I’m Ready for the Laughing Gas

I recently got back from a family trip to Hawaii.

(Editors note: Back when I wrote on this page more regularly, my next sentence in this post would have been “but that’s a blog post for another time” or something like that. But let’s face it – at my current pace of roughly two posts per decade, there’s little chance you’ll get a Hawaii post out of me).

Anyway, while I was in Hawaii, I still tried to keep up with news back home on my IPad via my Boston Globe subscription. To give you an indication of a) just how much less attention I pay to music than before and b) how much U2 has fallen off my map in the last 5-7 years, I had NO idea that U2 booked four nights at the TD Garden, with all four performances occurring while I was gone. I am not entirely sure I would have gotten tickets, but I thought it a little strange that I hadn’t even heard of the shows.

By my best recollection, the last time I saw U2 would have been around 1992. It’s safe to say that back then, they were IT for me and many others. I think I may have seen them 4-5 times on the Achtung Baby tour alone and can clearly remember shows in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Foxborough and New York City. I love SetList.FM!

Anyway, it got me thinking about U2 again and while rock radio ruined them for me by pounding all their Top 10 songs all over the radio for years, there’s still so many very very good songs that the radio doesn’t play. So I had an idea to construct a Spotify playlist of all my favorite U2 songs that did NOT chart above #50 in the US Billboard Charts. What I found was that there are 17 songs that I can go back to again and again and probably never get sick of. These are songs that you will likely never hear on the radio, either. Bonus!

I can split the playlist into era’s for myself, because that is fun to do if you’re a music nerd. So I’m gonna do it. It won’t be that painful for you and if you know me well enough, your name might even be in here.

The Middle School Era (1982-1985):

As a middle school boy, I hadn’t really cemented myself as a deep music fan, but the foundation was there. I had a deep appreciation for Led Zeppelin – and not just the hits that everyone else knew. I also liked deep Def Leppard cuts, AC/DC and upon looking through my 6th grade notebook recently, discovered that I also liked The Firm and Journey quite a bit.

Songs from this era on the Playlist:

  • Like A Song – oh, the urgency and liberation of being young and untouchable.
  • Seconds – one of my favorite U2 songs ever, I think about nuclear weapons. Takes a second to say goodbye!
  • 40 – they got it from the Bible. Really. A mellow, lovely tune.
  • Surrender – another of my all time U2 faves. Vaguely referencing suicide, prostitution and attempting normalcy.
  • A Sort of Homecoming – a warmer vibe here, but that moment in the song when he sings “…and we live by the side of the road, on a side of a hill…..as the valley explodes!” — you just know that this band is a beast. Emotional, brilliant, beautiful. So much going on in this song.
  • The Unforgettable Fire – another rich, emotional beauty of a song. Listen closely for Larry Mullen’s “shit” near the beginning as he struggles to get in time. Love it.
  • Wire – could be my favorite U2 song of all time. I think it’s about drug use, but I can’t be sure. That’s how I interpret it, anyway. A frantic, dark, rock and roll song that stays with you. Ends with “I’m no dope, I give you hope, here’s the rope, here’s the rope, now…swing away…..” This is KILLER!

But I didn’t know ANY of these songs back then! All I really remember about U2 back then was “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” their first real radio breakthrough from the War album. I sure liked the song, but they were pretty new and I wasn’t going deep with them.  I also have a very specific memory of sitting in my room one day, being afraid of Hurricane Gloria in 1982 and listening to their song “Gloria” repeatedly. Why does that stick in my head?

The Unforgettable Fire came next, in 1984 and that was another step forward in terms of my exposure. Like many other people, I gained a huge amount of respect for them after Live Aid’s killer performances from that record. I still wasn’t ALL in on U2 then, but “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Bad” were two songs I really liked. It wouldn’t come to me until much later how strong this album was from front-to-back. Dear Lord, it’s a near-masterpiece. I didn’t really get it, though, until the early ’90s.

The High School Years (1985-1989)

OK, this is when U2 went totally bananas. Everyone LOVED them! My specific memories during high school are of three people who were always pushing me to listen more. Thank you Josh Harmon, Karen Skinner and my high school girlfriend Paula. Karen sat behind me, I think it was Spanish II class. She was a year ahead of me and I remember her really pushing me hard to listen to more than just the hits. Truth is I’ve never, ever liked “With or Without You” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” But the rest of that album is on the money, honey. Big time. Karen was right. Josh was just a U2 fanatic and also had an influence.

Songs from this era on the Playlist:

  • Exit –  a man plunges into darkness. Maybe their most depressing song ever. But compelling as hell.
  • Running to Stand Still –  another story about the ravages of drug addiction, but beautiful nonetheless.
  • Red Hill Mining Town – likely my 2nd favorite U2 song ever. Crazy highs and low lows. They’ve never really performed this live because they discovered that Bono couldn’t hit those high notes quite enough. This makes me so sad, because if I saw it live it would probably make me cry. It’s about miners and the effect of their job on their families. The moment when Bono screams “Hanging on! You’re all that left to hold on to” is maybe my favorite moment in the bands whole catalog.
  • Van Dieman’s Land – So many people were turned off by Rattle & Hum, but there’s a lot to like here and this is one of them. A dark, simple song sung by The Edge. Always has stuck with me.
  • Hawkmoon 269 – Another one of those quiet tunes that hits some frantic highs.
  • God Part II – Most certainly not their strongest work, but I’m still a sucker for a memorable song with good rock guitar and lyrics that reference other famous musicians.

The College Years (1989-1993)

This is where it peaks for me. Achtung Baby came out and I about went berzerk for U2. Lots of people didn’t appreciate (or maybe understand) U2’s change in direction, but I LOVED it. I didn’t mind the serious U2 of the ’80s, but I LOVED the whole approach in the ’90s of the band spitting irony of the mass media and creating characters to mock it (the whole FLY thing). But that was just the sideshow. The MUSIC on Achtung Baby, to me, was their peak. Adventurous, a little more rocking, richer and a little less preachy……and catchy as hell. This is also the last album by them that I loved. Really, my admiration was over the top, probably.

A year or two later, they unleashed Zooropa and that had a few gems, but it was the beginning of the end of my adulation for U2. Ever since then, it’s been 10% hit and 90% miss. But that sweet spot from 1982-1992 is one I don’t think any band will ever accomplish again.

Songs from this era on the Playlist:

  • Zoo Station – if only for the distorted, rocking guitar intro. It was the opener on the Achtung Baby tour for all those shows I saw. And it’s awesome.
  • So Cruel – maybe one of their most beautiful songs to listen to.
  • Zooropa – the last song I really loved by this band. An atmospheric rock song that would have (and should have) fit perfectly on Achtung Baby and it’s a song that I have never gotten tired of, even after 20 years. Super cool chorus, awesome vocals, great mix and just a  beauty. If you haven’t given this song a chance in a while, you really should.
  • Wild Honey – From the “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” album. I liked this album. But it didn’t destroy me like Achtung Baby did. This song is a nice, acoustic-based rock song with a great hook.

So there you have it. When I post to the blog, I go big. I’d love to say it won’t take me three years to post again, but who knows. Playlist below. This is basically the set list I would hand them for a live show if it were up to me. Gosh, I would pay a LOT to see them do this set:

Are You Serious?

Whew. You know when you walk somewhere you haven’t been in a few days and you end up going straight through a spider web and it ends up in your face and hair? That’s what this feels like right now. My arms flail for a split-second and I’m trying to feel around to get rid of the web that’s in my mouth and hair. Hello blog! Cobwebby and dusty in here. Plah.

The last time I posted here was a day or two after the Bruins cup parade. That was, oh, a year and five months ago. What could have possibly gotten me to come here and wax on? Well, I attended my very first house concert tonight. I thought it was meaningful enough on a few levels to have to get everything down on (e)paper while I still smelled like incense. Right?

Now, what could have possibly gotten me out of my home and to a house concert, you ask? Well, a couple of things:

1) It was Michael Tarbox playing. If you’re musical nerdy enough, you know him as the lead guitar/singer for the Tarbox Ramblers, an outfit who owned a lot of my Friday nights from, oh, 1996-1999 at The Burren in Somerville during those few golden years when I was working at Rounder Records, broke and not knowing any different. They pretty much owned the place once a week, playing to an absolutely packed house of people who just loved them, myself among them.

