Happy birthday, Weird Al

Today is the birthday of Weird Al Yankovic.

This is one of the acts from the 1980s that I very much enjoyed. Weird Al got his start in the MTV era (early 1980s) with parodies of mega-hits by Madonna and Michael Jackson. (This song, “Fat” is a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad”.)

Weird Al in “Fat”

Weird Al is still around, but his heyday has passed. Satire is one of the many casualties of political correctness.

Consider “Fat”. If the song/video were released today, it would immediately draw fire for fat-shaming. And some of the song’s lines (“I’ve got more Chins than Chinatown”) would never pass muster among the Internet’s many self-appointed Committees of Public Safety. 

Also, there’s the fact that “Fat” involves a white guy parodying a black guy. What a microaggression! Systemic bigotry! (For the record: Weird Al always obtained the consent of the musical acts he parodied.)

“Fat” is still tolerated today as a relic of 1980s kitsch. Most of the social justice warriors are either too young to know of its existence, or they’ve since forgotten about it. 

There was a time when comedy, and other forms of artistic expression, could simply be fun, without everyone getting riled up about them, and contriving trivial pretexts for offense. Weird Al Yankovic is a champion of that better, vanished time. 

Remembering Eddie Van Halen and his music

I logged on to Facebook yesterday, and found that many of my friends were making posts about Edward “Eddie” Van Halen. The guitarist  succumbed to cancer yesterday at the age of 65.

My friends and I are all part of that generation that reached adolescence just as the rock band named for Eddie Van Halen was taking off. From my early teens through my early adult years, Van Halen’s music was indeed a fixture. I remember all the songs on Diver Down (1982), 1984 (1984), 5150 (1986) and OU812 (1988) when they were brand new, and no one had ever heard them before. I enjoyed most all of those songs, and I really liked a handful of them.

Eddie Van Halen did not try to change the world with his music. A few of of Van Halen’s songs contain vaguely mystic or generically motivational lyrics. (“Love Walks In” and “Right Now” come to mind here.) For the most part, though, Van Halen’s music was simply fun. It was music to listen to while you were working out in your high school’s weight room in 1983, or while you were driving around on a late summer afternoon in 1987. I still listen to Van Halen’s music on occasion, and I suspect that I always will.

But then there’s the man, Edward Lodewijk van Halen, who is being mourned today—especially by those of us old enough to remember his band’s heyday.

I have always been a bit ambivalent in regard to the effusive mourning of celebrities who did not know us, and who, therefore, would not have mourned us had we preceded them in death. I’m not sure that it really is possible to mourn someone we did not know personally. What we miss is their artistic output, and the era they were associated with in our lives. Eddie Van Halen’s music is certainly bound to an era in my life, as I’ve noted above.

Eddie Van Halen had a good run. He was wealthy and famous for most of his adult years, and he was able to spend those years doing something he loved. He did not live as long as he might have. But he lived long enough to become a senior citizen. That is something.

By all accounts, Eddie Van Halen had loving relations with family and friends, especially his surviving son, Wolf, who eulogized him on social media yesterday. He seems to have been a genuinely good-hearted and personable individual. In all the years he’s been in the public spotlight, I can’t recall a single negative news story or scandal involving him. That is something, too.

Yesterday marked the passing of a significant musical era, and also the passing of a life well-lived.  Edward Lodewijk van Halen, dead at 65. R.I.P.

YouTube’s guitar heroes

I know: It seems I never say anything positive about social media, because…mostly I don’t. I wouldn’t mind if most social media platforms (especially Twitter) disappeared tomorrow.

But even social media has a few upsides. One of these upsides is the abundance of very talented young musicians on YouTube. 

Sophie Lloyd, the guitarist in the video posted above, does a virtuoso job on the guitar. I took guitar lessons myself for a while in the very early 1980s. I couldn’t begin to do what she does, but I do have an insider’s understanding of how much practice it takes to play like that.  

I also love the rock bands of the 1980s–Van Halen, Boston, Rush, AC/DC, Def Leppard. A solid cover of any of their old songs is sure to get my attention. Continue reading “YouTube’s guitar heroes”

John Mellencamp, campaign music, and champagne socialism

Hey, did you know we have an election coming up in a few months? And yes, it promises to be a real mess. (We could get a whole bunch of blog posts from that, and I expect we will.)

One of the minor controversies from this year, though, involves the Trump campaign and rock music. Various musical artists, including Neil Young, Elton John, Rihanna, and some group called Panic!At the Disco have either objected to Trump playing their music at campaign events, or issued actual cease-and-desist orders.

Brendon Urie, the frontman of Panic! At The Disco, wrote in a tweet:

“Dear Trump Campaign, F— you. You’re not invited. Stop playing my song. No thanks, Brendon Urie, Panic! At The Disco & company.”

Come on, Brendan, quit beating around the bush. Tell us how you really feel.

This is not a new controversy. It didn’t begin with Donald Trump, who is (whether you love him, hate him, or accept him with reservations) an undeniably polarizing politician. Almost no one is neutral about Donald Trump.

Most celebrity musicians, like the rest of the Hollywood/entertainment jet set, are millionaires who fancy themselves socialists. Taylor Swift has a net worth of $360~$400 million. (It fluctuates with the market value of her immense portfolio.) Taylor Swift is the ultimate “one-percenter”, to use Bernie Sanders’s term. And yet, Taylor Swift has recently come out as a vocal proponent of the Democratic Party.

Back in 2008, John McCain was the GOP nominee. McCain got into hot water with his campaign music, too. McCain made the mistake of playing several songs belonging to John Mellencamp, a rocker whose popularity peaked in the 1980s.

Mellencamp objected, and issued a cease-and-desist order of his own. Speaking through a publicist, Mellencamp said:

“If [McCain is] such a true conservative, why [is he] playing songs that have a very populist pro-labor message written by a guy who would find no argument if you characterized him as an ardent leftist?”

A few points to unpack here. First of all, it is rather foolish for GOP candidates to use the music of elite musicians who probably hate their guts.

Consider, for example, the aforementioned Neil Young. Neil Young has moonlighted as a left-of-center activist since the 1960s. Neil Young also has a net worth of $65 million.

Even fellow musicians, the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, recognized Neil Young’s hypocrisy long ago. They openly rebuked him in their 1974 classic, “Sweet Home Alabama”.

That said, Donald Trump should have known better than to use a Neil Young song at a campaign event. What was he expecting?

John McCain should have known better than to use a John Mellencamp song in 2008, too. Mellencamp, who spent the early years of the 1970s immersed in the drug-addled counterculture, has long distinguished himself as being left-of-center. The signposts have been out there for years. Mellencamp has never been shy about expressing his views, such as they are.

I’m too young to care much about Neil Young, and too old to care about Taylor Swift. I hadn’t even heard of Panic! At The Disco until just the other day. I’ve maybe heard of Rihanna, but I couldn’t name one of her songs to save my life.

I do remember John Mellencamp, though. His breakout album, American Fool, was released in 1982. I was then entering high school, and the heart of my teenage years. John Mellencamp was never one of my favorite artists; but a few of his songs I genuinely liked, and still listen to from time-to-time.

That said, I have to call Mr. Mellencamp out on his self-description as an “ardent leftist”. Mellencamp has a net worth of $25 million. That makes him a pauper by Taylor Swift standards. He’s pretty poor compared to Neil Young, too. Nevertheless, with a net worth of $25 million, John Mellencamp more than qualifies as a one-percenter.

Here’s the way I see it: If you want to call yourself “an ardent leftist”, then act the part. Give away your fortune to help the less fortunate—or to fund the revolution. Move into communal housing in the inner city, or perhaps a dingy cubbyhole of an apartment. Eat rice and beans for dinner every night.

