The kick inside

 

 

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Freddie Mercury 1974. (Picture: Queen Archive/Virgin)

 

 

This morning, as I settled down to my work, I took a moment to check out a few of my favourite blogs. I find it a good way to centre myself before getting on with my own flimsy attempts at being creative.

Over at Yeah, Another Blogger I came across this little gem from fellow ruminator, Neil. In case you’re too lazy to click on the link, it describes an almost encounter he had with the great John Lennon on the streets of New York in 1973. It’s well worth a read so why not pop over now and give it some love. I’ll wait.

See, told you it was worth it. Reading of Neils regret at not having had the presence of mind to approach his hero when the opportunity presented itself, got me thinking, “yes, but there’s the flipside to that situation as well”.

You see, I too once came unexpectedly across a personal hero and I did engage him. And the result was, well let’s just say, disappointing.

About two years after John Lennon was murdered (an event which had caused me a considerable amount of trauma), I relocated from Australia to Britain. I’ve written about the incident that followed my arrival before, in a piece about synchronicities. In that piece I wrote:

When I was nineteen, I decided to relocate from Australia to the UK. By this time my relationship with said girlfriend had pretty much petered out but we were still on reasonably friendly terms. On the day before I flew out, I went around to her place to say my goodbyes. The last thing she said as we parted was, “if you see any members of Queen over there, make sure you get their autographs.”

I probably smirked as I agreed to do so. I mean, what were the odds I’d bump into any mega famous rock stars in the circles I’d be moving in? Anyway, after a long flight that had me questioning the wisdom of my decision to emigrate, I duly arrived at Heathrow, passed through the wall of bastards (otherwise known as customs and immigration) and made my way to the baggage carousel. I’d been in the country maybe forty minutes at this point.

So there I am, bleary-eyed and travel grimed, swaying on my feet with exhaustion when I happen to look to my right at the guy standing beside me.

It probably took me a full twenty seconds to process the visual information my brain was receiving from my tired eyes urgently telling it that the ‘guy’ was, in fact, Freddie Mercury.

I. Shit. You. Not.

I was stunned into near immobility but, with my ex’s parting request still ringing in my ears, I realised I was just going to have to approach the clearly leery rock god in question.

I’m not proud of how the next thirty seconds went. I turned to face Mr. Mercury (who visibly flinched at what he obviously knew was coming) and spoke the immortal words, “if I had a pen (I didn’t by the way) would you give me an autograph?”

Now there are as yet undiscovered tribes in the deepest Amazon who knew what was coming next and I guess I did too. Barely meeting my gaze, Freddie uttered a one-word response and returned his attention to the circling baggage. The word was “no” in case you were having trouble discerning the inference.

I later read that it was Mercury’s policy never to give autographs. Ah well, I tried.

You may have noticed I kind of shoved the fandom element off onto my girlfriend there but, truth is, I was a huge fan of Mercury myself. I was actually carrying a tote bag that I’d meticulously drawn the inner sleeve pic of the Queen II album onto when I approached him. That probably made it look – to him – like I was a crazy fan (true) who’d known all along that he would be there (not true).

I get how that might freak a big star out so soon after what had happened to Lennon.

Anyway, the point of rehashing all this is that, though Neil may regret not talking to Lennon, I kind of regret that I did talk to Freddie. Even though I can fully appreciate famous people not wanting their space invaded in places like airports, I was nevertheless stung by that rejection. It didn’t change the way the young me felt about his music but it did change the way I saw Freddie.

In my eyes, he instantly became more cold and aloof than I’d previously thought him. I know it’s pretty ridiculous the way we as fans believe we somehow know these stars we’ve never met. How could we know the first thing about who they really are outside the arena of fame?

However, the personalities we imbue our heroes with are nonetheless important. As I think I’ve said before, Rock ‘n’ Roll is the modern mythology.

The archetypes that once inhabited the tales of ancient cultures live on in these larger than life Rock Gods we worship so devoutly. These giants stride the stages of our aspirations and give us something wonderful to love – or hate – which exists outside of the grey mundanity of modern life.

That had been the role that Mercury (even the name is mythological) had played in my teen life. In my suburban world of jean-clad yobs, Freddie – like Bowie – had blasted across my sky; some androgenous messenger from Olympus bringing the spark of redemption and hope to every willing, yearning heart.

