Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Modest Mouse -- "I've Got It All (Most)" (2009)

How can someone inconsistent
Mess up so consistently?

That is a VERY good question, and one for which I have no answer.

This is not necessarily my second-favorite song on the No One's First, And You're Next CD, but this line resonated with me. So this is the song I chose to feature in my account of day two of my Cape Cod Rail Trail ride. (Click here to read about day one of the trip.)

I started off at Seymour Pond (mile 6) and rode a little over 10 miles to the Cape Cod National Seashore visitors' center, where there's a spur trail that takes you to Nauset Bay and Coast Guard Beach:

Most Cape Cod towns are named after English towns: e.g., Chatham, Harwich, Sandwich, Truro, Yarmouth.  I'm not sure how a French name sneaked in:

As this photo of the aptly-named "Dead Man's Curve" so dramatically illustrates, the devilishly twisty and hilly CCRT provides a technical and cardiovascular challenge for even the most skilled cyclist:

Cobie's is one of a number of classic Cape Cod clam shacks along the CCRT:

The daily special at Cobie's was tempting:

But I opted for a traditional "Ye Olde Cape Codde" ground beef and guacamole burrito here instead:  

I had planned to ride the northernmost third of the CCRT the following day, but woke up with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which hits me every couple of years.  I could barely walk that day, so riding a bike would not have been a good idea.

Here's a Youtube video featuring the song -- not sure what all the Nazi stuff is for:

Here's a link to "I've Got It All (Most)" on iTunes:

If you prefer Amazon, click here:

Modest Mouse -- "The Whale Song" (2009)

I guess I am a scout
So I should find a way out
So everyone can find a way out

Before we get to this song, let's take a little trip to Cape Cod.

Henry David Thoreau visited Cape Cod four times between 1849 and 1857.  (His first visit -- in October 1849 -- was the basis for his book, Cape Cod.)  I've visited Cape Cod almost 50 times -- the first time was in April 1976, the last time about a month ago.

Thoreau took the brand-new Old Colony Railroad from Boston to Sandwich, rode a stagecoach along what is now Route 6A from there to Orleans (roughly 35 miles), and walked the 25 miles from there to Provincetown, where Cape Cod ended.

I've travelled the same approximate route many times via bus, car and bicycle, and I assure you that things have changed dramatically since Thoreau visited.  In fact, things have changed dramatically since I first visited in 1976 -- taking the "T" from Harvard Square to South Station in downtown Boston, a bus from South Station to Hyannis, a smaller bus from there to Dennis, and walking from the bus stop in Dennis to the house overlooking Massachusetts Bay that my in-laws had bought before my wife was born.

Here's what the front of that house looked like in 1976:

Here's the back of the house today:

If you make a quarter-turn to the left (looking in the direction of 9 o'clock instead of 12 o'clock), this is the view you get:

Another quarter-turn to the left (so the house is directly behind you) gives you this view of Massachusetts Bay:

For close to two decades now, one of the highlights of my Cape Cod trips has been riding the Cape Cod Rail Trail.  The Old Colony Railroad that Thoreau had ridden to Sandwich had been extended to Provincetown by 1873.  The railroad thrived as a passenger line until highway bridges opened over the Cape Cod Canal and automobiles replaced trains as the preferred way to get to the Cape.  Freight service ended in the 1960's, and the railroad right-of-way between South Dennis and Wellfleet was eventually turned into the Cape Cod Rail Trail. 

The main CCRT is 22 miles long, or 44 miles long from the beginning to the end and back.  (There are some shorter branch trails along the way.)  I usually ride it in three roughly-equal out-and-back segments -- that means each day's ride is 14-16 miles.  My iPod Shuffle is a necessary accessory for these rides, of course -- like all rail-trails, the CCRT is quite flat so it's no great strain to sing along loudly all the way.  This year, my Blackberry camera came in quite handy as well.

About 1 1/2 miles from the beginning of the rail trail, you cross over the Herring River in Harwich -- last year, there was a family of swans visible from this vantage point:

Here's a cranberry bog -- you see quite a few of these along the trail:

(In case you're wondering, that's a partly eaten apple on the seat of my rental bike.)

Rhododendrons were at their peak on Cape Cod when we were there last month:

The Pleasant Lake General Store (right on the trail at mile 5) is a nice old-fashioned place to stop for a cold drink or a snack.

