Tuesday, February 28, 2012

[AeroTuesday] "Draw the Line" (1977)

Every band needs the better than it's made out to be entry in their discography.  For a record made while the band was in the process of falling apart, Draw the Line holds up remarkably well.  True, it's not exactly a masterpiece on the level of their previous three albums, but let's be honest: very few rock albums by anybody are.  It's not exactly a fair standard.

I didn't always feel this way, however, and I'm a man who likes to give credit where due.  Rhea banged on about how much I was underrating this album for years.  "You need to listen to it again!", over and over, going so far as to make me buy a new CD copy of it a few years back out of the el cheapo bin in a Newbury Comics.  Ironically, she ended up swiping that one from me a bit later on, but she did donate in its stead a vinyl copy, and that turned out to be the trick.

A bit of a tangent is in order here: yes, I'm a vinyl guy.  Have been my whole life.  It's not a nose-in-the-air audiophile thing with me.  I like the sound and feel of vinyl for what it is, and have no interest in beating the dead horse of debating whether or not it "sounds better" than digital media.  That's all in the ear of the beholder.  I especially like vinyl for albums released prior to the late '80s, because I enjoy hearing exactly what the artists approved for mass consumption at the time.  Draw the Line is a perfect example of why I feel that way: there is something in the grooves of this record that no digital iteration - neither the original CD nor the currently-circulating '90s remaster - has managed to correctly capture.  It's something dirty, something grungy, something junked-out, something not-quite-right, possibly something infectious, but something vital to the music just the same.

The other thing lost in post-vinyl formats is the concept of the side break, and Draw the Line has an absolute doozy of one.  "Kings and Queens" is the ultimate sore thumb in the Aerosmith catalog, perhaps the only example of raunchy prog-rock ever recorded, and an all-time favorite of mine.  It needs to be experienced as the first thing you hear after a break, the FIRST SONG ON SIDE TWO, rather than just an oddball track buried somewhere in the middle of a CD or a folder of files.  Even if you don't have access to a turntable and/or a vinyl copy of Draw the Line, do both of us a favor and pause whatever it is you listen to music on for about ten or fifteen seconds between "Bright Light Fright" and "Kings and Queens" the next time you give the album a spin.  I guarantee you'll immediately get what I mean by all of this...or your money back.

Elsewhere, Draw the Line is exactly what it's always claimed to be: an album recorded and released just as its creators stepped over the line into uncontrolled excess.  It's an honest, ballsy record and if it's not as classic as its immediate predecessors, so what?  Were they really ever going to beat Rocks at its own game anyway?  Possible, I suppose, but not likely.  I think they knew it, too, and instead got real, real gone for a change.  Along with "Kings and Queens", the album's other hit was the slide-n'-swagger of its title track, still a live favorite with damn good reason.  Flash quiz: the fuck's he sayin' in that bridge?  I thought this was one of life's great unsolved mysteries until I mentioned it to Rhea, and she immediately translated the entire thing for me like it was no big thang.  Damned super-fans.  I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of the loud 'n' fast numbers, and Draw the Line has any number of excellent ones to choose from; the one thing you can truly say in favor of cocaine abuse is that it does not lend itself to balladry.  My favorite of the batch is "Sight for Sore Eyes", a song that sounds so much like what would happen if the New York Dolls knew how to "play better" that its "D. Johansen" co-write credit comes as no surprise at all once noticed on the label.  It's also no surprise that Aerosmith - a band who knew a thing or two about being punks in the street - would be able to fashion a rejoinder to the emerging punk rock of the time that actually sounded authentic.  While I'm generally not much of a fan of Joe Perry insisting upon vocal cameos in a band that also has Steven Tyler in it, his nasal snarl fits "Bright Light Fright" like a glove.

