Charlie Watts (1941 – 2021)

The Rolling Stones started making music a few years before I was born, and they remain active now. And I’m in my 50s.

I was not part of the 1960s generation (I’m a Gen Xer); and I never loved the Rolling Stones as much as Rush, Def Leppard, or even Aerosmith. But I’ve been hearing their music since as long as I can remember, and much of it is quite good.

Rolling Stones songs and movie soundtracks seem to go together. There must be a rule somewhere, stating that every movie about Vietnam must use either “Satisfaction” or “Paint it Black” somewhere in the soundtrack. But it isn’t just Vietnam movies. Fallen, a 1995 horror film starring Denzel Washington, uses both “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Time is On My Side” in its soundtrack.

Almost everyone knows at least a few Rolling Stone songs, and most of us have a favorite one. (My person favorite is “Mixed Emotions”, released in 1989.)

The band’s drummer, Charlie Watts, passed away today in London. Watts always stuck out in the band. He was the one member of the group who didn’t look like a rock star, with his quiet, unassuming manner and formal dress (by rock band standards, anyway).

He seems to have been a nice fellow, and he played a good beat for many years. Charlie Watts, 80, RIP.

Ghostbusters, 1984

A quick musical note: On this date in 1984, Ray Parker Jr’s song “Ghostbusters” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. As the above tweet mentions, the song remained in the top spot for three weeks.

The song was a tie-in with the movie, of course. And since this was the era in which MTV still played music videos, the song was also a big hit on MTV.

The Ghostbusters song, heavy on concept, was ideal for the highly visual MTV medium. Watch the video below. It is now hopelessly dated, but still kind of fun. 

What was your friendly author doing on August 11, 1984? Whereas I’ve just celebrated my 53rd birthday in 2021, on this date in 1984 I had just turned 16. I already had my learner’s permit, and I was learning how to drive. I took driver’s ed that summer, as I recall. 

“Ghostbusters” was one of the constantly played songs of the late summer of 1984, and it quickly faded away afterward. This is no slight on Ray Parker Jr. A song based on a comedy film about ghost hunters is only going to have so long of a shelf life. 

The result is that whenever I hear this song, it takes me back…to a better, vanished time, that long-ago summer of 1984.

Music from the summer of ’88

It remains one of my missions here to remind readers (especially those too young to remember), that our culture wasn’t always as angry, self-destructive, and generally mucked up as it currently is.

Music often reflects the spirit of the times.  The summer of 1988 was a happy time. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the US economy was booming, and the dominant mood was one of optimism. (You sure could use a bit of optimism nowadays, couldn’t you?)

In the summer of 1988, I was in college. During that summer, I worked as a bagger at Thriftway, a now defunct grocery store chain in the Cincinnati area. (I also did stints in produce and seafood, if you want to get technical about it.)

That was a summer of some great music. No protest music to speak of, just songs about falling in love, getting on a roll, or going for a drive with your girl (or guy) on a summer night. 

Below are some of my favorite songs from that long-ago summer of 1988. These are songs that take me back…and might take you back, too, if you were around then.

R.I.P. Dusty Hill

I am part of the MTV generation. I turned 14 in 1982, the year MTV took off.

ZZ Top’s breakout album, Eliminator, came out in 1983. The music on the album was certainly quite good, and has stood the test of time. I think it’s fair to say, though, that MTV was pivotal in ZZ Top’s breakout success. MTV, alas, was a highly visual medium.

And ZZ Top was a very visual band. The group also mastered the MTV format.

ZZ Top was known for its two frontmen, Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons. With long flowing beards and fedoras, Hill and Gibbons were anachronisms even in the early 1980s. 

Dusty Hill passed away earlier this week, from undisclosed causes at the age of 72.

Requiescat in pace, Mr. Hill. You made some fine music, which brings back fond memories for millions of Gen Xers like me.

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And now, in honor of Dusty Hill, my favorite ZZ Top video, for the song “Legs”.

Both the song and the video are everything the 1980s was, and the present decade is not: sensual, unashamed, and (most of all): fun

 

‘Major Tom (Coming Home)’ by Peter Schilling: 1980s rock moment

A handful of German musical acts made the US charts in the 1980s. Most of them were in the genre of new wave/synthpop. 