Seymour Pond (mile 6) is my usual turnaround point on day one -- it's one of many "kettle ponds" on Cape Cod, which were created by retreating glaciers during the last ice age.  (Thoreau's Walden Pond is also a kettle pond.)

I always put some new CDs on my iPod to "break in" during these rides, and this year I got familiar with an almost brand-new Modest Mouse CD, No One's First and You're Next.  It has only eight songs, all of which are leftovers from the band's previous two full-length CDs.  Not surprisingly, there's no particular coherence to the CD -- it's not akin to a novel, but more like a collection of short stories featuring different characters.

This song consists of a single four-measure phrase repeated 45 times -- each time through is a little different, of course.  The bass guitar does most of the work the first four times through the four-measure phrase, establishing the foundation of the song.  Guitars then join in and the next 18 four-measure phrases are purely instrumental -- the music becomes louder, more complex, and more intense.  

The next 11 repetitions of the four-measure phrase feature vocals.  The lines quoted above (with some small variations) are repeated 11 times -- I guess you would call these lines a chorus of sorts.  There are also two "verses" that are sung over some of the choruses.

Finally, we go all-instrumental for 12 more repetitions of our four-measure theme.

That probably all sounds like this song must be incredible repetitive and boring, but it isn't.  Don't take my word for it -- most reviewers liked it a lot.  One student reviewer (who accurately described the song as "[s]tarting out with a relatively simple melody [that] slowly descends into a sprawling, colorful chaos") thought it was clearly the best song on the CD.

The estimable Robert Christgau gave the CD an A-minus grade, and said that the "The Whale Song" bemoans singer/lyricist's Isaac Brock's "metaphorical uselessness as it demonstrates his capacity for beauty."  (No wonder Christgau has awarded himself the title "Dean of American Rock Critics."  That's some mighty fancy writin'.)

I'll discuss the next song on this Modest Mouse CD and tell you about the rest of my Cape Cod bike ride in my next post.

Here's the official music video for "The Whale Song."  (Don't ask me what it means -- I don't have a clue.)

Here's a video of a live performance of this song:

Here's a link if you want to buy "The Whale Song" on iTunes:

And here's a link to Amazon:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Crabby Appleton -- "Go Back" (1970)

And you know it's not right
When you kiss me tonight
You pretend his lips are mine

This post is going to digress and meander more than most -- I believe it will represent a personal best for me in terms of the number of links and embedded videos.  But before we get to me watching cartoons and quiz shows at my grandmother's house in Joplin, Missouri, let's do our duty and spend a few minutes discussing this song.

Read the three lines I quoted above one more time.  That's an odd way to put it, isn't it?  Sounds sort of backwards to me -- she's kissing me while thinking of him, so I'd think the line would be "You pretend my lips are his" instead of the other way around.

Whatever . . . it doesn't pay to spend a lot of time analyzing a perfect little three-minute AM-radio song like this one.  The words of such songs rarely impress you when you read them -- it's the music that counts.

The best perfect little three-minute AM-radio songs ("PL3MAMRS" for short) are those recorded by one-hit wonders.  They're charming due to their evanescent, lighter-than-air quality.  A PL3MPS wastes no time -- you don't want long instrumental passages (a couple of measures to make the transition between chorus and verse is plenty), and even a hooky little chorus begins to bore after two or at most three repetitions.  We're looking for something that gets right to the point and doesn't waste our time -- wham, bam, thank-you ma'am.

Crabby Appleton was a short-lived Los Angeles band that released two well-reviewed LPs and opened for some high-profile groups -- including the Guess Who, Three Dog Night, and the Doors -- before disbanding.  I think I heard this song when it was released in the summer of 1970, but it wasn't a huge radio hit and I don't remember hearing it since then.  It seems to have been overlooked by most "oldies" stations.

I rediscovered it on a 5-CD compilation set called Forever Changing: The Golden Age of Elektra 1963-1973. (Thank you, Montgomery County Public Library.)  Although its stable of recording artists included the Doors, Elektra Records was not really a rock or pop label -- it leaned more towards folk, with artists like the Byrds, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Phil Ochs, and Richard Farina.  Elektra also signed a band that we'll take a look at in a future post -- the amazing, one-of-a-kind Arthur Lee and Love, who supposedly persuaded the label's co-founder, Jac Holtzman, to give the Doors a chance.  "Go Back" is very different from most of the songs on those 5 CDs.  

