The latest chapter in my on-going dialogue with @dradam. We use a Rolling Stone article about Bob Dylan in the 1980s as basis for a discussion of what happens when artists reach middle age. Also discussed: Geddy Lee driving around North York and Thornhill.
Adam: Reading now
Adam: Interesting. there are a few highlight songs for sure, but it’s the Wilburys and Oh Mercy where he starts “amazingness” again.
Cam: It seemed like Neil Young and Elvis Costello (and maybe Tom Petty?) had a similar trajectory. Kinda hit-or-miss for the decade before ending the 1980s strong with Freedom, Spike and Full Moon Fever, respectively. At least from a dual critical/commercial sense. Although Spike may be a piece of (junk) in hindsight. Never heard it.
Adam: I’ve often thought about certain artist’s awkward years between their zenith or creative peak, and the time when they hopefully get to tour into perpetuity milking their catalogue, playing classic albums in their entirety, and letting their fans pass them onto the next generation of fans. But while Springsteen appears to be the golden god (or “Boss”, to be more accurate) at this point, he too went through a kind of awkward phase in the early 1990s when he disbanded the E Street Band, released two albums at once (when one would really have sufficed) and floated around with a moustache and goatee. He was doing songs for Jerry Mcgwaire (sic) and teasing the would be E Street Reunion with “Murder Incorporated”. But whenever I see any footage from Springsteen plugged, I can’t help but cringe (not just because he’s got a non-Clarence on the horn). Tunnel of Love followed BITUSA and was already Bruce trying to move away from what everyone seemed to want him to be. While at the time Tunnel was unfairly maligned for not eclipsing the incredible success and six singles from the previous album. The thing here is that Bruce was in control. he needed the break and took it. Then, cue the reunion tour and suddenly sparks are flying on E Street again. Elton John seemed to avoid this awkwardness though I’d argue there was a weird patch in the very late 1980s/early 1990s. While his star power and The Lion King vaulted him again, his album The One always seemed to me to be the ugly duckling (read: it sucked). It wasn’t ’til Songs from the West Coast that he put out an album again that was worth listening to, and that one certainly was. As one of those icons, his quality never really fell off completely despite the mountains of coke he was doing and most of Too Low for Zero. Yet his flat hat phase produced “I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing” (though he apparently has no recollection of filming the latter video). Billy Joel didn’t hit his awkward gap till after River of Dreams I guess, and then just stopped creating new music. But he first hit in the 1970s, so the 1980s were still his latter wheelhouse. Same with Bruce. and Elton too. But look at the Band. they were THE Band. The biggest thing around, cresting, arguably with The Last Waltz. Then, Robbie broke up the Band (guess you only get one chance in life to play a song that goes like…but I digress), and they limped along through the 1980s doing non-Robbie tours, and dealing with their own demons (Rickie and Richard specifically, who didn’t make it out). I thought a lot about that during Levon’s victory lap at the end of his life. You go from superstar, to no longer hip enough for the kids you were playing to who got married and had kids and didn’t have time to devote themselves to your music anymore. If you were versatile, you bided your time to your next album. If you were a “one trick pony”, not so much. For some of the rock icons, their dry spell was short. Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones was his first commercial flop. Then, he hit his jackpot with Graceland. Important to remember that these guys did not all start out at the same time. Bob, then Simon & Garfunkel came up in the folk boom of the early-to-mid 1960s. Paul Simon hit his solo success during the 1970s, had one bust, then had the huge comeback of Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints. Dylan had his first comeback in the 1970s with Blood on the Tracks, I believe. He’d already long changed his early image and after his bike accident, he became reclusive. Then, he hit big again with Blood and Desire and then toured with the Band. So Dylan’s 1980s, which started in 1979 with Slow Train and then Infidels, was a transition time for Bob. He also lost his direction, I think, and (maybe) was into drugs in the early 1980s, as most were. The problem with those albums is that they feel lazy. There’s not much on Empire Burlesque or Shot of Love or Knocked Out Loaded that I can even recall. Then, he gets with Lanois and makes his comeback on Oh Mercy before shitting out Under the Red Sky and Good As I Been to You. Both forgettable. That takes him to the early 1990s. He has his pericarditis scare and comes back for his encore with Time Out of Mind and his whole new career begins again. It’s quite amazing really. I think we all need to wander in the wilderness at some point and I can’t imagine it’s different with artists. Back to Levon: it made me sad to think that while he got to do those rambles and be everyone’s loveable musician grandfather, Richard Manuel and Ricky Danko couldn’t have toughed it out. They went from rock gods to playing in clubs. That must be hard to deal with. The 1980s sucked until the people who grew up in the 1980s hit their 30s and then felt nostalgic. Same with the 1990s and beyond. “Golden oldies” referred to the initial rock-and-roll pioneers by the 1960s. Nobody cared for a while until you see all these reunion videos from the early 1980s. The Everly Brothers at Royal Albert Hall for one. 1983 seemed like that awkward phase for the Grateful Dead. Not 1977-1980 anymore, not yet the big comeback of the “stadium Dead” and the “Touch of Grey” momentum or Jerry’s coma. Also, that’s when Jerry was sliding down the Persian heroin dragon slide and the music isn’t what it was from the height of a few years earlier. In short, different acts hit that awkward phase for different reasons. Nobody can be amazing all the time and your fans are fickle. Just ask U2 how long it took them to get back the fans after Pop.
Cam: These… these are thoughts!
Cam: Bruce… Tunnel of Love was definitely maligned at the time. Ostensibly, it flopped. However, what could he have done to commercially to follow-up Born in the USA? There was really nowhere to go but down. It was his break-up album but I dunno…. “Brilliant Disguise” stands up pretty well, “Tunnel of Love” is a good song caked in 1980s production, “One Step Up” is still a bummer. Not a bad album by any stretch. I think his true WTF was “Streets of Philadelphia” which isn’t a bad song per se but also, it’s a clear attempt to stay current. Y’know, brooding over (ahem) “hip-hop beats”.
Cam: Elton… I think he kind of avoided (an awkward phase) because his descent (ascent?) into pure adult contempo was pretty gradual through the late 1970s. I think he kinda of got a pass because there weren’t huge expectations on him, even based on his prime 1970s output. He was glammy but he’d never be Bowie. He did the singer/songwriter thing but he wasn’t Lennon or even Paul Simon. He was just consistently massive and nobody really gave a (darn). At least amongst snobs? So he starts doing songs for Disney cartoons… nobody really cared. From what I can tell, Elton purists aren’t very vocal or defensive.
Cam: Billy Joel… Similar arch to Elton although I think he tried to convey the “serious artist” card more (i.e. lots of press shots where he looked sad or contemplative). Therefore, crap like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and “River of Dreams” seem laughably corny in retrospect (and at the time). It was never cool to like Billy Joel but I think even non-Billy Joel fans held him to a higher standard (artistically) than Elton John. He never dressed up like Donald Duck and played Dodger Stadium in a sequent baseball uniform. But Billy did have massive cornball moments in the early 1980s (i.e. the video for “Uptown Girl”) that somehow seemed less disposable than Elton John’s efforts of that era, even though the songs were probably worse. Give me “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” any day. Chuck Klosterman wrote a good essay on Billy Joel that talks about his positioning in rock music lore (or lack thereof). Companion piece.
Cam: The Band… Do big fans even consider their 1980s albums “real” Band efforts? I know zero about these, aside from the fact there is (I think) an angry cartoon pig on one of the covers. As a pretty casual fan, I can’t really imagine Rick Danko even existing post-Waltz. I do remember Levon getting trotted out at Bonnaroo and elsewhere in his final years but sadly, in a “holy shit, that guy’s still alive” fashion. And all the while, Robbie tried to shoehorn himself into the video era. You do realize from maybe 1984 to 1988, Robbie Robertson and Lou Reed were kind of running parallel in their efforts to fit into the MTV era? And now both seem MASSIVELY dated output-wise in the process. All that stuff… I’m kinda just talking out of my ass because I really don’t have a full sense of how these guys were received by fans/non-fans at the time. I was a toddler while this was going down As the first CompletelyIgnored.com essay points out (and the entire MO for the blog really), unless you literally lived through this stuff, it’s tougher to piece together the true arch from an ascent/descent perspective and have it resonate in a truly authentic (and less theoretical) fashion. To your point, these cycle repeat and always will with any artist that has legs career-wise. A few more recent examples of the “awkward phase”… Sonic Youth (Dirty… which I maintain is still a really solid album), Dinosaur Jr (Where You Been…. very similar quality- and sonic-wise to the previous two… kind of a “three strikes, you’re out” jag for those who were still pining for another version of Bug), Mogwai (Rock Action… way shorter and less epic than previous efforts… Happy Music for Happy People might be my overall favourite but really, they just don’t make bad albums ever…. they’re never mind-blowingly amazing but they’re always good/very good)
Cam: I think the best modern parallel to the original “Dylan in the 1980s” theme is Beck. His first two widely-available albums (Mellow Gold and Odelay) were completely locked-in to a mid-1990s aesthetics, as much as Dylan was with his 1960s output (assumedly). Beck kinda retreated and messed around for a bit to close out the 1990s (Mutations) and then unloaded his real divisive moment (Midnight Vultures) maybe six years into his career. Everything since has been reasonably well-received and from the reviews I’ve read about his new album Morning Phase (which is great), they feel eerily similar to whatever was written about Neil’s Freedom or maybe Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. In short, if you can last deep into a career and keep a reasonable amount of acclaim, your latter day output will definitely be graded on a curve. And in fairness, if you can keep people’s interest 10 or 15 or 25 albums in, that is SERIOUSLY impressive. Here is a related question: is it even fathomable that a current artist could stay relevant for 50 years like Dylan, Neil, Leonard Cohen have? It’s almost like talking about another pitcher winning 300 games and how unlikely that seems. Clayton Kershaw is arguably the most impressive (stuff-wise) lefthanded pitcher since Randy Johnson. He just turned 26 and he ONLY has 77 wins. And yet two Cy Youngs! Beck seems like a candidate and he’s got a good pace going now 20 years in. But could he seriously keep making well received albums for the next 30 years?!? Until 2044?!? Again, I can’t even wrap my head around the possibility. In the pop realm, this is even more unlikely. Sadly, I just watched the video of Lady GaGa getting barfed on by a dancer at SXSW. This is one of the biggest pop stars in the world and she’s resorting to little stunts like this that are clearly geared towards the YouTube crowd. One would think (hope?) that Madonna or Michael Jackson would never have stooped to this level of attention grabbing… and they were/are massive ego-maniacs!