If that last bit sounds somewhat over-egged, it’s also accurate. That’s  exactly how I’d felt growing up in my suburban wasteland. And it was the likes of Freddie, Bowie, and Kate Bush who kept the promise (and probably me) alive.

So, that rejection from one of my big heroes shattered more than just my preconceptions, it put quite a crack in my mythos as well. They do say you should never meet your heroes. Maybe, in this case at least, they’re right.

That said, I really envy Neil’s close encounter with one of the absolute gods of my world.

 

 

 

©2017

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Seven

 

Seven decades and seven albums from the great state of New Jersey

I haven’t done one of these for quite a while but, since the idea behind it is pretty self-explanatory, I’m just going to jump right on in.

 

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  1. In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra (1955)

In the Wee Small Hours was a concept album conceived before that phrase had even been coined. A densely woven web of melancholy, each song on this disc wanders through the past midnight streets of heartbreak and loneliness.

People forget how much musical perspicacity Sinatra had in those days but a listen to these tracks is a fast reminder. Songs like Can’t we be friends?, When your lover has gone, and It never entered my mind are bleedingly raw testaments to loss and regret.

The boy from Hoboken NJ was never everyone’s cup of tea but he dominated the era of the crooner with few rivals and gave us his own unique interpretation of the American songbook.

Alternatively, try: Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown (1955)

 

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  1. Speak No Evil, Wayne Shorter (1966)

The saxophonist from Newark NJ who famously played in Miles Davis Quintet (2) and then went on to form seminal band Weather Report would come to be regarded as one of the great jazz composers. This talent was never more apparent than on his classic modal jazz recording, Speak No Evil.

Featuring the keyboard talent of none other than Herbie Hancock, this highly inventive set of arrangements coalesce into one of the all-time great Jazz albums. The tracks, Witch Hunt, Infant eyes, and Wild Flower are stand outs for me but the entire album hums with a freshness that has failed to dim in the intervening decades.

Alternatively, try: Here Where There Is Love, Dionne Warwick (1967)

 

 

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  1. Darkness on the Edge of Town, Springsteen, (1978)

I know, you probably think that if I’m making a Springsteen album my 70’s selection, it should be Born to Run but sorry, can’t do that. His fourth album is and will always be my favourite Springsteen recording of all time.

Darkness is, well, dark and deeply compelling. Despite the fact that BTR contains my two favourite ever Springsteen tracks (Backstreets and Thunder Road), this album is the perfect sequencing of raw-edged songs of no redemption. Adam raised a Cain, Darkness on the edge of town, Racing in the streets, and Promised land are relentless in their portrayal of the anti-hero’s incremental slide towards the oblivion of mediocrity.

The NME called it 1978’s album of the year and were right to do so. This album has more punk attitude than any three actual punk albums I can think of.

Alternatively, try: Easter, Patti Smith (1978)

 

 

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4. Especially For You, The Smithereens (1986)

The boys from Carteret, NJ kind of crept out into the limelight in the early 80’s, never really achieving the level of fame they probably deserved. The Smithereens were seen largely as a retro outfit obsessed with the Mods and ‘60s melody bands like The Byrds.

The inclusion of their track Blood and Roses on the Dangerously Close soundtrack gained them some MTV airtime but their sound never really caught the public’s imagination enough to take them to the next level.

This, their first album, was a high-water mark for the band and a very fine album it is. Pat DiNizio’s writing betrays some fairly dark feelings about love but those guitar arrangements keep things from tipping too far towards the dark side. Standout tracks include, Blood and Roses, Behind the Wall of Sleep, and the excellent Strangers when we meet.

Alternatively, try: Trash it Up, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes (1983)

 

 

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  1. The Score, Fugees (1996)

Comprising two Haitian refugees (hence the name ‘Fugees’) and one Jersey girl, the Fugees were a band to be reckoned with.  Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, and Pras Michel exploded out of East Orange NJ, with their second album The Score. This was urban life in Jersey laid bare. Songs like, Ready or not, and Family business sit almost uncomfortably beside covers of Killing me softly and No woman no cry, creating a tension laced with moments of pure beauty.

Alternatively, try: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Lauryn Hill (1998)

 

 

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  1. The Meadowlands, The Wrens (2003)

Hailing from Secaucus, NJ, The Wrens were one of the anointed bands of the 90’s Indie scene. Singer/guitarist Charles Bissell along with brothers Greg and Kevin Whelan (guitar and bass respectively) and drummer Jerry MacDonald formed The Wrens at the beginning of the 90’s but this album was released at the very end of their partnership.

It could be argued they were a band of a certain time but this recording still sounds pretty relevant to me. Take a listen to She sends kisses and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Other great tracks include, Happy, and Boys you won’t.

Alternatively, try: Neptune City, Nicole Atkins (2007)

 

 

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  1. Atlas, Real Estate (2014)

Ridgewood, NJ was the launching pad for melodic guitar band, Real Estate. One could argue that they sound altogether too similar to Britpop darlings The Stone Roses and be fairly on the money. Their lead singer Martin Courtney sounds so much like Mancurian singer Ian Brown that he comes close to parody. That said, the songs on this album are strong and the overall sound so listenable that it quickly gets under the skin.

I have no idea how a band from New Jersey ends up sounding like a Stone Roses cover band doing originals but by about halfway through this album, I stopped caring and just let the music carry me off.

Standout tracks include, Had to hear, Past Lives, and Crime.

Alternatively, try: Painkillers, Brian Fallon (2015)

 

I don’t own every record on this list but did listen to all of them while compiling it.

There were so many others I could have included. New Jersey has such a rich musical culture and history. I would be remiss if I failed to at least mention some of those not included, so here’s a brief list of significant NJ artists (old and new) worth seeking out; The Roches, Gaslight Anthem, Deal Casino, The Cold Seas, Titus Andronicus, Little Steven, The Shirelles, Parliament, Misfits, The Feelies, Paul Simon, The Sugarhill Gang, Queen Latifah, Count Basie, Thursday, My Chemical Romance, and Kool and the Gang.

 

A tip of the hat is owed to nj.com for pointing me in several useful directions.

 

 

©2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Underneath the sycamore

 

Now every time this girl I see
She tries to chain me to her tree

Marc Bolan, Visions Of Domino

 

Marc Bolan, the fey glamster who helmed T. Rex, is said to have predicted, through several of his song lyrics, the year and manner of his own death. I know that the Rock world is somewhat rife with such tales, usually the inventions of hardcore fans and their overactive imaginations. However, there are actually some fairly interesting coincidences in this case and so I thought I’d while away a bit of my afternoon (and perhaps yours) having a wee look into it.

First of all, Bolan was on record as believing he’d never make it to 30. He was quite correct in this belief as he died some weeks shy of his 30th Birthday. He never got his driver’s license, having had strong premonitions he would die early, and claimed he “felt a car might be involved”.

On his final tour of France, Bolan visited the Louvre where he encountered a painting by Rene Magritte called September 16.  It is said that he spent several hours just staring at that one piece.

 

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Image, the Louvre.

Interestingly enough, the painting shows the moon in the exact same phase as on the night Bolan died when the car, driven not by him but by his girlfriend Gloria Jones, hit a fence under a tree, on 16 September, 1977.

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The license plate of the mini they were in was FOX 661L and fans have pointed out that in the lyrics to the song, Solid Gold Easy Action he sings:

“life is the same as it always will be,

Easy as picking foxes from a tree.”

 

 

In another song, The Road I’m on he sings:

Since we last loved Gloria
the suns been up and down that many times
since we last loved Gloria
I’ve been sharing love with women of all kinds

Summer ends and leaves start dying
you won’t see robin crying
he knows where the sun is hiding
to another nest he’s flying

You gave me reason now I’ve gotta roam
‘cos the road I’m on gal won’t run me home

Hear my words Gloria
echoing from mountains with a cry
Hear my words Gloria
you’ll see them gal reflecting off the sky

Hear it in the cold wind blowing
hear it in the river’s flowing
no-one in the mind that’s growing
see ‘cos the cards that’s showing

You gave me reason now I’ve gotta roam
‘cos the road I’m on gal won’t run me home

 

That line, the road I’m on gal won’t take me home along with the repeated mention of the name Gloria and the late summer setting have stirred much discussion among Bolan’s fans. His girlfriend Gloria was indeed trying to drive him home when grisly fate intervened.

Bolan had also written a poem about death called The Warlock of Love with the first line, sycamore of sorrow.

The tree beneath which he died was a sycamore.

Sycamore of sorrow

Pray I’m swallowed

In the swell of your yelling leafy breast

My crippled bended chest is shamed

Through flaming crowsfeet, soaring nouns of Norse confession.

Dark earth gremlins, rootlegged hobbling

In the cryptess of my turned wound

Ill-famed fair prince, steal my lightening

Stake me with steel, for my haughtiness

Straddle my storm head with your abyss shroud

Call me harlot, call me wormy wordler

Ever so, but out loud.

 

It’s worth reiterating that (according to one biographer*) Bolan did not die from hitting the actual tree as is popularly believed but rather when the car hit a steel-reinforced fence post in front of it. Bolan was impaled through the back of his head by a piece of iron which gives a couple of other lines in the poem a certain macabre relevance.

Stake me with steel, for my haughtiness

Straddle my storm head with your abyss shroud

 

Finally (and this one is not as compelling to me but I’ll include it for the sake of being thorough) in the song, Celebrate Summer Bolan sings Summer is Heaven in ’77 which was, obviously the year and season of his death (as I said, not particularly compelling, that one).

 

 

* In Ride a White Swan: The Lives and Death of Marc Bolan written by Lesley-Ann Jones.

 

©2017

Love is a battlefield

 

1983 was a strange and unsettling year in my life. I was 20, living in Canberra (the capital of Australia, where I’d grown up), and working in my first adult job as a visual merchandising manager in an upscale department store. I’d not long before returned from the UK and I was feeling rudderless, to say the least.

I was also putting myself back together after the implosion of my first serious relationship. I was pretty much a basket case in 1983.

One of the things that kept me at least partly grounded was music. I wouldn’t say my musical tastes were particularly refined at that time but I was passionate about the music I liked and was an avid watcher of MTV and the like.

For at least a period of that year, one song and video dominated the airwaves. Pat Benatar’s, Love is a Battlefield seemed to be playing every time you turned on the TV, switched on the radio, or walked out your door. It wasn’t quite my sort of thing but the title and theme of the track resonated with my still broken heart and so I paid it more attention than I might have ordinarily.

I remember being struck by the way the video interrupted the song with dialogue (something that had never been done before). The angry father yelling after his fleeing daughter, “if you leave this house now, you can just forget about coming back,” may have been a tad corny but it stuck in the head and came to define the song. So much so that, listening to the actual track on the radio sans the dialogue, felt – odd.

As I said, the song itself wasn’t quite my cup of tea but it got lodged and in some weird way came to represent that very unsettling time for me. In all the years since, whenever I’ve heard that track played, my ears prick up and a strange flood of conflicting emotions resurface.

Now, here I am living in New Jersey. Canberra is a long way away and 1983 a long time ago. Both time and place could not be more different to my current life and circumstances.

I’ve witten several times on this blog about Clinton, a small town I love one over from my new home. It’s a gorgeous place with a very American every-town feel.

That’s probably why, in 1983, Pat Benatar traveled there to film those crucial domestic scenes for her video.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a small piece in our local press where people were reminiscing about the day Ms Benatar filmed Love is a Battlefield in their little town. Really? Of course, I needed to check this out for myself.

 

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So, yesterday, Jersey girl and I went over to Clinton and wandered around a part of the town we’d thus far neglected. It was as picturesque as most of the rest of the place and it didn’t take us long to identify the house from the video.

I have no idea how it was selected but this house was chosen to be the family home from which Benatar’s rebellious character flees (an amusing scenario considering she was 30 years old at the time of shooting*). It has changed very little in the succeeding 34 years.

 

 

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The house today.

 

 

 

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Image: Chrysalis Records

 

 

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Image: Chrysalis Records

 

It was a very strange feeling looking on from the street – almost like stepping into the video. I half expected to see Benatar standing by the tree waving up at her kid brother in the window (the tree’s still there but no Benatar).

It was also a little like stepping into my own past. Those mixed emotions began to reemerge as soon as I caught sight of the house and grew as it drew closer. It’s amazing how music and its associated symbols can tap into those strong emotions and pull us backwards through time.

I never could have imagined, all those years ago, that I’d one day be living just a few miles from such an iconic locale.

 

 

*Equally amusing, the song and video were used in the movie 13 going on 30 – you can’t make this stuff up.