Saturday, November 07, 2020

Rock 'N' Roll and the Cycle of Life : Farewell, Eddie Van Halen


So many musicians and public figures have passed away in the past ten years, especially since the 2016 triple whammy of Lemmy (Dec ‘15, actually), David Bowie, and Prince. Some people at that time blamed the year. If we just got out of 2016, no more old rock stars would die, as through old people would stop aging or getting sick in 2017.

 But time kept rambling on, and we saw more icons die, and not only Boomer ones - Tom Petty, Peter Tork, Chris Cornell, Dolores O’ Riordan, George Michael,  Fast Eddie Clarke, Vinnie Paul, Aretha Franklin, Paul Raymond, Pete Way, Paul Chapman, Kim Shattuck, Pete Shelley, Ginger Baker, etc.

 Someone asked me, "What future rock star death do you think will affect you the most?”

“Eddie Van Halen,” I said. “It’s all over after that.”

 Now of course I didn’t mean that the world or my life would be over. It would be the end of an era, a definitive sign that the younger Boomers/older Gen Xers needed to address their mortality, instead of mindlessly clamoring on like our music and pop culture still matter to the population at large. Rock music started to wither in mainstream culture in the late 90s, and was relegated to a genre for old people sometime in the ‘10s. Yeah, lots of kids are forming guitar-based bands and putting out new music, but now it’s just one of dozens of music genres on Spotify, not a rallying cry for a generation.

 


From 1978 to 1984, I must have listened to all the DLR-era Van Halen albums hundreds of times, read every magazine article, bought every poster, and listened to every radio/TV interview with the band I could find. Sure, my girlfriends and I spent an inordinate amount of time giggling about DLR’s latest antics, but every time we went to a VH show, we always sat (or stood) by Eddie’s side of the stage. It reminded me of an interview I saw a long time ago with some teen-age girls during the Beatles’ first tour of America. The interviewer asked them what they liked about the band, and three of the girls squealed about how cute and funny they were. The fourth girl said, “They have the most beautiful sound,” her voice almost drowned out by the other girls’ high-pitched giggles. 

 Dave was the face and voice of VH, but Eddie was the heart – and the soul.

   2015 Smithsonian interview

David Bowie’s death broke the internet for a week, but the news cycle is different now. Eddie’s passing floored people for a day or two, but politics kicked him off the social media and the usual bickering returned the next day. The only people who cared after that were people in Van Halen fan groups, musicians, or rock writers. Eddie may have been important to us, but, lets face it, he was a guitar hero from the ‘80s to most people, another nostalgic figure. To fans and musicians, he was much more. He was an innovator and a legend, younger Boomers’ Jimi Hendrix.

 Vernon Reid of Living Colour, wrote on Twitter

 "So you think the death of EVH is hitting you now. It’s not. Grief doesn’t work that way. Tomorrow is going to be worse than today. His passing is enormous. Exploitation will follow, like t shirts for Kobe. Don’t be too proud to cry. This is a sad time. Tears are appropriate." 



Eddie Van Halen passed away from throat cancer on Oct. 6. It’s a month later, and I’ve finally overcome the shock. I’d been doing pretty well on my new routine, avoiding Facebook and other social media for most of the day. Yay! More time to actually do work and be happy. You should try it sometime. I took a break for a mid-day check on Facebook. Wolf’s post about Eddie was at the top of my newsfeed. This can’t be real. I thought, and I stared at the post for a good 30 seconds. Finally, I accepted reality. Eddie was gone. I watched all the videos and interviews I could find, including clips with Eddie and Valerie Bertinelli from Entertainment Tonight that I hadn’t seen since 1982. I remembered every word and every gesture they made like I was watching it back in my childhood home 38 years ago. My friends and I were excited, and yes, a little jealous, when Valerie married Eddie, but we were big fans of Valerie’s since we first saw her on One Day at a Time. Better that Ed married a nice Italian girl (well, Italian/English) than some gold-digging blonde bimbo. 



