Tag Archives: Music

Dispatches from the Frozen Land: Prince and Making a Cultural Crossroads

 

One could make an argument that three of the top ten albums of the 1980’s are Prince records (1999, The Purple Rain Soundtrack, Sign o’ the Times).  No small feat.  Today, on the first anniversary of his death, much ink will be spilled (or pixels generated) on the impact of his life and music.  Interestingly enough, my thoughts today turn not to this legend of popular art, but to the city and state that he loved.

Minneapolis, and to a lesser extent the state of Minnesota as a whole, exists at a cultural crossroads.  For someone who’s understanding of this part of the country comes mostly from watching Fargo (1996), that might seem like an odd statement.  After all, we typically equate terms like “cultural crossroads” to more diverse, global cities like New York and London.  

Sure, the state of Minnesota is at once western, midwestern, and northern. That would be something, except the “we’re in three regions” argument falls flat when you consider that the same thing can be said of Texas and California.  The cultural cache of those states needs no long explanation: its engrained in the American psyche. 

So what am I talking about and what does this have to do with Prince? After all, can one artist make such an impact that we can change the entire categorization of a city or state in the cultural mindset of America? Why not?

The Coen Brothers once lovingly described The Twin Cities as “Siberia with family restaurants.” Due respect to Joel and Ethan, groundbreaking artists in their own right, maybe that describes the St. Louis Park of their childhood, but it doesn’t describe where I’ve lived for two years.  Here there are thriving theater, music, art, and brewery scenes, not just quirky folks with flappy hats.

I’ll admit, there is a tension here that shouldn’t be ignored. The old Minnesota is still with us, and sometimes it doesn’t really get along with the new Minnesota, Prince’s Minnesota. That’s a shame, since he was a figure that could unite the old and the new and bring out the best in both. 

The question remains, do we build on that legacy, or do we retreat into comfortable nostalgia? That’s up to us. But for today, let’s just listen to the music and see where it takes us.

(c) 2017 D.G. McCabe 

Author’s note: I’ve been toying with the idea of this column for a long time, but I don’t want to jinx it with my “first in a series” kiss of death. Still, I like the idea and will return to it from time to time.
 

2016 Year in Review

“When she [Philosophy] saw that the Muses of poetry were present by my couch giving words to my lamenting, she was stirred a while; her eyes flashed fiercely, and said she, “Who has suffered these seducing mummers to approach this sick man? Never do they support those in sorrow by any healing remedies, but rather do ever foster the sorrow by poisonous sweets. These are they who stifle the fruit-bearing harvest of reason with the barren briars of the passions: they free not the minds of men from disease, but accustom them thereto.””

– Boethius

What of 2016?  As the Roman philosopher Boethius wrote of his consolation by Lady Philosophy, we have a choice.  We can indulge in our lamentations, or we can, through our reason, find a way forward.  Perhaps we can let Lady Philosophy take it from here to guide us in this way.

I thought of many muses to guide me through this past year, when a woman came to me in classical robes.  She was at once as tall as a giant, yet comforting and approachable.  Then she began to speak.

“I see you, reading the various years in review of 2016 to draw inspiration for this annual post,” she began, “I see nothing but hot takes and articles dripping with lament or sarcasm.   Let me assure you, this 2016 had its positive aspects.”

2016 Was a Good Year to Be…

1) Animators

Lady Philosophy continued, “Behold my friend, for the medium of animation, that artform long taken for granted, had a very strong 2016.  Six of the twenty top grossing movies of the year were animated.  With each passing decade, animation continues to bring inspiration and joy without the limitations of live action film. 2016 was in many ways a landmark year in this regard.”

2) HBO

“I should also point out to you that a great year need not mean a consistently great one wire to wire.  If something is felled low by the failure of an ill-conceived vanity project about classic rock in the spring, it can rise again through the premiere for two excellent shows in the fall.  Westworld has broken HBO’s losing streak when it comes to new dramas, and Insecure has continued its success in popular comedies”

3) Broadway

“If it is further inspiration you seek, behold the resurgence of the Great White Way as a force in American popular culture.  Hamilton was the most popular musical in decades, and live broadcasts of musicals on network television are exceptionally popular.  Indeed, one of this year’s top Oscar contenders, “La-La Land,” is a Hollywood musical of the old style.”

