Friday, August 7, 2015

The Torture of Being the George

It has occurred to me that one of the worst, most humiliating musical jobs in the world is being in a tribute band, spending your evening pretending to be someone else, playing all his or her parts just like on the record, or in the video, commonly even dressing as that musician dresses.

Then it occurred to me that, in a way, all of us start out in tribute bands, the only difference being that those in which we start usually have a flexible format. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison in their pre-Beatles days were in what at one moment might have been heard as a Buddy Holly tribute band, at another as a Little Richard tribute band, just as the Rolling Stones were a Slim Harpo tribute band, and then a Jimmy Reed, and then a Chuck Berry. Close your eyes and you can easily hear many of the extremely talented (I’m being sarcastic) Tom Petty’s biggest hits as the work of a very specific tribute band — A Tribute to The Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare”.

It occurred to me also that playing in a tribute band is comparable in many ways to being an actor charged with bringing a real-life character to life on stage. I have been both a musician (albeit never in a tribute band, unless you count early Christopher Milk as The Who Jr.) and an actor, and appreciate that the pleasure in both is largely in displaying one’s skill. The difference is that the actor, assuming he or she has a sympathetic director), might get to bring out particular aspects of the portrayed character, in a way that wouldn’t work for the tribute band musician. The audience doesn’t want to hear an interpretation of Jimmy Page’s guitar-playing on "When the Levee Breaks." The audience wants a note-for-note recreation.

Can you imagine how frustrating it must be for the Lennon surrogate in a Beatles tribute band to have to play that little short-scale Rickenbacker in a world full of Strats and Teles and Les Pauls? And it must be torture to be the George. I would guess that the huge majority of tribute band Georges are around 1000 times more accomplished than George himself was, and that playing the comically desultory solo in "All You Need Is Love" every night just as on the record must be excruciatingly frustrating. Can you imagine how these guys must wish just once they could let ‘er rip, but imagine the expression of horror on their audiences’ faces if they did so.

I am reminded of perhaps the most foolish thing I ever wrote during my brief career as a music critic, in a review of the jazz vocal group Manhattan Transfer in Rolling Stone. I speculated that if, every few songs, they had somebody come in and play a snarly guitar solo through a 300-watt Distortorama (as The Carpenters had in their hit “Goodbye to Love”), it would provide a lovely respite from the velvety harmonizing, of which good thing, entirely too much! I can imagine the group reading the review, shaking their heads in dismay, and musing, “WTF! What is wrong with this guy?”

Hold on. That isn’t the foolishest thing I wrote. While a university student, I used to spend a lot of time in a particular record store flipping through albums, memorizing liner notes and so on. Somehow the name of Carlos Montoya, a classical guitarist, stuck in my head. When I reviewed one of Santana’s first LA performances for the Los Angeles Times, I identified their guitarist as Carlos Montoya, rather than Santana. D’oh! Double-d’oh! And the funny thing is that not a single reader complained. When I complained about Robert Plant’s shrieking and Jimmy Page’s irrepressible showing off on the guitar, all of southern California seethed. Misidentifying one Carlos as the other? Not a peep!

Happy birthday, TLD!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Excluded From the Debates, I Nonetheless Fight On!

By now you’ve no doubt heard that I won’t be participating in tonight’s debate. The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Rinse Previous, didn’t have the courtesy (or maybe the courage?) to actually phone me with that disheartening news, but sent me a text message, citing as the reason for my exclusion the fact that none of the polls found that I, the only socialist among the 173 announced candidates, had any support at all among registered Republicans. Apparently the pollsters regard my Facebook friends as statistically insignificant.

Apparently I did myself no good whatever nominating the Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán as my running mate. I felt sure that the same American electorate that responds so enthusiastically to Donald J. Trump saying that he has a sure-fire plan to eradicate Isis, but that he won’t reveal it, would love the idea of a man of El Chapo’s proven resourcefulness and entrepreneurial zeal being my running mate. But the polls suggest otherwise.

I have added a couple of planks to my platform since last we spoke. Mr. Trump has suggested that a wall be built along the length of the border we share with Mexico, to preclude disease-ridden rapists and drug dealers continuing to swarm into our once-great country and get jobs as domestics, gardeners, busboys, and removers of asbestos from old houses. He will apparently use his unparalleled negotiating skills to convince our neighbors to the south to foot the bill. I haven’t had the pleasure of witnessing him in action, or of reading one of "his" many books, but my guess is that one of his key negotiating ploys is to scowl censoriously at his adversaries, as in the photo to the left. My guess is that he imagines himself to look quite sultry when he does this, but I personally prefer when he pouts, as in the photo above right. Perhaps I will become the darling of Log Cabin (that is, gay) Republicans by admitting that his pout makes me wish I too had been born gay.

An appalling number of Americans decide for whom to vote on the basis of whose television attack ads manipulate their emotions most successfully. (Candidate X paroles scary-looking black rapists prematurely? Well, I’m sure not going to vote for him!) This is wonderful for TV channels and the advertising and other agencies who create the ads, and horrible for the country. Candidates with more money have a huge — and unfair — advantage. The obvious way to fix this is to ban political advertising. Let the populace make its decision based on a series of debates to be broadcast on public television. Let the ad agencies go back to selling us junk food, soda pop, and beer that tastes like soda pop. Oh, and while I’m at it, I think I’ll make lobbying a capital crime.

But let’s get back to keeping our once-great country free of Spanish-speaking riff raff. Rather than a wall, I favor inviting the millions of proud, patriotic xenophobes whose jobs undocumented aliens have stolen joining hands along the border, creating an impenetrable human chain. Naturally, said chain will be boy-girl-boy-girl to preclude two patriots of the same sex falling in love while clutching each other and becoming engaged, or even married. As president, I shall appoint Gov. Mike Huckabee to ensure that this arrangement is strictly enforced.

No, wait. That won’t work. I just remembered that Gov. Huckabee is to be the first Christian hypocrite publicly crucified after I take office. My understanding is that Christianity is about love and compassion, rather than condemnation. Gov. Huckabee is about condemnation. Anybody got a hammer?

I think we can agree that either Dick Cheney or Henry Kissinger is America’s Villain, Taylor Swift America’s Virgin, Kanye West America’s Delusional Egomaniac, and Sarah Palin America’s National Embarrassment. Can we not further agree, speaking of the current GOP frontrunner, that Donald J. Trump is America’s Asshole?   

For the record, I regard my Facebook friends as the most wonderful people on earth — kind, generous, empathetic, generous, loyal, clean, thrifty, obedient, and brave, though sometimes not as obedient as I would prefer. Together, we can! 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Great Folk Scare

This morning, for fun, I shall telephone various celebrated lawyers, identifying myself as the movie star and Scientologist Tom Cruise. Many are sure to be skeptical, but a few will take my calls. When I admit that I’m not Tom Cruise at all, most will hang up angrily, but a couple will ask, “Well, you’ve got me on the phone. What was so important that you called  me in the middle of a meeting?” Whereupon I shall admit that the prank is sort of self-referential, in the sense that it recognizes itself as not terribly funny — not, at least, like that which my friend David and I used to play during the great hootenanny scare of the early 1960s. David would phone someone at random, taking care to note the number, and ask to speak to Tom. The person randomly called would sputter, “There’s no Tom here!” and hang up. We would giggle for a minute or two, and then I would call the person back and say, “This is Tom. Have there been any calls for me?” I can assure you that was hilarious nearly beyond quanitification.

 Oh, the good times we had together, David and I, before each of us decided there were others in our lives whose company we preferred. He ran off with a slightly older house painter and drug dealer named — and this was his real name — Henry Ford, while I became quite the ladies’ man, posing provocatively, glowering in that scary way so many gals find irresistible — at least those who grew up trying in vain to win the affection of a distant or disapproving father more interested in watching boxing on television, or golf. My jaw wasn’t particularly square, but my eyes a very rich shade of darkest chocolate.

I should explain about the Great Folk Scare. Starting around 1956, there was the glorious first generation of rock and roll enjoyed by a mass audience. Then Elvis’s conscription and the payola scandal left a void into which the terrifying Dick Clark rushed with his small army of young Sinatroids — most named either Frankie or Bobby, all of them inconceivably lame. But then, starting with the success of The Kingston Trio, a mass audience developed for a very sanitized, denatured brand of folk music crooned by earnest college sophomores in crewcuts and matching short-sleeved sportshirts. What better way to say, “Bland, not at all threatening,” than with a short-sleeved sportshirt? (A couple of years later, The Beach Boys too would wear ‘em, and look colossally lame in ‘em.)  How one longed for The Beatles, without even knowing their name!

Hootenanny this, motherfucker. 

We’d met, David and I, as identically lonely, alienated, shy, cynical, miserable sophomores at Santa Monica High School. We’d wrestled each other — non-homoerotically! — in PE. His knee had hit my head at one point, and I’d seen stars, as I never had before and never would again. I tried really hard in high school, being a dutiful Jewish son, feeling that good grades would unlock lots of doors for me. David, maybe a little hipper, definitely lazier, and Norwegian-American, didn’t try very hard at all. Looking back, I recognize his as the more sensible approach.

He idolized Jonathan Winters and Bob Dylan, this well before the latter attracted mass adoration. He was in a folk duo that performed none of Bob’s songs, and could manage some rudimentary finger-picking. Around the time that “Eve of Destruction” was a big hit, he and I wrote a song together. I was young and very stupid, but a contrarian even then, and my lyrics chastized peace marchers and so on for not recognizing how Communism threatened Our American Way of Life. I can remember only a couple of lines: “War is not the answer to wordly strife,” you said. With gentle understanding we can convert the Red. (Gosh, this is embarrassing.) I was speechless with delight when David set the lyrics to music, but then discovered he, lazy as he was, had only appropriated an existing song’s chords and melody.

Much as Dylan himself did all the time in those days.