Black Day, Stormy Night

The timing was impeccable. Purple Rain, the movie. Summer of 1984.

I was 13 and freshly liberated from the 7th grade. Looking back now and having just turned 45, it was such an interesting age. The complexities of life were far, far away, waiting for me in what felt like another galaxy, but in some ways I didn’t realize, or perhaps wasn’t fully comprehending, some complexities of life happening right there in the house I slept in every night.

Regardless, I can’t profess to remembering exactly what my day-to-day thoughts were, but by the time Purple Rain hit theaters, the Prince train was locked on the tracks and reaching maximum speed, right smack at the same time I was blissfully ignorant, riding my bike all over the place, trying to remove myself from things at home, discovering girls, trying beer, attempting to act older……and probably desperate to be perceived as way cooler than I was (haha, that part probably still hasn’t changed).

I have my doubts that anyone at the age of 13 has their shit together. All I cared about was fitting in, being liked. Being cool.

Music was always my constant. Plenty of vinyl records around the house in the ’70s. I had gotten my fill of Meat Loaf, Queen, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, AC/DC and others. Most of my music discovery was from the albums my parents had, then MTV and Casey Kasum’s American Top 40. Every week.  I’d listen to the countdown and write down the Top 10 and pin it on my corkboard above the desk in my room. God, I wish I had some pictures of this.

princeI was 11 the first time I heard Prince. It was “Little Red Corvette” and you know what? I remember not being blown away. I leaned toward the harder rock, but I do remember also not hating that song.

“1999,” though, was another story. Here was a song that was pretty much impossible not to like, with it’s dreamy synth, three singers, lyrics about judgement day, bombs, parties and much more. To this day, I love songs with multiple singers and this one had three. “1999” is a timeless classic that I put on and blast several times a year in the car.

But the song that still gets me to this day is “Delirious.” That funky, catchy synth line and the groove. Infectious. The baby at the end is a deft touch.

princePurple Rain, though. Goodness. I wonder how well Purple Rain would have done without the movie? MTV was arguably at their peak in 1984. They still played music and nothing else. I can leave it to better writers to explain the impact that MTV had. For me, it was capital H huge.

Image was everything and here we have Prince who, instead of just doing a single music video for 2 or 3 songs, essentially makes a 90 minute music video for the whole damn album! And he’s all frilly, almost feminine in voice at times, short, quiet, weird and….purple.

Yet, there was no question about the hetero thing with Prince. Dude clearly liked girls. Unlike Michael Jackson, whose voice was just a shade higher. That automatically put Jackson in the bucket of “hmmmm…..” amongst my friends and many others. Remember, we’re going into 8th grade, ok? That one octave of voice made it totally NOT cool among the boys to like Michael. Did I like it at home? Yep.

But Prince. Prince was all man.  Groove, guitars and sex. Even if he didn’t look like it.
princeMichael Jackson needed to bring in Eddie Van Halen for rock songs. Prince PLAYED guitar. SLAYED guitar! Jackson did the Thriller video with a clean cut, cute girl. Prince made Apollonia strip down and purify herself in Lake Minnetonka. And only after that happened did he tell her that the lake she happened to be standing in wasn’t actually Lake Minnetonka. Bad ass!

Michael Jackson was Lancaster MA. Prince was Worcester. You locals reading this totally get that, right?

purplerain_3As a 7th grader, I connected with it all – the music, the movie, the girls, the images and the hetero-ness of it all. Puberty! In full force. Guitars, strife at home, great songs, Morris Day as the bad guy, Prince at his apartment with all those weird figurines, candles and instruments everywhere. And being able to HOOK UP there! I specifically remember thinking that THAT was how I wanted my apartment to look when I was older. Hah! So young, so impressionable.

The years, as we know now, absolutely fly by. Prince became hit-or-miss. “Raspberry Beret” was sweet. “Kiss” was an anthem. “U Got the Look” was unbeatable. But one of my favorite songs was a song that never really hit airwaves. Listen to “The Cross” from Sign O’ The Times. This was Prince as he transitioned to an overly religious phase.  The Indian-tinged song was an emotional, beautiful song. It remains one of my favorites today. The NPG stuff was rock and roll. “Cream,” “Seven” and “Sexy Motherfucker” were all keepers. But this, you need to watch this. What else can be said? Nothing.

And so, much like a lot of the other stratosphere superstars, he got weird. The symbol thing. The Artist Formerly Known As. “Slave” on his face. The almost total opposition to streaming and the internet, and policing YouTube. Prince was not an internet guy, sadly. I hope that changes, because I need to build a long Spotify playlist. But I have plenty of his music digitally ripped from my own CD collection. So I’m good.

The one thing that remained consistent, even through the uneven weird years – there was always a good song coming out. Even 2013’s “Screwdriver” was a freaking jam! Go listen to it and tell me he wasn’t relevant musically.

4692157My last point. I ruminate sometimes about the bands I loved who I never got to see. Bands like REM. I didn’t miss the boat with Prince. I saw him at TD Garden in 2004, center stage, in the round. I’m not saying this because he’s dead now, I promise – it was easily one of the Top 3 shows I’ve ever seen. Just unreal. The complete showman. 33 songs. Covers. New songs. Classics. The works. The set list is right here.

His death was a little surprising. That it appears to be drug-related might end up being good, in an odd way. Do we need something like this to really drive home the point about how bad this opoid thing is getting? Maybe we do.

It’s kind of touching to see how emotional so many people were – and remain – about this. Even the blowback on Bowie’s death wasn’t this epic, this large. I believe it speaks to the respect that so many had for his all-around talent.

I still have his music, like I’ve always had. I will still play it a lot. I didn’t know him, so it’s hard to miss him, you know what I mean? It just feels like another small piece of the cement that’s been my life so far has been chipped away. Another reminder that time passes. But boy, do we have a wealth of goodies to hold onto.

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One of These Things IS Like the Other

I play hockey at 6:30am every Thursday and Friday. Other than being great exercise, I do it because the rink is literally 3 minutes away from home and I am now getting to the age where playing hockey at night until 12am doesn’t work with my schedule.

Man, I wish I could pull off this look.
Man, I wish I could pull off this look.

This morning I got into my car, flipped on the radio and heard that Scott Weiland had died. This, of course, should not come as a shock. If anything, I’m surprised he lasted to 48. Did you know that news organizations and newspapers prepare and write obituaries well in advance of certain people dying? Maybe it’s a little macabre, but it totally makes sense – why scramble and run around when you know the odds? Be proactive, not reactive, right?

Pre-writing obits is not as obvious for businesses as it is for human beings, though. I suppose if you comb through enough blogs you’ll get all the prognostications you’ll ever need (and some you don’t need), but these things are harder to predict.

Which brings me to Yahoo. Ouch. I’ve had their pre-obituary written for about 7 years now. This is a company whose market value is $33.7 billion dollars. BILLION! Their CEO is foundering, although who can really blame her – she took on the role when it was already a dead-man-walking. I don’t blame her for Yahoo’s troubles, I question her decision-making in taking the role in the first place. Bad move. But she has twins, so we have that in common.

Anyway, back to the $33 billion. That’s a lot of cake. But take out the 15% stake in Alibaba (China) and Yahoo’s overall cash position, the company is a smoldering wreck. Alibaba’s market value is $32 billion! You do the math. I’m not going to over analyze it, but I know one thing, whoever takes on the CEO position at Yahoo is another person with bad decision-making traits.

Scott Weiland and Yahoo. See what I did there? Two entities who certainly require an obit before the actual death. Weiland got there first, but Yahoo is probably more deserving. This isn’t 1999.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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