The Ghost of Rock & Roll Past

“I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”

In 1974 music critic Jon Landau made this bold claim.

Well, I’m no Jon Landau nor have I been visited by any Dickensian Ghosts but I do believe I’ve just seen rock and roll past…and it resembles the Yeti…in white.

Matthew E. White

The missing link between Stevie Wonder ’72 & James Murphy ’05

Here’s the song that blew me away when I heard it a few months ago:

Big Love

Part soul man, part funk meister, this anti-hipster from Richmond, Virginia knows how to pay tribute to the greats without ripping them off.

And if White resembles any part of the future of rock and roll circa 2015, I’m in.

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD.

For about 10 years between 1997 and 2007 there was no activity I spent more time on than reading about music. But before we go there, a brief history…

I came into pop music consciousness in late 1980, early 1981. I clearly remember listening to John Lennon’s (Just Like) Starting Over climb up Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 shortly after his death.

Kasey Casem

One too many “long distance dedications”

If the warmhearted DJ was also a big part of your youthful weekends, you might enjoy Casey’s little studio meltdown (warning – contains explicit language):  Meltdown

Eventually my love for the iconic countdown waned, but not for music.

I spent countless hours practicing my fall-away jumper to the sounds of the Thompson Twins and The Doors blaring out my bedroom window.

In defense of my 14 year-old self, I recently heard the Twins’ If You Were Here and was amazed by how good it was…but that could very well be a case of nostalgia clouding judgement. Any thoughts?

Music was front and center of everything I did through high school, college and beyond.

WANDERLUST.

What changed around 1997 was the reading part.

Sure I’d picked up the occasional Rolling Stone in high school but it wasn’t until living in Far East Asia in the mid-90’s that I learned to appreciate the written word…

Finding an English book or magazine in Inchon, South Korea in 1995 was like finding high-speed internet in Siberia during a snowstorm.

However it was in a tiny shop close to the DMZ where I picked up an indie sampler CD featuring two artists that would change my life forever.

Jeff Buckley’s Grace would go on to become one of my favorite songs of all-time and Wonderwall, well, more on Oasis later.

A few years after my stint on the Korean border, I landed in the more pop-friendly city of Matsuyama, Japan.

Matsuyama even offered a full-fledged Tower Records where I made regular purchases of CD’s and magazines. The year was 1997 and the Union Jack was everywhere.

Brit Pop

Faster than a cannonball…

It was at this time I picked up a copy of The Beatles newly released Anthology 3 “warts and all” collection.

It should be noted that in addition to the comprehensive BBC Anthology series, the Gallaghers had played a big role in the renewed interest in the lads.

So while buried in Brit Pop at its drug-addled peak I was discovering late-period Beatles, beards and all.

The Beatles

Lennon’s suit look familiar?

It also happened to be the first time in my life I was living alone. I cooked, read, even exercised in the confines of my tiny flat, making for an intense listening experience – every word, every note, every joke intimate.

Here’s one from Paul Ramon, Winston Legthigh and mates circa ’68:  Los Paranoias

The listening had suddenly shifted from dorm room passive to Cracker Jacks box active – a familiar setting from my childhood.

A few years later I’d be living in a new country, no longer alone but with the reading part at full throttle. There was even a point at the dawn of the new millennium when I found myself subscribing to three music magazines at once.

Needless to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of work getting done at the breakfast table. But after years of intense listening I was starting to connect some big dots…

“So before the Stones, Ronnie Wood was with The Faces…and before he was a Face, he and Rod Stewart played with The Jeff Beck Group…and what about that first band that turned into the Faces, those little guys? They were damn good”…and so it went.

Incidentally, the music I love most today was crystallized through all that digging.

As long as I’m alive I’m convinced that pop music will never be better than The Beatles between ’65 – ’69, The Rolling Stones from ’68 to ’72 and a handful of other greats during those same years – many of whom you just might hear in White’s humble musical output.

HEY HO, LET’S GO.

But rather than take my word for it, let’s play a little game.

It’s called “The Matthew E. White Tribute Challenge”.

Here’s how to play:

  1. Watch video, listen to full song (eyes closed if helpful).
  2. Which artist and song does White’s track remind you of (more than 1 answer possible)?
  3. On a scale from 1 – 10, how do you rate his song/tribute?

Please share your answers with me in the comments below and I’ll let you know if they match mine. Happy listening!

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

Dearest Family and Friends,

I have something I’d like to share with you.  I plan to tell the rest of the world shortly but I wanted to confide in my closest relationships first.  I’m Twee.  Yes, after 43 wonderful but often confusing years, I now clearly see who I am and how I want to be.

Funny thing is, I didn’t realize it until coming across the funny little book, Twee: The Gentle Revolution in Music, Books, Television, Fashion, and Film.

TWEE

With the exception of fashion, a book title has never had a better target audience than yours truly.

In fact, this very blog is dedicated to intelligent new music, books and film, which includes the golden age of television we’re living in – Fargo and True Detective head and shoulders above any cinema film I’ve seen in a long time.  At least since The Grand Budapest Hotel (more on Twee icon Wes Anderson later).

So when a friend sent me a baby blue copy with a petite bird cage on the cover, I cautiously entered in to “the first strong, diverse, and wildly influential youth movement since Punk in the ’70s and Hip Hop in the ’80s—showing how awkward glamour and fierce independence has become part of the zeitgeist.” – Amazon’s words.

Like Morrissey, Wes Anderson films or anything emanating from Brooklyn (Twee epicentre), you’ll probably either really like or really dislike this book.

One of the things I liked so much about it is how it links particular Twee things with particular Twee locations (bubble-gum indie pop & Glasgow, beards & Brooklyn).  It took me back to a time when statements like: “I was living in London in ’66” or “I spent a lot of time at CBGB’s back in ‘76?” could trigger an instant association of Beatle Boots and Bee Hives or black jackets and white sneakers up against a dirty brick wall.

Ramones

Coming of age in a sleepy town in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980’s, I missed out on the explosive Minneapolis scene led by true grunge grandfathers Hüsker Dü and The Replacements.  I was too young to experience the drunken high jinks of Paul Westerberg and the 3-chord anger of sexually confused Bob Mould, but I did grow up a few short hours south of Seattle (Grunge epicentre).

Other than one cool record store downtown, Salem, Oregon didn’t offer much in terms of an authentic music scene.  Any music scene, in fact.   What it did have a surplus of however was the ubiquitous “head banger” in black t-shirt under jeans jacket full of kick-ass rock patches – required dress for any true Iron Maiden, Ozzy Osbourne or Def Leppard fan.

iron maiden

Other than Grand Records down by the river, it was slim pickings if you wanted to get a hold of anything more obscure than Winger, Warrant or aforementioned metal trail blazers.

And then one day in the summer of 1983, my friend Matt Halferty and I came across a copy of Depeche Mode’s Speak and Spell, the Twee gods smiling down upon us.  I now know that the electronic pops and buzzes that blew us away upon first listen weren’t all that cutting edge when they appeared on the European scene in 1981.  Gary Numan, OMD and a handful of Teutonic man-machines had been tinkering with computerized synths for half a decade.  I can’t speak for Matt, but this just may have been my Twee Damascene event.  Keep in mind, we’d just witnessed the heavy metal coming-out party courtesy of Van Halen, Quiet Riot and the glam metal hybrid of Ratt –  massive radio staples in the 7th grade.

Matt ended up going to a different high school but I went on to buy the next few Depeche Mode albums in addition to The Smiths debut and a handful of other second wave British invaders that I now realize are very Twee.

With puberty firmly setting by the mid-80’s, I then moved on to the testosterone-fuelled music of the Doors, Led Zeppelin and the Who – a language I understood much better.  “The queen is dead.  What was Morrissey on about?  I just saw her on TV.”

By the fall of 1990, my sophomore year of college and another musical sea change or two, my top 5 bands went something like this:

The Violent Femmes, The Cult , Social Distortion, REM, The Smithereens

In keeping with the full disclosure of the post, I probably would have left off that last one had I not read the review of Nirvana’s 20th anniversary re-issue of Bleach.  Urban legend has it that while driving from their hick town of Aberdeen to Seattle to record their debut album for $600 in 1989, the Smithereens were one of 2 bands Nirvana listened to on the 100-mile drive over.

Listening recently to “Losing my Edge” from post-punk (Twee’s edgy cousin) revival band LCD Soundsystem in which an aging DJ who “was there in 1968 at the first Can show in Cologne” and again he “was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City”, I got to thinking – Have I ever experienced a scene?  And when “was I there”?

I’d discovered The Beatles through The Chipmunks sing the Beatles hits.  However, I still think it’s one of the best collections of Beatles covers ever. Listen to those harmonies! And I’d been much more interested in Luke Skywalker’s true family history than the real story behind The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.

But I had been at an outdoor concert once while at the University of Oregon in 1992 where a very mediocre band claimed to have played right alongside Nirvana in Seattle before they exploded.  It was more of a fraternity event than a concert, actually.  I even made two trips to Seattle the year grunge broke big – once to see our lowly Ducks get destroyed by the mighty Washington Huskies and again at Christmas break with a Seattleite I was dating.  I never did make it to any of those cool, grungy music venues I saw later in Cameron Crowe’s Ode to Grunge, Singles.  I did visit the original Starbucks café on one of my trips, however.  I later found out it wasn’t in fact the original, original (automatic Twee disqualification).

And that’s probably how it is with “scenes”.  They’re over before you know they’ve started.  By the time I caught up with Sid Vicious, I quickly recognized Billy Idol’s bankable bad-boy snarl – one of the original hangers-on from London’s punk scene circa ’77, but not the snarl’s rightful owner.

And I suppose the true origin of every “scene” can be traced back to its original place and people.  Weren’t the Sex Pistols just a lucrative creation of image-savvy Malcom McLaren?

A few years prior to year zero, Mr. McLaren had in fact tried to give the proto-punk New York Dolls a style make-over.  The matching red leather Dolls with massive Soviet hammer and sickle backdrop didn’t go over too well on their tour of the Bible Belt, evidentially.

NY Dolls

I suppose if you’re going to be one of those guys who “was there”, you’re inevitably going to end up sounding like James Murphy in “Losing My Edge”:

I was there.

I’ve never been wrong.

 I used to work in the record store.

I had everything before anyone.

When I come across like-minded music lovers they tend to get big eyes when they find out I went to college in the Pacific Northwest in the early 90’s.  I usually just smile and tell them I visited the original Starbucks.  I might also happen to mention I was a huge Smithereens fan.

But coming back to the intelligent new media at hand, the fact that I loved the Smiths and REM – the two reigning Twee bands of the 80’s, am geographically connected to Twee icon Kurt Cobain and am a card-carrying fan of the wonderfully Twee world of Wes Anderson, I have come to the indisputable and inconvenient conclusion that I am Twee and have probably always been Twee.

For those of you who find this news hard to swallow, I would strongly recommend reading this entertaining little book – if not to gain a better understanding of me and my world, then perhaps for the pure enjoyment of learning what drove Walt Disney to create the Mouse and his Magical World – light years away from that brutal world he’d experienced driving an ambulance as a high school drop-out on streets of blood and rubble at the end of WWI.

In addition to many more entertaining stories like this one and the creative weaving together of seemingly unconnected people, places and movements (e.g. Mickey Mouse & Nirvana), you might not agree with me and Morrissey that “Meat is Murder”, but you might just discover that you’re not so different from us after all.

Thanks for letting me share with you.  I’d love to hear “where you were” and what movements you’re connected to – wittingly or un.  Thanks for sharing your story with me!