Archive for June, 2008

George Carlin (1937–2008): The Rock Era’s Standup Comic

Posted in Uncategorized on June 25, 2008 by pulmyears

I know this space is designated as a “music” blog, but I had to say a few words about the death this weekend of George Carlin.

I have thought about this for a few days and I can honestly say that a music blog may be an entirely appropriate place to eulogize Carlin, who was, after all, the definitive comedian of the FM radio rock revolution. Like a lot of rock stars, Carlin started out learning the craft as a short haired, suit-wearing nice young man. The Beatles wore suits in 1963 as well, and like the Fab Four, Carlin reacted to the rise of the counter culture of the late 60’s by growing out his hair (in his case, losing the Brylcreem™ and sporting a groovy pony tail) and shedding the suits in lieu of hippie threads and jeans. But also like the best rock bands of the late 60’s, and the 70’s, Carlin came back with new ways to scare your parents. He was socially challenging, even if he was sometimes just plain silly, and a huge college audience began doing something that they hadn’t been doing since the early days of Newhart and Cosby; they bought comedy albums. By the truckload. Only this time, the comedy albums were benefitting from the emerging rise of commercial and free-form Rock FM stations. He got airplay. Kids packed into rock concert halls to hear, of all things, a man telling jokes. Smart jokes. Totally juvenile jokes. Goofy voices. Parodies of radio jocks (he was a disc jockey himself, early on). Everybody in my suburban Toronto neighborhood had the albums,

MY FIRST FOUR CARLIN ALBUMS: FM & AM, Class Clown, Occupation Foole and Toledo Window Box.

The older kids would roll joints on the cardboard sleeves. Me and my younger friends, would save our allowance to go buy these sacred and profane discs and play them when our parents were out. Especially during the summer holidays when we were at home alone with complete command of the family stereo. Like most juvenile boys, we memorized these routines word for word. Al Sleet; the hippy dippy weather man, Welcome To My Job, and the one you’ve been hearing so much about these last few days – Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.

Mr. Headliner: Carlin Courts Court Controversy

We didn’t have Lenny Bruce, who was dead in 1966, before I had a chance to hear him and whom I later recognized as the real innovator of this stuff, so we had to settle for Carlin, making jokes about the power of words, impacted me and my brothers at a time when we were learning say, which words would likely get us sent away from the dinner table.

** INTERESTING “FACT”: According to Wikipedia, and you may want to check this for veracity, Carlin was arrested as an audience member at a December, 1962 Lenny Bruce show at the Gate of Horn in Chicago, when he refused to show identification when the police raided the show and arrested Bruce for obscenity. According to legend, Carlin was placed in the back of the same paddywagon, sitting right beside his mentor.

Carlin was an essential element in Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, where he joined Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget, Drew Carey, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Robin Williams, Phyllis Diller, Jon Stewart, Bob Saget, Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Idle, Don Rickles, and Chris Rock telling the world’s oldest, dirtiest joke.

Writing in the Georgia Straight I praised “the censor-defying Carlin — who carried the torch for his own hero, Lenny Bruce, in the ’70s–who is best-suited to explain not just the joke but shock humour in general. With his greying beard and wizened brow, Carlin lends the proceedings all the credibility of a university credit course.

Carlin would not have liked me to lie about this, so I’ll admit that there were times over the last few years where I’d start to watch one of his old HBO specials and couldn’t get into it. At such times, the funny voices felt predictable, the rants sometimes seemed professionally angry or the topics du jour seemed dated. But most of the time, I viewed him the way I view Led Zeppelin or Jeff Beck. Aging reminders of a time when breaking all the rules and discovering new ideas was celebrated by groups of friends on hot summer days when our parents were at work.

George Carlin was too smart to die young, but mentally much too young to die now.


Another nice review for It Ain’t Easy

Posted in Uncategorized on June 20, 2008 by pulmyears

No sooner than I had posted the Downbeat review, our friend John F Peters in San Diego sent me this great review of my book IT AIN’T EASY: LONG JOHN BALDRY AND THE BIRTH OF THE BRITISH BLUES from the April -May issue of the very cool Blues Revue magazine. Click on it to enlarge and read. Thanks.

Downbeat gives It Ain’t Easy an upbeat review!

