April 26, 2016

With an Intellect and a Savior-faire: A Personal Appreciation of Prince Rogers Nelson

I remember when the purple bomb hit.

It was MTV, 1983. Prince's "1999" video flashed onto the screen. Swirling spotlights. A solitary figure standing atop a tiered stage. Then, drums. Wendy and Lisa. Synchronized swaying and side-stepping. A purple bass. Dr. Fink, a guy in medical scrubs, on keys. Guitarist Dez Dickerson rocking guitar and a white Rising Sun headband. After sliding down a pole and hopping down to normal stage level, shiny trench coat flaring like a superhero's cape, Prince bounded into my life: "The sky was all purple, there were people runnin' everywhere..."

For me, the tectonic plates of popular music immediately shifted. Spinning around, grabbing the mic like he meant business, Prince was an alien, illuminating the television as if he'd been beamed down from Parliament-Funkadelic's Mothership. Little Richard hair. Impeccable wardrobe. Mustache. Dance moves like the baddest MF ever. No, this wasn't Adam Ant, Flock of Seagulls, or Men at Work, or any other staple of that fascinating early MTV era. This was a shimmering vision in purple, a renegade of funk, a charisma case in ascension.
Prince Rogers Nelson was a man with intelligence and savvy—a musical genius and preternaturally gifted performer who knew what he wanted, and where he was going. Rock stars rarely arrive with so many goods: songwriting, producing, singing, playing every instrument. Almost nothing compares to his rise, artistry, and game-changing cultural impact. He had a lion in his pocket, and baby, it was ready 2 roar. When "1999" splashed onto MTV, Prince was five provocative albums deep, but the clip was a key breakthrough—a quantum leap.

Gliding in next on the wings of a slow synth line was "Little Red Corvette," and it was off to the races. If you've read this far (and hey, thanks), there's no need to list all that came next, the collaborations, the accomplishments across the decades. A revolutionary intent on freedom from the outset, Prince redefined the music industry and fought many a righteous battle against it. He defied societal norms, was a guitar wizard, and won some of the deepest respect a musician can have. On a near-universal level, merely saying his name elicited reverence, a sort of unspoken, "Whoa, yeah. That guy. Astonishing." I feel wildly fortunate to have witnessed it, to have lived at the same time.

Still, Prince never seemed quite real. His well-cultivated mystique supported the idea that he truly existed in another dimension. But he did walk among us. Around the turn of the millennium, I went to the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) trade show at the L.A. Convention Center. While perusing an exhibit, I looked up and noticed a strange trio going by. One was a woman dressed up in a traditional taxi driver's uniform, with a cap labeled "TAXI". To her right was maybe a 10-year-old child, comically wearing an identical taxi driver getup. The other person on her left, to my disbelief, was... Prince. I quickly realized the woman was a bodyguard, and the kid, well, who knows? It was a bizarre posse. Prince floated down the aisle, turned a corner, and he was gone.

Farewell, Prince. No one in the whole universe will ever compare.

April 18, 2016

Here Today: McCartney "One on One" in Portland

Paul McCartney
Moda Center, Portland
April 15, 2016
In the hierarchy of living rock and roll legends, there's a strong argument that Paul McCartney sits at the top. Ample evidence of the ex-Beatle's primacy was on full display in Portland, as he delivered a spirited, 38-song extravaganza that not only did justice to his career, but also shined a light on the dustier, sometimes eccentric corners of his catalog. 

Channeling Jimi: Sir Paul on guitar (photos by  Mary Layton)
This latest jaunt, officially titled the "One on One" tour, could just be called "Paul Things to Paul People." The setlist was wide-ranging, and the structure of the show was enhanced by a seven-song acoustic segment. Suffice to say, there was something for everyone. Hardcore Beatles fanatic? Well, boom, here's "Hard Day's Night" to open the show, not played in 51 years and never during McCartney's solo era. Fab Four scholar? Here's a reading of The Quarrymen's "In Spite of All the Danger." Dig the weird stuff? How does McCartney II's electronic-pop bleeper "Temporary Secretary" work for you? Avid Wings fan? The bouncy piano escapade "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five" has you covered. You once asked on social media, "Who's Paul McCartney?" Here's the Rihanna-Kanye-McCartney wildin'-out ditty, "FourFiveSeconds." You're just here to sing along to Beatles tunes? Here's 23 of those, from "We Can Work it Out" to "Back in the U.S.S.R." to "Love Me Do." Still want more? Here are three punchy selections from Macca's admirable 2013 album New.