Crabby Appleton is a very strange name for a band -- anyone out there know where they got it?  My more mature fans may remember that Crabby Appleton -- his slogan was "Rotten to the core!" -- was the arch-villain on the "Tom Terrific" cartoon that was featured on the legendary "Captain Kangaroo" TV show in the 1950's and 1960's.  Tom Terrific was a boy superhero who wore a funnel-shaped "thinking cap," which enabled him to turn himself into a tornado, a train, or whatever was necessary.

"Captain Kangaroo" was must-see television for kids of my generation -- partly because it didn't have much competition.  It was on CBS five mornings a week, and not just on Saturdays.

We had two television stations in Joplin back then.  One was a CBS affiliate -- CBS was the dominant network back then, with the Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton shows plus "Gunsmoke" and "Beverly Hillbillies" and many others -- while the other station carried a mix of NBC and ABC programming.

Much to my chagrin, the second station chose to stick with the fuddy-duddy ABC western "Wagon Train " in 1964, when NBC introduced the coolest TV show ever, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E."  I was beside myself.

Both my parents worked, so I spent most of my summer days with my grandmother, who lived only a couple of blocks away.  She was very young and very energetic for a grandmother, and really functioned more like a second mother for me.  (When I was born, she was less than a year older than I was when my youngest child was born.)  My mother was only child, and I was an only child until I was almost 7, so I had my grandmother all to myself.

I have vivid memories of my grandmother's cooking.  She did all the standards -- hamburgers, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, etc.  A favorite Saturday lunch to accompany the major-league baseball "Game of the Week" (broadcast by legendary former players Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese) was macaroni and cheese topped with pan-fried sliced bologna.  When "The Wonderful World of Disney" aired on Sunday evenings, I would watch it while eating my standard Sunday night dinner -- scrambled eggs, toast with grape jelly, and a chocolate milk shake.

But the most remarkable dish she prepared was known as "syrup 'n' bread," a favorite breakfast that I speculate was something that was created out of necessity during the Depression.  To make it, you cut up two slices of white sandwich bread into nine bite-sized squares each, placed small pats of margarine on each, and poured white Karo syrup over it.  (Sort of a poor man's French toast, I guess.)

There weren't a lot of kids in the neighborhood and certainly no summer camps or other planned activities for me, so I spent most of the day in front of the television.  (As I got older, I spent more time reading.  I'd often go to the public library and check out six books --  which was the maximum number allowed -- then return them the next day and get six more.)  After starting my days off with "Captain Kangaroo," I watched several game shows -- "Jeopardy" (hosted by the smooth and very insincere Art Fleming) was my favorite.  (Yes, I kept score.)

At noon, I would have lunch and watch a curious local program called "Melody Matinee," which was obviously aimed at rural housewives and senior citizens -- it featured a country/gospel band (including a guitar player who was missing the third and fourth fingers on his strumming hand -- his name was either Virgil or Earl) and a genial host who acknowledged viewers' birthdays and anniversaries and passed along song requests.  (The TV station's website claims that "Melody Matinee" was the longest running local music program in the U.S.)

After that, my grandmother watched "As the World Turns" and a couple of other soap operas.  Later in the afternoon, there were old Roy Rogers and Gene Autry reruns, "Three Stooges" reruns, and reruns of "Wrestling with Russ Davis" from the Chicago Amphitheatre -- believe me, Hulk Hogan was nothing compared to Gorgeous George and the other stars of that era.

"Rocky and Bullwinkle" was undoubtedly the best cartoon from my grade-school days  (although I didn't appreciate all the jokes until I was in college), but "Underdog" was a close second.  

I do remember "Tom Terrific" from the Captain Kangaroo show, although not that well.  I remember the "Underdog" cartoon series much better.  I thought Crabby Appleton was the villain on "Underdog," but I appear to have confused him with Simon Bar Sinister, who was Underdog's arch-enemy.

This is Crabby Appleton:

This is Simon Bar Sinister:

I think my confusion is understandable.  One black-and-white mad-scientist cartoon arch-villain looks pretty much like the next one.