2016 Was a Bad Year to Be

1) A Franchise from the 1980’s or 1990’s

Lady Philosophy continued.  “While there were failures in 2016, I would counsel to learn from them rather than merely list them in a vain and sarcastic manner.  Box Office disappointments from the Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Independence Day, and Zoolander sequels should not be seen as affecting those fine memories of past success, but rather stand as stark reminders that not everything deserves a reboot or a sequel.”

2) “A List” Hollywood Marriages

“I also prescribe an end to your consideration of the troubled Depp/Heard and Pitt/Jolie marriages.  As troubling as the allegations associated with these divorces are, it is important to remember that you don’t know these people.  You will never meet them.  Their relationships have no impact on your life whatsoever.”

3) Internet and Social Media

“At last, I see that you are troubled by what you read on the internet and on social media platforms.  It might feel as though you cannot escape the constant stream of opinion and information.  You might feel that this has damaged your interactions with your fellows beyond repair, or trapped you in a vicious cycle of anger and mistrust.  Let me assure you that the old ways are still alive.  You can read a book and discuss it with a friend.  You can watch a movie with your significant other and discuss it over snacks afterwards.  You might feel the need to broadcast your feelings to the masses, but I would counsel you to remember that your friends and family are much more receptive to your ideas than the faceless void of the internet will ever be.”

Best Movies

Lady Philosophy cautioned me against creating a list of best movies this year.  She said to me, “Indeed you have not seen enough movies to truly make an honest “best of” list.  But keep in mind that such lists are flawed.  They lack the distance truly needed to examine and appreciate film as an artform.  As much as you enjoyed “Captain America: Civil War,” can you say it is the best blockbuster of the year when you haven’t seen the new Star Wars movie yet?  As for artistic films, look at past years.  Does anyone really believe, with the proper distance, that “Crash,” “The English Patient,” or “The Greatest Show on Earth”  were worthy of Best Picture Oscars?  I would advise against indulging in such listicles.”

Dispatches from the Great Ale House in the Sky

This year, Lady Philosophy especially wanted to talk about the Great Ale House in the Sky.  She said, “I will prescribe the strongest medicine of all to help you acknowledge the many fine artists that left you this past year.  It is medicine that you, yourself, have often shared.

“Remember, it is the story that matters, not how long it lasts or how it ends.  Artists and inventors have the greatest stories of all, for their influence stays with us the longest and carries us all forward.  If it is useful for you to imagine these great artists together, I will partially indulge in this fantasy, but I will do so in a way that will help you, rather than a way that extends your sorrow.

“Perhaps this Ale House is in the form of a great music festival, where Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, George Michael and others come together.  You could find great joy in that fantasy.  But you need not – for the music is still there.

“Or maybe, you imagine that Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Florence Henderson, Abe Vigoda, Gene Wilder, Kenny Baker and others are still in talks for various roles.  These people may have never met in life, but it is fun to think about them doing so in your Great Ale House in the Sky.  I would advise an alternative – put on their films and television shows.  You can even do so with the fights of Muhammad Ali – which are readily available on the internet.”

And with that, Lady Philosophy left me in a better place.  The place that honors rather than mourns.  The place that learns from the mistakes of others.  The place that sees and emphasizes the positive.  There is great strength and great joy here.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Music Television: Why “Atlanta” Succeeds and “Vinyl” Failed

FX’s “Atlanta” is one of the best new shows of the year.  It’s received critical acclaim, solid ratings, and that all-important social media buzz that separates the wheat from the chaff.  After watching the first couple of episodes (I’m not caught up, so no recaps I’m afraid), I can see why it has become so popular, so fast.  It’s a funny, thoughtful, and well written show about starting from the bottom in today’s music industry (among other things).  It also happens to be the brainchild of one of the most talented people in entertainment – Grammy nominated musician and acclaimed actor Donald Glover.

Meanwhile, last spring, HBO introduced us to a show called Vinyl.  Like Atlanta, it is also about the music industry.  Like Atlanta, it had some heavyweight creative power behind it (Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese, Terrance Winter).  That’s where the similarities end.  Unfortunately for HBO and the two hours of my life I wasted on the pilot, Vinyl went straight to the discount rack.  And not the nice, record store discount rack – I mean the one at the gas station off highway 95 in the middle of Jersey.

For two shows that have nothing in common other than the music industry and creative talent, it’s useful to compare them.  Doing so sheds a light on why some TV shows succeed and others fail.