As with the Beatles and Wings, McCartney doesn't do all this alone; he's got a stable foundation in his versatile touring band of the past 14 years, Brian Ray (guitar, bass), Rusty Anderson (guitar), Abe Laboriel Jr. (drums), and Paul "Wix" Wickens (keyboards). They've got it all covered: harmony vocals, switching to bass so Paul can peel off Hendrixian guitar squeals at the end of "Let Me Roll It," or just banging a tambourine. Laboriel Jr. cuts perhaps the most striking figure, perched atop his drum riser as a vortex of swinging arms and drumsticks. While Sir Paul is the default focal point, these other parts of his well-oiled machine also deserve attention, whether it's Anderson tearing up a solo, or Ray strumming the spectral acoustic transition of "Band on the Run." 

Rock icons can often get a pass for just showing up. And McCartney could somewhat phone it in, but there's never any sense of that; his professionalism, respect for his audience, and spare-no-expense production value tactics are irrefutable. And at 73, with a bit of sandpaper in his voice now and again, he has to realize that time is finite. He's out there playing every city he can, whether it's a major market like Seattle, or neglected, smaller locales like Fresno and Cleveland. As gratifying and emotionally impactful as this concert was, as much as it projected vitality, there was a nagging feeling that Portland, which hadn't welcomed Sir Paul in 11 years, was witnessing something akin to a comet. The rareness of this night, you know? The sheer ephemerality of it all. Mortality is tough to bear, yet was noticeably underlined by the moments where McCartney paid tribute to two departed Georges (Harrison and Martin), and dedicated the heartfelt "Here Today" to John Lennon.
"Something" for George
To live, though, is to carry that weight, persevere, and make the most of this thing called life. As Paul sang at the conclusion of this evening, "And in the end the love you take / Is equal to the love you make." On this night, the love felt incalculable.

Setlist (spoilers ahead...)

   A Hard Day's Night
   Save Us
   Can't Buy Me Love
   Letting Go
   Temporary Secretary
   Let Me Roll It
   I've Got a Feeling
   My Valentine
   Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
   Here, There and Everywhere
   Maybe I'm Amazed
Acoustic Set:
e Can Work It Out
  In Spite of All the Danger
  You Won't See Me
  Love Me Do
  And I Love Her
  Here Today
Queenie Eye
   The Fool on the Hill
   Lady Madonna
   Eleanor Rigby
   Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
   Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
   Band on the Run
   Back in the U.S.S.R.
   Let It Be
   Live and Let Die
   Hey Jude

    Hi, Hi, Hi
    Golden Slumbers
    Carry That Weight
    The End

April 8, 2016

Public Image, Damaged: The Rock Hall's Public Perception Problem

As the stars converge and the hype builds for the 31st Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Brooklyn tonight, it's important not to lose sight of an inescapable fact: By any measure, the Rock Hall is an American institution with a tarnished public image. Sad to say, but it's lost hearts and minds. When tickets for your annual watershed gala event are going on StubHub for $12, and the simulcast of said event at the museum isn't sold out, well, those are bad omens.
There's an acute public perception problem here, and the reasons go beyond why your favorite band isn't in the hall yet; in fact, let's please put those reflexive, tiresome, moody blues to rest for now. In considering the Rock Hall gestalt, there are two entities that feed off each other. First there's the museum in Cleveland, which opened in 1995 and is an exceptionally-curated music fan pilgrimage. Secondly and most significantly, there is the organization that spearheaded the museum, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, NYC-based and formed in 1983 by the late Ahmet Ertegun, Jann Wenner, Seymour Stein, Jon Landau, and others to recognize achievement in popular music.

That mission sounds simple enough. In fact, the early years, marked by the privately-held induction ceremonies at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, were a relatively non-controversial, celebratory breeze. Elvis! Chuck Berry! Bob Dylan! Aretha! The Beatles! But as decades have gone on, and as Wenner has dubiously claimed "all the no-brainers" are inducted, it seems that myriad issues have cropped up that threaten to irrevocably damage the very idea of "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." These issues include, but are not necessarily limited to, transparency, communication, gender equality, credibility, common sense, and conflicts of interest:

Transparency - Most people that follow the hall closely, as well as casual observers/everyday rock fans, get a sense that most major Rock Hall decisions are being made behind closed doors. This is a non-profit that is driven by donations, but the institution seems to act with impunity and zero accountability. Does anyone on the outside, let alone donors, know what's going on? Sure, financial numbers get disclosed.  But missing is the basic information that would actually matter to the populist masses the Hall is purportedly courting to buy memberships and tickets to the museum/induction ceremonies. The most corrective measure the Hall could take toward transparency would be to disclose the vote counts that decide who gets inducted. A press release is issued, and news outlets and social media are abuzz on announcement day, but it seems no one truly questions the results. (Does anyone truly believe that Steve Miller got more votes than Janet Jackson? That's not to take sides in support of either, but most fan polls outside the Rock Hall's bot-corrupted fan vote had Janet well ahead, and you'd think there would be at least some parallel).