Posted in Uncategorized on June 18, 2008 by pulmyears

Hey, I almost forgot to mention that the Jazz and Blues “bible” DOWNBEAT gave my book IT AIN’T EASY: LONG JOHN BALDRY AND THE BIRTH OF THE BRITISH BLUES a great review in their July 2008 issue.

Here’s the lowdown on the Downbeat:

By the way the book is NOW IN PAPERBACK! And it makes a great summer read or as a way of remembrance of Baldry’s passing on July 21st 2005. Or you could get one for back to school. Or Halloween. Or Canadian and U.S. Thanksgiving.

Dweezil’s Ripped My Flesh!

Posted in Uncategorized on June 17, 2008 by pulmyears

The other night, PBS was screening the live DVD, Zappa Plays Zappa.

The SG doesn’t fall too far from the tree…

(Frank left, Dweezil right.)

I had DVR’d it so I could fast forward through the pledge drive parts – am I bad? Anyway, I was really curious about this show because I had missed the tour and had been told that the presentation was awesome and that as a musician, I would be impressed. The verdict was: WOW. (FYI I realize that if a jury had just said WOW in, say, a murder trial then we would probably have grounds for a mistrial, but in rock critique circles Wow is a winning verdict. So WOW your honor! Wow!.

Zappa Plays Zappa is the ensemble touring show put together by Dweezil Zappa, son of the late, great Frank Zappa. Frank was a man who defied easy categorization. He was a rock and R&B band leader but with a 20th century Avant Garde composer’s heart. He was one of the smartest most intelligent social commentators America has ever produced and yet he also wrote songs like “Jewish Princess” or “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”. He was so out there musically that he should have been European, and yet he was so AMERICAN in his vision and sound that I often think of him as the next logical step up from George Gershwin (who similarly married African American blues idioms to large scale European symphonic pieces) And of course, Zappa famously wrote a teenage “fan letter” to composer Edgar Varese. I found it fitting and touching that it was Father’s Day when I tuned in to watch Dweezil put new flesh to the music of his father. What separates this “son takes on spirit of the father” trip from say Frank Sinatra Jr (or Hamlet) is the amount of sheer dedication on the part of Dweezil to wear his father’s prodigious size nines. As Dweezil explains to the packed and appreciative house in the DVD, he took two years to study his dad’s complex musical scores and refine his own rather prodigious guitar skills to master the master’s tone – squawk for squawk. And then he assembled a blend of new musicians who would have passed Dad’s rigorous standards and a bunch of folks like Napoleon Murphy Brock, Steve Vai and Terry Bozzio – who actually had passed the audition back in the day. (Vai famously sent Frank scores of self-transcribed Zappa guitar solos to show how well he had mastered FZ’s melodic blueprint, he was hired shortly after).

Here’s a clip of Zappa’s “Peaches En Regalia” (feat. Steve Vai) from the ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA DVD.

Here’s a confession: I sometimes wince at the thought of prog rock muscularity and noodling, even though on a technical ecstasy level, or perhaps an Olympian athlete level, I get it. But I think the problem has been that, most of the time — and I’m looking at you Kansas — there’s a sense that muso bands are trying too hard to create sound and fury signifying nothing. I sometimes call it “drum clinic” music – as parodied by Fred Armisen in his Jens Hannemann “Complicated Drumming Technique” – but you can substitute “bass clinic”, “synthesizer clinic” or “guitar clinic” where applicable.

But here’s where Frank Zappa, in my opinion, was different. Just as Lenny Bruce was the first to say something about the nature of decency and language while George Carlin wasn’t first, although he took it farther and longer than Bruce, Zappa’s complexity was the source and he was always in service of pushing forward the overall shape of music rather than just about “showing off”. Ironically, if you can play this stuff – and I’m going to fold and say I don’t really think I could – you can’t help but show off.

If you’d never heard Frank, Dweezil would seem like a fresh, original and jawdroppingly great guitarist. Yet, even knowing the original, I still think you’ve got to give it up for Dweezil. The band is fantastic and the music has not been matched or surpassed since Zappa wrote it all. There are times when it sounds like the F word, FUSION, but there are just as many moments where it resembles that other, more desirable F word, FUNKADELIC. That’s probably the biggest variant on your standard prog rock show off trip, this stuff GROOVES. Sometimes eight different grooves in one “song”. Lyrically, this DVD had a couple of poignant moments that are still as true or truer than when Frank wrote them over thirty years ago. “I Am The Slime”, a scathing call out to television’s unchecked power to trivialize and cheapen our intellectual discourse is still relevant in different way (he was only speaking about TV but maybe he would write something similar about YouTube) and finally as Napoleon Murphy Brock sings “The Torture Never Stops” – you gotta wonder what Papa Frank would have written about the national debate, or lack of it, about Waterboarding and “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques”.

We’re witnessing the third and fourth generations of the rock icons. Jakob Dylan, kinda looks like his father Bob (although he sounds more like Bruce Springsteen) Dhani Harrison looks exactly like his father George (but sounds only vaguely like his dad, in a post punk way) but Dweezil (who would look exactly like his dad if he grew the moustache and goatee) SOUNDS exactly like his dad. And that’s a good thing, I think. He’s doing something we’ve never really seen before (or have we? let me know) He’s keeping the family business alive – in 9/8 time.


The Last Sleeveface Challenge

Posted in Uncategorized on June 11, 2008 by pulmyears

Okay, I admit that I only heard about sleevefacing like a couple of months ago. If you don’t know, and I think that’s a small club by now, Sleevefacing is a current craze flourishing on Myspace (and Facebook etc) wherein one holds the 12 x 12 inch cardboard vinyl album sleeve over their head or face, creating some often fascinating results.

There’s already a book coming out and more than one website. Here’s a sleeveface with John Coltrane in it (from the Sleevefacing site):

credit: Wilma Hurskainen / Martti Mela (found on

The Sleeveface site gives the following official definition: One or more persons obscuring or augmenting any part of their body or bodies with record sleeve(s) causing an illusion

According to an article on BBC News website, the craze began in a bar in Cardiff, when John Rostron, a Welsh club DJ with a big vinyl collection, started holding up the cardboard sleeves as he rocked da house and the thing caught on with a lot of people who started posting their Sleeveface shots up on YouTube and Facebook(etc).

Most of my vinyl is in storage but I have some 12 inch CD box sets around, so (until I get my vinyl back, or grow a CD sized head) here’s my humble first foray in Sleeveface culture:

That’s me with the Rykodisc Elvis Costello Box Set.

Now the fun part, the first and LAST SLEEVEFACE CHALLENGE!

Please send your own Sleevefacings to my email address pulmyears [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll post some of the less rude or vulgar ones here in a future posting.

Get ‘facing.

Learn to Play the Wilko J. Way!

Posted in Uncategorized on June 6, 2008 by pulmyears

Ever since last week, when my friend Craig sent me a couple of YouTube links to the music of 1970’s UK Pub Rock band, Dr Feelgood, I can’t get the distinctive sound of their guitarist, Wilko Johnson, out of my head. Craig had sent me a link to a TV appearance by the band, where they performed their straight ahead rocking song, “She Does It Right” and I was immediately left wondering why I hadn’t really paid that much attention to Wilko’s sound before. Certainly, he’s a visually interesting guitarist, pacing back and forth like he’s part of an elaborate (rock) cuckoo clock while singer Lee Brilleaux grunts his vocals like a pitched down Bon Scott.
Here’s the cover from their album, Stupidity. That’s Wilko J. making the crazy eyes on the left.

Johnson has a rather unique approach to the guitar, too. He basically bangs on his black and red Telecaster with all five fingers on his strumming hand, while holding down the bass notes on his chording hand with his thumb, freeing up the other four fingers to play little lead parts in amongst the chording.

Here’s a a YouTube clip from the UK TV series Rockschool where he shows just how it’s done, including a brief snippet of “She Does It Right”.

I was pleased to see online that he continues to tour with his own band, and while these days he’s chromed of dome (just like Mick Jones of the Clash!) he still bangs that black and red Telecaster and, I suspect, he still does it right!

Wilko Johnson: Baldly going where no guitarist has gone before.

Pitchy Dawgs – Great AutoTune story in The New Yorker

Posted in Uncategorized on June 5, 2008 by pulmyears

I don’t usually do this here, but I just finished reading a surprisingly brief, yet wonderfully succinct, New Yorker article about the post-production effect known as Antares Auto-Tune. The piece, called THE GERBIL’S REVENGE is by the fine writer Sasha Frere-Jones and it’s in the June 3 double issue. The link will take you to the New Yorker site, where Jones has an extra audio treat, his auto-tuned performance of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone”.

As a musician, music writer and music nerd, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining sounds to people, some of whom have asked me over the years “What’s that sound on Cher’s voice in “Believe”?”

Cher: “I BELIEVE I’ve lost my pants…”

Well, thank goodness then that Sasha Frere-Jones has written this piece, which is mainly about the ubiquitous R&B singer T-Pain and his copious use of Auto-Tune as his signature sound.

I’ll write something of my own in a bit, but until then, I urge you to link over to The New Yorker and read Jones’s excellent article.

Hey Bo Diddley! Rest in Peace!

Posted in Uncategorized on June 3, 2008 by pulmyears

Ellas “Bo Diddley” McDaniel 1928-2008

Famous actors and politicians often get sandwiches named after them. Mayors and martyrs get city streets and boulevards named after them. Presidents and Prime Ministers get airports named after them (and no, Los Angeles Airport, LAX, isn’t named after Malcolm X – yet.)

Bo Diddley pioneered an actual beat and then had it named after himself.

The self-described “gunslinger” guitarist, who died yesterday at age 79 from heart failure, is best known for the eponymous African inspired chugging guitar rhythm he made famous in songs like “Who Do You Love”, “Roadrunner” and playfully self-aggrandizing titles such as “Hey, Bo Diddley” and “Bo Diddley Is A Gunslinger” which pre-date hip-hop’s boastful nature by decades. In fairness, he was’t really singing his REAL name, Ellas Otha Bates McDaniel, but as the Bo Diddley “brand manager” he knew, years before the P. Diddy’s and Missy Elliott’s of the world, how to create a distinctive brand name and burn it into the brain through rhythmic insistence and sheer repetition.

I was just thinking about Bo Diddley’s influence last week, when I was in L.A., and I thought about the time when U2 did that rooftop video for “Where the Streets Have No Name” stopping traffic, Let It Be-atles style, as the omnipresent Heli-Cops hovered overhead and fanned the flames of faux controversy. Around this time U2 had a Hollywood themed hit, “Desire” in which The Edge and his boys openly dipped their Irish toes into the Bo Diddley-fied waters that had previously wet the feet of the Stones on “Not Fade Away” and George Thorogood on his cover of Bo’s “Who Do You Love”.

Whenever I hear that life-affirming “Chunk-chunk-chunk, Ah-chunk chunk” I feel like paraphrasing Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book, who joyously bellowed, “Oooh that beat!”.

I was also impressed by Bo Diddley’s visual image, sort of like a funky-ass State Trooper (albeit with Peace signs on his guitar). Ah, yes, that box shaped guitar. Like a marshmellow broom on a six-string stick, and when he got to rockin it was sweeter still. And he designed other, even weirder shaped guitars as well. In fact, perhaps he’s to blame for all those oblong heavy metal guitars of the eighties.

I blog about music because I love. And I loved the Bo Diddley beat.

Stupid sidenote: Years ago, my wife Liza started singing “Hey Paul Myers” to get me out of bed when I used to sleep in all the time. To the Bo Diddley rhythm, she would sing “He-e-ey Paul Myers! Get outta bed, Get outta bed!” Then years after that, we staying over at her sister Susan’s house, and she taught Susan’s girls, Hayley and Maddie (who were probably no more than 5 or 6) to go in and sing it to me with her. So the Diddley beat is a part of my life in ways that even the late great Ellas McDaniel couldn’t have known.

Last night, Jack White and his fellow Raconteurs preambled their first song on Late Night with Conan O’Brien show with four bars of Diddley’s signature call out (to himself) “Hey Bo Diddley”. As we go forward with what UK writer Julie Burchill used to sarcastically call “Rock’s Rich Tapestry” we would do well to remember that the music we love was made by mortals, women and men, like Bo Diddley.

By keeping him in our hearts, minds, and feet, we can all make sure that Diddley’s music will “Not Fade Away”.

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