a great singer, once lived in an environment where the smart thing to do was to "know one's place." So long ago, but not long enough ago for a man who was there to forget. It makes me fightin' mad, just writing about it.

But Carter wasn't angry. He's a Grammy-winning gospel singer; a man dedicated to spreading Jesus' word through song. Anger is a bit out of place in his world.

We chatted on as if we were in my kitchen with a pot of coffee. Carter told me how he thanks God for his good life, and how he is surrounded by friends. He looked forward to the Blind Boys' appearance with Mr. Reed on the David Letterman show (which is tonight) and how much he was anticipating the group's upcoming performance for the President.

What a man. What a life of purpose, of conviction, of confidence in a higher power. What an interview.

View the full article here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

John Carter, Nick Cage and Benecio del Toro!

Though it's been planned, developed, discussed and brooded over for more than 70 years, Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic John Carter of Mars has never been brought to the big screen. However, someone's finally pulled the trigger, and principal photography has begun on a film adaption of the series.

The fact that Disney is the one with the trigger finger may or may not be cause for concern; apparently there is some backdoor Pixar involvement in this live-action flick, a potential big plus. On the minus side, the combination of Disney and its intended PG-13 rating means that Frank Frazetta's amazing, but highly erotic artwork won't be a stylistic template.

We'll have to wait and see if John Carter of Mars is a bold step for Disney, or something reminiscent of Island At The Top of the World...

In other flights of fantasy, I received the poster art for the upcoming Kick-Ass via email today. The comic book adaptation is supposed to be edgy as hell, but will Nick Cage be a contributor to the edginess, or serve as an unintended cheeseball counterpoint? Will we see the badass actor of the 80s, or the National Treasure, I-need-cash-to-buy-another-castle-for-the-IRS-to-take sellout? Again, time will tell... Kick-Ass is scheduled for an April 16 release.

Opening sooner is The Wolfman (Feb. 12), which I have high hopes for. Caught my first commercial/trailer recently, and I'm game. Hear that, studio? You've sold me. You don't need to air a half-dozen different commercials on various networks - a la Sherlock Holmes. You've got me hooked, don't lose me by airing every highlight of the film. Del Toro as the Wolfman... that's enough for me to part with 10 bucks. Of course, I'll probably be previewing this film for free, but you know what I mean. Just show a little leg, so to speak... don't give it all away.