But if you have $25 million in the bank—and you keep it—then you don’t get to call yourself an “ardent leftist”. And no, you don’t get to simply “identify” as a leftist, either. This isn’t like sex reassignment surgery. All Mellencamp (or Neil Young, or Taylor Swift) would have to do is give away their vast sums of wealth. Then they’ll be “ardent leftists” in name as well as deed. Until then, they’re Republicans in denial.

Actress Cynthia Nixon, known for her roles in Sex and the City and The Pelican Brief, tried to retool herself as a progressive politician a few years ago. Her plan, so far as anyone can tell, was to run against Governor Andrew Cuomo from the left. At one point, Nixon referred to herself as a “democratic socialist”. (This is basically socialism without the gulags and firing squads (at first, anyway).)

Nixon, however, has a net worth of $25 million. This makes her about as rich as John Mellencamp.

Not to beat a dead horse here, but a “democratic socialist” with $25 million is just as much of an oxymoron as an “ardent leftist” with $25 million. Some things go together, and other things don’t. The Pope, or so I’ve been told, must be a Roman Catholic. The Pope can’t be a Muslim, a Jehovah’s Witness, or an atheist. A proper Marxist, likewise, can’t be filthy rich. 

I would issue the following challenge to Cynthia Nixon, John Mellencamp, and other “champagne socialists” out there: Socialism, like charity, starts at home. If you want to impose socialist economic policies on everyone else, start by giving away all your excess millions, beyond the bare amount you need to live. Redistribute your own wealth first. Give it all away! Then you can talk to us about redistributing everyone else’s wealth.

Neil Peart (1952 – 2020)

I found out yesterday that Neil Peart, the drummer and primary lyricist for the Canadian rock band Rush, passed away earlier this week at the age of sixty-seven.

Rush was formed in Toronto in 1968, the year I was born. The group’s debut album came out in 1974. Rush made its last studio album in 2012, and continued touring intermittently through 2018.

In the thirty-eight years between the release of that first album and the last tour, Rush never achieved the universal recognizability of Elvis, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, or Taylor Swift. There are plenty of people who don’t know what Rush was. (I think it’s safe to say that everyone has heard of the Beatles by now.) But since the 1970s, there have been millions of Rush fans; and most Rush fans are fans for life.

I discovered Rush in the fall of 1982, shortly after the band’s Signals album came out. I was a freshman in high school (an ideal age to discover Rush) and I was immediately hooked.

Right away, I could tell that Rush’s music was “different”. This brings us back to Neil Peart. Peart will be remembered as a virtuoso drummer, but he will also be remembered for his lyrics. Peart wrote the lyrics of almost all the songs Rush performed.

Neil Peart did not write sappy love songs, or hard-driving tributes to rock-n-roll. He wrote songs that got you thinking about the “big issues”.

By this, I don’t mean to imply that Peart wrote the sort of ham-fisted “message art” that has become such a staple in the culture wars of the twenty-first century. His songs sometimes took a stand; but they also left room for personal interpretation and ambiguity (which is what good art usually does.)

And sometimes he contradicted himself. For example, the song “Freewill”, from the album A Farewell to Kings, strongly implies an atheist mindset. But in a subsequent song, “Mystic Rhythms”, Peart suggested that maybe there really is something out there, a side of reality that human rationality cannot fully grasp or comprehend.

In a tribute to Neil Peart published yesterday, National Review’s Kyle Smith wrote, “Peart was a genius at tapping into the restless alienation of late-teen boys who think they’re smarter than everyone around them.”

There is something to that. Neil Peart’s body of work offers something for everyone; but his songs seemed to particularly resonate with a certain kind of male who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s.

My teenage years were basically happy; and my high school experience was mostly positive. Nevertheless, there were times when I did feel alienated from both my peers and the adults in my midst. When you were a teenage boy who felt like the rest of the world was out-of-touch, Neil Peart was able to perfectly channel your angst with songs like “Tom Sawyer” and “Subdivisions”.

But Neil Peart’s songs were by no means one big tub of sour grapes. On balance, there was more aspiration than alienation in his lyrics.

One of my favorites, “Marathon”, perfectly captures the enthusiasm of the long-distance runner. I ran cross country during my last two years of high school. (That was the only sport I was ever any good at.) When I heard “Marathon” for the first time in the fall of 1985, I was blown away. I couldn’t believe it: Neil Peart had written my personal sports anthem, it seemed.

I wouldn’t be the first teenage boy of the Reagan era to say that Rush’s songs, and Neil Peart’s lyrics, formed the soundtrack of my life during that period. But I’m going to say it here, nonetheless, because that’s more or less the truth.

But Neil Peart wrote about more than abstract ideas and feelings. His songs weren’t exactly educational, in and of themselves. (That would have been asking for too much from rock music—even from Neil Peart.) But many of them were intellectual gateways.

Among the references in Peart’s lyrics are: the philosophy of Ayn Rand (“Anthem”, “2112”), the epic poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“Xanadu”), Greek mythology (“Hemispheres”), the French Revolution (“Bastille Day”), and the development of the atom bomb (“Manhattan Project”).

As a teenage boy, listening to this music, I often found myself digging into reference books, so that I could better understand what Neil Peart was talking about.

And this formed another, equally important side of Peart’s music: While he wrote songs that were perfect accompaniments to adolescent navel-gazing, he didn’t stop there. He also wrote songs that pointed you toward a much bigger world, and much greater concerns, than those of your teenage microcosm.

Our artistic tastes and intellectual discernment change over time, of course. As an adult, some of Neil Peart’s songs strike me as a bit pretentious. Or at the very least, he was tackling themes and ideas that couldn’t be adequately covered in five- to seven-minute songs.

Here’s one example: In 1985, I first heard the song “Territories”, in which Peart seems to condemn any form of nationalism. At the age of 17, that song struck me as incredibly profound. Today, the same song strikes me as a simplistic appeal for a borderless world—which I don’t believe to be realistic. The real world is far more complicated than that.

But “Territories” got me thinking, at the age of 17, about issues beyond my day-to-day concerns. Would I have gotten that from Michael Jackson or Bon Jovi? I think not.

Moreover, Neil Peart wasn’t writing songs for the 51 year-old I am today. He was writing for the teenager I was then.

Peart said in a Rolling Stone interview (quoted in Kyle Smith’s article): “I set out to never betray the values that 16-year-old had, to never sell out, to never bow to the man. A compromise is what I can never accept.”

At the age of 51, I can’t necessarily make the same claim. I’ve made plenty of compromises, and bowed to the man more times than I can count.

There will be no more Neil Peart songs. But I’ll always treasure what remains of his music.

Speaking of bombastic: It would be bombastic of me to state that my adolescent years would have been miserable without Rush’s music and Neil Peart’s lyrics. So I won’t say that. But those years would have been different, more artistically and intellectually barren, without the soundtrack that both Rush and Neil Peart provided me. R.I.P.

Photo: Wikipedia

How songs connect us to memory

I was never a huge fan of Richard Marx. (I never actively disliked his music, either. I just wasn’t a raving fan.) 

But boy, the summer of 1987 was his moment. That summer, I spent a lot of time in my car, listening to FM radio, and this Richard Marx song was on the radio endlessly

When I hear it now, I’m instantly transported back to that time and place. That hot, fun summer. I was nineteen years old.

Songs often ground us to particular moments in our past–sometimes even songs that we didn’t necessarily love at the time, but nevertheless heard a lot.  

Ric Ocasek 1944-2019

Ric Ocasek, the lead singer of The Cars, has died. 