By the way, Simon Bar Sinister is an example of macaronic language, which mean text that mixes words from more than one language -- here, the name is sort of a bilingual pun on a heraldic mark known as a "bend sinister" in English, which indicates there's an illegitimate birth in the family line.  "Barre" -- pronounced "bar" -- is the French equivalent of "bend."  Hence, Simon Bar Sinister is another way of saying "Simon the Bastard," which he was.  By the way, "macaronic" comes from the same Latin root that also gave us "macaroni" -- which was originally considered peasant food.  "Macaronic" has similar derogatory overtones, and usually refers to crude or humorous writing -- in particular, macaronic Latin refers to writing that satirizes the fractured Latin used in 14th-century Italy by people who were trying to pass themselves off as being well-educated when they were not.

The "Underdog" theme song is a classic:

When criminals in this world appear
And break the laws that they should fear
And frighten all who see or hear
The cry goes out both far and near for Underdog!
Underdog!  Underdog!  Underdog!
Speed if lightning, roar of thunder, 
Fighting all who rob and plunder
Underdog!  Underdog!

Underdog was modeled loosely on Superman.  He was a mild-mannered shoeshine boy who transformed himself into a super-powered hero by taking an energy pill and going into a phone booth to change into a Superman-like costume.  Underdog, who always spoke in rhyming couplets -- e.g., 'There's no need to fear/Underdog is here!" -- was voiced by Wally Cox, whose television persona was that of a 97-pound weakling, but who was actually strong and athletic.  He and Marlon Brando were close friends -- rumor has it that they were lovers -- and their ashes were scattered together in Death Valley after Brando's death.

Wally Cox is probably best remembered today for his frequent appearances on the old "Hollywood Squares' quiz show:  Cox is asked a question about 7 minutes into this episode.

Here's a video that features enough "Underdog" footage to give you a feel for the show.  The music that accompanies is a version of the theme song recorded by the Butthole Surfers.

The Butthole Surfers are a very strange and disturbing band founded by Gibby Haynes and Paul Leary (originally Paul Leary Walthall), who met when they were students at Trinity University in San Antonio in the 1970's.  My sister also went to Trinity -- she was a couple of years younger than Haynes, but knew him because they both played basketball.  (He was the men's team captain and also an accounting major -- she is still Trinity's career basketball scoring leader and became the first female non-tennis player to be inducted into the Trinity athletic hall of fame several years ago.)  She has an old media guide with a picture of him in his basketball garb, and you best believe that he has changed more than most of us have since we graduated from college.

The band's CDs include Locust Abortion TechnicianIndependent Worm Saloon, and Hairway to Steven.  (Think about it.)  Here's the video for one of my favorite Butthole Surfers songs, 'Who Was in My Room Last Night":

Here's a video featuring a slightly truncated version of "Go Back" -- it's an excerpt from a comedian John Byner's TV show.  (The video opens with Byner doing a commercial for milk, so be patient.)

If you want to buy "Go Back," here's a link to iTunes that will allow you to do just that:

Or here's a link to the song on

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Foo Fighters -- "The Pretender" (2007)

What if I say I'm not like the others?
What if I say I'm not just another one of your plays?
You're the pretender
What if I say I will never surrender?

When he was asked about the meaning of this song, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters told an interviewer, "That's the thing with lyrics, you never want to give away specifics, because it's nice for people to have their own idea or interpretation of the song."

You can interpret the song anyway you wish, but before you spend a lot of time mulling the lyrics over, you should be aware that my interpretation is the correct one.  In my view, most of the songs on this blog -- and most of the songs I listen to -- are essentially about me.  Call me egocentric, call me a narcissist -- "Just don't call me late for dinner," my mother would add -- but I usually have little trouble finding a very personal relevance in the lyrics of songs I like.  In fact, when I e-mail the lyrics of a song to someone, or make a CD with that song on it, it always surprises me that the other person doesn't immediately see what the song really means -- by which I mean what the song means to me.

(By the way, I think Narcissus got a bad rap.  After all, Narcissus didn't invade Poland or spill a million billion gazillion barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico -- he simply was more interested in himself than in Echo or anyone else.  (Ovid tells us he was a very good-looking guy, so let's not be too harsh on him.)  But today the word "narcissist" implies that one is cunning or manipulative, a pathological liar, shameless and remorseless, and so on.  I certainly don't fit that definition -- although I might have to plead guilty if Charles Derber or Havelock Ellis called me a narcissist -- and I'm sure you don't either.)