I am doing my best to keep things short here, but the Ramblers came along at a time in my life that was rather serendipitous. I had just come off of a 7 week drive around the country with a college friend. Neither of us had been particularly enamored of our corporate post-college jobs, so we both quit, got in the car and literally had no plan. We just drove. And drove. That’s a topic for another post. Maybe in another year-and-a-half. Upon my return, I had to take stock in what I wanted to do and I ended up in the warehouse at Rounder Records, which started a slippery slope in the record business that ended up with myself running my own little record label. Again, story for another time. Or just search the blog here, I’m sure you’ll find some stuff.

Anyhow, during that road trip myself and my friend were exploring the country and popping in all kinds of music, including an awesome collection of old 1930’s and 1940’s traditional blues standards, one of which was a song called “Stu-Ball” that we had taken a particular liking to, so much so that we kept playing it and shouting the lyrics out loud. To be 23 and that free again, right? I do actually have us doing this on video.

Fast-forward to my first Tarbox Ramblers show. The Burren, Somerville. Probably sometime in ’96. They play their first song and I’m just lost in their genius. I mean these guys are for REAL! After the first song, I tell my friend John Cain that these guys would absolutely CRUSH “Stu-Ball” and I proceed to tell him about this lost blues standard we repeatedly played in the car just months earlier. If only they knew it, I remember thinking……if only. Next song by them, I shit you not – Stu-Ball. Right then and there I knew I had found something special. And for years they remained that way to me and I got to know their singer/guitar player relatively well, who is just such a good soul and a great talent. At some point, the label I was working for signed them, too, so that whole era can arguably be defined by their sound.  Their songs just take me right back to the Burren. Every time. Glorious, fun, liberating, drunken nights. So, let’s call it 17 years later – a house concert with Michael Tarbox? I’m there!

2)  Said house concert is in the town I grew up in. Weirdness. I’ve probably been back to Lancaster, MA three times in the last ten years. My family is moved out. Gone. As many of you may know, there’s not much there. I’m a half-hour east now, closer to Boston and too busy to ever need to be in Lancaster for any reason. So why not go!? I’ve never been to a house concert. What the hell? You go to someone’s house? And they allow you inside? And a band plays? Well, yes. That’s pretty much how it works. In this case, it’s actually Michael’s sister’s house and it’s a place I drove by every weekday on the bus on my way to school for many years. Big old beautiful (and I mean beautiful) Victorian on Main Street in Lancaster.

It’s a pot luck. I ate dinner with my family, but I get there and the scene is rather festive. I know NOBODY. A lifelong friend from school days will join me later, but I’ve got a half-hour on my own. Of course, I see Michael, we have a hug and proceed to catch up. Such a good guy. He shuffles off and I end up talking to the opener, whose name I unfortunately forget but I will probably always remember the conversation we had. He’s probably 50. Clearly a music fan like me and we have some small talk and I ask him how long he’s been playing music. A year and a half! Shit! Are you kidding? He was like me – a devoted fan of music and one day he just wanted to try playing it, so he picked up the guitar and just started. Now he plays out, writes songs and is……just doing something he always wanted to do. Special.

Such an interesting path we all take. I don’t have even close to the balls it takes to perform music in front of people. That is horrifying to me. I would piss myself. Yet I’m the first guy shouting songs in the car and going all air-guitar at home when nobody is watching. I’m perfectly happy doing what I do on a daily basis. In fact, professionally it’s pretty awesome. But I love hearing stories and talking to people who just take that left-turn. Inspiring.

My friend shows up. We both quietly laugh at the situation because both of us grew up here, he delivered newspapers here as a boy – and it’s all just kind of surreal. I’ve got worlds colliding, neither of us know really anyone, there’s all kinds of amazing food and this house is just unreal.

…..and then Tarbox starts. And in some ways, nothing has changed. He’s still got it, I never doubted that. The people, older, are absolutely all over the place dancing and having a ball. It’s sweet, really. I just stand there with my friend and take it all in. As I look around the room, I’m trying to figure out if I know that person? He looks familiar! She looks like someone, I swear it! Could it be her? No!

I listen to the great songs and occasionally think back to a completely different era in my life. It’s almost just like The Burren (or middle school?) except we’re all older and I’m geographically in the place where I was from age 4-17. What the what?