Perhaps the best known was Nena, with her “99 Luftballons”. Then there was Falco, with “Amadeus”, in 1986. 

And then there was this guy: Peter Schilling. The above song, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” has been a bigger deal since the 1980s have been over, than it ever was during the 1980s. The song was used in the 1980s spy drama The Americans, and several other films about the last decade of the Cold War.

Honestly, I was very into music in those days, and I barely remember this song. It peaked at 14 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1983. I should remember it better. Perhaps the two FM pop/rock stations in Cincinnati weren’t very enthralled with it. (I do vaguely recall seeing the above video on MTV.)

That said, this is a song that captures a key part of the musical zeitgeist of the 1980s. Rock musicians in those days were not afraid of doing bombastic songs with overly ambitious themes. This was not only the over-the-top 1980s, it was also the Cold War. Thanks to Carl Sagan, there was a renewed interest in space, and the space shuttle was still a relative novelty.

That all came out in the music. Themes of space travel and nuclear war were therefore common, as well as all manner of futuristic themes.

***

‘Major Tom’ is a quirky, moody song, with a refrain that I find oddly captivating.

There is no love plot in this song, so far as I can tell. Nor can I tell you exactly what Peter Schilling was trying to say here. But I like the result.

Speaking of Peter Schilling: I understand that he has had a long, successful career in his native Germany. In the US, he is mostly known for this song. 

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Note: Before someone emails me…Like all good music fans of the 1980s, I am aware of the Scorpions. But the Scorpions were not new wave. (They were heavy metal.) The Scorpions were the biggest German musical act of the 1980s; but they are in a completely separate category, and in a class by themselves. 

 

80s rock moment: REO Speedwagon

One of the great bands of my youth was REO Speedwagon. The band’s most commercially successful albums, Hi Infidelity (1980), Wheels Are Turnin’ (1985) and Life As We Know It (1987) were all released in my adolescent/teen years.

REO Speedwagon’s ballad, “Can’t Fight This Feeling” was near the top of the charts throughout the spring of 1985, my junior year in high school.

In the above video, the band’s lead singer, Kevin Cronin, performs the song as a duet with his daughter at a music festival in 2019.

This is a song about falling in love, so nothing original about the theme. But there are a million ways to fall in love, and a million angles on it. The angle here is innocence, commitment, etc. There was something refreshing about this ballad even in the comparatively simple world of 1985. It is especially refreshing now, in these cynical, dysfunctional times of the 2o2os. 

“What started out as friendship has grown stronger…” That would be a good way to fall in love, wouldn’t it?

1980s music: Susanna Hoffs

I’m from the 1980s, as many of you may know. (Actually, I never really left.) I still love pop and rock music from that era. Iron Maiden, Foreigner, AC/DC, Journey…I love ‘em all.

But there were also some great all-female acts during the 1980s. My favorite, hands down, was The Bangles.

The charismatic lead singer of The Bangles was Susanna Hoffs. Here she is performing “Manic Monday” before a live audience in 2021. This version is a little different, stylistically, from the original, but it’s basically the same song.

“Manic Monday” was released in 1986, my senior year in high school. I can’t hear it without being transported back to that time, which was a happy one for me. (I had a mostly positive adolescent/high school experience.)

Nothing else to add, except that Susanna Hoffs is still lovely and talented at 62. Enjoy the video.

And if you’re too young to remember the 1980s and that decade’s music, you might investigate some of The Bangles’ other songs on YouTube. The Bangles put Taylor Swift to shame, IMO.

Two songs for Father’s Day

Today is Father’s Day, at least in the United States.

If you were fortunate enough to have a relationship with your father, and if your father is still alive, take a few minutes today to show him your appreciation.

I was blessed in this regard. I had a good relationship with my father (who is still with me) and my grandfather (who passed in 1998).

There are many memories of them both that I could relate. Perhaps I’ll get to that later in the day. For now, though, I’m going to leave you with two songs about fathers and fatherhood.

The first of these is Dan Fogelberg’s “The Leader of the Band” (1981), which explores the father-child relationship from the child’s perspective. The second is Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1975), which looks at fatherhood from the father’s perspective.

