Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Jack & Meg

I remember the first time I saw Jack White play guitar. And the same as how I know where I was when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time, I’ll never forget the experience.

I was working at The Late Show with David Letterman in New York. When there was a band I liked playing on the show, I would sneak up to the balcony and watch the sound check before the taping. I saw some amazing music up there by myself. Pearl Jam, Pete Townsend, U2, B.B. King, Tom Waits, Ben Harper and many more. I was told that the White Stripes were going to play the show the next day. I had heard a little of the buzz surrounding them and had read a couple blurbs in some British music magazines. I wanted to see it for myself.

So the next afternoon, I snuck up to the balcony. When I looked down to that historic stage I only saw two people. A cute barefoot girl sitting at a small drum kit and a guy with a cheap guitar I had never seen before standing in front of a stuffed zebra head. Both were dressed in red, black and white. There were peppermint swirls decorating the drums. I was intrigued.

Jack got the cue from Biff the stage manager and the Stripes started playing “Fell In Love With A Girl.” I’d never heard anything like it. It was simple and pure and, well, amazing. I was really interested. Then, something incredible happened. Biff asked the band to play something else while the sound guys played with a few of the levels. Jack nodded, pulled a metal slide out of his pocket and said something to Meg. Then he ripped into a version of the Son House classic “Death Letter,” one of my favorite songs of all time. “I got a letter this morning, what do you reckon it read? It said the gal you love is dead.” Now tell me that’s not poetry. My mouth hit the floor of the balcony. What the hell was this? Are you kidding me? I was blown way. I’d never heard the blues sound like that. And that was it. I was a convert. I was on board with the White Stripes.

The tourists in the audience that night seemed a little confused when they heard the Stripes, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t their crowd. Even Letterman looked up from his desk when they were playing. Something he rarely does. Dave saw it too. There was something special about this little (literally) band from Detroit.

After work that evening, I walked the nine blocks down Broadway to the Virgin Megastore in Times Square and bought the first three White Stripes albums. They have been one of my favorite bands since that night. I could tell they were the real thing. Some may have thought the Stripes were a gimmick. And I suppose that in some ways, there are. The difference is, they are a perfectly executed gimmick accompanied by a world-class guitar player. Jack is, without doubt, one of the most gifted guitarists of his generation. Not that long ago, Rolling Stone magazine named him the 17th greatest axe player of all-time. That ranked him ahead of George Harrison, Buddy Guy and Freddy King. Record after record for ten years, Jack has shown us that he is a musical force. He’s a creative genius with the musical morals that rarely exist outside of Eddie Vedder.

I tend to gravitate towards bands that have longevity and a strong body of work. Bands that have their sound grow and evolve. (An exception being the Ramones. They are in a class by themselves.) And I’m very selective. It’s not that I think that Maroon 5 is a particularly bad band. But, the way they sound, you know, here today, Third Eye Blind tomorrow. Same with bands like Matchbox 20, Nickleback and Dashboard Confessional. Here today, Gin Blossoms tomorrow. Okay, I do think that Maroon 5 is a bad band.

The only other time I have seen the Stripes live was by chance when I scored Saturday Night Live tickets and they happened to be the guest. That was good time, amazing to sit in that historic theater and see SNL in person.

The last few years I have missed the Stripes live shows. In New York they were playing the Bowery Ballroom and I couldn’t get tickets. A couple years later in Los Angeles, I was out the state on a job and missed another set of shows in The Greek Theater. It was frustrating. But a few months ago, I finally got White Stripes tickets. To see them in one of my favorite rooms, the historic Paramount Theater is Seattle. My cousin Aaron and I bought a couple pre-sale seats in the balcony and I have counted down the days until I was going to see Jack play guitar live.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, with the show just days away, I get an email from The White Stripes. Meg is suffering from “acute anxiety” and is “unable to travel” and tour. For crying out loud. I never make light of anxiety, depression or the like, I’m not angry at Meg. I’m just disappointed and bummed out. The Stripes are the band I have not seen that I want to see the most. They have eluded me over the years, like my White Whale I haven’t been able to catch. And now I have to wait who knows how long to see them.

