Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Next To Last Thoughts On Bob Dylan (Part 2)

Well, yesterday was Bob Dylan's birthday, and I feel compelled to say something about it. Not too compelled, obviously, since I didn't do this yesterday, but I do love Bob and I want to salute not the mere fact that he's made it to 70 years old, but the fact that he did it while remaining a vital creative force. Sure, his voice is truly shot now -- and I say this as a long-time lover and defender of his never-ending croak -- but he still has the ability to shock, surprise, delight, and piss off his fans, and that's something to be grateful for.

I discovered Bob Dylan in 1984, as a junior in high school -- probably the perfect time to discover Bob. I'd been on a decade-long Beatles bender, and my idea of expanding my musical horizons was listening to Beatles solo albums. But at least that had exposed me to John Lennon's serrated Plastic Ono Band LP, so I was prepared for music a little more fierce and complex than the Fab Four's pefectly polished pop. Actually, now that I think of it, George Harrison's overtly religious solo work prepared me for Bob's Christian music, and maybe Paul McCartney's silly love songs prepared me for Bob's country phase. I was going to make a cheap joke about how Ringo's solo music didn't prepare me for anything, but I can't -- I love Ringo, and he's got enough people making cheap jokes about him. His drumming made me pay attention to drumming, and without that I may never have appreciated Kenny Buttrey's drumming on John Wesley Harding.

Anyhoo, I wasn't planning on becoming a Bob Dylan fan, it just happened. A friend at school -- you know, that one kid you knew in high school who "got" Pet Sounds when he was only 14? -- had been bugging me about Dylan, and of course I knew "Like A Rolling Stone," but the light bulb didn't go on over my head until I heard "Positively 4th Street" on the radio (the late, lamented WNEW-FM in the NYC area). The viciousness of the lyrics -- present in "Rolling Stone" but apparently over my head at the time -- were doubled here, and it appealed to my dark, cynical adolescent heart immensely.

I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes
You'd know what a DRAG it is to see you...

Wow. I'd never heard anything quite like that in a pop song before -- and I'd done a "poetry" analysis in English class about John Lennon's evisceration of McCartney, "How Do You Sleep?" But this was harder stuff, even though it was more vague, less personal -- the emotion was raw, not clever, there were no puns or winking put-downs. This was the real deal. I was sold.

This being 1984, I headed out to Sam Goody as soon as possible to make it official. I always bought albums in pairs -- so I could have something for both sides of a 90-minute cassette -- so I would need two Dylan LPs to be my "first." Deciding entirely based on the weirdness of the song titles, I chose The Times They Are A-Changin' and Highway 61 Revisited. It was a happy accident that I chose these two; God knows what would have happened if I'd chosen two of his more, um, difficult works to start with. Though released only a year and change apart, they couldn't have been more different -- one was filled with dusty, acoustic Guthrie-esque tales of injustice and outrage, and the other was a maelstrom of electric music and surreal lyrics. I'll never forget sitting on the end of my bed, staring at the Emerson turntable on my dresser, blown away by the cruelty of "With God On Our Side" and transfixed by the imagery of "Desolation Row."

Still, my development into a life-long Dylan fanatic was a slow train coming. In the heady rush of new love, I went out and bought "companion" albums for the first two -- The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (to go with the folky Times) and Bringing It All Back Home (the 1965 precursor to H61). They were fine, of course, but in 1985 Dylan put out a NEW album -- Empire Burlesque -- and that's when I first realized that there were people in this world who made fun of Bob Dylan, mocked his singing, his hair, his lyrics, and just his entire persona. [NOTE: I'm not linking every damn album -- just go to Amazon and listen to the samples!] Apparently, he wasn't the ultra-cool poet and philosopher I assumed he still was -- he was an over-the-hill rocker making silly videos who had to be taught how to "sing like Bob Dylan" by Stevie Wonder. ("We Are The World" reference -- look it up.)

Thankfully, the epic Biograph box set gave me a lot to chew on after this unsettling experience, but then Bob followed that up with Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove, two of the worst albums ever released by anybody, anywhere. I found songs to love on both of those records -- my fondness for "Under Your Spell" is inexplicable; I still ache when I hear his cover of "Rank Strangers To Me" -- but let's not kid ourselves: it was hard times in Bob-ville. But just when it seemed ol' Bob was floundering straight into oblivion, the universe picked him back up and set him on the right path. His tribute-album cover of Woody's "Pretty Boy Floyd" (1988) was brash and full of life; that same year, his membership in the Traveling Wilburys brought back his sense of humor. And finally, fatefully, he sang backup on a U2 song ("Love Rescue Me"), and Bono urged Bob to think about working with their producer, Daniel Lanois.

The day I bought Oh Mercy was the day I became a Dylan fan for life, for better or worse. I'd read about the recording sessions in March of 1989 -- he was sneaking about in New Orleans, recording with Lanois' crew, who had just done a Neville Brothers album. He had all new songs -- not scraps from the last several years of studio discards. He was singing like Dylan again, only not like Dylan, again (if you know what I mean). The title alone -- Oh Mercy -- was tantalizing and promised great things. The wait for the September release was interminable. I was in college now, in Westchester County, New York. I was at the Galleria Mall when the record store opened on September 18th. The new albums weren't even unpacked yet -- I asked them to find the box with Dylan's new album in it, and they did. I didn't have a turntable at school -- and I hadn't accepted CDs yet -- so I quickly made the practical decision to buy the cassette, so I could listen to it in the car. I was giddy as I jogged back to my tan 1982 Mustang in the parking garage. I started the engine, tore off the plastic wrap, and inserted the tape into the deck.

For some reason, the moment I flash back to -- experiencing the entire moment: the sights, the sounds, the feelings -- is the moment I paused at the exit of the parking garage, poised to turn right and return to my everyday life. The album's first song, "Political World," was playing, and I was dazed by the experience. This sounded nothing like Bob Dylan -- more like U2, really -- and yet it was the greatest thing I'd ever heard. The single, "Everything Is Broken," had been on the radio since July or August, but this was the first time I heard the album as a whole. It was amazing, and I hadn't even gotten to "Ring Them Bells," "The Man In The Long Black Coat," "Most Of The Time," or "Shooting Star." The music was lean and spare, but somehow big and expansive. His voice -- that voice! -- had lost all its 1980s whine, and Bob sang everything in a low, menacing grumble. I didn't know it at the time, but it was the beginning of a renaissance that would continue (more or less) until the present day.

Twenty-two years later, Oh Mercy may not be my all-time favorite Dylan album -- on a given day, that honor could go to John Wesley Harding, Blood On The Tracks, or Love & Theft instead -- but it's still my favorite Dylan experience. I didn't know at the time that Bob (incorrigible, he) had left some amazing gems off the album -- "Dignity" and "Series Of Dreams" among them -- but I had the rest of my life to figure that out. Oh Mercy was the beginning of Dylan's career for me, as a fan -- the way someone who was turned on by "Subterranean Homesick Blues" might think of Bringing It All Back Home as his "first" album, and not his fifth. Since then, Bob has thrilled me, annoyed me, perplexed me, and awed me -- all past the age where most rockers are spinning their wheels, recycling their "classic" sound on stage or on CD.

I'll finish by avoiding cliche -- after all, quoting "Forever Young" or "Long May You Run" would be pretty lame, and would suggest that I've learned nothing at all from Bob in 25+ years. Instead, I'll quote one of my favorite (and one of Bob's most recent) masterpieces, "Ain't Talkin'." These lines were probably written about his friends, or his never-ending touring band, but I'd like to think they're about his fans as well:

All my loyal and much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that's been long abandoned
Ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road

Happy Birthday, Bob. Thanks for the company.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Celebrating Brian Wilson's 2004 SMiLE

Well, it's been a few weeks now, and "The SMiLE Sessions" hasn't been cancelled! Don't laugh -- for a project that has been announced, and cancelled, in 1966, 1967, 1972, 1988 and 1995, this is indeed a victory of sorts. While we wait for more substantial news (a release date, a track list), I think now might be the best time to revisit the SMiLE that already HAS been released -- namely, 2004's Brian Wilson Presents Smile (BWPS).

I really hope that the release of "The SMiLE Sessions" doesn't convince scores of SMiLE fans that they never need to listen to BWPS ever again. Brian's reimagining of the project (I hesitate to assert that he "finished" or "solved" it) will still be a remarkable achievement, and without the catharsis achieved by completing BWPS, I don't believe he ever would have authorized the project we're looking forward to now. In 2004, USA Today asked him about releasing the original Beach Boys SMiLE tapes, and he said "Never. Those are gone forever. I don't want those made public because they bring up bad memories. I don't think about the old days anymore. I never do." I think he needed to make peace with SMiLE via BWPS and then let it sit for a few years before "The SMiLE Sessions" would ever have been even remotely possible.