 

After Eddie died, I said “Well, at least Dave will live to be 100. “Don’t say that -you'll jinx him! You said Pete Way would outlive Keith Richards, and look what happened there.” my friend responded. Way, UFO’s former bass player and leader of Waysted in the late ‘80s, survived decades of alcoholism, heroin and cocaine abuse, prostate cancer, and a heart attack, and then died after falling down the stairs in his home. He had been sober for years. He still hung on for weeks in the hospital, and was scheduled to return home the day he died. A world concert tour had been planned for 2021.


                                                        You Really Got Me Promo Video

  I first heard Van Halen on a TEAC turntable in our wood paneled basement. My brothers had commandeered the space. It  had a pool table, a silk Camaro banner. and a beer can collection.  One of my brothers grabbed an album from the shelf, in between the Ramones “Rocket to Russia” and D.O.A.’s “Bloodrock”. I didn’t even need to listen to the album right away – the photos on the front and back covers got your attention.  The photos were different than what I’d seen before. Instead of the usual posed group shot with band members in jeans and t-shirts, or some obscure conceptual art, the cover grabbed you and made you want to hear what was inside.

 Eddie looked fierce, and Dave, well, he had that Jim Dandy swagger, leather pants, and could do a backbend. Alex and Michael were obscured by lightning streak special effects, but still looked cool.

 It’s  a good thing the record company didn’t rush through the original new wave album cover. The cover was an example of the old-school thinktank record company mentality. Let’s do what the punk bands are doing - that’s the hot thing in England now. Yeah, let’s also shoot a cover that misrepresents the band’s music and their personalities. In the old days,  an album cover could be the difference between an impromptu purchase in a record store and a pass over.  

We put the record on. The first notes of “Runnin’ with the Devil” grabbed you like an alien life force. What was that sound? Where did it come from?  We couldn’t breeze through the usual comparisons to other bands or guitar players. Did the guitar remind us of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, UFO? Nah, this was something else.

 As loud as it was on normal volume, we turned the volume up until the windows rattled and you could visualize the power, the force of the music shattering the glass until it rained shards on the neatly landscaped front lawn.

 The first copy of Guitar Player I ever bought had an interview with Eddie in it. But my girlfriends and I still hung up cute pics of Eddie from Circus and Hit Parader, and some of us even raided our younger sisters' 16 magazines for pin-ups.



Like a dummy, I gave away my ticket to see Black Sabbath before I knew Van Halen was opening for them. I made up for it in 1979, when I saw VH headline at the Arrogant Brawlroom (aka Aragon Ballroom) in Chicago. I took two buses and two subway lines all the way to Uptown to see the show. In those days, everybody partied in the alley behind the venue while they waited to get in the building. You didn’t really need booze or pot, the music got you high enough, but sharing pot and booze with the kids next to you was a social thing. It was a great way to meet people and make friends.


The kids at the sold-out Aragon show were true music nerds, Van Halen II had just been released so the “normal” kids hadn’t heard of them yet. We didn’t need to compete with drunken jocks and their bored girlfriends for space by the front of the stage.

 Eddie wore a striped jacket and velour-type pants. He looked cute as hell, the grinning genius to David’s bravado. Even on the Aragon stage without mountains of amps and video screens behind them, they were larger than life. The show was hot, sweaty and primal. You could feel the notes from Eddie’s guitar, not just hear them. There were no barricades between the band and the kids crammed up in front like there are today. I could almost touch Eddie's white sneakers.   

 

                                      Here’s an 8mm clip from the Fresno show on that tour.






 1980-1982

The next year, a girlfriend and I had the International Amphitheatre’s main floor to ourselves as we watched the band rehearse. Eddie, Alex, and Michael were there but Dave was off doing Dave things.  In 1981, another friend and I hung out backstage  -that is, until I insisted on going out to watch the show. We couldn’t get backstage again. My friend was mad about that. But that’s what I get for wanting to watch the actual concert.  In ’82, we were back in the 20th row.

 After the first two years or so, a Van Halen concert turned into a circus, with Dave as the ringmaster. Everyone else pitched in - Michael had a Jack Daniels bass, Eddie, always smiling, leapt in the air, or took a break to puff on a cigarette during solos. Alex poured beer on himself after playing a solo, and inflatable love dolls, groupies, etc. filled the venues. 

 I’ve seen hundreds of concerts, but I’ve never had more fun than I did at a Van Halen show.

 US Festival

 Naturally, my most memorable Van Halen concert was also their most infamous - the US Festival in 1983. I’d just moved to California, and didn’t know many people, but that didn’t stop me from going to the desert to see the mighty Van Halen headline Heavy Metal Day. My vision of the band was slightly obscured by barriers and a million dollar set up, but with a bit of neck-craning I could see ‘em.  Once again, I stood right up in front on Eddie’s side of the stage as he played his iconic solo.

At one point in the show, Dave pointed out that this metal day attracted 200,000 people, (the highest of the four day fest). An endless horizon of people stretched out as far as the eyes could see, with the spotlights illuminating the stoned throngs.

 I made my way out to the chartered bus after the show, and sat next to a shaggy-haired entrepreneur who made studded leather wristbands. I bought one, and wore it proudly to  shows and clubs that summer (along with my Union Jack shirt and leather pants.)

 Last Show

I bought a cassette of 5150 at Tower Records on Sunset Strip in 1986. I'd watch videos and interviews with the band on MTV in the late '80s and '90s, and I may have even bought a few cassingles (remember those?) However, that was the extent of my history with Sammy-era Van Halen. 

I didn’t see Van Halen again until their last show in 2015 at Hollywood Bowl. (Unbeknownst to us at the time, it would be their last show ever.) This time we sat in the cheap seats. But the cheap seats were rocking with vociferous fans. "Just sing the song, Dave", one woman kept screaming when Dave went into his between song novellas. “But when did Dave ever just “sing the song”?, I said. The highlights for me were Eddie’s solo and even Alex’s drum solo. It brought me back to my carefree college days. I didn’t want the concert to end. Eddie still had the same boyish grin as he did what he was born to do. I felt like I was 19 again.

We held out hope that VH would return one more time with Michael Anthony as bass player. The official word was that a tour with Dave and Mike was scheduled for 2019, but was canceled due to Ed’s health.

 



 Those days or nights spent listening to music on headphones, or blasting the stereo while enjoying a joint or a beer (or Pepsi and bag of chips for the junk food junkies among us ) are precious memories now.  There were no streaming services, Playstations, or DVDs back then, and an MTV fix wasn't enough. When you listened to music, it was the main course, not a blip in the background. You immersed yourself in every song, every album, over and over again until they were ingrained in your consciousness. 

 I wish I could remember more from that first show. But every time I hear Van Halen II or see the few clips from 1979 shows, I get the same flutter of excitement I had when the band first took the stage that night at the Aragon.

Maya Angelou once said, “You may not remember what people said, you may not remember what people did, but you always remember how they made you feel.” Well, Eddie, we remember what you did, but we also remember the utter joy of hearing you play and watching you perform.

Thanks for everything. We love you.






















Thursday, June 18, 2020

Music Review: Blvds of Splendor by Cherie Currie





In today's world of streaming music, with every song imaginable  a click away, it's hard to stay focused on an entire album. But you can still find gems that keep even the most ADHD-challenged music listener interested. You can listen to the digital version of Cherie Currie’s album Blvds of Splendor straight through, and come back for seconds. There’s not one bad song on Blvds. You won’t need to skip around to get to the good stuff, or buy a few tracks because the rest of the songs aren’t up to par.

The tracks were recorded in 2010 and 2011 for an album on Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records, but the release was delayed until 2019.  On Record Day 2019,  Blackheart released a limited edition red vinyl album of Blvds of Splendor. It sold out almost immediately.

The digital download of the album, released in late April of this year, contains three songs not on the red vinyl. Matt Sorum (Guns ‘N’ Roses, Velvet Revolver) produced Blvds of Splendor and played drums on all the cuts. Most of the songs were written or co-written by Cherie and her son,  Jake Hays. Jake is a multi-instrumentalist, singer and producer. His debut album, Room 13, is available on Spotify and other streaming platforms. 

 The album blasts off with “Mr. X”. Slash and Duff MacKagan  give extra oomph to this already bombastic song about a fiery ex-lover. (Slash and Currie previously played together for a benefit in 2013 along with Lita Ford.)

“Roxy Roller” an early glam hit for the Canadian band Sweeny Todd (with Nick Gilder  and later Bryan Adams) Canadian surely played at Rodney’s English Disco and the Sugar Shack.  Nick Gilder and Suzi Quarto recently joined Cherie for a quarantine version of the song.  


Currie clears the cobwebs off “What Would All the People Say?”, a minor hit for the Monroes in 1982. The other covers include a funky version of the Tommy James hit “Dragging the Line”. The moving, string-infused take on the Hollies’ “The Air that I Breathe” brings the song to another level.  Currie’s earthy voice has matured and lends more poignancy to the lyrics. (Even in the Runaways, at 16, she had a bluesy tinge to her voice.)

Rock & Roll Oblivion features a rich, haunting pastiche of E-bows and thundering guitars. It’s tale of a survivor who has earned her “scars of wisdom”, and the song exhibits a lot of raw emotion.

 The title track, co-written by Billy Corgan, showcases Currie’s melodic skills. The song has a pleasant, hummable chorus, and Cherie and Billy’s voices blend well. Blvds of Splendor is the kind of song that would sound great blaring out of a car radio (aka Siruis) on a summer day.

 The catchy anthem “Force to Be Reckoned With” (co-written by Holly Knight), charges along with a steamroller rhythm, and “Breakout” has the gritty tone of an AC/DC or Thin Lizzy album cut. The feisty “You Wreck Me” calls out an ex-lover, and the Gina Gershon-penned “Gimme”  is a declaration of independence by a woman who knows what she wants.   

The Runaways have influenced decades of female musicians, and a few of them make an appearance on this album. The digital only version of “Queens of Noise features an all-star cast of Brody Dalle, Juliet Lewis, the Veronicas on back-up vocals.

Blvds of Splendor kicks ass, whether you categorize it as hard rock, pop-rock, or melodic rock. It’s reminiscent of many hard-rock albums released from the ‘70s to the early ‘90s, attitude-wise. Modern production and more sophisticated lyrics bring the sound  into the 21st century without sacrificing the edge.    

Blvds is one of the most engaging hard rock albums I’ve heard in the last decade.  Currie certainly deserves a nomination for best hard rock/metal performance for the 2021 Grammys, and the songwriting and production are top-notch as well.



 From Cherry Bomb to Chainsaw Chick


The photos of Currie singing onstage in a white corset with the Runaways have become some of the most iconic rock images of the 1970s. Runaways’ taskmaster/music impresario Kim Fowley initially envisioned Currie as the rock Brigitte Bardot, but she eclipsed that image almost immediately. Her voice and stage presence were sheer rock attitude. The band turned out to be much more than a vehicle for Fowley’s jailbait fantasies.

Joan Jett and Lita Ford have been rock stars in their own right for decades. Jackie Fox became an entertainment lawyer after leaving the band. Sandy West released a solo EP in 2000, and is included on many top female drummer lists.

Bassist Vicki Tischler-Blue, who replaced Fox, made the Runaways documentary Edgeplay in 2004.  Currie’s 1989 autobiography Neon Angel inspired the 2010 movie The Runaways. 

 Since Currie left the Runaways in 1978, she has reinvented herself many times as an actress, a drug counselor, chainsaw artist, and, of course, a solo musical artist. Her two post-Runaways albums, Beauty’s Only Skin Deep and Messin’ with the Boys (with sister Marie) boasted many catchy pop-rock tunes, but neither album made a dent in the U.S. chart.



Currie starred in two movies that have become cult classics. Wavelength, an indie sci-fiction movie, seemed to be inspired by an alleged UFO event in California. She played  ill-fated Annie in the teen drama, Foxes, along with Jodie Foster. (Fun Fact: Curie was up for the Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) role in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, but turned it down to be in Foxes. )

Currie’s 2015 solo album Reverie (her first album since Messin with the Boys) was produced by Kim Fowley shortly before his death. Cherie’s son Jake Hays played guitar, bass, keyboards and co-wrote several of the songs with Cherie. Fowley co-wrote two songs “Queen of the Asphalt Jungle” and “Dark World” with Cherie and Jake.

Lita Ford delivers lead vocals on remakes of two Runaways “Is It Day or Night?” and “American Nights”. This comeback album proves that Currie’s still had the chops to rock out (and outdo) many female vocalists half her age.



The Motivator, released in 2019 by Blue Elan Records, featured Cherie and Fanny drummer/singer Brie Darling rocking nine cover songs and three originals. It’s obvious a lot of thought went into both the selection and execution of the covers on this album. The original versions of “Gimme Shelter” and “Gimme Some Truth” are pretty much ingrained in the public consciousness,  so it takes guts to even tackle them, much less perform them as well as Currie and Darling did here. The title song, T-Rex’s “The Motivator” has an infectious, danceable groove. The original tune “This is Our Time” offers an empowering message on the present – and the future. “Too Bruised” exposes the  vulnerable side of a woman letting go of a failed love affair.  “I’m Too Good, That’s Just Too Bad” is a grown-up version of “Cherry Bomb” and other strutting Runaways’ anthems. “Do It Again” by the Kinks and the 1960s’ Flower Power anthem “Get Together”, originally by the Youngbloods, round out the covers.   


Currie makes a living as a chainsaw artist carving wood sculptures with a chainsaw. In 2016, she had a near fatal accident while carving. It took her a year to recover, and she then resumed her music and art careers. You can see photos of her chainsaw art at Chainsawchick.com.



Saturday, May 23, 2020

Book Review: Set The Night On Fire: L.A. in the Sixties by Mike Davis and Jon Wiener




Set The Night on Fire:
L.A. In the Sixties
By Mike Davis and Jon Weiner

It’s been 50 years since the Kent State shootings. On May 4, 1970, four students –
Allison Krause, Jeffrey Glen Miller, Sandra Lee Scheuer, and William Knox Schroeder were shot and killed by National Guard Soldiers. The incident was just one of the high profile events that symbolized the social unrest of the 1960s and early 1970s. 

A few key images come to mind when you think about the  antiwar and civil rights era. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, the marches in Selma, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Black Panthers, the assassinations of President Kennedy, RFK, and Martin Luther King.

But every city and college town had its own political and social movements. Some of these groups were truly underground, while others appeared in local newspaper articles and made their presence known to the police and the “establishment.”

 Set the Night on Fire, an ambitious study from Verso Books covers the left-wing socio-political movement in Los Angeles in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The book was written by two respected journalists long affiliated with the counterculture.  Mike Davis was a member of the Communist Party in California in the 1960s and a local organizer for the Students for a Democratic Society. His previous books include City of Quartz. Jon Weiner hosts the Start Making Sense podcast   He wrote Gimme Some Truth about the FBI files on John Lennon.

The book’s title comes from the Doors “Light My Fire” and the introduction features a brief statement from John Densmore of the Doors about life in the ‘60s L.A.

Set the Night on Fire gives us a well-rounded look at the growing fight for the rights of women, gays, African-Americans, and Mexican-Americans in the 60s’ L.A. as well as the anti-war movement. Many of the events and organizations mentioned in the book have been lost to history and relegated to newspaper archives.

The Stonewall riots in New York’s West Village is the most famous example of  demonstrations at a gay bar in the 1960s, and it brought gay rights into the mainstream media. The New Year’s Eve raid at Black Cat Tavern in Silverlake in 1967, and the subsequent uprising predated Stonewall by two years but is rarely mentioned today.




Many people have affixed the colorful LOVE stamp on letters at one time or another. This design, created by Sister Corita Kent of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles,  was one of the counterculture silkscreens. The Sister used her art partially to protest the Vietnam War and other social issues.  Her stance caused problems with the L.A. Archdiocese’s conservative leader, Francis McIntyre. She met with anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan,created a silk screen inspired by the Watts Riots, and exhibited her art all over the world. She left Immaculate Heart in 1968 and continued making art. The iconic LOVE stamp was issued in 1984.

Liberal media was relegated to occasional public access TV shows or public radio.
The public radio station KPFK first broadcast its blend of unorthodox cultural and news programming that appealed to the beatnik crowd in 1959.  The first shows included performances by Pablo Casals and poet Kenneth Rexroth Other programs featured interviews with Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, and programs opposing the Vietnam War. The station broadcast the first news reports from North Viet Nam. The station even sponsored one of the first Renaissance Pleasure Fairs to raise funds. The station is best known however, for airing Tania (Patty Hearst’s) manifesto shortly after she was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. 



The L.A. Free Press, first published in 1964, was distributed in coffeehouses and streetcorner vending boxes. It covered local elections and protests, popular culture, the music scene, and even had a sex advice column. The paper’s staff was instrumental in organizing events, including  a black neighborhood forum in Watts and various concerts. Unsurprisingly, the FBI, the L.A. police, and other powers-that-be tried to close down the offices or accuse the press of publishing pornography.

The two most familiar musical happenings in L.A. to out-of-towners, 1972’s Wattstax and the Sunset Strip riots, have short chapters here. Wattstax was part of a week-long festival that had been held yearly since the Riots in 1965. The 1966 riots on Sunset Strip were a reaction to the curfew established on the Whiskey and other clubs on the Strip. The musicians and teen club-goers considered this an assault on their rights. The ensuing demonstration by teens resulted in many innocent protesters being beaten by cops.  For more detail about the riots, read Dominic Priore’s excellent Riot on the Sunset Strip: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Last Stand in Hollywood

While white middle-class kids rallied against nightclubs being closed early, black and Chicano youth were dealing with more substantive issues. In East L.A., Chicano high school and college students fought for their rights to a better education, more jobs, and as a protest against unfair school policies. Around the same time in early 1967, students at a mostly black high school near downtown walked out to protest unfair conditions.  

By the time the Watts exploded in 1965, poor black people had been subject to search and seizure for the slightest real (or perceived) infraction. When the police arrested  Marquette Frye, a parolee for reckless driving, a scuffle ensued. Frye’s arrest looting and rioting began in the commercial section of Watts and spread throughout the area. During the riots, over 3,000 people were arrested and hundreds of businesses were looted or burned.  Davis and Weiner break down the events day-by-day, with a chapter and follow it up with a chapter on the McCone’s Commission’s report on the riot’s underlying causes.  


Protests against the Vietnam War accounted for the biggest swath of demonstrations across the country, and LA was no exception. On June 23, 1967, while a fundraiser was being held for President Lyndon B. Johnson inside the Century Plaza hotel, over 10,000 protesters congregated outside. The police ordered the crowd to move back; the crowd was packed so tightly many of them couldn’t move. Cops swung at the crowd with batons, striking men, women, and a mother with a baby in a stroller, according to eyewitness accounts. The mainstream press headlines the next day made it sound like the police responded to a violent mob that had attacked them.

Media in the ‘60s was slanted towards the powers-that-be, with the hippies portrayed as the Godless enemies of the people.  All you have to do is look at the raw footage from the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago to know this was an ongoing, nationwide thing back then.

Set The Night on Fire provides a comprehensive overview of how every disenfranchised group in L.A. in the ‘60s fought for their rights. The represented groups include Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, hippies, rock musicians and gay people. The information is all the more potent when you realize that these events occurred in less than a decade. The seeds for the most notable social and political changes in the late 20th Century took place between 1965 and 1973.

The book shows how rapidly society was changing, with interlocking movements challenging the status quo despite resistance. Old-guard politicians like L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty and Governor Ronald Reagan weren’t going to give up power easily, but the die was cast for the progressive politics of the late 20th and early 21st Century.

 At over 800 pages, Set the Night on Fire may be too detailed for many readers. However, it is an indispensable tool for students of California history, civil rights, and sociology.   

Buy Set the Night on Fire on Amazon


Wednesday, January 01, 2020

The Veggees - 1980s Retro Rock Comic Strip and Music Video




Limited number of 1.5 inch buttons available - 1980s comic strip “The Veggees” all-girl band logo. Message me at jade at jadeblackmore.com if you want a button.