Adam: Where to begin. “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” is one of my favorite songs of all-time. I love the song to death, I love the video, it makes me emotional that song. Must be something about the chord progression combined with tremendous lyrics (“…laughing like children / living like lovers / rolling like thunder / under the covers”) and “… I simply love you more than I love life itself”. In WWII era England? Kills me every time. Also on my short list are “Amoreena”, “Bad Side of the Moon (live from 10-11-70)” then wonderfully covered and made famous by April Wine. Talk about an under appreciated band! Most of Madman Across the Water kills. “Holiday Inn” is a great road song that should’ve been in Almost Famous. There’s also a great live version of “Daniel” with a nice pulsing piano and a really nice energy that is better live than the flute-y feel of the studio track. I’ve got a soft spot for “Nikita” too. Too much music! I forgot about “Streets of Philadelphia”. I heard that during the commercial break before the Oscars performance of that tune, someone called out “Rosalita”! I love Tunnel of Love. Same time as Nothing Like the Sun by Sting. I’d call Desert Rose his awkward phase but he weathered the storm. I love the sound of Tunnel of Love. Very 1980s in a good way. “One Step Up” had a great lyric: “… check the furnace / she wasn’t burnin'”. “Brilliant Disguise” is the song I’d hold a sign up for at a Springsteen show if I didn’t hate doing that. Held a “Jungleland” sign at the (Sky)Dome first row when he came by but he wasn’t playing it that night. The video for it is directed by Jonanthan Demme (I think) and is a live performance on a long, slow zoom in shot in black-and-white. “Tougher Than the Rest” has a kick-ass harp solo to finish it out. Kind of like the piano outro on “Racing in the Street”. I judge Bruce’s awkward years by his facial hair. You know what I mean?
Adam: Also, thought I’d mention that I introduced the kids to “We Didn’t Start the Fire” this week and they loved it. I actually remember hearing it for the first time on a Sunday night “new music” spot on CHUM-FM, I think. Grade 7. They played the verse that starts “… Buddy Holly / Ben Hur / space monkey mafia”. They also played a part from Jive Bunny and the Mastermixer’s “Swing the Mood”. I purchased cassette singles of both I believe, though I had the storefront CD I think. “Swing the Mood” is just essentially this: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Hooked On Classics Parts 1. Which although is nostalgic to hear, not nearly as perpetually listenable as this: Walter Murphy – A Fifth Of Beethoven [HQ]
Cam: Here we go… I totally forgot about “Tell Her About It”. A total craptastic piece of 1980s cheese and something that reminds me for 98.1 CHFI and accordingly, sitting in a dentist office. I hadn’t really thought about him trying to update doo wop (or thought about him much at all) but that totally is him trying to bring the Frankie Valli approach into the 1980s. I guess the modern equivalent might be…. parts of Bruno Mars? It does seem like a bit of a swerve considering he was positioned as “singer/songwriter” before and then shifted to a modified “song-and-dance man”. Amazingly in retrospect, he got his most early traction on “modern” MTV by aping a style of music that was more than 20 years old at the time. Having Christie Brinkley mincing about in there no doubt helped. I actually kind of like “Allentown” although it seems a bit too jovial for an “issues” song. Songs about labour that don’t sound like Pete Seeger or Billy Bragg are often weird/clunky but BJ pulls no punches considering how the song starts: “… well, we’re living here in Allentown / and they’re closing all the factories down”. I like the Wikipedia page talks about the then-mayor’s reaction to the tune. It seems a bit invasive considering he didn’t grow up in Pennsylvania but is more coherent (rightly or wrongly) than the Rheostatics’ “Horses” and more sympathetic (though less awesome) than Rush’s “Working Man”. “Allentown” totally sounds like BJ trying to write a Randy Newman song, right? File under “what would Randy Newman do”. Complete WTF on the video. Considering the song is supposedly about the plight of the working class, the clip is massively campy and really inconsistent with the tone of the song. I guess the TV show Fame was big in-and-around the time of that song? It’s like a musical theatre version of what working in a factory would be like with BJ dressed like a slightly more handsome Emmett Kelly.
Cam: “A Fifth of Beethoven” is a textbook novelty song but could it be argued that this was the first mash-up? Is Girl Talk an “evolutionary Walter Murphy” as our friend Bill Simmons would say? This perhaps rivals Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” as the most unlikely merging of the era that somehow works. I’d love for somebody to write a definitive piece (maybe they already have) on electronic music from, I dunno, 1974-1982 but not delineate between disco, Kraurock, early hip-hop, Top 40, Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, music for video games, etc. It’s sad hope deeply music gets segmented. I know next-to-nothing about disco but I think it’s always been unfairly pushed to the margins (in a critical sense) and never really given its just due on how much it impacted Top 40 in the 1980s and beyond. There is a really solid BBC documentary on Nile Rogers that is worth a look. He’s obviously not even an electronic artist per se but I think it does a really nice job of fixating on delving into the genesis of Chic and showing how his POV morphed through his work with David Bowie, Duran Duran, INXS, Madonna. Obviously, he’s getting a broad revisit/rediscovery because of his work with Daft Punk. I like his “it’s all just music; deal with it” approach. His set at Glastonbury 2013 is really awesome too–it’s almost like something you’d see on a cruise ship and completely unironic, sincere and celebratory. I’m curious that you put Eddie Vedder on your “built to last” list with Beck and Jeff Tweedy. I think Pearl Jam is completely fine but for yourself, for somebody who never “did” grunge”, was there a moment when you came around on PJ or EV specifically? I kinda feel like Snoop Dogg is going to be on that list too. Hip-hop is too young to even begin to speculate but “Big Snoop” has had incredible lasting power. I’ve always thought there are only two musicians who’d be equally at home on Sesame Street and in a pornographic film: Snoop and Gene Simmons. There’s gotta be some cache there.
Adam: We’re all in hyper-focused niches of consuming what we already like. I’m amused through-out these discussions about how you’ll start talking about vitally essential “alt-rock” artists and I’m thinking “Oh, I think I’ve heard that name once”. There is clearly a lot of crossover of mainstream stuff but our divergent tastes (and the obsessive way we get into those things) is cool. It’s why I like the Sam Dunn movies Global Metal and Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey despite not liking metal on any level and it sounding like noise. I dig that there are tribes who come together loving it, dress in their outfits (their black is my “carefully selected, just the right amount of cool” Dead shirt). and they’re as happy as they could be in their music, moving their bodies, along with 30,000 others. Just as Trading Places once taught us, there is a place for both nature AND nurture (I mean, look how quickly Valentine figured out the pork bellies market). Certain frequencies of music just sound good to me. Why? Definitely what I was raised on but I never liked the hard Pearl Jam or Blues Traveler stuff (and not for lack of exposure or trying). I like the part in the Rush movie where Trey Parker (or Matt- the curly haired one) is talking about how you pick who you like in high school: “Well, this is the smart band and I fancy myself a smart kid. This is what I’m about”. The hippie thing just felt right for me. It still does.
Cam: Did you see the The Story of Anvil? Both that and the Rush doc are great in that “you don’t even have to like the music” kind of way. More importantly, it’s pretty cool to see the roots of those bands in North York, very close to our beloved Thornhill. Those guys and their families really remind me of a lot of people I knew growing up. Plus it was pretty sweet to see Geddy Lee drive past that plaza where Newtonbrook Bowlerama is located in the back of a Lincoln.
Adam: I loved (the Rush doc). My fifth grade teacher was his first cousin. Everyone had a Geddy story. I sat behind him at a Leafs’ game once. His kids played ball at Bishop’s Cross. Jordan sat next to him once and kept talking about “Xanadu“, trying I get his attention. They were going into Pancer’s Deli in the movie. I had the good pleasure of bumping into Sam Dunn at the airport a few years back as I was listening to “Far Cry”, one of the few later-era Rush songs on my iPod because it was the song through the final credits of the doc. So I’m sitting listening to the song from the movie and this long-haired guy walks past me. I “nerded” out a little on him. Gushed over both movies and how cool I thought it was that I didn’t get the music but I got the experience of the music. He was very nice. Talked about on-going projects with Iron Maiden and Alice Cooper. Asked him how cool it just be to be working for your heros. He was in the affirmative.