So let's step back for a second and appreciate what we HAVE before we resume fantasizing about what we MIGHT get in the new box. Songwriting for Brian Wilson Presents Smile was undertaken, after a 36 year pause, in late 2003 by Brian and SMiLE's original lyricist, Van Dyke Parks. Darian Sahanaja, one of Brian's band members and long-time SMiLE geek, put together a bunch of vintage bootlegs for Brian to listen to, and together they stitched together a program -- not the original 1966/67 SMiLE, but rather a setlist of SMiLE music suitable for live performance. Tossing aside the restrictions of a 1960s LP, they came up with a three-movement song cycle that incorporated all the well-known SMiLE pieces and flowed like a real album.

After touring BWPS to rapturous audiences in early 2004, Brian and the band ventured into Sunset Sound in Hollywood -- the site of some of the original "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes And Villains" sessions -- to record the "album" version. Just as he did during the original SMiLE sessions -- and just as NO ONE does today -- Brian recorded the instrumental tracks in "modular" parts, with the entire band playing live in the same room. Some fans have mentioned the lack of "darkness" in the BWPS tracks, and while I don't disagree, I don't think it means that the new recordings are "softer" or "lighter." Several instrumental versions were released with BWPS, between the LP's 4th side and several CDs, and when I listen to those (without the distractions of Brian's modern voice and the not-the-Beach Boys backing vocals) I'm just as stunned as when I listen to the 1966 tracks. For those who want to track them all down, the available instrumental BWPS tracks are:

Heroes And Villains (LP side 4)
Cabinessence (LP side 4)
On A Holiday (LP side 4)
Wind Chimes (LP side 4)
Roll Plymouth Rock (giveaway CD from fanzine Endless Summer Quarterly [ESQ])
Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (ESQ giveaway) [same as album, but clean intro/outro]
In Blue Hawaii ("Good Vibrations" CD single b-side)
Surf's Up (Beautiful Dreamer Bonus CD)

Anyway, I think the reason we're sensing this lack of "darkness" is relatively simple -- and it's not because Brian necessarily tried to make it to sound "happier." In 1966, the Wrecking Crew (et al.) had to CREATE this music under the watch of an intensely inspired Brian Wilson, and they were expected to nail their parts quickly so they could move on and not waste studio time. The Wondermints (et al.) only had to learn to PERFORM the music, and they had all the 1966 tapes to refer to, and as much time as they needed to learn it, and they probably didn't have Brian hanging over them every minute.

Not only that, but the BWPS album was recorded AFTER they completed the SMiLE tour -- meaning they had not only rehearsed the songs extensively, they were completely comfortable playing them by the time they approached the album in the studio. I think this is why we feel they are "lighter" or "happier" or that "something" is missing -- but when you listen to the instrumental tracks, the musicianship is still there, and the magic of the compositions still glows.

Which brings me to one other thing I've been thinking about lately: Let's not be too cavalier about the "darkness" that Brian Wilson has had to live with for most of his life. It's easy to chatter about Brian's failure to finish SMiLE in 1967 and how great it is that it's going to get "finished" now, with or without him, but I wouldn't take his authorization of this project as a signal that all his demons have been slain. He may be happier than he's been in decades, and he may be getting the best medical and psychological care of his entire life, but I think most of us suspect that Brian is still an incredibly fragile person, much more than he or his camp would ever let on. He himself hints at his continuous battles, and I was surprised to re-read some of the things he said in 2004 while promoting BWPS.

For example, in the audio interview with David Leaf (on the same CD as the instrumental "Surf's Up"), Leaf asks Brian to clarify the story about how he believed that his song "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (aka "Fire") had caused actual fires around Los Angeles. Brian confirms that he DID really believe that, but admits (paraphrasing), "That's silly, because there's no way that me recording a song about fire could cause a fire somewhere else." I thought, OK, sounds a little like he's reciting what a therapist told him, but fine -- he got over it. But then Brian added, "I got over that a couple of years ago," and I was taken aback. A couple of YEARS ago! Meaning that as late as 2002, Brian Wilson still feared that he caused fires in Los Angeles because he recorded "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow."

In the USA Today interview, Brian reminds us that his mental breakdowns didn't end in the 1960s, or the "bed years" of the 1970s, or the coke years of the 1980s, or the post-Landy years of the 1990s. He told Edna Gundersen that "I had a pretty good nervous breakdown a few years ago [i.e., in or around the early 2000s], where I felt emotionally broken down, and I've slowly been repaired from it. I still have moments where I think I have it, but it goes away. Music's been part of my salvation." Far from the general public perception that Brian was "unhealthy" a long time ago, and is "recovered" now, the truth is that every day is a probably struggle for him -- at least compared to those of us who don't have similar problems.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm ecstatic about "The Smile Sessions" too, but I think we should all reflect on what an epic struggle this project was for Brian, and still is. The press release may say he's "thrilled" about it, but even if he is, it's a relatively recent change of opinion. The Orange County Register asked him in 1999 if he would ever allow a Smile box similar to the Pet Sounds box, and he flatly rejected the idea. When asked why, he said, "Because I hate that [expletive] album." Personally, I hope that all the praise "The Smile Sessions" will undoubtedly receive will help Brian finally put SMiLE to rest -- but I also fear that it would break his heart if his fans tossed BWPS aside because of the "real thing" being released.

Brian Wilson Presents Smile will stand the test of time, in my opinion, simply because it contains music and lyrics that don't exist on the 1966 tapes. While I don't love all the new lyrics in BWPS, and I don't think the "three movement" structure has any basis in history, the album still holds up for me, as I play it along with all my vintage SMiLE stuff (officially released and ... otherwise). It may or may not be historical, but the BWPS transition from "Wonderful" to "Song For Children" to "Child Is Father" to "Surf's Up" is still spine-tingling. The way "On A Holiday" uses the "whispering winds" chant (as found on the Smiley Smile album) to link to "Wind Chimes" is brilliant. The music is expertly played and the sound is crystal clear in a way that the original tapes simply will never be.

"The Smile Sessions" producers Mark Linett and Alan Boyd have indicated that they will use BWPS as the "template" for their version of the Beach Boys SMiLE "album." They may think they're honoring it by doing so, but I think the effect would be the opposite. If they succeed TOO well, then many fans will decide that they simply never need to listen to Brian's version again, because all the stuff they liked can now be heard using the "real" tapes and Beach Boys harmonies. I hope they try to piece together the best possible "1967 version" of SMiLE -- 12 to 14 tracks, probably not linked or segued together, with no additional recordings AT ALL, and sequenced like a two-sided LP. This will allow BWPS to retain its status as a unique and compelling version of SMiLE.

Coming soon: An appreciation of Brian Wilson's "wilderness years" (1967-1977)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Look! Listen! Vibrate! COMPiLE! Last Call For SMiLE Nerds!

Well, the unthinkable is being thought, the unspeakable is being spoken, and the unimaginable is being imagined -- The Beach Boys' legendary SMiLE album is finally being released, 44 years after being shelved by damaged mastermind Brian Wilson in 1967. The news was first leaked by a loose-lipped Al Jardine, who, in an amazing coincidence unprecedented in the annals of public relations, was trying to drum up interest in his solo album. After the inevitable Internet firestorm (heh, "Fire"...), Al tried to throw some cold water on it, but it surprised almost no one when the news became official on March 11th:

Read the announcement made on Billboard's website and the accompanying interview with Beach Boys engineer and compiler extraordinaire Mark Linett.

Three days later, the news became even more official, with a press release posted to Brian Wilson's website. If you're a SMiLE fan, or a Beach Boys fan, or a fan of 1960s pop in general, go to those links and read up on "The Smile Sessions," which has the potential to be a genuine "holy grail" release for a sizeable cadre of fanatics. But this post isn't about that.

The front cover of my SMiLE CD

I'm here to talk about how this affects ME -- namely, the possibility that the "finished" version of SMiLE that I labored over for a year or more might become obsolete. I'm not alone in this fear-slash-joy -- making your own SMiLE is a rite of passage for SMiLE fans, and hundreds (if not thousands) of them have done the same, stitching together the pieces (either officially released or from bootlegs) into something they consider a "complete" SMiLE. Friendly debates raged on message boards -- whether "Surf's Up" should have been the final track, whether there was ever really going to be an "Elements" suite of songs, whether each album side would be a continuous collage of music or traditionally banded individual tracks, whether "Good Vibrations" belonged on it at all, etc. Scans of hand-written notes and tape boxes and record company memorandums were kept at the ready as evidence.

It's all in good fun, but for better or worse the fun will end -- or, rather, CHANGE -- when "The Smile Sessions" is released (hopefully) sometime this year. Part of the beauty of SMiLE is that it WAS unfinished -- so we could mold it in our own images, as it were. Homemade SMiLEs were like snowflakes -- no two were alike, and I think we liked it that way. It made SMiLE into something organic and alive, ever-evolving. Disc One of "The Smile Sessions" will attempt to end the debate, and present the most complete version of the 1966/67 SMiLE possible with the tapes they have been able to recover from the project. (Several reels are known to be lost, but who knows what has turned up in the last few years.) Mark Linett hints that they will probably try to use Brian Wilson's own "homemade" SMiLE -- Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE (BWPS) -- as a template, which will not be a popular decision for a lot of hardcore SMiLE scholars. Historical evidence suggests that in 1966/67 SMiLE would have been a traditional 10-12 song album, not a three-movement double-LP. There will be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth if Linett decides to mimic the BWPS model TOO closely, with digitally-manipulated segues and (god-forbid) modern-day vocals adding the new lyrics.