Either way, it was so pleasant to see the age variance – people from age 4 to 65 – dancing, forgetting about life and enjoying themselves. So I like house concerts. Maybe I’ll go to more. My first one was pretty special. Here’s a little footage:

See you in 17 months? I really hope it’s sooner than that.

Take Two

Given how sad I was that the Keith Richards book had to end, I thought I’d catch lightning in a bottle with famous English guitar players, so I dove headlong into “Clapton – The Autobiography.” Now, this is the second consecutive book I’ve read about English guitarists I’ve never really cared for, so I guess I thought if the Richards book was that good, than the Clapton book must also be, at the very least, interesting.

It’s funny, because I really can’t stand Eric Clapton’s music. I hate his voice. I dislike his version of the blues. If I want to hear blues, I’ll listen to the original guys. Now, I’m not saying Clapton isn’t a good guitar player. It would be ridiculous, in fact, to say he isn’t. I also can’t say I hate ALL his songs. But I do hate 95% of them. There are 2-3 Derek & The Dominoes songs I like. A sprinkling of Cream songs as well. Okay, two Cream songs. Maybe 2 Blind Faith songs, thanks to Winwood (another guy I’m not a fan of, which probably means I’ll be reading his biography soon, I wonder if he has one?) Anyway, other than “Let It Rain,” I simply hate ALL Clapton’s solo stuff. I mean it. All of it. I just thought, given his history, the book might be entertaining.

Well, it wasn’t entertaining. Clapton seems like an ass. He seemed like a grade-A ass when he was a drunk, a grade-A ass when he was a junkie and now, sober, I’ll cut him some slack and say he seems like a grade-B or maybe grade-C ass today. He’s history is one of being horribly demeaning to women.  His faithfulness to bands (and women) is laughable. He’s also a bad writer (of books). One of the biggest reasons I was interested to read his story was to hopefully get a logical explanation of why he jumped from band to band. I mean, for the most part, he was one-album-and-done with bands. His explanations for this were weak and pithy. He seems like a guy who just blamed everyone else for everything except himself – and he was a disaster. He doesn’t seem to respect fellow musicians very much, either, though I did find it amusing that he did seem to respect Keith Richards, who sent him a nice note after Clapton’s four year old son Conor fell out the window.

That’s the other thing – the Conor story. Heartbreaking, of course. I guess I always thought Clapton had cleaned himself up by then, but he was a disaster at that point as well. He was never there for that kid. Barely knew him, really. “Tears in Heaven” wasn’t written solely for Conor, though the song was borne from that tragedy, Clapton said the song was really written about all the people in his family who he wondered if he’d ever see again. I guess I always thought Clapton, like all those other musicians from that era, cleaned up and turned it around in the ’80s, but he didn’t.

Anyway, major disappointment. My one satisfying moment in the book was towards the end, where Clapton basically admits he’s a miserable curmudgeon. So at least he knows it.

Well, what’s the very best way to put an end to my “streak” of reading about legendary English guitarists that I don’t particularly like? READ ANOTHER ONE! That’s right! I’m now about 4 chapters deep into the Ronnie Wood biography. See, the difference here is that I LIKE Ronnie Wood quite a bit because he’s a character. I don’t mind his guitar work, but he’s not somebody I fawn over musically. You just know he’s a fun guy. I didn’t even have to think about the idea of not liking a book written by Wood, given his history. The book probably wrote itself. So far it’s a riot. I’ll post a more detailed review when I’m done, but I’ve already laughed out loud at a few stories, particularly the ones of his days touring around with Rod Stewart. Hilarious stuff. I don’t think I laughed once while reading the Clapton book.

So there you have it. My old English guitarist update.

Like A Complete Unknown


There was a period of time in my life when I was pretty convinced that The Rolling Stones were, in fact, the greatest rock and roll band of all time. I don’t really believe that anymore, although I do testify to their talent and general greatness. The problem is that the classic rock radio stations have completely ruined them for me, by endlessly pounding the same songs into my head. I know there’s thousands of other Rolling Stones songs I could be enjoying other than the 5 that get repeated constantly, but for some reason the radio has ruined the band for me. Don’t get me wrong, the occasional “Memo From Turner” or “Sister Morphine” have to pass through my ear-stream now and then, but I haven’t listened to them in any meaningful way for probably 10-15 years now.

I also have always been so-so on Keith Richards. I think he’s funny. A cartoon, in fact.  Obviously he’s talented. I think given he’s still alive, I can pretty much do whatever I want to my own body and I will survive it. So I appreciate him being the ultimate guinea pig for humankind. But I was never into his voice much. It’s an acquired taste, as they say and I’ve never acquired it.

So why did I buy his book? How can you not!? It’s Keith Richards, for god’s sake! I believe it’s the first actual Rolling Stone to pen a bio. If you’ve been a fan at all during your lifetime, and I have, it’s gotta interest you. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting much. What I got was a well-written, insanely interesting, heartfelt biography and maybe one of the best music books I’ve ever read. I have to give Richards credit – he’s a smarter, deeper, more serious and more interesting person that I could have ever imagined. Certainly rough around the edges – and he admits as much via his stories. He carries knives and guns and has used them more than once.

He also doesn’t dance around the drug use. It was bad. I would have never guessed he’s been clean for 30 years, but that’s his claim and I now believe him. The most amusing part of the drug use is his assertion that he never overdid it (i.e., overdosed). He was never the guy who tried to get higher and higher, because that’s how you die. He was the guy who did it to feel good and after a certain amount of time, to maintain. He called it maintenance. But of course, he overdid it.

Anyway, I don’t want to give away any of the book. I can tell you that by the end, I was DYING for more and insanely sad it was over. It’s that’s good. And when I say it’s that’s good, I mean it – and I ONLY read biographies. You must read it.

So I went back and listened to some of his solo stuff, x-pensive winos, vocals on his Stones song. Thought the book might inspire me to appreciate it more. Still not working for me, but maybe I’ll try a little harder.

Milton Mapes

This Could Be Any Band (It's Really Milton Mapes)

Everybody has their secrets. I think at least half the people I know feel like they know about a band that NO ONE else does. Admittedly, that’s a really cool feeling. Even if it’s just one person next to you in the car and you can play some new music for them, you feel like the tastemaker. Of course, the old adage about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure is so true. I’d imagine that for as many times I’ve been the guinea pig for someone else’s secret, I’ve been the one wearing the lab coat. And when I hear someone else’s obsession, sometimes it hits and sometimes it doesn’t. Much the same way for when I try to turn someone on to something. Earlier this year I turned someone on to Anders Parker. What a thrill that was.

And I’ll never stop trying. Not because I’m trying to be the tastemaker, either. My younger days of craving attention and praise for being the tastemaker are long over. I took that about as far as one could take it, when I really think about it. I started a damn record label! Talk about young, naive and maybe stupid, though that era of my life, call it 1994-1999, was one of tremendous, unadulterated, GREAT fun. Strangely enough, it was also the time in my professional life when I made the least money. That fact probably deserves more exploration, but let’s table that one for now.

Anyway, the reason I’ll never stop talking about music and obscure bands to anyone who will listen to me is because I truly believe (and it’s not hard to prove, really) that there is music out there that just needs to be heard. That deserves to be heard. That should be heard. Just because a person or a band didn’t “make it” doesn’t mean they didn’t (or don’t) make meaningful, powerful music. Anders Parker, for example. By the way, don’t think I’m some obscure music junkie. I can completely appreciate a good pop song that hits Billboard, too. Look no further than Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” or even that Katy Perry song “California Girls.” Seriously. It may not be credible, hip indie rock, but those are well-crafted, memorable songs. Lily Allen’s “Smile.” There’s many.

But then I think about Milton Mapes, a band that no one has heard of, really. Most of their music was released from 1999-2005. I think they’re still together, but not sure, as they also perform as a band called The Monahans now. I don’t have time to keep up anymore, really. But Milton Mapes put out a record back then called “The Blacklight Trap” that just grabbed me, for whatever reason. And ever since I got my IPod in 2002 or whenever it was, there are two songs from that album that have never left my IPod. NEVER. And I mean that. Songs come and go from my IPod because I am constantly changing it. These two songs have been there EIGHT YEARS. I can’t explain why, only that I feel some kind of connection there. Obviously. So I want you to hear it. If you don’t like it, hey, that’s fine. But if you do, I hope you love it enough to keep it on your MP3 player for years.

People of Facebook, go here to hear the music.

Milton Mapes, “Waiting For Love To Fail”

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Milton Mapes, “In The Corner Where It All Began”

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