Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade in Music, Part 1: Let There Be Rock (2000-2001)

It's been a decade in which I have gone back and forth over what to write and how to write it. Reflective of my personality at a given time, I wrote about music (or politics, or society, or anything for that matter) with an air of definitive, universal authority or with an exclusively personal perspective. It would be complete with absolutist hyperbole of the highest order or a mere observational series of notes. As the decade has come to a close, I still don't know what skin I am most comfortable writing in - I am torn with doubt over even writing any of this in first person voice. It appears however that a personal perspective is winning the day, though let it be said that my opinion-as-god voice may come roaring back at any given time (including in this very piece) so Pitchfork better watch its back if it knows what is good for it.

Part 1: Let There Be Rock, 2000-2001

When the 21st Century dawned, I was in the middle of my freshman year of college and the middle of my Classic Rock Period, a labeling indicative of the radio-reliant source of the music I was listening to. Q104 in New York and 102.9 and 93.3 in Philadelphia were my main source for an education in late 60's, 70's, and early 80's rock music. My high school friends had been the enablers for my Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin addictions - perhaps all inevitable and all necessary for any listener worth their salt - but the radio had me buying the definitive records of Boston, the Steve Miller Band, Santana, Tom Petty, Dire Straits, Eric Clapton and the like as well. There were also some foreshadowings of things to come, namely in the form of Warren Zevon, who I then only thought of as "The 'Werewolves of London' Guy who helped out on Letterman".

Then a couple of things happened. First, my freshman year of college happened to be the year Napster came into the public conciousness. So began the great revolution in the acquiring of music, a development that magnified my ability to absorb new (and old) music by exponential proportions. Second, my freshman year of college was the year I met John, Jack, and Ed, three fellas who had very similar and yet very different tastes in music and each went down different paths, all contributing to my own musical mess. John, the Classic Rock Classicist, taught me Jethro Tull and Blue Oyster Cult and the album tracks on the Jimi Hendrix records that you never hear on the radio. And more so than my Phish-following roommate at the time, John made me appreciate that band's immense studio ability. Besides Phish, the only band post-70’s that John eventually championed was Ween. On their own merits, Ween became a real force – both as back catalog catch-up and a new-sounds band. White Pepper came out in 2000, and while every critic still drools over Radiohead’s Kid A, I’m with Ween, who backed it up later with Quebec and La Cucaracha. Jack, meanwhile, taught me all the various sounds he was trying - from Miles Davis to Dreamtheatre to Pantera to Frank Zappa to the Ramones and the Clash. At the same time, he and I fell back on our old reliables from childhood - Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen - though the decade proved to be more kind to the Boss than the Piano Man as Springsteen's back catalog (and chunks of his material this decade) got me hooked over and over again, culminating in finally seeing the man live towards the end of 2009 (something Jack also experienced). And then there was Ed, who was perhaps the least likely Motley Crue fanatic in the world. What that led to was a musical journey that seemed at first to dwell on some of the cheesiest but most fun periods in rock but soon gave way to some of the most intense and exciting periods in music period. We went from Def Leppard and Poison (and Ratt and Whitesnake...shudders) to Sweet, Living Colour, Faith No More, the Stooges, and the MC5. And by the time it had all peaked, it turned out that Motley Crue wasn't a joke - Too Fast For Love certainly proved that. And don't get me started on my love for Billy Idol. But I can probably do without hearing "Pour Some Sugar On Me" ever again. Not because it was playing during my first rejection by a girl so much as because Ed played it 15 times in a row.

Concurrent with these streams of music, I expanded my interest in the blues. CD compilations and the mp3 explosion ushered in a period of heavy listening to Delta folk blues, Chicago electric blues, and later blues-soul renderings. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, BB King, and Stevie Ray Vaughn were my early interests. They were later joined by Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

So it made sense when my love for classic rock and blues - and a slight burgeoning interest in harder forms of rock - came together in the form of AC/DC. By no means deep or even thoughtful but also by no means hackneyed or insincere - AC/DC may be the silliest band to ever earn so much deserved respect. It is easy when trying to adopt the aura of a young learned intellectual to try and find resonance in anything but that all went out the window for me when I got into AC/DC. By the very nature of their well-tuned repetitiveness, I got into all the Bon Scott albums with equal aplomb and would have felt the same about the Brian Johnson records if they hadn't been poorly produced starting in the mid-80's. Memories I will carry forever include: going apeshit to Back in Black the first time in Ed's dorm room, thinking listening to AC/DC Live would help me go to sleep one summer night, and having my jokey "request" for Norah Jones to play an AC/DC song at a concert on my birthday in June 2003 ridiculously answered when she played "Ride On". Oh yeah and seeing the actual band live in 2001 when they went on tour in support of Stiff Upper Lip, that sort of mattered too.

Contemporary music was not very hot for me during this period. The aforementioned Kenny Wayne Shepherd was as close to a new sounding artist as I was regularly listening to in 2000 and 2001. Seeing him live in 2001 led to listening regularly to his opening act from that show, Mark Selby. Buckcherry's "Lit Up" was one of the few current rock songs I played regularly and that was well before they opened for AC/DC at the show I went to. I probably would never willingly listen to that song or that band ever again mind you. There were occasional songs by Rage Against the Machine ("Sleep Now in the Fire") and some dopey one-offs like that Vertical Horizon song that I listened to. But nothing new stuck. Kid Rock didn't count. Kid Rock never counts (except when I listened to "Only God Knows Why"). Then one random night in the sophomore year dorm room, John and I caught an appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien by Flogging Molly. Flogging Molly - despite being lobbed in with emo-ish Warped tour bands and bad suburban-based neo-punk - were the first salvo in a musical counter-revolution. New, well-crafted, earnest bands that harked back to just about anything and everything. Flogging Molly cornered the market on Celtic sounds. I would say their biggest legacy was my eventual discovery of the Pogues but that would do this band a disservice. Swagger, Drunken Lullabies, and Within a Mile From Home are three achievements the vast majority of non-Celtic sounding bands could never equal. And with the grand exception of "Shipping Up To Boston", Dropkick Murphys could never hold a candle to Dave King and company. In a sort of funny tie-in, Dave King earned his chops not in a Chieftains-type outfit but in Fastway, an 80's hair-metal band that had the very decent single "Say You Will".

By the end of 2001, classic rock and its related arena-size ilk were still my dominant cup of tea, concurrent with old blues though there may have already been signs of things afoot (by the end of the year I was aware of a bloke named Ryan Adams). After September 11th, I took refuge in a live Aerosmith concert - a band who had stopped exciting me but whose pervasive sound proved inescapable when you were trying to learn your way musically (I remember they were upstaged live and on record in 2003 by Cheap Trick whose “Scent of a Woman” remains one of my favorites of this decade). I saw U2 in November 2001 - an emotional experience that ran the gamut from utter excitement (Bono singled me out and penalty-kicked a cup at me) to heartfelt sadness. U2 is a band that I can almost get caught up in the backlash against, but for nearly a decade running now I can stop and pause for "Where the Streest Have No Name" and "All I Want Is You". Select songs from All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb did them favors. And by sheer force of "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)", I finally just decided to give Achtung Baby a complete listen. Between their ability to emotionally be there for the USA at its lowest (9/11) and at its highest (Obama), and my friend Robyn's complete and utterly tasteful obsession, there will always be a spot at my table for U2.



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