The way I see it, though, Brian and the Beach Boys aren't going to stamp out the "DIY SMiLE" community -- they're just jumping into the sandbox to play along. Brian's 2004 version was crafted specifically to be performed on stage, and tracks were edited and arranged with that in mind. "The Smile Sessions" will hopefully try to re-create what MIGHT have been a Beach Boys album released in 1967, but even if they get a little too jiggy with it, discs 2-4 of the deluxe set will give us extensive session outtakes (in stereo) and un-futzed-with versions of what appears on disc one. The more the merrier, I say, and I'm sure I'm not speaking for only myself when I predict that most of us who buy the deluxe boxed set of "The Smile Sessions" will be diving into those bonus discs and re-compiling -- or even re-thinking altogether -- our own personal SMiLE comps.

With that in mind, I would like to present my own version of SMiLE, which I worked on for a little over a year, from Winter 1999 until I finished it (or gave up, take your pick) in January 2001. I imagined it as a CD reissue of the original album, meaning that it would be an LP-length "album" with bonus tracks. I wasn't strictly beholden to historical evidence, though, and used link tracks, demos and other things that some purists frown upon. My main objective was to put my absolute favorite bits of SMiLE onto ONE CD, rather than spread out on more than 20 official releases and bootlegs. And so, the tracklist:

01. Our Prayer (1:06)
02. Heroes and Villains (4:44)
03. Wind Chimes (2:57)
04. Do You Like Worms (4:20)
05. The Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine (1:07)
06. Link: How I Love My Girl (1:33)
07. Wonderful (2:01)
08. Link: Heroes and Villains (1:14)
09. Cabinessence* (3:32)

10. Look* (2:50)
11. He Gives Speeches (0:58)
12. I’m In Great Shape (demo) (0:25)
13. Vegetables (2:40)
14. The Elements** (7:34)
15. Surf’s Up (4:10)
16. You’re Welcome (1:36)

17. Good Vibrations (alternate mix) (3:39)
18. Heroes and Villains** (alternate) (4:20)
19. Barnyard (demo) (0:56)
20. Wind Chimes* (early version) (2:52)
21. Wonderful* (early version) (1:45)
22. Vegetables (early version) (2:37)
23. Child Is Father to the Man (0:47)
24. Fire* (take 2) (1:50)
25. The Old Master Painter* (sessions) (2:24)
26. Surf’s Up* (instrumental track) (1:37)
27. Surf’s Up* (Brian’s demo) (3:38)

*Stereo   **Mono/stereo

Unfortunately, I can't post PDFs to my blog, or I would upload the booklet that I made for the CD, complete with nerd-tastically detailed liner notes that explain the sweat that went into this. Consider yourselves spared -- but here are a few notes: All of the edits used were my own, except for the so-called "Anne Wallace mix" of "Surf's Up" which expertly combined Brian's 1966 demo of the song with the unfinished 1966 instrumental backing track -- a trick that Mark Linett himself has already completed for "The Smile Sessions." Some of my edits followed other fan edits, but I tried to refine and improve the editing as well as the pieces used in the edits. "Do You Like Worms" for example used 9 different segments for a four-minute song. My stab at "The Elements" was comprised of "I Want To Be Around/Friday Night/Woodshop" (for "Earth"), an instrumental portion of "Wind Chimes" (for "Air"), "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow" (for "Fire," the only known-for-a-fact portion of Brian's original "Elements" plan), and "Water Chant"/"I Love To Say Da Da" for "Water." As a wink to Sgt. Pepper's "endless chord" at the end of "A Day In The Life," I ended my SMiLE with an endless fade-in of "You're Welcome." "Good Vibrations" is relegated to the bonus tracks section -- just a personal choice; I know that it probably would have been on the LP in 1966 or 1967.

The tray insert for my SMiLE CD

So that's what I've been enjoying as "SMiLE" for a decade now. I'm looking forward to having my decisions and opinions challenged by "The Smile Sessions," and I'm looking forward to the sonic upgrades for several tracks I omitted simply because I didn't like the sound quality of the bootleg versions ("Barnyard," "Child Is Father To The Man," "Holidays," etc.) I've been on a Beach Boys/Brian Wilson/Smile bender this month because of the news -- like, an epic, Charlie Sheen-level bender -- and it's going to be hard to think about anything else until we at least get a release date. I hope everything progresses smoothly, and I hope Brian is happy with the results. My next post will be about Brian and his own 2004 version of SMiLE, and why I don't think it should be forgotten in the wake of "The Smile Sessions." Stay tuned!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, George Harrison

It would have been George Harrison's 58th birthday a few days ago (February 25th, to be exact), and the occasion got me playing his music, as it usually does. I've made many George comp CDs over the years, beginning with an "In Memoriam" CD made in the year after he died (see below for cover art), culminating in an expansive five-disc overview of his career, which I've been laboring over for nearly two years, off and on. In between working on that beast, however, I managed to bang out a mix CD that I'm very proud of, one that honors the 1966-1968 period, when George was truly straddling the eastern and western musical worlds, bringing them together in a way unheard of in rock music, then or since. Most think George was totally immersed in Indian music for most of these years, but in reality he was still making experimental psychedelic rock while composing "raga rock" songs like "Love You To" and "Within You Without You."

The two styles of music, both competing for George's attention, became intermingled in George's first solo album, 1968's Wonderwall Music. Written and recorded as the original score to the movie Wonderwall, George recorded these tracks in early 1968, in Bombay and in London, using Indian and British musicians. While not particularly "Beatley," the recordings certainly showed what George had learned about producing during the Beatles' psychedelic phase. Sounds and recording techniques we had heard on Beatles tracks showed up in Wonderwall tracks, and tricks and instruments he used as the producer of Wonderwall Music showed up in his White Album tracks. The missing link between the Wonderwall album and the White Album is George's "The Inner Light"; George had recorded the music track for it in India during the Wonderwall sessions, and he wrote the lyric and recorded the vocals during a Beatles session. It ended up as the b-side on the "Lady Madonna" single.

A good pal of mine named Glenn -- whom I only know through the Internet, but my gut tells me the guy's a peach -- had the clever idea to combine George's Wonderwall songs with his White Album songs, to highlight their similarities as well as their differences, and to make a new "solo album" out of it -- one that contained vocal tracks, unlike the all-instrumental Wonderwall Music. He sent me a CD-R of his resulting mix-CD, called "George White," and I enjoyed it greatly -- in fact, it was the first time I had ever appreciated George's Wonderwall album at all. I'd tried to listen to it before, but just couldn't get into it; as it turns out, all I really needed was some traditional Western vocal rock tracks sprinkled in to break up the instrumental monotony.

Of course, Glenn's CD got me to thinking, and because I've never met a good idea I didn't think I could improve, I set out to make my own version of this compilation. First, I wanted to expand the scope of it, because (a) I needed MORE vocals from George mixed in with the instrumentals, and (b) I really felt that several of George's 1966 and 1967 tracks (like "Love You To" and "Blue Jay Way") fit perfectly with this music. Then, I wanted to tinker with the sequence a little, have some of the songs blend together via segues -- I am an inveterate segue addict, if there is such a thing -- and tweak the volume levels to make the whole thing flow like one long piece. The result is an an expansion of George's famous "Indian period" to include some truly bold and inventive music which has been mostly forgotten by Beatles fans and overlooked by Beatles historians. I've called it, for no other reason than it sounds cool, It's All Too Much. Here's the cover art, with the album jokingly released on the "Zapple" label:

Here's the tracklist, followed by a few notes:

01. Love You To (2:55)
02. Guru Vandana (1:01)
03. Only A Northern Song (3:24)
04. Tabla and Pakavaj (1:03)
05. Within You Without You (5:00)
06. Gat Kirwani (1:14)
07. Blue Jay Way (3:45)
08. Drilling a Home (3:01)
09. In The Right Place (3:20)
10. Party Seacombe (4:32)
11. Fantasy Sequins (1:49)
12. The Inner Light (2:31)
13. Glass Box (1:03)
14. Not Guilty (3:20)
15. Red Lady Too (1:52)
16. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Rock Band remix) (4:43)
17. Ski-ing (1:50)
18. Savoy Truffle (2:54)
19. On the Bed (2:16)
20. Long, Long, Long (3:02)
21. Dream Scene (5:27)
22. While My Guitar Gently Weeps (LOVE version) (3:20)
23. Wonderwall to Be Here (1:22)
24. It's All Too Much (6:25)
25. Singing Om (1:54)

Now, obviously, this track listing will only resonate with those who are familiar with the Wonderwall soundtrack -- and even then, honestly, I don't know most of these tracks by their names, only by how they sound. But I tried to skip back and forth between vocal and instrumental tracks, between Eastern and Western sounds. If I found an instrument or a sound that was prominent in two songs, I'd put them together -- for example, there's an instrument in "Fantasy Sequins" that is also used in "The Inner Light," so those tracks were matched with each other. I tried to let songs melt into one another, so the way one song faded out and another began became an important factor in sequencing. And, as I often do, if I could find an "inside joke" or "secret communication" between songs, that always helped. The best example of that here is "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (a Beatles song featuring Eric Clapton) leading into "Ski-ing" (a Wonderwall song featuring Eric Clapton), leading into "Savoy Truffle" (a Beatles song ABOUT Eric Clapton).

