29. Michael Jackson - Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'

"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'?"  Are you kidding me?  You're going to pick one Michael Jackson song and it's that?  At most, it's the third best song on Thriller, much less the rest of Jackson's career.  Sure, it's probably in the Top 10 of Jackson's career, but it doesn't even crack his Top 5.  And you're going to put it as the 29th best song of your lifetime?  You have gone over the deep end, my friend.  You made pretty good cases for songs that I thought were pretty good, but how can you make a case for putting "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" this high on your list?  You've finally lost me, pal.

The above paragraph is the thought process that my brain went through when I was trying to figure out what Michael Jackson song should make my list and where I should put it on my list.  And I'm sure it's similar to what went on in your mind when you saw the header for this entry.  To be honest, I understand that "Billie Jean" and "Beat It" are the two huge standouts from the Thriller album.  You might even put the title track up there, especially with its groundbreaking (and awesome!) video.  But the plain fact is that "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" is perhaps the greatest dance song ever written.  And just like comedies never get their due in serious film criticism, dance songs don't get theirs from music critics. 

It starts at a frantic pace and never slows down for a second.  It's relentless in its intention to get you off your lazy ass and start dancing.  The intricate drum machine patterns (that Jackson himself arranged) matched with the hyperactive bass line establish a pulsating rhythm that immediately draws you in, and just like the mafia, once you're in, you're in.  At the very least, you're bobbing your head now, and if you're me or Ellen Degeneres, you're in full dork-dance mode, shimmying your shoulders and doing some idiotic variation of "raise the roof" with your hands.  And before long, you're up and your legs join the party.

The guitar is actually a rhythm instrument in this song, playing that staccato plucking beat like dance morse code, which Jackson then mimics with his own voice.  The guitar finally gets to cut loose with that great solo near the end of the song.  The horn arrangement is vibrant and bright, hitting those treble highs with piercing intensity, while the backing vocals add to the dance hall vibe.  Most dance songs nowadays are so heavy on the bass, they give you a headache in twenty seconds if you have them turned up too much.  This song, though, is heavy at the top end of the sonic spectrum.  I tend to like my music with an active high end, so maybe that's why I love this song so much.

The frenetic pace of the song makes it sound as if it's almost careening out of control, and that pace matches the emotional intensity of the lyrics.  Even though the lyrics in a dance song normally don't mean much, in this song, there's much more depth to them.  "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" was written in response to the crushing media attention that can destroy relationships and ruin a life.  And he wasn't even talking about himself.  "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" is actually about the negative attention his sister, La Toya, was receiving from the tabloid media about her troubled marriage at the time.  When he talks about "someone's always tryin' to start my baby cryin," he's referring to the impact their vicious attacks can have.  So he calls them to task:

You love to pretend that you're good
When you're always up to no good
You really can't make him hate her
So your tongue becomes a razor

It's an honorable defense of his sister, but until I did the research for this song, I had absolutely no idea what the song was about.  That's another thing that dance songs have going against them - people assume that the lyrics are just filler.  In this case, though, there's some insightful meaning behind that hypnotic dance beat.  But then he takes this bizarre lyrical turn and breaks out the following:

You're a vegetable, you're a vegetableStill they hate you, you're a vegetable
You're just a buffet, you're a vegetable
They eat off of you, you're a vegetable

Huh?  I'm a vegetable?  What the hell does that mean?  After doing some research, it turns out that it's a reference to the piranha-like nature of the paparazzi and the tabloid press.  The way that everything that you do as a celebrity target of the paparazzi comes under intense scrutiny, and the more you try to fend them off, the more they feed on the frenzy.  You're nothing more than fodder to them.  You're not a person - you're just a vegetable.  The irony becomes palpable when it turns out that a song he writes about his sister and her tabloid problems end up foreshadowing his own problems with the tabloids and paparazzi later in his own life.

Throughout all the accusatory lyrics, though, the strong dance beat keeps you tapping your toe and wishing you could dance better.  The "Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sas" vocals with the hand claps and the horn punctuations at the end of the song are the final straw.  If you're not dancing by now, there's no hope for you.  The energy is so contagious that if you're at all inclined, you're singing along with the African style lyrics that you don't understand.  You could be singing "I am the worst dancer ever" and not even know it.  (In reality, though, the words don't mean anything, they're just gibberish sung in an African rhythm).

"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" finally fades into silence after six minutes of non-stop action.  And for a pop song, six minutes is a long time.  But it doesn't seem like it's that long.  You never find yourself thinking, "When will this song end, for chrissakes?"  You're captivated from the moment it starts until the moment it fades away.  For some of you, though, dance music just isn't your thing and you think this song is pretty lame.  If that's the case, then I feel sorry for you.  You're depriving yourself of six minutes of unadulterated fun every time you listen to it.  And don't we all need as much fun as we can get? 

Okay, now that I'm done with my post, I feel the need to address Michael Jackson, the person.  I didn't feel that it pertained to whether or not "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" was a good song or not.  Since Michael Jackson never really had a chance to live his own childhood the way he wanted, he felt the need to compensate (or overcompensate) for that as an adult.  Whether or not that turned out escalating into child molestation is something that only a few people know for sure.  The evidence seems pretty overwhelming that at best, Jackson was guilty of staggeringly inappropriate behavior with children and at worst the unforgivable act of abusing those children.  If it's the latter, he deserves all of the punishment that hell (if it exists) has to offer and I'm not sorry in the least that he died at a relatively young age so he couldn't do any more damage to a child.  If it's the former, then I feel a touch of sadness at his lost childhood but still think he was a grown man and should've known better.  Either way, it's a tragic story that could've had so much more fulfilled hope in it.

30. Lynyrd Skynyrd - Sweet Home Alabama

Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I couldn't have been less exposed to the culture of the American South.  I didn't grow up listening to Southern rock, having songs like "Sweet Home Alabama" ingrained into my brain.  My first real exposure to 70's Southern rock wasn't until my late teens, and I wasn't all that impressed.  Bands like Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, Creedence Clearwater Revisited and even pre-80's ZZ Top didn't hold any interest to me.  I didn't slam them and sneer derisively as I called them rednecks, it just wasn't my kind of music.  I was all for anthems rooted in your heritage, but for me, it was Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.", not "Born on the Bayou."

But as I got older, my musical curiosity got the better of me.  In my twenties, I started listening to music that I had earlier dismissed as "not my thing" and giving things another shot to see if my opinion of them had changed.  In many cases, with my mind much more open, songs and artists that I had previously dismissed began to grow on me, none more than "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  It's probably the definitive Southern rock anthem, and as I listened to it over the years, it slowly but surely climbed up the ladder of songs that I really love.  If you'd told me in 1989 that I'd put "Sweet Home Alabama" as #30 on my list of the 100 greatest songs of my life, I'd have chuckled and shook my head said, "Yeah, right." 

Yet here it is.  And I'm not backing down.  I love the casual nature of the beginning of the song.  Leaving guitarist Ed King's count-in there.  Singer Ronnie Van Sant's "Turn it up" as the song builds in layers.  The funny thing is that Van Sant wasn't trying to pump everyone up, he was just asking the engineers to turn up the volume in his headphones so he could hear the instruments.  And, of course, you have that iconic guitar intro that King came up with.  The guitar line actually came to King in a dream, note for note, and luckily for us all, he was able to remember that one dream and he played the intro to the band the next morning and they loved it.  So they married that fantastic guitar line with their tribute to their Southern roots.

"Sweet Home Alabama" takes the "write what you know" dogma given to writers to heart.  They know (and love) Alabama, and are going to tell us why.  They take pride in their Southern Heritage while acknowledging its faults.  It's a tough line to toe, and they do it gracefully. 

Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin
Singing songs about the Southland
I miss Alabamy once again

Lynyrd Skynyrd makes it clear that their hearts are in the South, even when they're on the road away from home.  So as they return from a long absence, their yearning for home is undertandable.  The Alabama that they're returning to had its share of issues, and those issues were highlighted in Neil Young's scathing indictment of the South, "Southern Man."  Neil had this to say about Skynyrd's South:

Tall white mansions and little shacks.
Southern man when will you pay them back?
I heard screamin' and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

Then Neil addressed the reticence for the South to change their ways, referencing the Klu Klux Klan as he does so:

Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast

The guys in Skynyrd did not take that criticism lightly.  They felt he only focused on the negative aspects of the South, ignoring the positive changes that the South had made.  So they replied in a very hip-hop fashion (without the cursing and, of course, fifteen years earlier):

Well I heard mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don't need him around anyhow 

Lynyrd Skynyrd even addressed the areas where the South had fallen short, referencing Alabama governor (and legendary segregationist) George Wallace:

In Birmingham they love the governor (Boo, Boo, Boo)
Now we all did what we could do 

Part of the problem was that the "boo"s after the governor weren't prominent enough and got lost in the shuffle, so people thought that Skynyrd was actually supporting Wallace when they were actually criticizing him.  It's something Ronnie Van Sant had addressed in interviews after the controversy boiled over, but it's easy to forget about that years later. 

Beyond the lyrics filled with pride, the music in "Sweet Home Alabama" is fantastic.   Of course there's the great guitar parts throughout the song, but that's not all.  There's some great sprinkling of piano from Billy Powell throughout the song, doing his own thing while also following the guitar line at times to give some extra body to a song that's already pretty full of body, but in that really good way.  Lots of body like Halle Berry, not like Kirstie Alley.

And once again, the rhythm section has to play it cool and lay the strong foundation on which the rest of the song can be built.  Drummer Bob Burns and bassist Leon Wilkeson keep a simple, yet strong rhythm, letting all those guitars steal the show.  Most bands have just one guitarist.  Sometimes, especially if you're a metal or jamming band, there will be a second.  But for Skynyrd, they had three guitarists in the band, so they were able to give their songs a richness in guitar that had rarely been heard - and they could replicate it live.  Other bands had complex guitar arrangements with multiple guitar tracks, but when they performed the songs live, they had to pare things down.  That's why Lynyrd Skynyrd was such a popular touring band.  They could do things live that few other bands could accomplish.  That, combined with the charisma of lead singer Ronnie Van Sant made their concerts a joy to watch.

"Sweet Home Alabama" ended up being a song that is so prevalent in the South that you can't attend a wedding without hearing it at least once, or drive down the street without another car blasting it with the windows down.  It's also become the unofficial state anthem of Alabama.  So a guy born and bred in Southern California can end up loving a song that was never really meant for him, and that's the true sign of greatness.  I'm sure that Skynyrd doesn't mind that a song I can't relate to is still one of my favorites.  I'd bet that they're pretty happy that a song that they did out of their love of community has reached across the nation and touched millions of "Southerners" who grew up anywhere but the South.  It's not just an anthem about Southern pride, it's an anthem of being proud of where you came from, and who can't relate to that?

(Fun Fact #624:  For three guys who wrote one of the definitive anthems of the American South, NONE of them were actually born in Alabama.  Ronnie Van Sant and Gary Rossington were born in Jacksonville, Florida, while Ed King was born in Glendale, California)

31. Dr. Dre - Nothin' but a G Thang

Rap and hip-hop have always relied heavily on samples to lay the groundwork for many of their songs.  They take an obscure (or not so obscure) musical piece from a 70's soul record and loop it to rap over.  It's been happening for decades and will continue to happen.  And although many people my age sneer at rap and call it unimaginative at best and outright stealing at worst, there's an almost elegance when it's done right.  It takes a song that if you listen to it on its own, you think "That is one boring ass song," and turns it into one you can't stop listening to.

That is exactly what Dr. Dre succeeded in doing with "Nuthin' but a G Thang," off his seminal 1992 album, The Chronic.  Dre blurred the lines between producing and songwriting, taking multiple samples mixed with original instrumentation to make a newer, fuller sound that was its own.  So although "G Thang"s official songwriter is listed as Calvin Broadus (Snoop Dogg's given name), the song is Dre's through and through.  His producing skill takes center stage and creates a song with subtle complexity that immediately draws you in.  Dre's talent is in taking an identifiable sample and making it his own.

In this case, the base for the song is the dated disco era song by Leon Haywood, "I Wanna Do Something Freaky to You."  Other than that awesome name, it's a nondescript song from 1975.  It's got that great opening riff, but the rest of the song is filled with those strings you immediately identify with the disco era (even though this was before full-blown disco)  and absurd lyrics.  Dre takes the strings and gives them a singular sound, adds that looping bass line and emphasizes the hi-hat, giving the song a sonic sophistication. 

Listening to it now, it's easy to forget that before this song, we had never heard Snoop Dogg's unique voice.  Up until "G Thang," rappers, for the most part, tried to sound as hardcore as they could, pumping up the bass in their vocals, trying to sound as "street" as they could.  But Snoop took his unique voice and wraps it around phrases, making his voice sound like a jazz instrument.  Dre's more traditional rapping voice combines well, though, and gives "G Thang" a great vocal back and forth.

Lyrically, the song isn't as poetic as you get in most rock songs, but it is authentic.  The lyrics are typical rap bombast and braggery.  The misogyny that permeates almost every aspect of hip-hop is here, too.  It bugged me then and it bugs me now.  I've always thought that calling women bitches and hos is just trying to use vocal misdirection to hide your own inadequacies.  It's like the ten year-old who punches the girl he likes because he can't gird up the resolve to talk to her.  The immaturity is staggering and distracting to someone who respects women.  I try to ignore them when I listen to the song, so I don't get on my mental soap box.

The other lyrics, though, do a great job of capturing the spirit of rap and hip-hop.  First Snoop instructs with:

But uh, back to the lecture at hand
Perfection is perfected, so I'ma let 'em understand
from a young G's perspective

And then Dre, acting more like university chancellor to Snoop's English professor, adds:

Now it's time for me to make my impression felt
So sit back, relax, and strap on your seatbelt
You never been on a ride like this befo'
with a producer who can rap and control the maestro

Control it, he does.  Dr. Dre is the George Martin of hip-hop and The Chronic is the Pet Sounds.  He added sophisticated production techniques to a genre that could never hide its disdain for them.  He turned rap on its head and made being good at what you do, both in the studio and at the mixing board, the standard, rather than something to scoff at.  Although other artists had done groundbreaking work before The Chronic, like the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, Dre took your run-of-the-mill rap song and turned it into art.  Dr. Dre would probably tell me I'm overstating it, but even in its entrenchment in the street vibe, it's a song that ages so well it still sounds fresh, almost twenty years later.

One fun fact and a cool story for this one....

(Fun Fact #623:  Before Jimmy Kimmel was ABC's JIMMY KIMMEL, he was the sports guy on L.A.'s iconic alternative radio station, KROQ's morning show with Kevin and Bean.  He was quickly promoted to on air talent and did so many hilarious things that it would take me five pages to break them all down.  One particularly funny bit was a song that Jimmy did for Kevin & Bean's annual Christmas album called, "Christmastime in the LBC."  He did it with a dead-on Snoop Dogg imitation that fooled me the first time I heard it.  So I had to put it on here so you could enjoy it as well.)

(Cool Story #4:  Coincidentally, another KROQ story.  When I lived in Los Angeles, I worked for a furniture rental company and I did design and project management for work station installations.  Doesn't sound fun, I know, but I really liked it.  One day in Burbank, I was helping my installers bring stuff up from the truck in the freight elevator.  The building we were delivering to also housed KROQ.  People hang out in the lobby occasionally to stalk musicians who might be visiting the station on that day, so they take the real big ones up in the freight elevator for some privacy.  So as I helped bring another load up, I rolled in an Aeron chair, made by Herman Miller.  It's the really cool mesh chair that all the other ones you see at Office Depot are copying.  It's a very expensive ($1,000) office chair that still makes me drool a bit.  Here's a pic:

Just before the door closed, I hear a "hold the door, please," and in walks Snoop Dogg along with a couple of his friends.  They're heading up to KROQ for an interview.  Growing up in Los Angeles, I've always prided myself on not ogling celebrities when I run into them, so I just nodded and said, "Hey."  Snoop looked at me and then looked at the Aeron chair and pointed.

"That's one funky lookin' chair," he said.

"It's very cool and extremely comfortable," I said.

He pointed again and said, "You mind?" 

I shook my head no at his request to sit in the chair and said, "Go ahead."

Snoop sat down in the Aeron chair and wiggled his butt around a bit and exhaled.  I showed him all of the adjustments as we rode up the elevator just to pass the time.  As he sat there, he said "That is one damn fine chair,"  I thanked him and then he looked at one of his guys and just nodded.  As they were exiting the elevator to go to KROQ, his guy stayed back and asked for my card.  I gave it to him and we ended up selling Snoop a couple of Aeron chairs.

If you see video of any recording studio, the chairs you're more likely to see than not behind the mixing board are Aeron chairs.  I have no idea where in the timeline of "Aeron chairs in the studio" my encounter with Snoop happened, but it was in early 1997, so who knows...)

32. U2 - One

U2 had been critical darlings for some time when they released the documentary and soundtrack album Rattle and Hum in 1988.  But the response to both was unenthusiastic by most critics.  Rolling Stone actually liked it, saying, "In its inclusiveness and rollicking energy, Rattle and Hum caps the story of U2's rise from Dublin obscurity to international superstardom on a raucous, celebratory note."  But other reviewers weren't drinking the Irish Kool Aid.  Allmusic.com's Stephen Thomas Erlewine was much more blunt in his criticism.  He called the movie "disastrous" and says that U2's sound was paralyzed by their new status as "rock's most important band."  He sums up with:  "Rattle and Hum is by far the least-focused record U2 ever made, and it's little wonder that they retreated for three years after its release to rethink their whole approach."

And rethink it they did.  They thought a lot - like a philosopher on a rainy day with a triple espresso after his wife just left him lot.  The band had become the biggest rock band in the world, but they knew they weren't the best.  If they were to become the best, they had to start over, to a certain degree.  At the end of the Lovetown tour that U2 did with BB King, Bono said on stage that this was "the end of something for U2.  We have to go away and (...) dream it all up again."  And they did.  The album that was the fruit of those dreams was 1991's Achtung Baby, who many consider U2's finest work.  (For me, The Joshua Tree is my favorite U2 album, but I have no trouble saying Achtung Baby is their best all-around effort.)

There are other songs on Achtung Baby that are more fun to listen to, like "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and "Mysterious , but "One" is the song that moves me the most and makes me think.  And for all that I like rockers and uptempo songs, it's the ones that go deeper that are the really Great with a capital G ones.  These are the Oscar contenders to the action summer blockbusters.  They resonate beyond the first few listens.  Not to denigrate the other songs on Achtung Baby, it' one of the greatest collection of songs ever, it's just that "One" rises to the top.

Starting with that wonderful guitar that The Edge is known for, it sets the tone for a song that is rooted in melancholy and disappointment, but with a touch of hope to keep it from being overly melodramatic.  Edge is the mad scientist of guitar sounds, but they always serve the song first, which not all guitarists who love the sounds guitars can make are able to keep at bay.  Similar to the chef who thinks more ingredients with more complex preparations make for the best meal, those guitarists can't quiet their imagination at the cost of what's important - the song.  And although it's a cool sounding guitar that Edge brings to the table, the base of the song is the acoustic guitar and the song structure.  To prove it, U2 often performs "One" in concert with just that, acoustic guitars.

As in most solid songs, the rhythm section is left with the vital yet seemingly pedestrian task of holding down the fort.  They don't get to go out and destroy the enemy, they just get to make sure that the defenses hold.  Both bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. get to flex their musical muscles a bit, but more often then not, they're keeping the supply lines clear and giving support so the band as a whole can shine.  The rhythm section is the best friend fullback to the star high school quarterback of the guitarist and lead singer.  He does the grunt work while his friend gets all the glory and attention.  Without the fullback blocking on those key plays, though, the star is on his ass with a linebacker on his chest.  To be able to sit in the background, holding things steady is perhaps the hardest thing to find in a musician while keeping your ego in check.

U2 has been blessed throughout the years to have band members who put the music first - always.  And the results have been consistently at a world-class level for decades without any breakups or new members.  The Beatles couldn't do that.  Not The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Van Halen, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, The Eagles.  None of them could keep from imploding or produce music at the level U2 has for as long as they have.  Even Simon & Garfunkel couldn't keep it together, and that's only two!  Solo artists (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna) have a much easier time since the only opinion that matters is theirs.  A band had to contend with multiple members' input, ego, songwriting, etc. that complicates matters exponentially.  So the lyrics of the song work in any personal relationship, not just the significant other interpretation that most people see in this song.

One love
We get to share it
Leaves you baby if you
Don't care for it

So the lyrics apply to a band just as much as they do to a husband/wife relationship.  And if U2 hadn't cared for it, they'd be another band that used to be great and can only do greatest hits tours now (sorry Keith & Mick and Pete & Roger).  When you stop working on the love in a relationship it starts to die.  It slowly strangulates to death:  discomfort followed by pain as the panic increases, then comes the arms flailing and eyes bulging as the last breath leaves the body.  It's horrible to watch and the damage in its wake is often incalculable.  It happens in bands as well as in relationships. 

Lead singer Bono is at his best when he's singing about relationships.  He's never been the most talented singer around (I'd put his vocal track for the original recording of "Trash, Trampoline and the Party Girl" up as one of the worst recorded vocal performances of all time), but he more than makes up with it in soul.  Every ounce of his being is poured into every single performance, especially live.  So when he sings the following lyrics, your heart aches for him:

Did I ask too much
More than a lot
You gave me nothing
Now it's all I got

Since Bono is U2's lyricist (99.5% of the time), he can add his voice to his own poetry and bring his inner Dylan (both Bob and Thomas).  He sings about situations we've all been in when our love is put to the test.  We're too tired, too talked out, too apathetic to do the work that needs to be done.  "We're one, but we're not the same."  In relationships across the board, everyone has experienced these emotions and the choice is up to us to put our heads down and plow through the tough stuff to get to the good stuff.

Too many people in today's world just aren't ready to do that.  The divorce rate is 50%.  I'm living proof.  I'm on my second, and thankfully, my best.  With my wife, Jennifer, I learned that doing the hard work that a husband/wife relationship needs can't be dismissed.  If you put in the hard work, as I think we have, then it's easier to get through the hard spots (like being in the hospital while your wife and boys are at home) and come out shining.  I've failed before, but I'm not going to do it again.

We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

(Fun Fact #534:  Bono has said that his guitarist is "a man so cool, even his mother calls him - The Edge.")

Um, hello? Where's Kent?

Where the hell have I been?  Good question that deserves an answer.  For the four of you who are reading these, there’s been quite a break between the last entry and this one.  The reason is because I was in the hospital for three days getting a drain put into my abdomen to take care of an abscess that I had in my intestines.  I won’t bore you with the grisly details (Todd B. might disagree with the whole drain in the abdomen thing), but needless to say I was pretty out of circulation.
At first, I thought with the wife and kids at home and me spending some quality alone time with the staff at Parker Adventist Hospital, I would have plenty of time to knock out a few entries on my list.  Heck, one a day, I thought.  The problem with that thought process is that I didn’t realize that my brain would be a bit off kilter the whole time I was there.  There weren’t as many  opportunities to write as I thought there would be since I spent a lot of time sleeping fitfully and the times I was awake were not my most inspired.
So I watched movies and some Battlestar Galactica and read some of Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney.  But in the spirit of the end of many of my posts, I’ll give you four fun facts about those three things as well as one about being in the hospital.

  • Cannot recommend Inglorious Basterds enough.  Watching it for the second time enabled me to enjoy every ounce of Christoph Walttz’s glorious (and rightfully Academy Award winning) performance as the Nazi investigator who can charm you and kill you in consecutive seconds.
  • No, I’m not a Cylon, but Boomer didn’t think she was a Cylon either, now did she?  Why hello, Commander Adama….
  • When Walt Disney looked for a new house for his wife and family in the early ‘50’s, he had but one major requirement – that the house have enough land for him to build a functioning 1/8 scale steam train with half a mile of track.
  • The mattresses in newer hospitals are basically fancy air mattresses that inflate and deflate to make your stay more comfortable.  The problem is, as soon as you do get comfortable, it shifts the air around to fit your new position, thusly making it uncomfortable again.

33. Cast of 'Rent' - Seasons of Love

Broadway musicals polarize people.  Generally, you either love them or hate them, much like Howard Stern or Kate Gosselin.  I happen to really enjoy them, and if I lived in New York, would frequent them often.  Planning for a trip to New York in the fall of 1997, I wanted to see a musical and checked to see what was playing.  The one that caught my eye was the Tony winner from the previous year called Rent.  This was just as Rent was starting to explode as "the" Broadway musical to see, and a national tour had just started.  I got pretty good tickets and waited as patiently as I could until show time.

 When I finally went to New York, I saw Rent near the end of the trip and was awestruck.  The story was a modern retelling of La Boheme, set in New York's own lower East Side.  The cast was of people my own age dealing with the challenges of life approaching the new millennium - job, love life (straight and gay), friends, AIDS, intellectual freedom and more.  Now to be honest, I wouldn't have fit in very well with this crowd, I think.  I'm more of a suburbs kind of guy and they're lower East Siders, but I could still relate.  The storyline, music and acting were all stellar.  I left the theater with inspired.  I started thinking that I needed to start writing more because I had something to say, too.  And I did.  This blog is an extension of what started more than a dozen years ago.

After loving the play so much, I read about its creator, Jonathan Larson.  His story was equally touching and tragic.  He created this masterpiece that would go on to be seen on every continent save Antarctica and enjoyed by tens of millions.  But the tragic part is that he never lived to see it.  Jonathan Larson died of an aortic dissection of the heart the day before Rent was to have its premiere public performance.  He won both the Tony and a Pulitzer Price posthumously for Rent.  While reading about the heartbreaking loss that his family as well as cast and crew of Rent suffered, I also came across uplifting stories about how they were all living their lives in the wake of their tremendous grief:  live and love as if each day were your last.  I've always lived my life by a similar credo, but now I had a song to go with it - "Seasons of Love."

The song opens the second act of the play and opens the 2005 movie based on it.  It's a tone setter, without a doubt.  It's a gospel song for a generation who feels like God is taking a big, long coffee break.  Starting out with a simple repeated piano refrain, the characters begin breaking down a year in our collective life.  When you add the organ, it really does feel like a gospel song.  With a simple drum beat and matching bass line, the vocals then become the focal point of the song, as they are in every gospel song.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.  

That's how a year breaks down.  It seems like a lot until you realize that you just lost sixty of them watching "The Bachelor", arguing with your girlfriend or reading People magazine.  Don't get me wrong or think I'm Napoleon on my high horse.  I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to wasting time.  I wish I could say that I've lived every day - every year, to the fullest.  I haven't.  Chances are, you haven't either.  But tomorrow gives us another chance to start over and get things right.  But how do we total up the sum of all those yesterdays, tomorrows and todays?  Jonathan Larson wants to know.  What's the best way to take account of the past?

How do you measure a year?
In daylights? In sunsets ?
In midnights? In cups of coffee?

In inches? In miles?
In laughter? In strife?

What are the things that define us and our time on this planet?  What it all comes down to, for me, is at the end of it all, was the world left better or worse because of your impact on it?  Sure, it's a heavy thought, especially after that latte and the People magazine about Lindsay Lohan, but if you don't think about it, there end up being more Starbucks/Reality TV days than you'd like to admit.  In "Seasons of Love," the song builds up in intensity, adding some guitar as they head to the chorus.  The chorus itself is direct.  Jonathan Larson makes one simple suggestion:

How about love?

It's not a revolutionary concept, and it's been presented by countless others, including The Beatles with "All You Need Is Love."  But this is an anthem for my generation.  Love is the perfect measuring stick for the worthiness of a life, in my opinion.  From Jesus to Lennon & McCartney, love is their fist commandment.  As hippy as it sounds, it's true.  But it's not just the ethereal "I love everybody, man."  It's the kind of love that people know about.  It's the kind of love where if somebody were to ask someone you loved if they were loved, your name would come up quickly and often.  It's the proactive love of daily living.  To really love someone is hard work that leaves an impression on the person loved.  In other words, if you really love someone, they have to know it.

As a husband and father of two young sons, I think I'm lucky in this regard.  I have an opportunity every day - almost every minute, to have my life measured in love.  I'm given countless opportunities to love my wife and children by both words and actions.  Thankfully, if you were to ask any of them how I loved them, there would be numerous examples for them to choose from. 

It's not how much money or power you have that defines you as a person, it's the imprint that you leave behind every day.  Money and power can (and do) leave an imprint, but if the motivation wasn't love, then it's the wrong kind of imprint.  That love can be the selfless love of all sorts of things:  your fellow humans, God (or gods), your country, the planet, your family - it doesn't matter.  As long as your life is rooted in love and then acting on it, you're making this world a better place.

So how am I going to measure the worth of a woman or a man? 

How about love?

The two videos for "Seasons of Love" are one from the 2005 motion picture and the other is a performance by the original Broadway cast, alongside the final Broadway cast.

34. Beck - Loser

The word revolutionary is thrown around by writers like me who try to inflate the importance of what they're writing about.  If you say something is revolutionary, then that's a bold statement (to steal a line from Vincent in Pulp Fiction) that you'd better back up.  Going through all my posts (thank God for Fiefox's search function), I realize I've used it before.  Four times to be exact.  But I stand by each one, and I'll let you decide if I throw it around too much by listing the other references.  I talked about the revolutionary production values of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Sly & the Family Stone starting a funk revolution, the Beastie Boys' revolutionary "Sabotage," which turned rap on its head, and the revolutionary idea of Metallica being backed by a symphony orchestra.  I stand by all of those statements and don't think any of them are a reach.  So only four (now five) uses in over sixty-five posts is judicious and responsible, I think.  So on to revolutionary reference #5.

What Beck pulled off in 1994, with the release of his album Mellow Gold, absolutely qualifies as revolutionary.  Nobody before Beck had mixed so many disparate styles of music together so seemlessly (I say this definitively, even though I've no solid research on my side, other than I've listened to thousands of records over my forty years and pay a lot of attention to the music.  So I got that going for me, which is nice.).  Folk and hip-hop had been mixed together before a little, but never to the extent that Beck did on Mellow Gold.  Artists like De La Soul had mixed some folk influences into their songs in the past, but this was a complete departure.  These were folk songs that could stand on their own with Beck playing them alone with a guitar in a coffeehouse. 

Okay, I'm not sure how to do this.  Normally in these posts, I focus on the song that I'm writing about and don't usually stray too far from it.  But since I'm putting my reputation (if there even is one) on the line about the revolutionary thing, so I wanted to talk about the whole Mellow Gold album as well.  Here are some thoughts on each song:

On Mellow Gold, every song had something in it that no one had ever heard before.  There are multiple influences all over the album but Beck puts his own spin on each.  Here's a breakdown of each song, just to show what I'm talking about.  "Pay No Mind" could be a Tom Waits song.  "Fuckin' with My Head" is a folk song put in a blender with an Allman Brothers Band song.  "Whiskeyclone" sounds like he just picked up a guitar, didn't check to see if it was in tune or not, and then wrote himself a Woody Guthrie type song, if Woody Guthrie was suicidal.  "Soul Suckin' Jerk" takes some of the ideas pioneered in "Loser" down another path, this time with a bass line that sounds like a fart at times.  "Truckdrivin' Neighbors Downstairs" sounds like a Johnny Cash song, kinda.  "Sweet Sunshine" starts of with some latin rhythms slowed waaaay down and then adds layers of massively distorted lyrics on top of them.  "Beercan" starts of like "Dream Weaver," but then adds some swirling guitars and a funky bass line (and that kid's xylophone) while mixing in some Robert Palmer-style vocals.  "Steal My Body Home" mixes Middle Eastern influences with a morose country drawl in the vocals, as if Beck were half-asleep when he recorded them.  "Nitemare Hippy Girl" is the song Ryan Adams would've wrote if he spent less time getting into arguments with his audience.  "Mutherfucker" sounds like it came from a Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson album.  "Blackhole" is pure blues, start to finish, but it still works in the context of the whole album.

Now I'm not saying that Beck is stealing from all these artists and is unoriginal crap.  Quite the opposite.  The fact that he can take such divergent influences and mix them all together, ending up with a splendid Jackson Pollack painting made of sound, rather than pigment, is proof of his musical genius.  It's just that his genius is stuck in the mind of a twelve year-old who has found all sorts of new toys.
 Now back to "Loser"........

It starts with that bluesy slide guitar, sounding like a Delta blues song unearthed from the '30s.  Then the drum machine comes in and fucks that all up.  Is this a blues song?  A folk song?  A hip-hop song?  Um, yes.  Then you add a sitar in the mix to shake things up and my brain is about to explode.  Either this is the coolest thing I've ever heard or it's the biggest piece of crap.  But I couldn't stop listening to it.  And when it stopped, I listened to it four more times.  So it became the former.

The first line sets the tone for the pure acid trip of the lyrics:  "In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkey."  Then there's the line in the song is where he sings "Soy un perdedor" before "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?"  Soy un perdedor is just Spanish for I'm a loser, and I love that he sings the Spanish line first, just to throw people off.  Everybody was calling up their friend who knew Spanish asking them what the heck that meant.  He even puts it in backwards near the end of the song just for fun (and to get those people who sued Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne about the backwards masking of lyrics inciting those kids who killed themselves all worked up).

The rest of the lyrics are even more weird.  Normally, I put in grouped lines of lyrics that are poignant or to help illustrate a point that I'm trying to make.  But that can't really happen in "Loser" because the lyrics are a mish-mosh of thoughts that don't make any particular sense, but are still intellectually compelling.  I can't explain it, but I love it.  So instead of doing the normal thing, I'm going to list some of my favorite lines throughout the song (along with my thoughts):

  • Butane in my veins so I'm out to cut the junkie (God, I hate it when a drug dealer screws me)
  • Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose (I spent five minutes breaking this sentence down and still can't find a cogent thought there)
  • Stock car flamin' with a loser and the cruise control (Cruise control always gets the bad rap, doesn't it?)
  • Got a couple of couches sleep on the love seat (Beck's a small guy, so that makes sense, I guess)
  • Someone keeps sayin I'm insane to complain about a shotgun wedding and a stain on my shirt (Yeah, I know.  That was a really nice shirt.)
  • You get a parking violation and a maggot on your sleeve (Which is worse?)
  • Savin' all your food stamps and burnin' down the trailer park (You always gotta have a plan, don't you)
  • Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare (If bozo's involved, it's always a nightmare)
  • 'Cause one's got a weasel and the other's got a flag (Thankfully, I'm the one with the flag)
  • Slap the turkey neck and it's hangin' on a pigeon wing (Is it hangin' on the pigeon wing because I slapped it, or was it already there?)
  • And my time is a piece of wax fallin' on a termite who's chokin' on the splinters (Does anybody know the termite Heimlich?)
  • Get crazy with the Cheeze Whiz (Okay, I've got my two cans of Cheeze Whiz.  Now what?)

I don't know what any of it means, but I laugh the whole way through.  Is that what I'm supposed to do?  I'm not sure, but maybe that's the point.

Two videos on this one.  First is the video (also fascinating) and second is a documentary about the making of the Mellow Gold album, released on its tenth anniversary.  Cool stuff.

35. Prince - Sign O The Times

If Mozart were alive today, he'd be a 5'2" black man living in Minneapolis.  He'd live in his own world that the rest of us have absolutely no conception of.  At four in the morning, it would suddenly dawn on him that he had to have a rhinoceros.  And it would be the responsibility of his staff to find him one.  After the rhinoceros showed up, he'd pet it twice, name it Butterfly, and then go to the kitchen and make himself a peanut butter and pop rock sandwich, because he's just a regular guy.  Just before bed, he'd spend some time in his home studio, laying down tracks for a song that was so simple and brilliant it would bring you to tears on the first listen.  If Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were alive today, his name would be Prince Rogers Nelson.

As a twelve year-old white kid living in Sherman Oaks, California, I wasn't exposed to much soul and R&B music.  I heard the hits, but never really embraced much urban music.  And judging by this list, you may say that I never really did.  While that may be true, and to a certain extent I have to admit that, I've had my moments.  Prince was the first of those moments.  I'd always tentatively listened to urban music, but with Prince, I jumped into the deep end almost immediately.  In late 1982, I was watching MTV when the video for "1999" came on.  I sat, transfixed, for the whole song.  I saved up my allowance and got my first Prince album, 1999.  Within a couple of months, I also had Controversy and Dirty Mind.  I've owned every other Prince album since (even the bootlegs I had to pay $50 for at the Pasadena City College Swap Meet, like The Black Album and Crystal Ball).

Being the big Prince fan that I was, I bought the single for "Sign O the Times" in late February 1987, anxiously awaiting his new album but content that at least I had something new.  Since Prince had shown an unpredictability in musical styles over the years, I didn't really know what to expect.  What I got (and we all got) was a song based in simplicity, with compelling lyrics about the state of the world.  Prince composed, arranged, produced and performed the entire song on the then-state-of-the-art Fairlight synthesizer.  Although the Fairlight could sample any number of sounds and then tweak them, Prince only used stock sounds that came with the keyboard out of the box.

Lyrically complex and compelling, the simplistic approach to the music really works well.  You've got the opening "pings" of the keyboard along with the muted drum machine.  The bass line is a bit more funky, but straightforward nonetheless.  Throughout the song, there are bits of guitar train of thought that gives a jazzy feeling to this blues song.  Prince's guitar playing has always been criminally underrated, yet Prince doesn't let his guitar player ego get in the way of what the song needs (when he plays live, though, it's a different matter, but I won't get into that here).  Near end of the song, he adds a snare drum march beat that's a bit muted in the mix for me (which he fixes in the live version - check it out below, it's awesome!). 

Even though it was played all through a modern synthesizer, the song has a strong bluesy feel to it, mixed with Prince's trademark funk.  The lyrics are strictly blues.  There's no silver lining in "Sign O the Times."  He starts right off the bat with a reference to the then exploding AIDS epidemic:

In France a skinny man
Died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came across a needle
And soon she did the same

Apparently Prince doesn't agree with space exploration, since the chorus talks about "a rocket ship explodes" (a reference to the space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986) yet we still want to fly.  Then the bleak lyrics get bleaker:

Sister killed her baby cuz she couldn't afford 2 feed it
And we're sending people 2 the moon
In September my cousin tried reefer 4 the very first time
Now he's doing horse, it's June

Those last two lines are poetic genius.  To capture the devastating downward spiral of drug addition in two lines amazes me.  And the phrasing where he pauses before telling us "it's June" perfectly captures the almost unbreakable hold that drugs can put on a person.  The world is going to hell in a handcart and Prince is showing us exactly how.  All that's missing from making this a classic blues song is the E-A-E-B chord progression to start it off.

Even though he highlights the despair in the world, he adds the following at the end:

Hurry before it's too late
Let's fall in love, get married, have a baby
We'll call him Nate... if it's a boy

Normally, those may be interpreted as words of hope, but considering that he wants to get married and have a child quickly before the end of the world comes, there's an inescapable fatalism intertwined with the hope.  So his blues song retains its authentic lyrical style.  And that last line, when he pauses again before "if it's a boy" is vintage Prince.  His phrasing is always compelling and "Sign O the Times" may be his most interesting example.

Although there are Prince songs I listen to more often, and could also have made this list if I hadn't restrained myself (1999, Little Red Corvette, Purple Rain, The Cross, When Doves Cry, Kiss - I could go on forever), "Sign O the Times," as a complete package, is deserving of its place on my list.  It's like the movie "Million Dollar Baby."  It's great and it makes you think, but how often are you going to watch it again?  Exactly.  But they're both still great and deserve all the accolades they get.

For this one, I've put a staggering six videos at the end of the post.  There's a good reason, though.  To show Prince's versatility (and his talent at playing live), I've given you the album version of "Sign O the Times" as well as a live version he did on MTV in 1987 where his guitar playing is much more prominent and there's the great snare drum part at the end.  I don't want to ruin it for you, so just watch - you won't regret it.  The last four are all from "An Evening With Kevin Smith," who worked with Prince in the late 90's on a documentary that was never released.  I'm a huge Kevin Smith fan and this is one of the funniest stories I've ever heard in my life.  It's a long story, so it's broken down into four videos.  Check them all out, the whole story is great.  So enjoy them all, I know I did.

(I talked in this post about the small number of soul and urban artists on my list.  Of all of the songs on my list, fifteen are by urban artists.  That's about a 7 1/2 : 1 ratio.  I'm not sure if that's an indication of some subconscious racism on my part or just the fact that I was exposed to more rock/pop than soul, R&B and hip-hop.  Something to consider, for sure, but I still stand by my list.  And while it may sound self-serving, I just picked the songs that I thought were great, not paying any attention to the ethnic diversity of my list.  To pick more black artists, or to make sure I had some latin music on it would do a disservice to exactly those artists that I would've put on the list to make myself look better.)