1. Focus, People!

Maybe Vinyl was trying to be chaotic, but it came across and an unfocused mess.  It was trying to tell a story about too much at once, without stopping for a moment to think about why a story about 1970’s rock and roll could be relevant.  It just assumed that the time period and industry were inherently interesting without bother to focus in on any particular characters or storylines long enough to, you know, actually be interesting.

Atlanta is quite the opposite – it’s focused like a laser beam on Earn (Donald Glover), his family, and his attempts to help his cousin, Alfred aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) make it in the music industry.  The clear writing, real life situations, and humor allow the audience to connect to this story without trying too hard.

2. Show in the Show/Music in the Show

Comparing these shows in some ways is like comparing “30 Rock” to “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”  Both shows premiered in the same year, on the same network, and they were about the exact same thing, a late night, SNL-style variety show.  The comedy succeeded.  The drama failed.

Fast forward ten years.  No, Vinyl and Atlanta aren’t about the exact same thing, but the comedy works and the drama did not for similar reasons.  Like “Studio 60,” Vinyl tried so hard to convince us that the bands/music were good without, you know, actually being good.  30 Rock and Atlanta succeed because they make the show and music take a backseat to the interactions between the characters.

3. Gimmicks

Finally, I want to take some time to talk about TV show gimmicks.  The first two episodes of Atlanta are refreshingly free from gimmicks.  The writing is strong enough that gimmicks are unnecessary.

What do I mean by gimmicks?  How about pointless musical cut-scenes?  How about bad impressions of historical figures like John Lennon, Robert Plant, and Andy Warhol?  How about sex and drugs for the sake of there being sex and drugs? How about every single moment of Vinyl?

Conclusion

Come to think of it, the only funny thing about Vinyl was how much of a ridiculous caricature it was.  Anyway, Atlanta and Vinyl are both about people trying to make it in the music industry.  Atlanta is a good show.  Vinyl was a bad show.  Above are some of the reasons way.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

 

 

Reflections on a Thursday in Minneapolis When Prince Left the Stage for the Last Time

Earlier today I was running behind schedule.  I had to visit three different parking garages to find a place to beach my car, navigate the Minneapolis skyway in order to avoid the rain falling outside, and find the location of my meeting in a non-descript office building.  So when I heard that Prince Rogers Nelson had passed away suddenly in his studio at the age of 57, I had just finished cursing the city that he loved so well.

It would be disingenuous to say that I’m a fan of Prince’s music.  Don’t get me wrong, I certainly appreciate his personality, style, artistry, and influence, and I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t.  I was busy with such mundane tasks as learning how to walk, feed, and dress myself during the peak of his popularity in the 80’s, and I didn’t grow up in Minnesota.  In fact, I have trouble recalling any of his songs from memory save the chorus from “1999.”

There are two ways to appreciate creativity.  The first is to appreciate the art itself.  It pains me to admit that really appreciating Prince’s music remains on my to-do list.  Fortunately, there is a second way to appreciate art, and that’s by appreciating the footprint of the art – the impact that the art and the artist’s very existence make upon their peers, their community, and their chosen craft.

“They” might tell you a couple of things.  The Twin Cities are a boring Midwestern way-station.  The genres of American popular music can’t be fused together without sounding incoherent.  You can’t fight city hall.  You can’t transcend traditional definitions of masculine style without making people uncomfortable.

“They” are wrong.  The Twin Cities are a vibrant and exciting community, home to the “Minneapolis Sound” and the most theaters per capita outside of New York City.  The genres of American popular music can be deconstructed and reconstructed at will.  One artist can stand up to the stuffed suits of his industry and win.  Traditional gender roles are false barriers.  Do you know why I know this?  Because I lived in a time when a man in purple made us see this for the truth that it is.

It’s been raining all day, but the sun is starting to break through the clouds.  And so, too soon, ends a story that parents should teach their children.  That one man can make a difference.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

David Bowie (1947-2016)

What is art?  Better still, who is the artist?  Is he Major Tom, floating out into space?  Ziggy Stardust, bringing us hope at a time of despair?  A Thin White Duke?  A Man in Berlin?  A Rebel? A Tin Machine?  Lazarus? Or is he just David Bowie?

To say Bowie is gone is like saying Picasso is gone.  The artist always remains.  He remains in the orchestra interpreting The Planets Suite.  She remains in adaptations of her tales of the English countryside.  He or she even remains in the cave paintings of Lascaux.

If you have the chance today, take a listen to Bowie’s last album, “Blackstar.”  Here, he uses his impending end as an opportunity to inspire us one last time.