As they often are, my CD comps are about providing a CONTEXT for the songs so I can enjoy them. It's All Too Much allows me to fully enjoy the Wonderwall tracks as well as the heavily "Indian" Beatles tracks, which sometimes seem out of place or dated on Beatles albums. It also gave me a place to listen to the Rock Band remix of "While My Guitar," which kicks ASS and features an unfaded ending, as well as the "LOVE" version of the same song, which features a beautiful George Martin score over George Harrison's acoustic demo. It's all about context for me, folks.

So thanks to Glenn for the idea -- and finally today, after a year of promising it, I've finally sent him a copy of my version of his original "George White" CD. I hope he likes it -- there are so few people in the world who enjoy this kind of thing to the mega-nerd extent that I do, that when someone really "gets" it, it's a real hoot. And happy birthday to George -- even though you were mostly retired for the last decade-plus of your life, I miss just knowing you're somewhere in England, tinkering in your garden.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

SMiLE: The Biggest Rock-Tease In Pop History Strikes Again

A couple of weeks ago, erstwhile Beach Boy and former thorn in Mike Love's side Al Jardine casually dropped a bomb  that blew the minds of Beach Boys nerds everywhere:

"Capitol Records plans to issue a Beach Boys version of Smile sometime this summer to begin the celebration of The Beach Boys' anniversary. Smile is the Holy Grail for Beach Boys' fans, so it will be good."

Setting aside the fact that it was suspicious for a low-ranking Beach Boy -- an exiled one at that -- to make such a stunning announcement, Al further raised our hopes by invoking Smile's master painter himself, Brian Wilson:

"I don't have many details on it, although we didn't do any new recording. I'm happy to see it finally come out.  Brian's changed his mind about releasing the material, but it was inevitable, wasn't it?" (Al chuckles)

The matter-of-fact nature of the statement, along with the naming of the only two parties who could guarantee such an event (Capitol Records and Brian Wilson), set off a firestorm of speculation and "now my life will be complete" testimonies among the internet Brianistas. Alas, because nothing good in Beach Boys fandom comes without pain and suffering -- the Beach Boys are kinda like the Mets to the Beatles' New York Yankees -- the powers that be allowed the rumor to simmer for a week or so, before (presumably) frog-marching Al back out to back-pedal: "I don't know if we even have enough parts to put it together or not. May have to record some more."

Now, this isn't exactly a DENIAL that we could still see a Smile release of some kind in 2011, but it was certainly weird enough to warrant further examination. Perhaps it was like when a hostage in a foreign country deliberately says something odd that would only resonate with his family, to signal that he's lying -- I mean, saying "we don't have enough parts" is ALMOST believable (although I don't believe it: see below), but any notion of new Beach Boys recordings for Smile is laughably absurd. I bet if Al's retraction was televised, he would be blinking something in Morse code, like "I deeply regret speaking out of turn. Smile may still happen but I had no right to reveal that publicly. Please don't send Mike Love's lawyers to my house."

Still, this "news" and the accompanying hubbub really got me thinking about Smile again for the first time in years. I was pretty obsessed with it for awhile about a decade ago; I read the "Smile Bible" -- Domenic Priore's Look, Listen, Vibrate, Smile -- and dutifully made my own "SMiLE" CD that I labored over for months, cutting and pasting the bits together like a z-level Brian Wilson. I spent hours -- days, MONTHS -- religiously reading the Smile Shop message board and searching for clues to the puzzle. When Brian Wilson released his own "finished" version of Smile in 2004, it felt like closure to me, and I've listened to mostly his version since then. It's not perfect, but it's a terrific "what if" and a good listen in its own right. (Thankfully, he also released instrumental versions of several of the tracks, so I can swap out the ones where the new lyrics don't work for me.)

Anyway, Jardine's "nothing to see here, folks" quasi-denial has Smile die-hards giving up any hope for an official release of the original Beach Boys Smile sessions, but I choose to believe. I don't think anyone expects Brian (or anyone else) to go back to the 1966/67 tapes and "finish" Smile -- I think most fans just want a complete set of the finished PARTS so they can listen to them (and re-purpose them, if they are so inclined) in the best possible quality. When I went back to listening to my own SMiLE CD again this week, what struck me about it was how much of the raw material has already been officially released. The list of the absolutely crucial bits that remain unreleased is fairly small -- the "Holiday" backing track, "Barnyard," "The Old Master Painter," "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," "Look," "Child Is Father Of The Man" and "I Wanna Be Around/Woodshop" and maybe a couple of other scraps are all we need to paint a fairly complete picture of what Brian might have assembled in 1967. (I'm leaving "The Elements" out of it, because I don't think that ever really progressed beyond the initial stages.)

Let's take a look at what HAS been officially released from the Smile sessions, between 1967 and 2001:

Good Vibrations (single) 3:38
Good Vibrations (Early Take) 3:03
Good Vibrations (Alternate Take) 3:34
Good Vibrations (Instrumental) 3:53
Good Vibrations (Sessions) 15:18
Good Vibrations (Various Sessions) 6:56
Good Vibrations (Stereo Track Sections) 3:13
Our Prayer (Smile version) 1:07
Our Prayer (1968 version) 1:10
Heroes And Villains (Demo) 2:28
Heroes And Villains (Intro) 0:35
Heroes And Villains (Track Only) 0:47
Heroes And Villains (Single Version) 3:38
Heroes And Villains (Stereo Single Version) 3:39
Heroes And Villains (Alternate Version) 2:56
Heroes And Villains (Sections) 6:40
Cabinessence 3:35
Cabinessence (Track Only) 3:59
Wind Chimes 2:32
Do You Like Worms 4:00
Wonderful 2:02
Vegetables 3:29
Vegetables Promo (Instrumental Section) 0:55
Vegetables (Stereo Extended Mix) 3:01
I Love To Say Da Da 1:34
Surf's Up (Track Only) 1:40
Surf's Up (Brian solo) 3:38
Surf's Up (BB version) 4:11
You're Welcome 1:10

Granted, there's a ton of repetitive stuff in here -- especially between "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes And Villains" -- but still, that's 10 relatively finished songs -- a LOT of officially released Smile-era music. The problem is, you have to buy TWELVE CDs to get all this -- the Good Vibrations box set (5 discs), the "Good Vibrations" anniversaary CD EP, the Smiley Smile / Wild Honey two-fer CD, the Friends / 20/20 two-fer CD, the Endless Harmony soundtrack, the Hawthorne, CA rarities set (2 discs) and the Sunflower / Surf's Up! two-fer CD. Even a catch-all single disc with all those 10 finished songs and the unreleased "essential" tracks listed above -- what I would call a "lazy" Smile release -- would be pretty awesome.

So when people say stuff like "never happen" and "pipe dream" I just don't buy it. Smile is the last valuable arrow in the Beach Boys quiver -- how many more greatest-hits sets can they release? They must know this, and they also have to know that the CD era will be over sooner rather than later -- like Bob Dylan with his mono box set (inspired by the stunning success of "The Beatles In Mono"), rockers pay attention to their peers, they see what they're making money off of, and they copy it. The Beach Boys copied the Beatles with their Anthology-like Endless Harmony and Hawthorne sets, so why not copy Dylan, who had one of the biggest hits of his recent career with Tell Tale Signs: Bootleg Series Volume 8? Remember when it seemed impossible -- unthinkable! -- that Bob would ever authorize the release of the Time Out Of Mind outtakes of "Mississippi" or "Red River Shore"? Well, they've been on my shelf for two years now. Remember when the Beatles swore they would NEVER authorize a CD release of the "butchered" Capitol U.S. LPs? Well, Volumes One and Two were released in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

I don't know if Capitol WILL release a Smile CD this year, but it's not SUCH a leap to believe that they COULD. The cat is already out of the bag -- most of the essential songs have been out for a decade or more. A multi-CD box set, with "completed" versions of songs and "Stack-O-Tracks" and "Stack-O-Vocals" and session highlights would be the ultimate, of course, and that's more of a stretch. That would take considerable work, and Brian would have to approve everything that was done to his songs. I could still see that happening too, someday -- after all, big lavish expensive box sets seems to be the one area where CDs are making money -- but if Capitol wanted to get something on the shelves this year, a single CD of Smile Sessions is totally do-able.

In the absence of a physical CD release, I think it would be amazing if Capitol and Brian just acknowledged the "Make Your Own Smile" community and put out a DVD full of WAV files and said "Have at it, kids." That would take all the pressure off Brian, his people, and Capitol to "finish" Smile and would allow it to live and grow indefinitely, in a really organic and beautiful way. Compiling your personal "SMiLE" is kind of a rite of passage for Smile nuts; it goes back to the days of cassette and stretches right into the present, with new versions "released" on CD and online all the time. I love listening to them, comparing them with my own, and debating who made the "best" or most creative choices and edits. All we really need from Brian is the "missing pieces" in great quality, and we'll take it from there. Let's hope something really special makes us smile in 2011.

Friday, February 4, 2011

More thoughts on R.E.M.

I've been thinking a lot about R.E.M. lately -- as I often do when a favorite band or musician has a new album coming out -- and someone wondered why I didn't think Accelerate (their last album, from 2008) was a great "comeback," an album worthy of their 1990s peak. Accelerate was, after all, hailed my most critics and fans as a "return to form," and as far as I know, it sold relatively well and was popular. But no, I really don't agree -- but I'm not looking to discredit anyone's enjoyment of Accelerate. For me, it seemed like a "reactive" album rather than an "active" album -- ironic considering all the energy in the tracks -- but what I mean is that it seemed like they had a band meeting and tried to figure out what the fans wanted, and then tried to make THAT album. I'm not calling it a "sell-out" -- I'm totally willing to believe that they had entirely respectable intentions, whether they felt they owed a "classic R.E.M." album to their fans, or whether they themselves agreed that they had gone off the rails with Around The Sun, or whether they were just trying to see if they were still viable as a rock group anymore.

Whatever their reasons were for making Accelerate, I was ready to take the album at face value, and I bought it eagerly on release day as most loyalists probably did. But it just never moved me, and I can't entirely explain why. Part of me feels like they just plain forgot how to ROCK in an "R.E.M." way a loooong time ago (like, since Document -- THAT long ago), and whenever they decide to "crank it up to 11" they sound like some other band that I'm just not that crazy about. Part of me thinks they sound like their hearts aren't in it anymore, that they're too complacent, or too insulated from the fans they're recording for, or maybe even just too gentlemanly to say out loud that they want to break up. And finally, part of me just didn't like the songs -- the melodies didn't grab me, Michael's gruff shout-singing didn't work for me, and I found no texture or subtlety in the music.

I mentioned in an my last post that I felt that R.E.M. had lost their WARMTH, their vibe of compassion and empathy that made me admire them in the first place. It all comes back to THAT for me. When I was younger, listening to R.E.M. was like being HUGGED by an album, if that makes sense. Even when they rocked pretty hard, as on Lifes Rich Pageant, the songs made me feel like they cared about stuff -- the world, their friends, their fans. They cultivated that feeling of community, it became who they WERE, and they nurtured it until it grew into full bloom on Automatic. That album just OOZED empathy. "Everybody Hurts" was a massive song of "Let It Be" proportions, and was soon being heard on TV shows and in supermarkets all over the place. It was the apex of their "R.E.M. cares about Y.O.U." image.

I don't know if the "hugeness" of Automatic spooked them, or if it was a coincidence that they decided to remake themselves as something more glammy, more self-absorbed, more DISTANT from their fans, but the warmth started to slip away with Monster (an album I still really liked). I thought they struck a good balance with New Adventures in Hi-Fi, though, with "New Test Leper" and "Electrolite" and others balancing out the "Wake Up Bomb"s and "Binky The Doormat"s. I think Bill Berry's departure stirred up some strong feelings in the remaining band members, and to me Up -- while still being more inward-looking than outward -- was full of emotion and deep thought.

After that ... I just don't know. I really don't like to think about it much, because it just makes me kinda sad. As I've said before, it's brought me no satisfaction to lose touch with R.E.M. -- it's not like I'm angry that they sold out, or I resent that they're rich, or I thought they got lucky in the '90s -- I've always been, and remain, open to them and their music. It just hasn't worked for me for about a decade now -- that's a long time to be a fan in exile. I'm happy for anyone who liked Accelerate, but we all experience music differently, and that just wasn't how I felt it. I'm curious about Collapse Into Now -- I love the title, and a couple of the songs have stirred something in me -- but I think I'm going to just wait and listen to it all the "old fashioned" way, after it's released. I look forward to discussing it here!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

REM: Colliding Into Nowhere?

REM will be releasing a new album in March, called Collide Into Now. A few of the tracks have leaked, and I think I've listened to three of them, once each. Nothing blows me away so far, but I've been a fan of REM for 25 years, so I feel I owe them my curiosity, at the very least. The problem is, deep down, I think the band I loved as "REM" ended in 1996, with the release of New Adventures In Hi-Fi. That was a great album, inspired in its creation and diverse in its sounds and experimentation. But drummer, songwriter, and future hay farmer Bill Berry quit after that album, and REM became something else. For the last decade or so, whenever my old friends release a new album, I wonder what happened and what the future will bring them. Because the Beatles were my first love, they (for better or worse) established the template in my mind for how a band should evolve, and they set the bar -- HIGH -- for any band's success. With that in mind, here's how I see the last two decades of REM:

Out of Time (1991) was their Revolver -- increased track space for Mike Mills (the "George" of the group), the apex of band harmony + mainstream success, creative and ground-breaking (for them) recording decisions. Automatic For The People (1992) was their Sgt. Pepper (complete pop culture dominance) but also their White Album (acoustic and organic), which found the band splintering, working separately, and starting to hate each other. Monster (1994) was, naturally, their Get Back project -- back to basics, rocking again, being a real BAND again, etc. -- but like Get Back, it backfired, and making the album almost broke them up. That makes New Adventures In Hi-Fi (1996) their Abbey Road -- built up from the remnants of the previous project, and pretty much the culmination of everything we would now call "REM music." The band got along better, but as with the Beatles, it would be short-lived, with Berry leaving after years of reluctance to play the rock star and (more crucially) after nearly dying from a brain aneurysm.

So, to me, everything after Bill left has been the "solo years" of REM, with all the joys, disappointments and (eventually) nostalgic yearnings for days past that the phrase implies. Up (1998) was a rush of post-breakup adrenaline -- Buck, Mills and Stipe actually sounded EXCITED to be forced to flip the script and re-invent themselves. Even Berry ruefully noted that right after he left the band, they made their best album. Perhaps he was just being courteous towards his old bandmates (as far as we know, his departure was entirely amicable), and he can be forgiven for exaggerating slightly, but Up was a GREAT album -- it just didn't sound much like "REM music" to a lot of their fans. I've always wished that they had followed through with Michael Stipe's stated desire to re-name the band "Three-Legged Dog" after Berry left -- he may have been joking, but I think fans might have been more generous to the post-Berry albums if they didn't have the intimidating (and hard to live up to) label "R.E.M." on them.

Anyway, things fell apart fast after that. The album after that -- I honestly can't remember the title! ... the cover had a lot of yellow in it ... ah, yes, Reveal (2002) -- was hailed at first as a "return to form" and Automatic-like in its warmth and optimism, but I never bought the spin. Between Reveal and Around The Bend (sorry -- Around The SUN [2004]), I like maybe 6-8 songs, and LOVE maybe two or three. Accelerate sounds to me like REM trying to make the "REM music" that their remaining fans want -- and not making the music THEY want to make. Perhaps Collide Into Now -- GREAT title, btw -- will launch a new era of relevance for the band, or perhaps it will be the last gasp of a tired trio of millionaires. Either way, I'll be there to hear for myself -- and even if I feel in my heart they are "done," it will be with no animosity. They had a great run, and I feel fortunate to have shared most of it with them.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Flashback: January 22, 2010

One year ago yesterday, Conan O'Brien walked away from The Tonight Show, the job every talk show host aspires to, and stepped into an unknown wilderness. He beseeched his fans not to give in to hate, not to feel sorry for him, and then he grew a beard and went on tour. On January 19th, a couple of days before his last Tonight show, after weeks of obsessing over the whole fiasco, and in response to a smattering of Leno Lovers who I'd been tangling with online, I unleashed the following (and this is the SHORT version):

In response Jay Leno's statement yesterday, and for those who may have been fooled by it, this is my rebuttal. It's long, but it covers the entire five year history of this disaster-in-the-making, touching on all of Jay's disingenuous comments and passive-aggressive attacks. He is NOT blameless in this; not acting can be just as destructive as acting. If you have the time to read it, I'd be grateful for any feedback. 

Chin Music: How Jay Leno Trashed His "Mr. Nice Guy" Image To Win Back The Tonight Show

I've been openly hostile towards Jay since this story erupted, so I'm not going to pretend to be unbiased. Long before there was a "Team Conan" there was a "Team Dave" and I was on it. I started watching Letterman when he had a morning show on NBC, I was a die-hard fan of Dave's "Late Night" show, and I was bitterly resentful that Leno got the "Tonight" job over Dave. I read Bill Carter's book "The Late Shift" a couple of years later, and my feelings of enmity towards Leno calcified as everything I suspected about him was confirmed. I thought he was a phony, I thought he was a backstabber, and I thought he stole something he may well have been suited for, but didn't deserve.

But just because I'm biased doesn't mean I want to be willfully unfair or inaccurate. I watched Dave's "Late Show" loyally, relished his early success, but reluctantly accepted Jay's gradual ascension as inevitable. Time (and ratings) proved that Jay arguably DID deserve Johnny Carson's chair, but he was never as clever or witty or creative as Dave -- even a watered-down, 11:30 Dave. He was a pretender to the throne, an antipope (Google it, fellow Catholics). But the public eventually forgot about how Johnny was shoved aside, or how Dave was screwed, or how Helen Kushnick terrorized Hollywood, and Jay's good name was fully restored. 

I never forgave him, though; I cheered when Conan was named as his replacement, was annoyed when Jay didn't agree to disappear triumphantly (as Carson did), but was relatively content to watch him flounder and become irrelevant at 10 pm. But as long as Leno was still on the air, I felt uneasy. I didn't trust the guy. I followed news about "The Jay Leno Show," but only to track the negative reviews and sagging ratings. I knew NBC was loyal to Jay and possibly regretting the O'Brien decision, and I knew that because it was cheap to produce, it WOULD meet low expectations and make the network plenty of money. So I was prepared to endure at least two more years of Jay "Big Jaw" Leno, but I never dreamed that Jay's failure would end up costing Conan HIS job. 

Nevertheless, here we are in 2010, and sometime in the next couple of months Jay will be back at 11:30, bobbing his head and smirking to Kevin Eubanks, somehow trying to convince America that he had nothing to do with all this ugliness, and he just does what he's told. Heck, he might even be the VICTIM in all this! Never Believe your Contract, folks! Yuk, yuk, yuk... But this time, unlike 1992, a whole LOT of people turned on him, quickly and viciously. Turns out I wasn't alone all these years, silently harboring ill-will towards the man who has now TWICE won late night's greatest crown over funnier, more talented men. (THREE times, if you count Carson.) 

How did we get here? Did Jay really set out to undermine Conan from the very beginning? Will he be able to shake the growing perception that he is a cold, calculating schemer who will do anything and bulldoze anyone to get what he wants? Or is there a way for Jay to end this madness, and become the nice guy he desperately wants us to believe he is?


It all began, fittingly, with a brilliant piece of riveting television. In September 2004, Jay Leno told his stunned (and disapproving) audience that he'd be stepping down in 2009 to hand over the reigns of television's most prestigious franchise to "Late Night" host Conan O'Brien. It was a stunning move. Fortunately, he had five years to prepare for it, as did Jay, who claimed to be eager for a peaceful transfer of power. "When I took over this show [in 1992], boy, there was a lot of animosity between me and Dave," he confessed, "and quite frankly, a lot of good friendships were permanently damaged, and I don't ever want to see anybody have to go through that again ... so right now, here it is: Conan, it's yours. See you in five years, buddy."

Leno was perfect; he was gracious, he waved off the boos of his audience, and he professed to be completely supportive of this move: "Conan is a gentleman, funny, the hottest late-night guy on television ... and I said 'You know something? I don't want Conan to go anywhere else'." This was Jay Leno, America's Everyman, talking of quitting while on top like Jerry Seinfeld, and how only the great Johnny Carson should host "Tonight" into his sixties. (Jay would be 59 in 2009.) He promised a great finish -- "that's twelve hundred shows, we're not going anywhere tomorrow!" -- he'd keep the show at number one, "and then in '09 I'll say 'Conan, take it over. It's yours'."

NBC must have been thrilled. The Carson-to-Leno transition was nasty and ugly, and it created something the network certainly hadn't wanted: a viable, long term rival for "The Tonight Show" in late night. For all the talk of how Leno kept his show number one for 15 years, there was one thing he HADN'T been able to do: kill off all his competitors. Johnny Carson's reign was littered with the carcasses of failed late night shows, from Joan Rivers to Pat Sajak to Alan Thicke and many others. Jay had buried a couple of lightweights (Arsenio and Chevy Chase), but Dave had flourished and established the first true alternative to "Tonight" at 11:30. I'm sure Jay took solace in being number one, but it's indisputable that under his stewardship late night went from a kingdom to a democracy, with CBS and ABC both having strong lineups following their local news. This would make the transition for Jay's successor treacherous -- regardless of who it was -- and NBC desperately needed it to go smoothly.

Three years passed without much notice, but as soon as the clock started ticking a little louder, a "Leno Problem" began to emerge. If NBC had expected Leno to tire during his victory lap, they were very wrong -- he liked being the King, and apparently now didn't want to give up the crown. As reported by Bill Carter in February 2008, Jay's mantra was "What I do is tell jokes at 11:30 at night." This was a hint of the passive-aggressive campaign Leno would wage for nearly two years. He would never say out loud that he wanted his job back -- that would mean he had it in for Conan -- but his seller's remorse was becoming apparent.

Potentially, this was big trouble for NBC. Leno was still powerful, and in 2009 he would be free to go anywhere (most likely ABC) and compete at 11:30 at full-strength. In trying to avoid the blunders of 1992, NBC may have created something WORSE, as an aggrieved and "victimized" Leno took his ratings prowess and all the public sympathy to another network. It was deja-vu all over again. Not wanting to lose Jay the way the lost Dave, the only solution was to somehow KEEP Leno at NBC, where he couldn't damage their late-night lineup. After rejecting a daily 8 pm show and an Ed Sullivan-like Sunday night time slot, Leno accepted the challenge of establishing a comedy hour on weeknights at 10:00.

In an interview with the New York Times in December 2008, Jay said all the right things ... almost. He talked about the deal being "mutual" with the network, but was careful to say that "ultimately, this was NBC's idea." He expressed his concern about providing a strong lead-in for the local news and the late night schedule, but he had no problem competing for guests that would otherwise have gone to "Tonight." No pressure, of course, but "I think we will have an advantage saying to press agents, 'It's prime time; reach a wider audience'." Hey, he and Conan are buddies, Jay said, but if "your friend is pitching, are you going to try to hit a home run? Yeah! It's what you do." This was the first real sign that Conan was in trouble.

Fast-forward to August 2009. Conan is making an unsteady transition at 11:30, losing regularly to David Letterman, and Jay Leno is poised to return to the NBC airwaves with "The Jay Leno Show." At a press conference to unveil his show, he brushes off any responsibility to save the network in a statement that should have given NBC and Conan's camp chills: "They're in fourth place. It's not my fault. I was happy where I was." Any pretense that he had willingly and graciously turned over "The Tonight Show" is now gone. Still, Nice Guy Jay professes sympathy for his successor's struggles: "Conan is going through exactly the same thing I went through. It's a rite of passage when you take over the 'Tonight Show'." 


Given their shared experiences, one would think that Jay would never consider humiliating O'Brien by grabbing his old show back, the way Letterman almost did in 1993. He continued to say the "right" things in his main quotes, but he also dropped little asides that hinted at darker and less generous feelings and motives. But Jay was bulletproof now, so these passive-aggressive nuggets were absorbed by his good-guy image and nobody made much of them. In his most revealing comments yet, Leno gave a lengthy interview in November 2009 to Broadcasting & Cable. Nice Guy Jay said he was holding up fine, he felt bad for Dave, and that it was unfair to judge Conan this early -- but, oh, by the way, I'd take 11:30 back if they offered it to me, and I'm not going away voluntarily.

Throughout the interview with Ben Grossman, Jay portrays himself as a helpless observer in all this. "I get it, I understand how it works. I really don't take anything too personally." In other words, nothing that happens or will happen is HIS fault; he's at the mercy of other forces. Asked if he's mad about the criticism he says, "I could have said no. But I like being on TV and writing jokes." But pressed if he regretted the prime-time switch, he admits, "Would I have preferred to stay at 11:30? Yeah, sure. I would have preferred that." But he denied any ambitions for Conan's job, likening his relationship with NBC to a whipped marriage; when asked if he'd be "thrilled" to be put back at 11:35, he said, "Oh, I don't know. Are you married? Whatever you want, honey."

When Grossman expresses disbelief at Leno's blasé response, Leno finally admits what was obvious long ago -- he hated leaving "Tonight" and wants it back -- but he'd NEVER ask for it; they'd have to give it to him: "If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that's what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to. [...] But it's not my decision to make; it's really not."

Just in case it might look like he was openly campaigning for his old job, Leno again expressed support for Conan, saying he was "doing fine" and that it was "a little too early to tell" if he was going to succeed at 11:30. But he also reasserted that he had no problem taking a gig that another comic had walked away from because he was being mistreated. "I see other comics say, 'F*** that, I'm not going back to that club, they treated me...' [And I say], 'Great, I got that one.' That's how you do it."