Maybe after the next amazing record, and the ensuing tour, I will be able to in the audience with thousands of others and appreciate the chance to hear Jack play his Airline Res-O-Glass guitar.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rags & Bones

I’m in a bad mood. The White Stripes cancelled the rest of their tour because Meg is sick. Really bummed me out. I’ve had tickets for five months. Just in case Meg reads this though, Meg, I hope you feel better soon and I don’t blame you for ruining my chance to see Jack play the guitar.

So, if Orenthal James Simpson goes to prison for armed robbery of a memorabilia dealer in a Las Vegas hotel room, is that like Al Capone going to the clink for tax evasion? Methinks so, kids.

Seriously Juice, how stupid are you? Did you not think the guy would recognize you? Do you not remember you are one of the most infamous celebrities of all time? As I recall, your sham of a trial received some attention 10 years ago. Your guilty mug was on the telly just a bit. For crying in the night.

I’m not a fan of people who ask, in an obviously un-fun situation, “so, you having fun yet?” (sigh…) It’s nearly as annoying as those that think it’s clever to ask, “so, you working hard or hardly working?”

(For those of you keeping score at home, that’s Johnny the Arrogant - 737, Johnny the Nice Guy – 9. Come on Johnny the Nice Guy, you can do better than that.)

While I’m being rude—Why do some old people have a smell? Have you ever been to a nursing home? It’s an olfactory nightmare in there. What is that smell? Mold? Mothballs mixed with oatmeal? I don’t know what it is. It just smells stale and, well, old. My Grandmother didn’t smell before she passed on. I honestly have been confused about this since I was in junior high and delivered newspapers to a retirement home. Bad memories of those deliveries. “Hey you! Sonny! Help me find my teeth! You’re late with my paper! I want to do my word jumble!” (shudder…) I would sprint out of that joint.

(I think that’s another point for Johnny the Arrogant. Man, I’m getting creamed here.)

I was watching The Daily Show the other night. During the commercial break, an ad came on for a service that sent “psychic answers text messages sent right to your cell phone!” Wow. I’ve wondered who are the yokels that spend a dollar for the cell phone background of the dancing frog or the farting panda or whatever those are, but this one made me a little more disappointed in our society. Here’s what I picture this operation looking like; In a small office in suburban Detroit is a room of part-time college students sitting in cubicles with five cell phones in front of them. They rotate the phones and “answer” each question from the dupes across the country. Not one employee has any psychic tendencies, nor claims to. The boss just tells them, “text back something positive and reassuring.” How much you wanna bet I’m right?

Here is why there is no such thing as psychic. Or paranormal mediums. Or fortune tellers. Or those that have telekinetic abilities. First of all, it has never been proved by anyone. If it was real, if I could see the future, I could go on The Late Show and show off for an hour. Predicting the next three days weather, what’s going to happen in the news, and how long it will be before Britney Spears poses for Playboy. (Put the line at 18 months and I’ll take the “under.”) This is the problem; you’re asking me to believe that EVERY PSYCHIC IN THE WORLD IS AN HONEST AND MORAL PERSON. If there were psychics, there would be no gambling in casinos, no betting on football, no lottery, no Power Ball, no stock market, no horse racing, nothing that there is the possibility of manipulating the outcome like Biff Tannen in Back to the Future II. It’s a trick folks. I’ve heard people say things such as this. “there’s no way she could have known some of the things she knew.” You know what? I saw David Copperfield turn a 747 into an elephant with a showgirl on its back. Doesn’t make it real.

In addition, no conjurer ever gives the mark bad news. “Sorry, your dog is going to get hit by a car, you’ll lose your home in a blazing inferno, and you will die of cancer in 7 months. That will be 75 bucks please.” Doesn’t happen.

You want to know what your horoscope is? I’ll tell you. It’s a random, generalized statement that, with a little imagination, can be applied to just about anyone.

That will be 25 bucks please.

I told you I was in a bad mood. Thus ends my pointless, mildly funny rant of the week.

Good night and good luck.

Friday, September 14, 2007

I Got The Blues, Honey

I don’t know if I fit the typical profile of a blues fan. But then again, I don’t know if such a profile exists. The blues is something that grabs a hold of you. And if you have at least a little musical soul, the blues is going to stick with you. I love the blues like I love my Mom; unconditionally and without exception.

I grew up in a religious home, middle class, sports loving, suburban life, white as the day is long. I’m very white. Greg Brady white. And yet, the blues lives in me as much as my Scottish heritage.

My older cousin Mark got me into music when I was 13 or so. I had no older brothers, nobody to teach me. A young person trying to find music on their own without a mentor to guide them is a dangerous thing. (That’s how I ended up with The Jackson 5 “Victory” cassette.) Those are the people listening to top 40 disposable radio. Those are the people that bought Fat Boys and Falco records. When we would go to visit our family in Bellingham Washington, Mark would play music for me. Something I’m very grateful for. When my friends were listening to Poison, Ratt, Motley Crue and the rest of the interchangeable hair-sprayed, eyeliner wearing hair bands, I was listening to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cream, The Yardbirds, Simon and Garfunkle, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. I didn’t understand the butt rock, MTV bands. Just a bunch of pricks in tights to me. Why were they all trying to look like drag queens? Why did all the guitar solos sound the same? What is this garbage? I was a snotty little bugger.

As I went through high school listening to those great old records, I began to want to know more about what influenced the bands that I loved. Zeppelin quoted Robert Johnson. (And J.R.R. Tolkien, by the way.) Clapton played songs that were written by Muddy Waters. The Doors had blues songs. Dylan had a song about Blind Willie McTell. The more I dug, the more I saw that the majority of the bands I loved were influenced by early American blues artists.

I vividly remember hearing Robert Johnson for the first time. He was mentioned the most by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. It was Crossroad Blues. “I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above ‘Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please.’” It sounded so viral, so gut wrenching. Reading about Robert entranced me. Did he sell his soul to the devil at “The Crossroads” to play guitar like that? Was he poisoned by a jealous lover’s husband? Was he out barking at the moon the night before he died? It was amazing to me. To this day, we still don’t know how he died. Or which one of the three gravestones is the correct marker. I still can’t believe that is only one guitar on those records.

From there I started listening to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B.B. King and Willie Dixon. That’s where I started. A few of my friends thought I was nuts listening to music that was 50 years old, but I didn’t care. They didn’t know what I knew. The blues mattered. The blues spoke to me. The songs were about love and pain. They told stories. They had wit and depth and soul. Songs that were written for black juke-joint audiences in segregated southern America decades before I was born moved me, a white, Mormon son of a public school teacher. I felt those songs were just as important to me as they were to Clapton and Page.

My love of the blues has grown. It has matured. It has spread like influenza. Many modern bands that mean something to me still have blues influences. From Mike McCready’s blues infused solos, to Jack White’s damn near reinvention of the blues. I read an interview with Jack the other day and the interviewer asked how he would like to be remembered. Jack replied, “A good husband and father, good upholsterer, and he loved the blues.” Here here Jackie.

From the core blues artists I progressed to more blues greats. Tommy Johnson, Son House, Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Taj Mahal, Big Bill Broonzy, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Little Walter, Freddie King, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie McTell. Just to name a few. I continue to find a little gem-of-a-song here and there. Not too long ago a found a song called “Rabbits Foot Blues” I didn’t know from Blind Lemon Jefferson. What a beauty.

So much of modern music is pre-packaged, over-marketed garbage. I read about record companies using an algorithm that can figure if a song is going to be a hit or not. You plug in a verse, a chorus, another verse and a scantily clad girl “singing” and presto; a top 40 hit. That is offensive to me. People complain that the arts are suffering. Music isn’t as good, films are weaker, novels are boring. This is true, sadly. The reason is because the suits are killing the arts. Jackass’s that are more concerned about where they are having lunch and with who than letting a burgeoning artist grow and mature. They believe they can predict what will sell, not what is good. Nobody in an office building in Santa Monica told Son House not to record a song about a dead girlfriend in the morgue. (See: Death Letter, a blues classic.) The blues was (and is) raw and unfettered. The songs were about life around the artists. They mattered.

Part of my definition of good or important music, whether I like it or not, is it must last more than one generation. The blues lives on. The blues breathes. She has life of her own. Thank God she’s a part of mine.