Communication - The fact that most people believed that N.W.A. would perform at the induction ceremony tonight, only to be highly disappointed yesterday when they saw Ice Cube's interview in the New York Times saying they weren't performing due to disagreements with the organizers, is a prime example of the Rock Hall dropping the ball when it comes to communication. How long was this known? It certainly wasn't in the Hall's best interest to disclose that fact. Going broader in terms of the 2016 ceremony, why are there only five performer inductees this year? Previous years have had quite a few more. A sixth slot could have gone to a deserving artist like Yes. Again, there are no real answers from the Hall, just speculation across the board that maybe they're trying to shorten what have been admittedly long ceremonies.

Gender Equality - There's not a single female inductee this year, not even a single announced presenter tonight that is female. Furthermore, per the essential Rock Hall resource Future Rock Legends (futurerocklegends.com), "Of the 547 Rock Hall voters we have on our unofficial list, 9.3% are women." Expanding the voting body to include more women is urgent, crucial, and ridiculously overdue. 

Credibility - The Hall-run, official fan vote for the 2016 induction class was an abject disaster. Overtaken by bots and registering an inhuman 160,905,154 votes, it's exhibit A for the Hall to come up with a more secure, credible fan voting system. (And yes, Chicago fans, the point is taken that you are passionate, and that you voted a bunch. But you didn't vote 37 million times, as the official Rock Hall fan vote would have us believe.) This needs to be fixed before the next set of nominees is announced.

Common Sense - When choosing which band members to induct (or not induct at all, as in tonight's Steve Miller "sans Band" scenario), the committees apparently need to do more research, consult the bands, and use some common sense. In the case of Deep Purple, vocalist Rod Evans is being inducted, but bassist Nick Simper was excluded, which is confounding as they played on the same records and were in the band at the same time. Yet every drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers was inducted? Inconsistency at best.

Conflicts of Interest - The late Bert Berns is being given the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement tonight, an honor that is apparently determined not by voting but via the unilateral decision of a nomination committee. Steven Van Zandt and Paul Shaffer are producing a Broadway musical about Bert Berns, and they are both on such a committee. The red flags being raised here, justifiably so, are conflicts of interest, and the overarching sense that the Rock Hall insiders are just going to do whatever they want. Berts, a storied '60s producer, record man and songwriter, has accomplishments that have more than earned him this honor, but it's too bad his induction has this shadow of impropriety over it. 

In closing, the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten, upon learning of his band's induction, fired off a burning missive to the Hall in 1996, calling it a "piss stain." He added, "Your anonymous as judges but your still music industry people (sic)." Maybe Rotten's was among the first hearts and minds lost.

That doesn't mean the Rock Hall can't course-correct and win back those that still believe in a credible, well-executed, and balanced recognition of musical achievement. Fixing these issues isn't just the right thing to do; it may even secure the Rock Hall's long-term future.

April 7, 2016

Predictions: Song Performances at the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

Whatever your feelings on the Rock Hall, there's no denying the musical performances are always the highlight. The inducted artists, fresh from coronation and playing in front of peers and rock legends, always bring their "A" game. 

Typically each act gets about 3 songs to perform, but some acts get less. So which tunes will blow the roof off Barclays Center on Friday, April 8? Here are a some predictions (admittedly, many are kind of obvious), assuming 3 numbers per inducted act:

N.W.A. - Not performing, and wow, what a huge letdown. Per Ice Cube in the New York Times: "I guess we really didn't feel like we were supported enough to do the best show we could put on... We wanted to do it on a whole other level, and that just couldn't happen."

Chicago - "25 or 6 to 4" is rumored to be the climactic end of night all-star jam (according to Matt Wardlaw and his interview with Chicago's Robert Lamm - http://ultimateclassicrock.com/robert-lamm-chicago-interview-2016/ ) so if that's true, expect the balance to be 2 out of these 3:

"Saturday in the Park" / "If You Leave Me Now" / "You're the Inspiration"

Cheap TrickDamn, wouldn't "Surrender" make a terrific end of night jam though? (I am saying this out loud in Mike Damone's voice.) Expect that song in any case, along with "I Want You to Want Me." Then it's probably going to be "Dream Police" but that could be swapped out for "The Flame."

Deep Purple"Highway Star" / "Hush" / "Smoke on the Water"; however, if there's a shocking change of events and David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes miraculously get to perform, expect "Burn" as a swap-out with "Hush".

Steve Miller - "The Joker" / "Fly Like an Eagle" / "Rock'n Me" or "Abracadabra."

Bert Berns - Probably none for this late record man, unless his co-written 1961 classic "Twist and Shout" (he was credited as "Bert Russell") ends up being the end of night jam. But since that already was part of an all-star jam during 1988's gala, another song he had a hand in could simply be performed after his induction presentation, such as "Piece of My Heart."

April 5, 2016

Where Do We Go Now? '80s Hard Rock and Metal's Future in the Rock Hall

Is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ready to rock?! Well, that will be decided by committee. But with British hard rock legends Deep Purple about to be inducted this week in Brooklyn, it certainly opens the door for others in the genre. Who's next in the hard rock/metal world to get a Rock Hall nod, specifically acts that hit it big in the '80s? Call it hard rock, call it heavy metal, call it hair metal, call it pop metal... to quote Tesla, call it what you want. There are tons of acts carrying these labels that should now be a loud-and-proud part of the Rock Hall conversation, and justifiably so.

Bon Jovi is a major act that is in this mix. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're relevant to this discussion as they've actually been nominated (in 2010, but not inducted yet), so their chances are better than most. But hey, there are a lot of other artists that Warrant (sorry...) consideration as well. Guns N' Roses is the rare hard-edged band of the '80s era that has enjoyed an induction, and a first ballot one, at that. KISS got in 3 years ago, Deep Purple gets in last year: It's all good news for '80s hard rock and metal acts as far as their Rock Hall chances are concerned, as their predecessors are getting out of the way. But what are the odds? Who's likely to go in?
If you'll forgive the conceit, Bon Jovi songs are being used below as categories to forecast the likelihood of Rock Hall induction for a sampling of acts that either emerged or found great success in the '80s. The scale is most likely ("Wanted Dead or Alive"), somewhat likely ("Keep the Faith") and least likely ("Livin' on a Prayer"). 

Wanted Dead or Alive

Bon Jovi - Previously nominated, a truckload of hits. Just a matter of time. But will Jon and Richie mend fences before then for a proper induction performance? Come on guys, don't Cetera out on us.

Judas Priest - Yes, their first album dropped in 1974, but their major album successes came in the Reagan era with British Steel (1980) and especially Screaming for Vengeance (1982), and MTV videos were a factor in their visibility. Consistently mentioned alongside of Iron Maiden as a glaring Rock Hall snub, but the smart bet has them going in first, when they do go.

Iron Maiden - Try to imagine '80s heavy metal without them; it's tough. A heroic howler of a singer in Bruce Dickinson, undeniable musicianship, striking iconography, and they're still at it, putting out their latest album The Book of Souls in 2015. I think I speak for most metal fans when I say that seeing their mascot "Eddie" (no, not Trunk) sauntering onstage during a Rock Hall induction ceremony performance would be beyond killer. 
Mötley CrüeTheir flaming pentagram looms large over the '80s; deny their impact at your peril. People often forget that in the conservative, PMRC-scourged early-'80s, they once embodied darkness and danger, arguably as much so as the already-inducted Gun N' Roses. Shout at the Devil alone should get them into the Hall. 

Keep the Faith

ScorpionsNo question their legacy extends well before and after the 80s, as their debut came out in 1972. However, as with Priest, theres's no denying the '80s/MTV era and the Scorpions' place in it, as they had massive success with the albums Blackout (featuring the hit single "No One Like You") and especially Love at First Sting, featuring "Rock You Like a Hurricane". There were also the hits "Still Loving You" and the politically-conscious "Winds of Change." Finally, any band that can sell the lyric "An exploding shot of pleasure / Is what I have for you..." deserves at least a Spinal Tap award of some sort, if not a Rock Hall induction, both of which I would wholeheartedly support. The Scorpions are a worthy dark horse that should be looked at for the Hall; it's a shame they aren't talked about more, given their longevity, amazing live shows, and work ethic. This is the sting that belongs in the Rock Hall.