On the other hand, if he were FIRED, he'd leave with no regrets. "I've never walked away from anything in my life.... This is what I do. You keep plowing ahead. If someone wants to take you out, I'm out." This was a sentiment Leno had expressed a year earlier, when explaining why he hadn't fought to keep the "Tonight" job in the first place. "I've never been one of those guys, when the girl says 'I don't think we should see each other anymore,' I go, 'Why? What can I do?' No, I'm [like] 'O.K., babe, I'm gone'." More claims of "whatever you want, honey" ... but if it really came down to that, if NBC really was ever poised to fire him, would Jay hop on one of his vintage motorcycles and ride off into the sunset?


Meanwhile, at Camp Coco, things weren't going smoothly. "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" started off with a bang in June, and received generally favorable reviews, but he quickly slipped into third place as David Letterman and "Nightline" siphoned off many of the older viewers who used to watch Jay's show. Conan's ratings with the younger 18-49 demographic improved, but his overall ratings dropped, settling at about half of what Jay had been pulling in at 11:30. But outwardly there were no signs of concern; after all, it had taken Jay two years to beat Letterman head-to-head, and Conan's "Late Night" stint was widely seen as a disaster until he got his footing and found his comfort zone. And besides, there was NO WAY the network would ever fire the host of "The Tonight Show" just months into his tenure, right?

Actually, it did almost happen once before -- in 1992, to Jay Leno. When the decision to cut Letterman loose blew up in their faces, the brain trust at NBC started frantically courting him, just as he was about to sign with CBS. After several weeks of rumors and secret meetings, and stuck in the exact position that O'Brien is in right now, Leno lashed out at the double-dealing, telling the New York Times: "NBC is like a guy with two girlfriends who doesn't know which one he's going to marry [...] and the longer you wait, the madder they both get." Clearly, he felt it was wrong to fire the new "Tonight" host just because NBC wanted to keep another late-night star around: "This is a terrible position NBC is in. But fragging your own soldier doesn't make any sense to me."

It would be fair to ask how Conan O'Brien got HIMSELF into this situation. If Conan was beating Dave, or at least holding his own, NBC probably would have had to cancel "The Jay Leno Show" and fire its host. But Conan was losing to Dave, and losing badly, by margins unseen since the earliest days of the rivalry. Surely this was Conan's own fault, right? NBC genius Dick Ebersol took it upon himself to call Conan's show an "astonishing failure" and to say he was "gutless" for fighting back in his monologues. But how could he have been expected to succeed if he was forced to battle the ghost of the old "Tonight Show"?

NBC had arguably done the smart thing by planning to replace a popular older guy with a popular younger guy. Even if Dave enjoyed a few years at number one, he would eventually retire; Conan could easily have rode it out and then enjoyed a decade or more on top of the heap. It's the see-saw of life. Meanwhile, it was simply unfair for NBC to expect O'Brien's "Tonight Show" to maintain a 4.0 or better as long as Jay Leno was on the air at 10:00. Late night ratings are governed by the Law of Diminishing Returns; it's inevitable that each succeeding late night show will draw lower ratings than the one before it. Conan had already increased his "Late Night" audience by 25% just by virtue of being on an hour earlier, but he hit a wall because there was another "Tonight Show" airing every night at 10:00. Did America want to watch "Tonight" twice a day? Of course not -- so Jay's fans watched his version, and Conan's fans watched HIS version. O'Brien would NEVER draw 5 million viewers as long as Jay was pulling the same numbers at 10pm; therefore, Conan would never have a fair evaluation until Jay was off the air and he had the FIRST talk show each night on NBC.


Now it seems we'll never know what Conan would have done with "Tonight." NBC's affiliates were in full revolt after Christmas over Leno's prime time ratings, and they were going to bail on him, despite Jeff Zucker's contention that it would take a full year to see how Jay's 10:00 show was doing. On January 5th it was reported that NBC was doubling its order of series pilots for 2010; two days later, they were forced to awkwardly deny that they were cancelling "The Jay Leno Show." That same day, however, rumors started to fly that Leno was going back to 11:35 for a half-hour show, and NBC's flagship late-night program, "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" was being unceremoniously bumped to 12:05. I was reluctantly OK with this at first -- ANYTHING to keep Jay from getting "Tonight" back -- until I started thinking about the Law of Diminishing Returns. Again, Conan was being put in a position where it would be impossible for him to succeed as long as Leno was his lead-in.

Leno has been publicly silent throughout all this, but he let his monologue jokes speak for him. When the cancellation rumors first broke out, he quipped, "I don't think there is any truth to the rumors. See, it's always been my experience that NBC only cancels you when you're in first place." Once again, he refers to the transition to Conan -- which he supposedly fully supported -- as being "cancelled"; he also seemed to forget that Johnny Carson was "number one" when HE was "cancelled" in 1992. The next day he joked that "NBC is working on a solution they say in which all parties would be screwed equally" -- again, disingenous, because NBC was treating the entire mess as a "How can we save Jay?" mission. Still, Leno tried to distance himself from what was happening: "My people are upset. Conan's people are upset. Hey, NBC said they wanted drama at 10:00 -- now they've got it!" Ha, ha, but NBC didn't WANT "drama" at 10:00 -- they wanted Jay's comedy. And now that he failed to deliver, it was O'Brien who was being shoved out the door.

Meanwhile, the rest of the late night world pounced, and when the stuff hit the fan, it splattered all over Leno. Letterman gleefully introduced fake promos for "Law & Order: Leno Victims Unit"; Jimmy Kimmel did a brutal, episode-long impression of Jay and his show -- and then two days later eviscerated him to his face (via satellite), saying "Listen, Jay, Conan and I have children. All you have is cars. We have lives to lead here. You have $800 million. For God's sake, leave our shows alone!" Patton Oswalt compared Jay to Nixon, and Rosie O'Donnell said he should retire. "Team Conan" support groups sprang up around the internet, and Conan's ratings shot up. Jay's response to all this? "You're welcome!" Another strangely tone-deaf note, as he appeared to kick the guy he was replacing on his way out the door.

For his part, O'Brien made brilliant (and pointed) comedy out of all this, telling America's children, for example, that his experiences have taught him that "you can do anything you want in life -- unless Jay Leno wants to do it too." He joked that after leaving NBC he was going to work in a more honorable industry -- like hardcore porn. "In the movie I'd be having sex with a beautiful woman and just as we're about to climax, I get replaced by Jay Leno." In between the jabs at Leno and NBC, though, Conan's humor was mostly self-lacerating, as he joked about his availability for kids' parties and put his "Tonight Show" up for sale on Craigslist. He started showing "Classic Tonight Show Moments" as if he was in the home stretch of a 20-year run. It was hilariously tragic comedy.

On January 12, in the middle of the firestorm, Conan released an extraordinary letter addressed to the "People of Earth," declaring that he would not follow Jay Leno and move "Tonight" to 12:05. Written by O'Brien alone, and released against the wishes of his managers, it was a brilliant P.R. move even if it wasn't a great tactical move, and it pushed the saga into Biblical territory. NBC's late night battle was now the "King Solomon and the Baby" story (1 Kings 3:16-28), with "Tonight" as the baby, and Jay and Conan as the two mothers. The false mother wants to divide the baby in half, whereas the true mother would rather give it up than see it killed. Unfortunately, NBC executives are playing the "Wise King Solomon" role in this tale, and they are eager to give the baby to Mama Jay.

So it all comes down to Jay Leno. I don't believe he's an evil, curly-mustachio'd cartoon villain who set out to destroy Conan O'Brien. But he willingly gave up "The Tonight Show" and now wants it back -- it's really as simple as that. His supporters can complain that he hasn't done anything but follow NBC's orders, but this isn't about Jay's ACTIONS, it's about his INACTION. He has stood by and let this happen to Conan -- the same thing that almost happened to HIM in 1993 -- and he's done nothing. All Jay has to say is "I'm not taking Conan's job away from him" and the whole thing ends. The guy who said "fragging your own soldier" wasn't cool is now watching silently as NBC pulls the trigger on a fellow "soldier." He's standing in the gallery at a minute to midnight at a TV execution, and all he as to say is "Stop!" and it won't happen. But Jay is silent -- whipped, he'd like you to think. Whatever you want, honey.

There's a mild "backlash to the backlash" brewing, and of course Jay will encourage it. He joked late last week that he thought the new show "Human Target" as about him, and he said that if Sarah Palin doesn't work out as a Fox contributor, "they'll just blame Leno." Again, you have to read between the lines with Jay because he's so passive-aggressive -- but the implication of that joke is that Conan is the one who "didn't work out" and it's not HIS fault that he's getting his old job and time slot back. This is from a guy who was once in the SAME POSITION Conan is in now, and who swore that "I don't ever want to see anybody have to go through that again."