Back to the song.  As I see it, the lines quoted above represent a defiant statement of a man's refusal to be manipulated or controlled by the one he desires.  The "I" of the song declares that he is "not like the others" but is different and one of a kind.  (Spoken like a true narcissist:  narcissists perceive themselves as special and unique.)  He then announces his refusal to be handled or "played" by the other.  (Narcissists are arrogant and feel superior to others -- a subservient position is not acceptable.)  Finally, he grandiosely declares that he will "never surrender."

In reality, of course, we nearly always do surrender eventually -- either we are desperate enough that we allow ourselves to be manipulated or exploited, or we finally give up in the face of indifference.

But regardless of reality, this song will forever remain on my iPod, and I will sing these lines like I really mean them when I'm riding my Gary Fisher "Utopia" to Lake Needwood:

Because, to quote the last line of The Sun Also Rises, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Here's the music video for "The Pretender":

If you'd like to buy this song from iTunes, be my guest: Foo Fighters - Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace

But if you'd prefer to buy this song from Amazon, that's fine, too:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Avengers -- "The American In Me" (1979)

Ask not what you can do for your country
What's your country been doing to you?

Most of you are no doubt familiar with the line from John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech, which is turned on its head by the lines quoted above:  "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."

Kennedy's assassination was obviously the inspiration for the first two lines of this song:

It's the American in me that makes me watch the blood
Running out of the bullet hole in his head

This post is the last in my series of posts about songs I heard on WHFS's "Mystic Eyes" program 30 years ago.  That's because "The American In Me" is the ne plus ultra song of that era – trying to top it would be like Chuck Berry trying to top his opening act, Jerry Lee Lewis, who set his piano on fire.  (Some of the other "Mystic Eyes" songs I've written about are somewhat frivolous.  But there's nothing light-hearted or tongue-in-cheek here.  The Avengers were not kidding around.)  

There's another reason to make this the final "Mystic Eye" post.  I stopped listening to (and recording) that program because I moved to San Francisco in 1980.  In San Francisco, I started listening to (and recording) a Pacifica radio program that featured hardcore punk bands.  (I plan to do a series of posts on the very obscure music played on the Pacifica program some day.) 

One of the hosts of the Pacifica program was Jello Biafra, the lead singer of the Dead Kennedys and arguably American hardcore punk's biggest name.  (According to his Wikipedia entry, Jello Biafra – whose real name was Eric Boucher – attended UC-Santa Cruz, where he "studied acting and the history of Paraguay.")

Many of the bands featured on that program played at the Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino restaurant and nightclub on North Beach that became the center of San Francisco's hardcore scene – sort of a West Coast equivalent of CBGB.  Among the regulars at "The Fab Mab" was the Avengers.

So this song bridges my "Mystic Eyes" era and my San Francisco sojourn.  Actually, there's a chance that I first heard this song on the Pacifica program instead of on "Mystic Eye."  But I don't think so.  (I'm going to have to go down in my basement and start digging around in boxes that haven't been opened in 25 years if I want to know for sure.)

Before we get back to the Avengers, click here to watch a video of the Dead Kennedys' biggest hit, "Holiday in Cambodia" – accompanied by footage from the movie Apocalypse Now.

The Avengers were formed in 1977.  On the strength of a 3-song EP and their Mabuhay garden appearances, they were chosen to open for the Sex Pistols' final show at Bill Graham's Winterland Ballroom.  Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols then produced the band's eponymous (there's that word again!) EP, which included "The American In Me."

A couple of the band's original members (including singer Penelope Houston) re-formed the band after the release of a compilation CD in 1999.  In 2006, they performed "The American In Me" with Pearl Jam at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco.  

"The American In Me" is a startling song – a real kick in the you-know-whats for anyone who lived through the Kennedy assassination.  It is anti-government from a leftist conspiracy-theory sort of viewpoint (another of its lines is "Kennedy was murdered by the FBI!"), as opposed to being anti-government from a right-wing Tea Party perspective.

Punk/rock music should be anti-government, of course . . . also anti-parent and anti-teacher.   

Without further ado, click here to listen to the Avengers doing 'The American In Me."

If you want to buy this song from Amazon, just click on the link below: