“When I woke up this mornin’/Things were lookin’ bad,” he sang on the first song on his eponymous debut album in 1972 over basic chords. Many songwriters would’ve stopped right there. In the next line, however, comes the kicker: a bowl of oatmeal tries to stare him down — and wins! To be a successful absurdist is to observe a monotheistic faith in precision. On John Prine (1971), the late singer-songwriter got away with zingers less talented artists would’ve pulled their eyeballs out for, couched in melodies as homespun and casual as the prose Prine chiseled as accompaniment. Who else besides perhaps Loudon Wainwright III in the seventies would’ve summed up the depredations into which a heroin addict had sunk with the line, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” in “Sam Stone”? Perfection and inevitability are synonymous — among songwriters Prine made it so. Continue reading
“Wowee Zowee is pitched halfway between the indulgence of a superstar or cult hero, and the run-of-the-mill oddities that have passed for normal in the indie world for years now,” Eric Weisbard observed in his review for SPIN Magazine in May 1995, a 7 out of 10-star judgment that also deemed WZ “an underground game of musical chairs.” Which means it functions like a double album by people with some money to burn, and a persona to burn using money as kindling. Not much money — Pavement was on Matador.
Since buying it in the early summer of 1998, WZ has hovered near the top of my Pavement pile: their grandest, silliest, most inscrutable statement. Listening to it today, the songs quake under the scrutiny; what seemed like fetching casualness sounds sloppy now, unrealized. For every stop-start wonder like “Rattled by the Rush” — what a terse description of good Pavement! — and woozy, aqueous call-to-action like “Motion Suggests,” there’s half-ass moments of half-assery, an album that worships The Beatles “Wild Honey Pie” while looking askance at “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”; or, to take a post-punk example, a gnomic garble from Double Nickles on the Dime without the requisite instrumental concentration. I don’t care if Pavement intend “Fight This Generation” as parody of the here-we-are-now-entertain-us cohort or as a tentative contribution; it ain’t worth it.
Yet I love the indigo slipshod blueness of Wowee Zowee anyway. Here’s an album meant to be inhaled, not endured. Continue reading
Before “The Gambler,” “Islands in the Stream,” and Roasters, Kenny Rogers applied bearded fervor to material by The First Edition, for whom he sang and played bass. Those early hits still sound refreshing. “But You Know I Love You” has the faintest of swings that fans of The Guess Who’s “These Eyes” would tap their toes to (Dolly Parton took her own version to #1 on the country charts in 1981). Even better was a cover of Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” in which the Houston-born vocalist’s sexy burr gets its most attractive setting. Note the pause between “Ruby” and the rest of the phrase; he knew what he was doing. For listeners rustling in their seats, run toward “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” a psychedelic shack of a song in which Rogers watches his mind fall out of his head while his bandmates pinch distorted riffs out of their guitars — you’ll swear you’re listening to Lou Reed’s solo in “I Heard Her Call My Name” or mid sixties Stones — and get hysterical with the organ washes. An anti-drug number, “Just Dropped In” of course descends into camp, but go back to the bearded fervor: Rogers is having too much fun to play George C. Scott in Hardcore. With “I Found a Reason” the band revealed themselves as expert magpies — tune out the vocals and the horn chart will evoke The Kinks. Continue reading
BAND/ARTIST I HATE:
BAND/ARTIST I THINK IS OVERRATED:
BAND/ARTIST I THINK IS UNDER-APPRECIATED:
BAND/ARTIST I LOVE:
A Tribe Called Quest
BAND/ARTIST I CAN LISTEN TO OVER AGAIN AND AGAIN:
BAND/ARTIST THAT MADE ME FALL IN LOVE WITH MUSIC:
BAND/ARTIST THAT CHANGED MY LIFE:
BAND/ARTIST THAT SURPRISED ME LIVE:
“Guilt is a useless emotion” — New Order
BAND/ARTIST I SHOULD HAVE SEEN BY NOW:
I never saw Prince or Bowie.
GREAT BAND/ARTIST TO SEE LIVE:
Congressman, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China, RNC chair, and CIA director, George Herbert Walker Bush became the first vice president since Martin Van Buren to win the presidency without his predecessor dying on him and so far the last president in forty years to lose reelection. His term could not have gone further. Continue reading
11:10 p.m. I’m fading. I must grade and read. But Bonnie Raitt remains a Grammy evergreen whose pluckings I’ll never tire of, especially covering John Prine.
11 p.m. We’re gonna be dealing with John Legend forever, Grammy watchers. Boy, is he smooth.
10:57 p.m. Did Sharon Osbourne read the nominations for Best Rap/Sung Performance because Ozzy misplaced his larynx between the East End of London and L.A.?
10:50 p.m. Why is Alicia Keys on a dais higher than the performers nominated and uh performing?
10:45 p.m. Is Quincy Jones up for any Album of the Year nods or
10:38 p.m. Boy! Smokey Robinson and Little Big Town can still harmonize! They present Song of the Year. Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” co-written with her brother, wins. “For all the kids makin’ music in their bedrooms today,” Finneas O’Connell avers, you’re next. I want to think this win for a marvelous song and an even bigger epochal pop radio moment augurs change. But I’m sure John Mayer’s pissed he wasn’t asked to be on “Old Town Road.”
10:35 p.m. Rosalía’s gonna be an American star. On what terms she becomes an American star depend on how Grammy frames her songs and performances.
10:32 p.m. I can’t think of a moment this evening when Alicia Keys hasn’t turned a musical moment into a lesson she can teach us about what she learned about herself.
10:24 p.m. The Grammys and the gospel tradition with its penchant for giving its believers the burial and sendoff they (and we) deserve — they mesh expertly.
10:20 p.m. A sequence reminding us about award histories reminds audiences about the uselessness of categories. We’re here for social media moments.
10:12 p.m. In the wake of the allegations against powerful Grammy men, I’m not sure if Demi Lovato represents the award show’s insurance policy.
10:08 p.m. GOD do I love Greta Gerwig’s “Vogue”-era Madonna suits.
10:01 p.m. All too easy to applaud this performance of a song designed for BTS, Kid Rock, etc.: a performance that had “Grammys” written all over it even in May ’19. But the ebullience with which Lil Nas X, BTS, etc. performed is the best proof that we need Grammys bullshit about The Universality of Music.
9:59 p.m. So…what if Lil Nas X didn’t exist and Jason Aldean or Sam Hunt had cut “Old Town Road”? How long would those comment sections extend?
9:57 p.m. The first Grammy performance in which the boy porno mags from My Own Private Idaho gleam on the wall.
9:55 p.m. Fuck the Grammys for following up Tyler with Ellen DeGeneres making white lady hip-hop moves to the accompaniment of “Shoop.”
9:51 p.m. Tyler, the Creator wins a Grammy. A self-identified queer rapper. And he dispatches his weeping mom with the same malevolent charm. And he gives a speech absent of self-affirmative nostrums. His timbre helps.
9:44 p.m. …and if the reaction shot is any indication they and Aerosmith still shock Smokey Robinson.
9:42 p.m. Know what? Hip-hop radio treats its icons over 30 so disgracefully — so ignominiously — that Run-DMC deserve this nostalgia move.
9:40 p.m. Kudos to opening their medley with “Livin’ on the Edge,” the only distinctive single in their Amazing-Cryin’-Crazy trilogy. Whether Steven Tyler realizes how John Roberts Furious Five, Donald Trump, and impeachment surpass his worse fears is another story; his expert wordplay has always struck me as a Hadrian’s Wall.
9:39 p.m. “Tonight we honor that livin’ on the edge,” we learn on a Grammy stage in which Alicia Keys and Kenny Loggins have bowed.
9:35 p.m. I didn’t warm to Billie Eilish’s album, figuring she’ll release a longform playlist commensurate with her post-adolescent sense of grandiosity. On the Grammy stage, county seat of reification, her weirdness is weirder: she’s doing Barbra Streisand as a Smiths ballad.
9:24 p.m. Ariana Grande has so much presence that this Dynasty meets Dangerous Liasions boudoir scene is intelligible after a glass of wine and a fourth of a chocolate chip cookie.
9:22 p.m. Singing “Imagine,” Ariana Grande gives side-eye to 1980s dreams.
9:21 p.m. The eighties will never go away. Reagan’s policies, sure. Checkered blazers, boom.
9:14 p.m. Wow. Tanya Tucker and Camila Cabello’s eight-minute segment was the evening’s most satisfying.
9:11 p.m. On a roll as Grammy winner for her 2018 album and essential Highwomen member, Brandi Carlile accompanies Tanya Tucker on “Bring Me Flowers,” and, I must say, Tucker’s craggy hot-toddy timbre works better live than on her well-meaning comeback.
9:10 p.m. The older man to whom Camila Cabello sings “My Oh My” is her father, and it earns the night’s warmest applause.
9:07 p.m. I have to wonder if even strong women like Camila Cabello approve introductions that adduce their dependence on other men; Cabello exists as an appendage to Shawn Mendes. And she sings “My Oh My” rather well.
8:59 p.m. This is an American Idol routine. Usher’s better than this, and his new Elle Mai duet proves it.
8:57 p.m. Oh — a ballerina.
8:54 p.m. Oh okay. Prince performances get clicks. And Usher can sing — and older and puffier he wears the Prince drag like Elvis did his ’50s material in 1969. Sheila E backs him. But is this necessary? By the way, Usher, strangely, one of the 2000s best-selling artists, does his contemporary cred no credit here.
8:52 p.m. Best County Duo/Group goes to a pink-suited oddity with long hair part of Dan + Shay for “Speechless.” His wife inspired the song.
8:50 p.m. Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani blink happily at Alicia Keys like Shriners in a Publix deli line.
8:48 p.m. First cup of coffee. Deciding whether to return to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage.
8:45 p.m. Why would Usher “pay tribute to the legendary artist known as Prince” who’s been dead four years?
8:44 p.m. Watching Tyler with the world afire behind him is like listening to John Lydon on Dick Clark in this Year of Our Lord.
8:42 p.m. May Tyler always perform with a blonde wig.
8:40 p.m. I’m surprised Tyler, the Creator survived Trevor Noah’s awful introduction. I find the rapper’s tracks incommensurate with his song craft — IGOR made my top thirty with the full knowledge it’ll slip into oblivion next year — but he’ll do.
8:39 p.m. Chocolate chip cookies require three days for Soto to consume them. Just sayin’.
8:31 p.m. Best Pop Solo Performance goes to Lizzo for “Truth Hurts,” deserved. And her speech about reaching out has the spontaneity of a regular person.
8:27 p.m. The Jonas Brothers look as if they retained water for the sake of wearing terrible shirts. They owe much to Neil Diamond too: hard acoustic strumming, fireworks, indecipherable object of desire.
8:25 p.m. K-pop, John Legend, Lewis Capaldi — the Grammys namecheck ecumenicism without rewarding it.
8:22 p.m. Greil Marcus dismissed Kenny Loggins as a guy who couldn’t resist clapping; that’s Alicia Keys, delivering monologues as if she insisted on others to clap for her.
8:20 p.m. Alicia Keys, who can’t recite pieties without reminding you she’s telling you What These Pieties Are, and she’ll play boring piano parts too.
8:14 p.m. Do these zombies realize the men who run the Grammys are accused of sexual assault get mentioned the same day Kobe Bryant, accused of sexual assault, gets eulogized? Let’s celebrate his achievements, fine. The Grammys aren’t the time. Not the right setting.
8:13 p.m. Gunning for the Stevie Nicks award for Unnecessary Maternal Support, Stefani delivers a wedding cake performance. How ridiculous to think she had any interest in pop, futurity, staying current — she’s a Bridal Guide model.
8:11. “My friends Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani” play next, wreathed by Lady Liberty lights that illuminate the size of Shelton’s brain.
8:07 p.m. I’ve been hard on Alicia Keys. Paralyzed by forty years’ worth of award show ponderosities, she can’t even deliver a line about Kobe Bryant without sounding as if she were reciting Emma Lazarus. I suppose ‘everyone’ in L.A. knew him. Boyz II Men appear to sing a bit of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.”
8:05 p.m. When Lizzo plays flute, it’s like watching the late David Bowie play lead guitar.
8:03 p.m. Wearing an outfit that looks carved out of fishscales, Lizzo plays “Truth Hurts” with the confidence of a performer as long-term as Diana Ross.
8:01 p.m. “Tonight is for Kobe,” Lizzo announces, giving the blessing to the effacement of Bryant’s rape charge. Lizzo remains a singular presence: sincere, unabashed, conscious of playing a part (a fact detractors miss).
8 p.m. I can’t imagine these Grammys untouched by the death of Kobe Bryant, admired by the L.A. community of basketball fans.
What I like about Cowley’s instrumentals is how their bleeps and spiky melodies evoke a chintzy anonymity — the anonymity of sex in The Anvil; I can smell the sweat and mung. Reviewing Patrick Cowley’s journals, “a voraciously readable historical document” released at the same time as a comp called Mechanical Fantasy Box, Rich Juzwiak captures a period in gay life that looks like the long British spring of 1914 before Franz Ferdinand fell victim to an assassin’s bullet:
To hear him tell it, Cowley was enthralled by the sex he was having—so many great asses, so many great cocks, and such prowess. “I could never take the fuck I give,” he brags. In addition to the graphic sex, his writings contain sprinklings of romance and momentary ambivalence regarding his fast lifestyle (“The churning, crowded heat of men in a sexual banquet crowds in on me and the forced-by-circumstances emotion-lacking atmosphere drives me away”). There’s also a real sense of the brotherhood that the ritualistic scene could foster for a lapsed Catholic like Cowley: “I’m on my knees worshipping Phallus. All around me are the other similarly engaged. I feel the one-ness of our activity. Silent yet all things understood.”
A child when the AIDS panic swept Florida, I learned to cordon off my sexuality from the rest of my life. Then my uncle died of HIV complications a year before New England Journal of Medicine published an article suggesting the benefit of antiretroviral therapies. Fear, trembling, and panic — they trail the god of war. To have survived this era doesn’t fill me with gratitude so much as expose a hollowing. I could never return to a past as unfamiliar to me as the Romanov court.