Def LeppardAmong the crop of bands in the "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" that even influenced Lars and Metallica, people often forget how raw and vital Def Leppard's early stuff was. High and Dry (1981) features knockout tracks like "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" and "Lady Strange." They went on to churn out an endless string of Mutt Lange-produced hits from their blockbuster efforts Pyromania and Hysteria, all of which seemingly had an accompanying MTV video. Bon Jovi, another juggernaut of this time period, will get in before them, but Def Leppard feels worthy of consideration too. Their drummer has one arm and still plays, for god's sake.

MotörheadThere's a hesitation to include these guys as they are timeless and transcend the '80s. Also, Lemmy was averse to labels, insisting they were not a heavy metal band, but just a "rock and roll band." Nevertheless, we're talking about the '80s, and Ace of Spades came out in 1980, and its title track is their signature song. They belong in the Hall, but one wonders if Lemmy's passing last December will now somehow delay their consideration. Being dead may help an artist's chances in the Hall, but at this point it would sort of seem cruel and insulting for the Rock Hall to induct them anytime soon, especially when they could have nominated them starting in 2002. 

Slayer Among the "Big 4 of Heavy Metal" (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax), Slayer, blood-soaked and ever mighty, would be the next logical act to stomp into the Hall, as Metallica is already in. They're legendary, uncompromising and are masters of the pummel-you-to-death thrash universe. Their fringe status, something that ideally the Rock Hall would value, is making them feel like a long shot at this point, but hopefully that won't be the case.

Dio - The fact that the late Ronnie James Dio was not inducted as part of Black Sabbath really puts weight behind the induction argument for his namesake band. Dio delivered some huge metal hits, landmark albums like Holy Diver and was possessed of a signature, highly influential voice that has been both celebrated and satirized. Metal is unthinkable without his contributions. Worst case, give him a Musical Excellence award for all of his career. And speaking of the Musical Excellence award...
Randy RhoadsTom Morello, a Rock Hall Nomination Committee member, is evidently pushing for the late Ozzy Osbourne guitar wizard to get the Musical Excellence Award. Rhoads is rightly revered as a guitarist, and played on such key Ozzy solo records as Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. This induction actually happening will be a key litmus test for two things: Morello's sway within the nomination process, and heavy metal's future in the Hall. 

Livin' on a Prayer

PoisonBret Michaels, C.C. DeVille, Rikki Rockett and Bobby Dall were hair metal (an eye-rolling pejorative as soon as Nirvana came around), wading neck-deep into the excesses of their genre aesthetically, musically, and lifestyle-wise. They had catchy songs, a "Behind the Music"-worthy history, and a number one hit, the power ballad "Every Rose Has its Thorn." They just won't ever be taken seriously by the Rock Hall. And maybe that's OK.

WhitesnakeIt's a total bummer that David Coverdale, inducted this week with Deep Purple, is apparently not going to be given a chance to sing his DP-era songs alongside bassist Glenn Hughes; this is most likely Coverdale's only dance at the Hall. As mega-popular as Whitesnake was in the 80s, they embodied hair metal and all the video vixen/power ballad fluff that went with it. They certainly don't have critics on their side, despite some well-produced, full-throttle records in their discography. (Also, if you look at the chart on Wikipedia as to the dozens of cats who have actually been members of Whitesnake, it's enough to make an entire Rock Hall Nomination Committee run screaming.)

MegadethAn important band in their genre, and Mustaine is a gifted guitarist and lyricist that's still putting out dazzling, whiplash-inducing albums. But Metallica, from whence Mustaine was sprung, is already inducted, and that's one reason it's difficult to see a path to a nomination. I'd love to be wrong.

AnthraxThrash done with style, virtuosity, and humor. They even teamed up with Public Enemy on a cover of "Bring the Noise." But in the larger picture of metal, their commercial success is spotty, and unfortunately, it doesn't feel like they'll get serious consideration.
Quiet RiotSome huge anthems in "Metal Health" and "Cum on Feel the Noize," and Rhandy Rhoads was an original member. Also, they sort of ushered in the whole hair metal era as their videos were a staple of MTV in 1983. But they're a bit heavy on the Slade covers, and success of Quiet Riot's ilk really doesn't translate to Rock Hall consideration; they simply lack the type of career that fits the Rock Hall paradigm.

Cinderella/Tesla/Skid RowAll far better groups than they have ever been given credit for, but the Rock Hall's acceptance of bands in this realm as inductee candidates looks very limited indeed. That's taking nothing away from all three's formidable hits, nor the notion that their albums have aged way better than anyone might have predicted. Not getting into the Rock Hall? Don't sweat it. You guys are in good company.