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(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

The Beatles in the Movies

By D.G. McCabe

The rock and roll movie’s origin story can be summarized as thus: a bunch of record executives figured out that they could make a lot of money putting Elvis in B-Movies.  When the Beatles became ultra-mega-huge in the early sixties, the got roped into the same thing, but instead of a series of largely forgettable beach movies, the Beatles produced one classic (A Hard Day’s Night (1964)), two incredibly bizarre works (Help! (1965)) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967)), numerous music videos, and one fantastic documentary (The Beatles Anthology (1995)).

The Classic (A Hard Day’s Night)

A Hard Day’s Night is not merely a vehicle for the ridiculous obsession that was Beatlemania, it was a view from inside the bubble of it.  There is no goofy plot, no tacked-on love story, just the band getting ready for a show and the hoops they have to jump through just to get from the train station to showtime.  Somewhere, the film becomes less about the Beatles and more about obsessive youth culture.  For a good essay, check on the write up on the Criterion Collection’s website.  And yes, the fact that this movie and not, say, Elvis’ Blue Hawaii (1961) is the subject of a Criterion essay speaks to its status as a cinematic classic rather than a cheesy byproduct of the early days of Rock and Roll.

The Weird Stuff (Help! and Magical Mystery Tour)

In the Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr reminisce about how high they were when they filmed Help!.  Let’s just say that the Beatles are fighting a satan-worshipping cult, there is random skiing, and beach scenes straight our of Thunderball (1965).  It’s like witnessing a bizarre netherworld where James Bond has been replaced by four stoned musicians.

Magical Mystery Tour was shot without a script and makes absolutely no sense.  It was probably the Beatles’ only real disaster critically, although it did spawn a fantastic album. The entire movie takes place on a bus and the Beatles are singing magicians – sound fun?

Music Videos

Interestingly enough, the Beatles can be credited with helping invent the music video, which would of course gain cultural prominence in the 1980’s before becoming a cultural afterthought in the 2000’s.  According to the Anthology documentary, the Beatles basically got sick of making public appearances, so instead they made crazy music videos for songs like “I am the Walrus” and “Something” and shipped them around the world to various music shows.  Everyone else, even the Rolling Stones, still had to show up.

The Beatles Anthology

In the early 1990’s, the surviving members of the band put together the Beatles Anthology project, which included an fantastic eight episode BBC documentary of the same name, narrated by all four members of the band and various important partners (Brian Epstein and John Lennon’s portions were done with archived interview clips).  While the Beatles aren’t too critical about themselves and there is no mention of anything that happened after the band broke up, it is an interesting, and important, piece of history.

So Where Are the Concert Videos?

We know that the Beatles were masters in the studio, as we have twelve of the most popular and influential albums in the history of popular music to demonstrate.  The question remains, however – were the Beatles any good as a live band?

We know that The Who, The Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, Phish, and others were or are great live performers, as we have decades of tours, live albums, and concert videos to support.  Whether the Beatles were a great live band is shrouded in myth, legend, and insufficiently advanced technology.

The Beatles started out as a garage band called “The Quarrymen” in 1957.  Between 1957-1962 they played mainly small venues, seedy bars, and strip clubs around Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany.  By 1961, they had basically become the house band of The Cavern Club.  Between 1962 and 1966 they played hundreds of concerts worldwide before they decided to stop playing live and focus exclusively on their studio output.

Despite this output, there is relatively little evidence of the Beatles playing in concert compared to most popular rock bands. There is plenty of evidence of them playing “live” on television shows, which, as the Beatles Anthology attests to, they were very good at.  The Anthology also contains a long segment on the Beatles legendary Shea Stadium Concert and various other concert clips, but the acoustics at Shea and the screaming teenage girls at the other concerts make it impossible to determine if they are actually playing a good concert.  Ringo Starr sums this up best in the Anthology when he says that one of the reasons the Beatles stopped touring was because people came to “see them” and not to “hear them.”  Or more accurately, teenage girls came to shriek at them until they passed out.

Of course people who were around when the Beatles were a touring band tell stories about what a great show they put on, and the clips in the Anthology series seem to back that up. If only we had modern concert recording equipment in the early 1960’s to document the rise of a certain garage band from Liverpool.  We don’t, so they mythology of the band’s live show will continue to live on as open to interpretation.  Isn’t that more interesting than knowing for sure anyway?

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe