Friday, April 24, 2009

Star Hits: A close reading

To keep this blog alive while I have no concert reports to turn in, I'm introducing a new series: close readings of Star Hits magazine, canonized earlier in this very blog. You'll first need to download the PDF, then--after poring over the pages for several hours, reminiscing about your nascent musical obsession, digging out your old yearbooks, memorializing your favorite Esprit black cardigan that your mom threw away, even though it only had, like, eight holes, and determining if you can still do the '80s dance--follow along.

Star Hits magazineDownload file: Star Hits, February 1984 [PDF]

Before I start, though, let me apologize for the 10 missing pages; I didn't realize they were gone until I started scanning. I know they went to a Culture Club fan, but I can't tell you where they are today.

My second caveat: As much as I love and treasure Star Hits, I don't know how representative it was or wasn't of its time. Sure, you could find it on the shelves of B. Dalton, Payless, and various newsstands, so it wasn't exactly a specialty title. At the same time, in my junior high school, it was far from a best-seller. A small group of us passed the issues around between ourselves, but you were much more likely to find Seventeen, Jet, or Teen Beat lining the locker walls. If, however, you don't mind those trifling details, read on!

Let's offer some context. The date was February 1984. Ronald Reagan occupied the White House, while Konstantin Chernenko presided over the Soviet Union; the Winter Olympics opened in Sarajevo; and the top songs on the U.S. charts for the month were "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club and "Jump" by Van Halen.

On first perusal, you'll likely be struck by the big-ticket items: Get a load of Madonna's eyebrows! Shield your eyes against Annie Lennox's bright-orange crew cut! Man, that Style Council song sure has a lot of words. And I would've killed to win a Walkman. I'm certain that the hard-hitting interviews with Duran Duran and the Alarm (as well as the words of wisdom from Cy Curnin and Tom Bailey) originally drew me in, but oddly, they're less arresting 25 (!) years on.

Star Hits - birthdaysInstead, what I love now are the overlooked details and the incongruous elements. Let's start with, errrr, Start!, the repository for the odds and ends. Here, you'll find birthday wishes going out to two members of Madness (can anyone even name two members of Madness?), Dolly Parton, Carole King, and Peter Gabriel, among others.

Joe Strummer turns up in what the tabloids would now term "baby bump" news, and two Graces (Jones and Slick), errrr, grace these pages too. For the Where Are They Now files, look to the paragraph on Shrapnel--who appear to claim little more than a tenuous link to Norman Mailer--and the intro to Simon Townsend, who happens to be Pete Townsend's brother and whom I've never heard of since. And really, that picture of Grandmixer DST, Laurie Anderson, Billy Gibbons, and Bill Laswell may be the single greatest item in the whole magazine.

Star Hits - Grandmixer DST, Laurie Anderson, Billy Gibbons, and Bill Laswell

Moving on, the next section to catch my eye is Get Smart, anchored by the sage known as Jackie. I suspect Get Smart influenced me more than I realize, nurturing that combination of geeky bookishness and musical obsession we take for granted in the age of Wikipedia, message boards, mailing lists, and VH1 retrospectives.

Star Hits - Get Smart

I stopped reading reviews sometime around 11th grade, but I'm unexpectedly drawn to Short Cuts. Of course I zeroed in on the review of Duran Duran's Seven and the Ragged Tiger, mainly because I remember the barrage of outraged mail that followed this rather noncommittal appraisal. Then again, I was a pretty dedicated letter writer as a teenager too.

I chuckle at the inclusion of the Suburbs (if you remember them, your '80s knowledge is even better than mine) and Let's Active; the latter was championed so unfailingly by so many rock journalists back in the day--alas, to no avail. Overall, the featured reviews seem to offer a fairly representative overview of the hits of the day, though a couple of them (Paul Rodgers? .38 Special?) leave me baffled.

You know how every generation thinks they invented the wheel (sex, drugs, rebellion) when, in fact, they're all as old as time? Well, I'm pretty sure my generation had something to do with the invention of hip-hop--or at least its mainstream acceptance. I clearly recall the breakdancing contests in my junior high, so the (truncated) section on B-boys, head spins, and popping puts a smile on my face--even if I spent the '80s trying to distance myself from much of it, opting instead for asymmetrical haircuts, British accents, and frilly shirts, preferably on guys.

So far, I've probably seemed more amused by this magazine than in love with it--blame it on my Gen X sense of detachment, even from the things I really love. But as with Start!, I'm mad for "Ten for '84." Look at that list: Paul Young, INXS, New Order, Aztec Camera, JoBoxers, Cyndi Lauper, and motherfucking REM, years before the stadium tours! (I'll pretend not to notice Queensryche, and who the hell are the other two?) I don't care what you think of any of those musicians now, but I harbor strong memories connected to each and every one of those artists--well, maybe not JoBoxers, but I remember seeing their video on TV, and I can still sing the chorus of their hit song.

I've commented on the trinity of live reviews before, but fleshed out, they appear even odder. A German art group, an American R&B mainstay, and preeminent L.A. punk rockers--only one of which could claim anything approaching a following--share the same amount of column inches. Who'd have thunk it?

Star Hits - Mike Reno - JourneyThough I mostly remember Star Hits as my British music bible, I'm not surprised to see non-New Wave names as the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, and Hall & Oates within the pages. Even Mike Reno's ode to Journey, though eminently mockable, makes sense. I mean, they were popular, on the charts, and all over MTV.

The one article that baffles me is the Doors story. Yes, Jim Morrison has always been an icon for young would-be poets and dreamers, and I'm sure college dorm rooms are still plastered with his image. I don't doubt the Doors' continuing appeal, but I don't see their place in Star Hits. Maybe the editors wanted to educate their young readers; maybe one of the writers really loved the group; maybe someone owed Ray Manzarek a favor. All I know is that it puts Star Hits a little too close to Rolling Stone territory--and that's definitely not what I wanted from the magazine.

On that sour note, our first close reading of Star Hits comes to an end. Enjoy these vintage pages, and peruse the covers gallery on Flickr. Hopefully we'll do this again.

See also:
» Download file: Star Hits, February 1984 [PDF]
» Star Hits: A tribute
» Star Hits magazine cover gallery [Flickr]

Sunday, April 12, 2009

that year

The New York Times has a regular feature advising readers how to spend 36 hours in any given city. Rock tourists know, however, that 36 hours might as well be a month in the country compared to the pit stops we call our getaways. Case in point: This year's visit to Chicago for our show with Jeff Tweedy. It was a whirlwind adventure for me, but one that I wouldn't dream of missing.
Photo courtesy of Kristina
Jeff Tweedy, Hotel SnS, April 4, 2009: As any Emily Post acolyte will tell you, wood is the traditional fifth-anniversary gift, and to mark this, our fifth annual potluck/reunion/Jeff Tweedy concert, I did my part with faux bois cupcakes. Let's face it, though: Alison's mac 'n' cheese ruled the school. Again. Jeff (Walrus), however, gets a gold star for his brilliant addition of a soft-serve machine. Is there a Nobel Prize for dessert?

My limited schedule meant that certain events fell off the itinerary, so I couldn't break out my Sandra Oh for the Canadian party on Friday night or make the pilgrimage to Hot Doug's. And of course, there are never enough hours in the day to hang out with these friends (old and new), though that's never stopped us from trying.

This year, we supplied Jeff Tweedy with a song list, which was both good and bad. Though Jeff may have had some time to prepare for this round, it also meant that we loaded the roster with some doozies. Hey, it can't hurt to ask, right? And as always, he retains veto power. But before the show even began, Jeff sprung a surprise of his own: If 10 people gave up their requests, he'd play us the new Wilco album in its mixed, though unmastered state.

Food, friends, and music, Hotel SnS, 4-4-09

We were certainly intrigued, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from the way the show unfolded: "Train" may have been summarily dismissed, the lyric sheet flicked decisively to the ground, but Dick and Paul still got a couple of oldies out of Jeff--"That Year" and "Flatness," respectively. From there, we landed a decent range of Jeff's music, including "Sky Blue Sky" (who says we only request old stuff?), as well as a few Woodie Guthrie and Golden Smog tunes. "More Like the Moon" and "Laminated Cat" mesmerized as always, "Radio King" drew its customary appreciative remarks, and the night is never complete without "Gun."

Food, friends, and music, Hotel SnS, 4-4-09You gotta know, considering how many Wilco and Jeff Tweedy shows that we as a group have seen, our Wilco appreciation is not insignificant. However, the standout songs at these shows are often the covers or the one-offs.

This year, we finally got the Split Enz double-header, with equal representation to both Finn brothers. On this count, I thank the two dozen people in the room not singing along. I bet you didn't realize your saintly patience would be called upon for this cause, did you? The segue from "I Can't Keep from Talking" to "Barstool Blues" may have surprised the performer as much as it did the audience, but it was pretty sweet just the same. And I simply love that Jeff has been dusting off "I Wanna Be Your Dog" again after all these years.

Speaking of covers, many of my most beloved memories of these shows have been of Jeff playing them with some of our friends. This year, Dave Mirabella of the Rationales accompanied Jeff on "Glad and Sorry," and newbie Hamilton Sims held his own--and then some--for the "Fake Plastic Trees" duet. As someone with no musical talent whatsoever, I can only imagine how much pride and joy they must take in such moments--but I know how much we love watching these scenes unfold.

Food, friends, and music, Hotel SnS, 4-4-09

This open, collaborative spirit culminated with the last request of the night, when Jeff called dibs and asked Martin Rivas to reprise his performance of "Sir Duke," as carried off in grand fashion last year. (Don't take my word on it, though; let Martin amaze you himself at any of his frequent gigs in and around New York City.) Our dancing and revelry, already fueled by the music, the company, and in some cases, the drinks, got an extra boost from the realization that, a year on, we had truly come full circle.

Oh yeah, about the new Wilco album: All six members play on it, there are some guitars, there's some piano, and there're some vocals. In other words, I don't for a second believe that my opinion on it will sway anyone reading this post--nor should it. You can decide for yourself come June. Also, I have no perspective when it comes to this band. I like 'em, pure and simple.

So many details from the night will get only a glancing mention in this post: the rock 'n' roll anecdotes, the doggie diversions, the celebrity impersonations, the wordplay ("Is that a douche reference?"), the heckling (from both the audience and the performer), the profanities ("that fucking 'Stars' song"), the long-distance dedications, the dancing babies, the proposals of love from husband to wife, and so much more. I can't even point you to a recording of the show for a taste of the experience, as once again, we failed to document the evening. Then again, that's never been the point of these gatherings.

It's my nature to want to express--perhaps with too many words and too overwrought a style--why these shows mean so much to me, but for once, I'll keep it simple. Thank you, friends; thank you, Chicago; and thank you, Jeff and Susan Tweedy for so many of my favorite memories, with many more to come, if we should be so lucky.

The full history
» i wish that i knew what I know now
» people say i'm crazy doing what i'm doing
» the message
» all the ladies and gentlemen
» springtime comes
» turn our prayers to outrageous dares
» every day is dreamlike
» it's been a while

Monday, April 06, 2009

when you gonna live your life right

Logic would dictate that after two back-to-back Dave Rawlings Machine shows, I should be able to cool my jets, listen to the recording of at least one of the gigs, and bask in the memories. Logic, though usually my friend, can take a hike when it comes to Largo.

Dave Rawlings Machine, Largo at the Coronet, March 31, 2009: I'm not one for regret, but I feel some pangs when it comes to certain eras at Largo. I would've loved to have seen Jon Brion and Aimee Mann when they were still playing together, and I wish I had witnessed Elliott Smith actually performing at the club and not just taking in the entertainment.

I thank my lucky stars, though, that I've been able to rack up several installments of the Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch residency (and pre-residency) at Largo. The rumors that this would be the last Dave Rawlings Machine show in a while may or may not turn out to be true, but to borrow a sentiment from a wise man, you have to live every week like it's Shark Week.

My most recent posts may have cast Largo in a diminished light, but the evidence must speak for itself by now--there are few other places I'd rather be. I was reminded of this almost as soon as the music started, and those perfect notes hit my ears. Simply, Dave and Gillian sounded even more amazing than usual in this room. And on a more frivolous note, they looked great too, David donning what looked like a different suit and Gillian in a pretty flowered dress (albeit with the same tattered boots). If this was indeed their send-off, they were proceeding in style. They were in extremely good spirits, too, smiling and joking (about John Hartford, for starters) with the packed house.

With their two Northern California shows still very much on my mind, I wondered if they'd stick with the roadshow version of their set or encourage those patented only-at-Largo moments. As it turned out, it was a little bit of both. Clearly, they have a repertoire and a basic setlist, but that's not to say it's all rote repetition. Instead, it was just the two of them for a good stretch--eight or nine songs? Maybe more? In this opening run, they surprised me with a Guthrie-free version of "I Hear Them All" and an early stab at "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."

Ultimately, "Sweet Tooth" smoked out their friends. Dave and Gillian could be seen sending a series of wordless signals toward the shadows until, first, Sebastian Steinberg joined them, bringing along his stand-up bass, and eventually Benmont Tench ambled on as well.

By all appearances, Dave and Gillian have taken to the Largo ethos pretty well, but their awkward transitions between guests still need some work. Then again, it is rather endearing to watch them pause, look to the side of the stage, often march over there (without removing their instruments and leaving the other musicians to kill time onstage awkwardly), then finally come back with a decision.

Tonight's soft shoe routine yielded Syd Straw, who proclaimed herself the "comic relief" as she untangled herself from her purse and jacket. Moments after she took her place, Don Heffington followed, thus filling out the '80s-era juggernaut. Twenty-odd years ago, I read their names in Star Hits, but I never could've predicted that I'd see them in this company in the year 2009.

Syd shared an anecdote about walking into Benmont's living room to find Dave and Gillian there, and she gushed that she wanted to move in with them--and I'm sure she wasn't alone in that last thought. She played a song whose name escapes me; she said it was a sing-along, and it certainly had a catchy lilt to it, but it didn't sound like the audience caught on. But we didn't need to, as Dave and Gillian provided the support.

Sometimes you watch musicians play, and you suddenly realize why they do what they do (and why you do what you do). My guess is that Dave and Gillian were not familiar with this song at the outset, as they watched Syd intently to pick up on the chords and rhythm. But once those clues fell into place, they filled in the details themselves, with an embellished strum here and, more notably, some sweet, lovely harmonies elsewhere. And that is how music is made.

Syd left after one song, though Don stayed, and more guests joined, including Harper Simon for "Only Love Will Break Your Heart," Sean Watkins for "I'm On My Way Back to the Old Home," Nate Walcott, Willie Watson (for two songs whose names I can't recall), and "Z" Berg for "Blue Velvet." Dave and Gillian were especially delightful on that last one, turning in sublime harmonies in a style you wouldn't necessarily associate with them. Then again, voices like theirs transcend genres.

Jon Brion was the last guest to join in, his late appearance moving them to wonder where he'd been. He quipped that they sounded so good anyway. Naturally, Jon's participation inspired the "Method Acting"/"Cortez the Killer" medley. If my brain weren't so taxed from the last week of work, travel, and the insomnia related to both, I'd tell you what else he played on, but unfortunately, I can't fill in that info. However, I'm pretty sure I can report that the last song was "Queen Jane Approximately," ending on an awesomely grand note.

See also:
» hotter than a pepper sprout
» the high lonesome truth