His boosters say Jay is a "great guy" and it's absurd to expect him to sacrifice his own interests for someone else's. But David Letterman was once in this position: He could have grabbed the "Tonight Show" from Jay in an ugly and humiliating manner -- but he didn't. Conan O'Brien could have held onto "Tonight" out of sheer spite and watched it circle the drain at 12:05 -- but he didn't. Both men gave up the greatest job in late night because it was the WRONG way to get it (or keep it). It IS possible to do the "right thing" here -- but Jay Leno is the only one left who can do it. NBC certainly won't do it -- they only care about the ratings the first week after the Olympics, and they will sell out the future of late night to get good results NOW. Conan made a principled and heart-wrenching decision; so he is now powerless. Only Jay can make this end right. Only Jay can restore his "Mr. Nice Guy" image. Only Jay can act in the best long-term interests of NBC and "The Tonight Show." Only Jay can end up coming out of all this smelling like a rose. All he has to do is say "No."

Will he? Probably not, but it would make one hell of a "Headline."


Well, we all know how THAT ended up. Conan ended his run on The Tonight Show with humor (the ".6 Anniversary Special" highlight clips), bathos (trying to sell the parts of the set on Craigslist), and remarkable grace (his send-off speech at the end of the last show was truly amazing). He's on TBS now, for better or worse, and he will need to sink or swim on his own. While I'd love to be able to crow about him beating Leno week after week, and TBS' PR spin about how DVR numbers actually put Conan AHEAD of Leno offers some comfort, the truth is Conesy needs to make this work, and it's just harder on basic cable than it is on a network. My rage towards Jay Leno has burned down to glowing orange embers -- no longer a blaze, but these embers will NEVER die out.

Eternal Embers aside, I'm kinda over the whole thing, honestly. I watch Conan every night, but I'm frequently reminded that late night talk shows are like daily newspapers, not favorite novels. Sometimes the monologue is great, sometimes it's flat. Sometimes the guests are locked in with Conan and hilarity ensues, and sometimes they're just there to shill or they have nothing interesting to offer. We don't watch these shows because we expect our minds to be blown every night -- we watch because we have a relationship with the host. Conan's fans have what they want, Jay's fans have what THEY want, and so on. Oh, I'll still root for Jay to fail someday, but he's like the Terminator -- he'll never stop. 

So, as it was in about 1996, the Late Night Wars have slowed down to a cold war. Dave is getting older (and it's showing), Jay is down almost 50% from where he was a couple of years ago, and the late night scene is fractured like never before, with Stewart, Colbert, Adult Swim and Conan all grabbing a chunk. Things could be a lot different a few years from now, as Dave edges towards retirement, and Comcast petitions the government for a one-time-only permission slip for human cloning, in the hopes that Jay Leno can host The Tonight Show for at least 50 more years. I'll be watching Conan for as long as he lasts on TBS, and DVR-ing Dave or Kimmel if they have a good guest on. Life goes on.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Flashback: October 2004

I just went back into the "archives" to combine several old postings from 2004 for a new one on a music board I frequent. As I use this blog to preserve my precious thoughts so that future generations of humans (or aliens) can bask in my wisdom, I will occasionally be posting these "Flashbacks" from the days of yore. This one concerns one of my favorite subjects, The Beatles, and one of the most hated villains in all of Pepperland -- the Capitol Records A&R man Dave Dexter, Jr., who was in charge of all their U.S. albums and singles in 1964 and 1965. He's hated for adding unnecessary reverb to their songs and for chopping up their near-flawless British LPs to multiply them, loaves-and-fishes-like, for the American consumer. I think the guy was probably a cranky old cuss who didn't like this newfangled rock music, but I also think he helped make the Fab Four the biggest thing since Elvis' underpants. I don't know what that means, but I like the sound of it. Read on...

In Defense of Dave Dexter Jr.

I know bashing Dave Dexter Jr. is like a recreational sport for Beatles' fans, but I gotta say, I think he gets a bit of a bad rap. IMO, his "crimes" are only criminal in hindsight; at the time, he was just a guy with a job to do, and his job was to move units, not to sabotage the sacred perfection of the Fab Four. He wasn't a mustachio'ed evildoer adjusting his monacle and cackling "Mwuuhahahahaha!!!" as he tied poor defenseless Beatles records to the railroad tracks! He was a mid-1960s Capitol employee who was given the task of making a British rock group (an oxymoron to many at the time) appealing to the US masses -- masses of TEENAGERS, mind you, not audiophiles, not music professors, not GROWN-UPS. In short, he was not a bad man who was worthy of the hatred that gets spewed on him; he was a guy doing his job who made choices that history has judged poorly.

Was he an older guy who didn't "get" the Beatles? I guess. Did he mess with the sound? Yeah, yeah, yeah. But people act like he killed every track he touched, and it simply isn't true. Granted, "I Feel Fine" and "She's A Woman" are ghastly, but y'know what -- those are the WORST examples among dozens that are more or less harmless. And actually, the MONO Dexterizations of those two tracks, found on the 45, sound thick and exciting -- and those reflect Dexter's true intent for them, before they were subjected to duophonic "stereo" and MORE reverb on the LP. A Beatles fan one complained that he knew within "5 seconds" of hearing the UK "I Feel Fine" that he'd been "screwed for years." My experience was different: When I first heard the UK "She's A Woman" I thought, "This doesn't even sound like a finished recording!" I've since learned better, but after years and years of the US mixes, my initial reaction was that the UK mixes were wrong, and I'm sure many many less obsessive US fans felt the same way when they innocently bought their first Beatles CDs. When I was a tot in the late 1970s (sorry, but I can't help not being alive in 1965) listening to my first Beatles records on my sky-blue Fisher-Price record player -- well, that reverb sounded pretty sweet to me.

As the Capitol Albums CDs have reminded us, many of the more subtle Dexterizations did what I imagine he wanted them to do -- add a little "punch" and fatten up the sound of this odd British rock group that his bosses shoved on him after he had rejected them three times. We forget that the phrase "British rock group" was almost laughable in 1963; Dexter was probably convinced he had a turkey on his hands. Once he was proved wrong, his "velvet touch" got a lot lighter, to my ears (with the exception of the single mentioned above). After the 1964 onslaught, there is less rechanneling, more true stereo, and less superfluous reverb. By 1965, aside from the chopping up of the "real" albums -- which is offensive now, but a common practice back then -- the MUSIC sounded mostly the same on both sides of the pond.

As for the "butchering" of the Beatles' early albums by Capitol, it's time to give it a rest. Hey, when Meet The Beatles was being assembled, who knew there would BE a Second Album? Once Meet The Beatles sold in record numbers and Beatlemania swept the nation, the bean-counters started doing what they do, and some guy probably stood up at a meeting, cleared his throat, loosened his tie, and said with a glimmer in his eye, "If we cut a track from the next album, it will still sell X million copies, and we'll save $XX,000 in royalties." Then some guy from marketing, who probably wasn't going to say anything, blurted out, "If they send us 2 albums and 3 singles a year, we can turn that into THREE albums and as many singles as we want!" The "Hurrah!"s were heard all over Capitol Tower, and they all went out for a 3-martini lunch. While Dexter's nimble knob-twiddling seems regrettable NOW, it's hard to argue with the track listings of the above-mentioned LPs or the U.S. Rubber Soul -- or the sales results. (The last one was particularly brilliant and well-timed, as it capitalized on the "folk-rock" craze and inspired Brian Wilson to write Pet Sounds.)

I say (or think) the same thing every time a Beatles fan spews righteous anger towards Capitol and Dave Dexter, Jr.: I don't think the Fab Four tore up any of Capitol's checks when Beatles For Sale sold 3 million in the UK while Beatles '65 and Beatles VI (the two U.S. albums it spawned) sold 3 million EACH here in the States. We reflexively call it greed, but some would call it prudent budgeting and marketing. The Beatles were hula hoops to Capitol -- Beanie Babies, Tickle-Me Elmos, Cabbage Patch Kids -- and they wanted to maximize profits before all those dumb kids moved on to the next group. You can rip them for not respecting their artistic merit until Sgt. Pepper (which admittedly was one altered classic too late), but in 1964 the Beatles were just a product to be exploited. Were U.S. fans screwed? I don't know -- 2 bucks for an 11-track, 28 minute album vs. 2 bucks for a 12-track, 31 minute album? Not THAT big a deal -- plus we also got single and EP tracks in convenient LP form, exclusive tracks ("Bad Boy") and songs still unreleased in Britain (the Revolver songs on Yesterday & Today). Sure, the duophonic mixes were bad -- but again, this was CANDY for CHILDREN: sweet, cheap and disposable.

Dave Dexter, Jr. didn't know he was supposed to be preserving "art" ... you know what he was? He was the guy in the snack booth at the schoolyard carnival. He took 2 cents worth of sugar, whipped it into cotton candy, and sold it to kids for 2 bucks. And he sold a TON of cotton candy -- more than any other cotton candy salesman in the history of carnivals. He did his job as he knew it. It was only later that WE realized that the original "sugar" was precious. Sometimes, I think it's possible to love the Beatles TOO much. We want to put them in a glass case like a $300 mint mono UK Revolver and bow down in awe of them. But once upon a time they were just FUN and nothing more. Paul loves to tell the story of how when things got tense with John, he would pull his glasses down his nose, peer over them and say "It's just me, you know."

I miss a bit of that every once in a while.