Anyone who remembers the early 1980s remembers Ric Ocasek. He was a mainstay on FM radio in those days, the voice behind “Shake it Up” and “Since You’re Gone”. 

When MTV came along in 1982, Ocasek’s visage became well known, too. Those sunglasses.

Ocasek was an unlikely rock star: a too-thin, gawky fellow with a pointy nose and a prominent Adam’s apple. Ocasek was nevertheless a man older than my father, who was married to a supermodel about my age. 

He also proved that you don’t need movie-star good looks to be a successful rock star. The Cars were enormously popular throughout the Reagan decade, with Ric Ocasek as their frontman.

The Cars were never my favorite band. But their music was always there, and it was always pleasant. A feel-good sound from a now vanished, better era.

At the time of this writing, the details of Ocasek’s death are unclear. He was seventy-five years old, and an ex-rock star, so…well, we just don’t know.

Ric Ocasek, 75, R.I.P. 

Rush retrospective

45 years ago, ‘unknown band’ Rush played Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena

I haven’t been a Rush fan for 45 years–not quite. (I was only 6 years old in 1974.) But I’ve easily been a Rush fan for 35 years–since the early 1980s.

Although Rush is now retired, I still enjoy the band’s music. 

From the ‘Moving Pictures’ album (1981)

Song of the day: “The Spirit of Radio”

A Rush song for Rush fanatics and non-fanatics alike.

You can’t beat Rush. This song is the most popular track from the band’s Permanent Waves album (1980).

Many Rush songs are less than radio-friendly. This one is the perfect length for radio play. It’s also fun, and upbeat and (unlike some Rush songs) instantly accessible. 

A personal note here: I took guitar lessons in the early 1980s, and I did learn how to play the guitar portion of this song on my old Peavy electric guitar. 

The Who in 2019

One of my Facebook friends (a former high school classmate) recently posted a photo of herself and her husband at a Who concert.

When you think about it, there is a certain irony there. The Who formed in London in 1964. That was when Lyndon Baines Johnson was President of the United States, and the U.S. had not yet fully committed to the Vietnam War. 

The irony of all this was not lost on my friend, who noted:

“Attending a concert where the band has been around longer than I’ve been alive.”

My classmate, I should note (just like yours truly) is now fifty-one years old. We were born in 1968. So The Who had already been a going concern for about four years when we were born.

And the band is still doing live concerts. Wow.

The Who was never one of my favorite bands, but they were always on my radar. Another irony here: By the time I started high school—way back in the early 1980s—the band’s real heyday was already behind it. The Who’s tenth studio album, It’s Hard, appeared in September 1982, in the fall of my freshman year. Whenever I hear the song “Athena”, I’m instantly transported back to that time. 

I like a lot of individual Who songs. But my hands-down favorite is from the album Face Dances: “You Better You Bet”.

Enjoy the video below, and consider picking up the whole album, if you’re so inclined.

The best rock albums of the 1980s (Ed’s list)

Oh, like this one won’t cause any controversy…I would be better off writing another political post if I wanted to avoid hate mail.

I was very much into rock music during the 1980s (especially the first half of the decade). I turned twelve in 1980, so you might as well say that the 1980s were my “coming-of-age years”. And it is during this time that we are most into youth culture—especially music.

The list that follows is unabashedly and unapologetically a personal list.

I don’t think you’ll find any albums here that are too far off the beaten path. Even if they’re forgotten today (though some of them aren’t) they all had significant followings at the time.

That said, I’ve left off some albums that were popular, but not for me.

For example, you won’t find any Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, or Michael Jackson on the list below. I had nothing against these artists (and I liked a few of their songs) but I was never one of their fans.

Oh, one other thing: I did not include any “greatest hits” or live albums on this list. I wanted to focus on music that was being heard for the first time between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1989.

Escape (Journey): Yes, I know: There is nothing especially original about this choice. Released in 1981, this album continues to have a footprint in the 21st century. “Don’t Stop Believing” was featured in the final scene of The Sopranos. I heard the song in a recent episode of MacGyver, too.

Foreigner 4: This is the only truly memorable album Foreigner ever put out, in terms of every song being a good one. But they hit a home run with Foreigner 4.


Back in Black (AC/DC): This album came out in December 1980. I still hear the title track in my mind sometimes at the most unexpected moments.

This is a great album to play when you’re working out!

For Those About to Rock (We Salute You) (AC/DC): A year after Back in Black, another great album from those Australian guys.

Third Stage (Boston): Boston spent most of the 1980s on hiatus. Third Stage came out in the summer of 1986, and the songs were on the radio constantly throughout the rest of that year.

There were many good ones—especially “Amanda”.

1984 (Van Halen): The year 1984 was significant because of the association with George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel set in that year.

Van Halen released 1984 early in 1984.

I especially liked “Jump” and “Hot for Teacher”. (I am guessing that the latter song would be considered politically incorrect, or triggering—or something—in these more sensitive times.)

5150 (Van Halen): This was the first Van Halen album with Sammy Hagar in the lead vocal role (instead of David Lee Roth).

Perhaps because of that, 5150 had a different vibe from previous Van Halen albums. More polished…and kind of mystic.

Does anyone know what the lyrics of “Love Walks In” mean? I’ve been wondering about that one for more than 30 years.

Reckless (Bryan Adams): There were a lot of great songs on this one. But it would make the list for “Summer of ’69” alone.

Scarecrow (John Mellencamp): From back in the days when John Mellencamp focused on making great music, and kept his political views to himself.

Permanent Vacation (Aerosmith): At the beginning of the 1980s, everyone thought that this band had left their best days behind them. They proved everyone wrong with this album in 1987. Aerosmith is still going strong today.

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Moving Pictures (Rush): “Tom Sawyer”, “Limelight” and “Red Barchetta” are among the great songs on Moving Pictures.

Signals (Rush): “Subdivisions”, “New World Man” and “Losing It” were among the songs that showcased Neil Peart’s lyrical skills—which were then at their peak (1982). Also, this is probably the only rock album in history that features a song about the space shuttle launch!

Piece of Mind (Iron Maiden): Dark and deep, but still very accessible, this is my favorite Iron Maiden album…and I like most of them.

Eliminator (ZZ Top): Some great MTV videos came out of this album..back when MTV still played music videos, that is.

Pyromania (Def Leppard): One of my all-time favorites, still sounds good after more than 35 years. The album that put Def Leppard on the map.

Brothers in Arms (Dire Straits): I like the politically incorrect, uncensored version of “Money for Nothing”…though it’s hard to find nowadays. Oh, how the finger-wagging do-gooders have ruined popular culture.

Invisible Touch (Genesis): The only Genesis album I ever really liked. But I liked this one.


This is my list. Which albums do you remember fondly from the 1980s (or wish you remembered fondly, if you weren’t around then)? Let me know on Facebook.

Vous Vitamin

Stairway to Heaven: the ‘Heart’ version

I was poking around on YouTube and I found this cover version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven’ by Heart–a band I remember fondly from the 1980s.

I’ll admit when I clicked on this, I had my doubts: I mean, Heart…’Stairway to Heaven’?…Really?

To my surprise, however, Heart might actually have improved on the original. (Yes, I know this will seem like pure blasphemy to some of you. But give it a listen before you judge.)

The meaning…if there is one…of the lyrics of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ have been debated for years. I won’t delve into the occult controversy for now. Suffice it to say that the lyrics of this song sounded a lot more profound to me thirty-five years ago, when I heard them at the age of fifteen.  But a lot of things aren’t as good or as deep as we remember them, thirty or forty years later.

‘Stairway to Heaven’ is still a great song, part of the soundtrack of my (and many other people’s) youth. I’ll always like it.