Both are worth listening to and reflecting upon as you begin Father’s Day, 2021.

‘The Osbournes Want to Believe’: quick review

Watch The Osbournes Want to Believe on Amazon 

The music of Ozzy Osbourne has long been one of my guilty pleasures. I’m from the Ozzy generation, you might say. I hit adolescence in the early 1980s, perfect timing for Ozzy’s three breakout albums: Blizzard of Oz (1980), Diary of a Madman (1981) and Bark at the Moon (1983).

By the time I graduated from high school in 1986, Ozzy Osbourne’s music  was already becoming somewhat predictable and repetitive. Or maybe I was just getting older?…Who knows? But anyway—if you were around in the early 1980s and into rock music, you’ll surely remember the energy of those first few albums. They were really something.

Ozzy Osbourne was always more of an entertainer than a technical musician. From the beginning of his solo career, the former Black Sabbath frontman effected this macabre persona, which was uniquely appealing to 13-year-old boys, circa 1981. Then there was the thing about him biting the head off a dove at a meeting with CBS record executives. (He was intoxicated at the time.)

By the early 2000s, Ozzy Osbourne’s style of music was long past its expiration date. The singer pivoted—to reality TV. From 2002 to 2005, MTV aired The Osbournes. Each episode of The Osbournes was basically a day-in-the-life with the singer and his family. I caught about fifteen minutes of one such episode, and immediately knew that The Osbournes wasn’t for me. I’m not a big fan of reality TV to begin with, and I found Ozzy’s two teenage children, Kelly and Jack, somewhat annoying.

I was therefore a bit skeptical when I tuned into my first episode of The Osbournes Want to Believe, which now airs on the Travel Channel. But the The Osbournes Want to Believe is actually not too bad…if you’re willing to accept it for what it is.

The Osbournes Want to Believe presents a new spin on the well-traveled paranormal investigation/ghosthunting TV genre. This show doesn’t feature parapsychologists and professional skeptics, breaking down videos of shadowy figures and independently moving objects. Here, instead, you watch and listen as three members of the Osbourne family give their take on such matters.

Son Jack serves as the host of the show. Yes, I found him annoying 18 years ago; but he’s now 35 and actually pretty good as a television host.

Ozzy Osbourne, meanwhile, is a shadow of his former self. To quote his Wikipedia entry, Ozzy “has abused alcohol and other drugs for most of his adult life.” In 1978, he unapologetically told a journalist, “I get high, I get f***ed up … what the hell’s wrong with getting f***ed  up? There must be something wrong with the system if so many people have to get f***ed up … I never take dope or anything before I go on stage. I’ll smoke a joint or whatever afterwards.”

The singer is now in his early seventies, and his decades of substance abuse are readily apparent. Ozzy is always likable, and at times genuinely witty; but he seems constantly on the verge of falling asleep. If not for his reputation, Ozzy could be mistaken for Joe Biden giving an unscripted press conference. (Sorry! I couldn’t resist.) No one need wonder, though, why Jack serves as the show’s moderator. Ozzy would not be up to the task.

Sharon Osbourne, of The Talk, is perfectly lucid and endlessly chirpy. Nor is she exactly unlikable. But—like the class clown of everyone’s school days— she tries too hard to turn every remark into a joke. Her humor doesn’t always miss the mark; but it rapidly wears thin because it just never stops.

The overall tone of the show is informal and conversational. The set looks like a room in one of the homes owned by Osbourne. Watching The Osbournes Want to Believe gives you the sense that you’re sitting around with this oddball family, watching these weird videos of weird happenings.

The Osbournes Want to Believe is not cutting-edge television; but it isn’t trying to be. And although I’m not an expert on such matters, it doesn’t appear to be cutting-edge in the field of paranormal research, either. Most of the commentary—however witty and occasionally funny—is purely speculative and anecdotal. 

This show seems to be yet one more attempt to cash in on the Ozzy Osbourne brand. That brand was launched more than 50 years ago, when the first Black Sabbath album hit the record stores in 1970.

How long can the Ozzy brand go on and continue to make money? Probably for as long as Ozzy can be dissuaded from completely obliterating himself with drugs and alcohol.

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”

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.