So why isn't Draw the Line quite in the same league as the three albums that immediately preceeded it?  It's mostly a matter of range.  While it's true that Draw the Line is consistent, it's also true that the eight non-"Kings and Queens" songs are all fairly similar: loud, fast, obnoxious, debauched.  Taken one by one, they're magnificent; heard all together, they can begin to feel a bit same-y.  There's also the matter of tone: Get Your Wings, Toys in the Attic, and Rocks are the sound of a band surging, hitting peaks and surpassing them.  Draw the Line is the sound of that same band sputtering.  Granted, it's a glorious, truly elegantly wasted sputtering, but it's sputtering just the same.  In fact, I can illustrate the difference for you in just two excellent tracks: on Rocks, you've got "Back in the Saddle", one of rock's great salacious grins set to song, just dripping with all the hot sex one man's groin can handle.  This time out, you've got "Get it Up", a four minute tribute to cocaine-induced erectile dysfunction.  They're both great, clever songs, but be honest: which Steven Tyler would you really rather be/be with?

I began by crediting Rhea with forcing me to re-evaluate this album, and I'll end by crediting her again with my re-evaluation of its ending.  For years, I dismissed Draw the Line's album-closing cover of "Milk Cow Blues" as four minutes of filler, just a bit of Vinyl Helper to push the album past the thirty-minute mark.  Thanks to Rhea's insistence, and her putting the following idea in my head, I get it now: this is the sound of the loud blues band they were back on their debut, brought first to the heights they'd recently scaled, and now back down into the muddy ditch in which they'd found themselves by 1977.  The band's entire story to date is right there in those last grooves on the record.  It's a magnificent, criminally underrated performance, a fitting end to a fairly underrated album.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

[AeroTuesday] "Rocks" (1976)

An absolute masterpiece.  Along with Cheap Trick’s 1977 debut, this is one of the two mainstream hard rock records of the ‘70s to have if you’re only having two.  If you have even the slightest passing interest in music louder than that of Josh Groban, you owe it to yourself to have purchased/downloaded/shoplifted this by now.  If you don’t have it accessible to listen to right now – or, for that matter, if you somehow have never heard it – go acquire it immediately.  You’re sitting in front of some sort of internet-enabled device reading this, right?  Well then it shouldn’t be too hard to find.  Go ahead.  The rest of us will wait right here.

The truth is simple: any band with any sort of balls to their music at all learned something from these thirty-five minutes.  It’s rock without genres: arena-rock, metal, blues-rock, punk, you name it.  The common denominator is right here.  Alright, I can hear you mulling the thought from here: Punk?  Really?  AEROSMITH?  Yes indeedy, inquisitive listeners: it’s got all the ingredients.  Velocity?  Check.  Subject matter of dubious moral value?  Check.  Singer who sneers it like he lives it?  Big check.  Songs with hooks as monstrous as their swagger?  Biggest check of all.  Look, as anyone who’s ever sifted through my record collection can attest, I’m a man who’d know.  It’s funny that so much of the music writing on this blog is about classic (hard) rock, given that old-school punk is just as much my musical bread and butter.  So trust me as knowledgeable when I tell you this: Johnny Rotten and his little pals never, ever came up with a rhyme as brilliantly punk as “Yves St. Laurent”/”so goddamn gaunt”.  It’s the absolute truth.

I could break down the album track by track, but I'd simply be cutting into your precious listening time.  It's a perfect record: not a note is out of place, not an ounce of fat, not a single second shorter - or longer - than it should be.  Everything is placed for maximum impact, and Jack Douglas' heavy, raw, but also crystal clear production has ensured that it's dated beautifully.  I don't really care if you don't think you like Aerosmith.  I don't care what your opinion of their more pop-oriented success in later decades might be.  If you've not fully immersed yourself in this record, I simply cannot take your opinion of rock 'n' roll all that seriously.  If you have immersed yourself in it and still don't feel its genius, maybe we'd better not go out for drinks anytime soon.

Going back to the parallel I made in the opening of this post, this was one of two albums, along with Cheap Trick, that made me demand more than I'd previously known I could ask from music.  Together, they taught me that music could be felt as well as heard, that it could make you want to go out and live rather than simply tap your toes to yet another pop song about cars and/or girls.  Why sing about cars when you could crash one?  Why sing about girls when you could be with one?  Why deal with some poser with perfect hairspray when there's real trouble to be gotten into?  As a mid-teenager, this music blew my little mind.  I wasn't by nature a trouble-bound kid, but listening to Rocks made me know I had to break the shy-kid cocoon at least a little bit and find out what the big bad world really had to offer.  I didn't even know exactly what it was that I wanted to try: no thanks on the heroin, maybe on the booze, certainly on the sex, but I wanted to try something...well, something more than I'd seen in my room or my high school, damn it.  It made the process of that discovery seem irresistibly enticing - hell, even downright seductive.  This is exactly what great rock 'n' roll is supposed to do when you're that age, and it's also what great rock 'n' roll should remind you of the feeling of once you're older and more experienced.

It also nudged me towards the punk rock I was talking about - and comparing it to - above.  Once you've fallen in love with music so fast, so swaggery, so clever and so downright dangerous, it's really hard to go back to listening to the likes of Jon Bon Jovi prattle on about steel horses or whatever other nonsense.  More, louder, faster, NOW!

It's one of the truly seminal albums in my life.  It belongs in your life, too.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Seven Valentine's Days 7: 2004

It was just over two months before Rhea and I became an us.  In other words, Valentine's Day 2004 fell during that weird, ramping up time when what's coming is obvious when you allow your mind to go there, and becoming less ignorable even when you're not allowing your mind to make that trip at all.  Those awkward last moments of your old friendship, the breath or two just before the next step becomes completely inevitable.  That small bit of time when the very air - every movement, every vibration, every last word - is thick with possibilities and alternate meanings.

It was a Saturday.  Both of us had an opening shift at Borders that day.  As opposed to the snark-fest of two years prior that I recounted in yesterday's post, I don't think either one of us really knew what to say or do.  My first thought thinking about it just now was "well, if we both opened, why didn't we just go to the bar after work?", but upon further reflection, it kind of makes sense that we didn't: getting all sloppy-on-the-drinky on Valentine's night under such thick air might have led things to not happen as they should have (and as they ultimately did).  I'm sure it wasn't a conscious acknowledgement on either of our parts, but I'd bet money on the fact that the back of our brains kept us at home in our respective homes for a reason.  Mostly, I remember the day passing with a general lack of Valentine-ing one way or the other: no, I didn't have the prize yet, but to say I wasn't in love would certainly have been a lie.

It's a little after nine o'clock that night, and my cell phone rings.  I remember having a spilt-second sweaty-palm moment once I saw who the call was from nearly as well as I remember not even really having to look at the caller ID to know who the call was from.  "Turn on channel five - you've got to watch this for a few minutes."  I do, and for the next two hours we end up watching a special self-explanatorily entitled Cops: Love Hurts, jabbering away about the shirtless, white-trash circus unfolding before us on the tube.  It was, of course, the last not-quite-Valentine's Day; a magnificent send-off that did justice to the snot, swagger and sarcasm of the old world while pointing our heads squarely at the new adventures just ahead.  To this day, I thank the producers of Cops for coming up with such a perfectly tacky special; it was the perfect ice-breaker.

Back in Part One, I mentioned a DVD that had "thankfully just finished" downloading for Rhea.  It took some doing, but in one of the deeper, dustier back alleys of Usenet, there it was: Cops: Love Hurts.  We haven't had a chance to watch it yet, but I can't wait to see it all again - this time, with the phone turned off and the air nice and light.  Eight years into this thing, it still feels like the very beginning of an amazing adventure.  There isn't a single thing more that one person could reasonably demand from Cupid.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Seven Valentine's Days 6: 2002

One year after the infamous Boston Debacle, I learned to laugh at Cupid again.  All things considered, I still think it's a fairly impressive turnaround time.  This was my first Valentine's Day working for Borders, where I had already begun to make new friends and pick up the pieces.  I was stuck on the night shift with Jason - still one of mine and Rhea's nearest and dearest - and his equally bleak view of all things snuggly that year made him a perfect partner in crime.  I'm not sure if I wore all black that evening, but I'm fairly certain that he did.  Together, we mixed wit, wisdom and whining into an over the top joke-a-minute cocktail so acidic you just had to laugh, or at least groan, with us provided you had any sort of soul at all.

That was a big "provided", at least as far as our customers were concerned.  Contrary to whatever your favorite Hugh Grant movie may have led you to believe over the years, there are no cute couples in the bookstore on Valentine's Night, and there are very few highly eligible prospects (save for the staff, of course) haunting the aisles, either.  In the case of the former, I was just fine: I was mending, sure, but hardly cured at that point, and the lack of nuzzling to bear witness to was a relief.  The latter were exactly what you'd expect: overweight, disheveled, poorly laundered, sweatpants enthusiasts.  Some of them were at least funny about their losing lot in life, and it was from them that some small amount of hope could be drawn: perhaps they'll meet someone who sees the good in 'em, has the patience to scrub them up and give 'em a one way ticket to a more appealing persona.  The rest were just irascible - thankfully, none of them really wanted much out of we, the staff.  So we muttered under our breaths and back in the stockroom, giving them names and back stories and, more often than not, fabricated criminal records.  We reveled in their and our misery, puffing it up past the point of plausibility and taking a pin to it at exactly the right moment.  Cupid may arrive dressed in black sometimes, but there's always light in humor.

I learned an important lesson that night, one applicable to much more than just matters of the heart.  Everybody ends up somewhere they didn't really want to be at some point in their life.  When everything around you is burnt, charred and left for dead, sometimes being the funniest lost soul in Hell is the easiest way to cut to the front of the line for the next boat back across the river Styx.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Seven Valentine's Days 5: 1989

For the life of me, I don't know how I ended up on the debate team in my freshman year of High School.  Actually, that's a lie: my parents really wanted me to have some sort of extra-curricular activity, and I picked something that had sleep-away trips (which sounded like a cool idea) but didn't require me to be even remotely athletic (which has never been a good idea).  However it happened, this is how I came to find myself once again in the Greater Boston Area - Cambridge, this time -  for some hotel fun on a Valentine's Day.

The debate team was a co-ed proposition. I mention this because you just can't put a bunch of teenaged piles of hormones in a hotel, away from home and parents, without the idea of sex hanging in the air.  By "idea", I mean exactly that: in our heart of pubescent hearts, we knew nothing was really going to happen.  Still, you could practically smell the hormones in the air in that hotel - from us, from the other teams booked in there, just in general.

Big talk and dumb shit was the order of the day.  Lots of knocking on doors and running, lots of knocking on doors and barging in, lots of knocking on doors and saying stupid things like LADIES, YOUR ESCORTS HAVE ARRIVED.  Believe me when I tell you this: I have not a whit of nostalgia for that age when  your body is telling you that you want it, the big IT, but you really haven't got a clue what to do about it.  In some ways, the scariest prospect of all was that you might actually, you know, get somewhere...and immediately be revealed as the inexperienced phony you were.  Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on perspective - I was about a year off from that uncomfortable moment.

At some point, I think it was probably around eleven o'clock or so, my friend Chris and I decided to take a minute or two off from being teen-dork goofus jerks and go walk around the hotel for a while.  We did this for about an hour or so, taking in as much as of the range of human emotion on display as our fertile little minds could handle.  Particularly image-making was a woman running down the hall in a bridal dress, screaming obscenities at the (her words) stupid faggot she'd assumedly just married.  We took this as a sign to head back towards our own little corner of the chateau.  On our way there, we ended up walking past another team's boys' room, door open, teen-dork stationed outside.  He speaks up: "Hey guys - do you have any girls on your team?"  I don't miss a beat: "We do.  In fact, they're waiting in our room for us as we speak.  Sorry, gentlemen."  I believe I was then called an asshole.  Both halves of that exchange are proof positive that some things never change.

Actually, there were indeed girls from our team waiting for us in our room when we got back upstairs.  Not for anything more illicit than further teen-dork goofus jerkery, mind you, but while I may have been an asshole to the guy on the lower floor, I was not a liar.  From there, things proceeded into the wee hours as you might expect them to: silliness, loudness, empty threats to order porn on the hotel TV system and/or open up the minibar.  At some point, one of the girls threw a wrapped tampon at my buddy Chris; he and I then did what any red-blooded male teenagers would do and proceeded to play soccer with it out in the hall.  We'd made our way down to the bank of elevators when  one of them opened, revealing a well-dressed woman.  She made a face I can't quite describe but will never forget and yelled, with the full weight of sheer indigence fully behind her, "THAT'S DISGUSTING!"  I grinned at her and waited a moment; as the doors started to close, I executed a perfect kick that I couldn't possibly replicate if I tried and landed the, er, "soccer ball" squarely inside the elevator car just before the doors closed.  Triumphant, we scrambled furiously back to our room, to slam the door, hide, and charm the ladies with our tale.

I was originally going to say something along the lines of "I was proud in that way only a teenage boy can be", but truth be told I'd probably still be proud if this happened again tomorrow.  For that revelation, I sense I'm about to once again be called an asshole.  Like I said, some things never change.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Seven Valentine's Days 4: Early 1980s

Yeah, sure, we're all grown up now or at least trying to be.  Valentine's Day switches its focus from what it was when we were kids to what it is for us as adults: flowers, giant stuffed teddy bears, potential mating rituals, White Castle, what have you.  All of these things come with their own anxieties, but none of them quite match up to the potential for total disaster offered by Valentine's Day in Elementary School.  You know what I'm talking about: that part of the day where you went around and left Valentines for your classmates.  They look so innocent now:

But back then they were small, paper agents of judgment.  Were you going to be the popular girl or the pint-sized Casanova with a stack of status affirmations higher than your nose, or were you going to be the romantic equivalent of Charlie Brown and his rock on Halloween, left with one Valentine from the teacher and nothing else?  Oh, the tension!  Oh, the humanity!  Oh, the mountains made out of molehills!

Looking back on it now, it almost seems like an analog, pre-pubescent version of Facebook: I got fifteen Valentines grows up to be I have forty-two Facebook Friends.  The real-world worth of both is equally variable: Valentines came from your friends as well as that goofy kid in the front row who just had to give one to everybody, and your Facebook friends range from folks you've known for years to the stupid DJ on the local radio station who was giving out tickets to that concert you wanted to see but not actually pay for.  I'm popular - and I've got the stats to prove it!

As for me, I'm right in the middle of the pack, then as now.  I didn't get all the Valentines, but I got the good ones.  I don't have the most Facebook friends in the world, but I dig all the ones I have.  Quality over quantity represent!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Seven Valentine's Days 3: 1997

There are things that can only happen to you while you are in college.  The following scene is one of them.  It's about 4 PM on Valentine's Day, and I stand alone on a checkout line in a Tops grocery store in Oswego, New York (now defunct, according to their store locator).  Well, not exactly alone: I am accompanied by a shopping cart full of enough beer to stop several hearts.  Outside in the parking lot my roommate Sean, who is still a few months shy of twenty-one, anxiously awaits delivery.  Back at our dorm, about ten or so other lonely hearts do the same.

As my turn to be rung out approaches, I start schlepping this ungodly amount of alcohol up onto the counter.  The checkout lady takes one look at me and immediately knows everything there is to know.  In a tone of voice dripping with the sort of judgment usually reserved for members of the Westboro Baptist Church, she looks me in the eye and shoots: "Planning a party there, are ya?"  Gauntlet thrown!  I stare her right back in the whites of her eyes with a look that makes it clear that I am not one to be outgunned with the sarcasm, summon the ghost of the sneer of Johnny Rotten, and return volley: "No, just an exceptionally bad day at the office."  She snorts and starts scanning faster, clearly looking forward to my exit.  Ah, to be twenty-two and full of swagger, sarcasm and shit.

Back at the dorm, my deliveries are made, monies collected, and the clock marches towards evening.  Those with dates have disappeared, leaving the miscreants and misanthropes to drain the bottles and rule...well, nothing really, save their own domains.  An evening of drinking games - oh, Asshole, how I once loved you - and general moon-eyed debauchery is planned throughout the dorm hall.  Being the type to be single-with-style, I decided to dress for the occasion: nothing but Johnny Cash black, from the Converse on my feet to the dyed hair on my head.  The sort of getup that simultaneously announced myself as both DEEPLY, EXISTENTIALLY SINGLE - and also, you know, available.  Some stances should change on a dime, folks.  Not on that night, unfortunately; for years, and for whatever cosmic reason I'm not meant to ever comprehend, I couldn't ever seem to get laid on Valentine's Day if I were the only guy without syphilis in the entire brothel, and wearing $100 bills taped together as a shirt to boot.  Or perhaps fortunately, as several disastrous quickie trysts, and their resulting gossip, punctuated the evening.  One of the more memorable ones involved Emma - right, the one you met yesterday - and this hippie kid around the corner, a dude who was neither well scrubbed nor, as was unfortunately confided in me later on, well hung.  Had she picked better, I could have saved her both of those fates.  Of course, had that happened, perhaps we never would have dated later on, thus negating the worst vacation ever (a good thing), and the path my life took several months thereafter (which would be a very bad thing).  The mind reels at the possibilities.

Of course, the mind also reels from prodigious alcohol guzzling, which brings us back to dear old Oneida Hall.  None of this story would be true if it didn't turn into a blur, so I'll just mention in passing the few highlights I remember.  We invented a sort of human Mario Kart involving flatbeds and rolls of toilet paper snatched from the bathrooms that surprisingly didn't send any of its participants to the hospital.  I remember a certain amount of public singing going on for whatever reason - or, perhaps, I just decided that Therapy?'s punk rawk classic "Screamager" would be a good thing to sing on a lonely Valentine's night that really wasn't all that lonely: "I've got nothing to do but hang around and get screwed up on you", how apropos.  Speaking of which, I also remember how I ended up the evening: sitting in Emma's room, talking her through her poor choice of heavy-breathing partners earlier that evening, having checked my then-jealousy completely at the door.  Apparently, black clothes don't quite hide a nice guy's heart.  Do we finish last?  Some folks think so, but I can tell you that we generally also finish best.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Seven Valentine's Days 2: 2001

If last night was the best Valentine's day of my life - and I'm quite sure that it was - then I suppose it's only fitting that part two in this little series recounts the unequivocal worst.  There is one thing to be said in favor of having a truly abominable Valentine's Day at some point or another in your life: you can rest assured that so long as you're drawing breath, whatever next year and the years after that bring can't possibly be any worse.  Eleven years ago, I had mine.

You'll need a little back story for this post.  At the time, I was dating a girl named Emma.  We had been friends at college, lost touch for a bit, and then drifted back into one another's lives and began dating.  Emma's father, with whom she lived at the time, suffered from bi-polar disorder.  I'm not absolutely claiming that said hereditary disease had also begun to affect his daughter - I'm neither a doctor nor do I play one in the blog-o-sphere - but I am going to leave the idea here and move on.

By this particular Valentine's Day, our relationship was in a heap of trouble.  For my part, I was ignoring warning signs left and right, desperately clinging to the fewer-and-further-between good moments as though they were breath itself.  It's the kind of thing you do when you want to be in love; when you are actually in love, you simply set about fixing the problems.  She was completely inscrutable by this point: lovable and cuddly one moment, distant and icy the next, step right up and take your chances kid.  In retrospect, we should have just dated while we were still in college, crashed and burned then, and gotten it out of our systems before we were a bit older and a bit more serious.  Retrospect is a genius and the present is often a bumbling idiot, though, as proven by the fact that we were taking our dying relationship up to Boston in order to scope out some place to maybe move to and live.  Thank God we broke up before that scenario could play out.

Valentine's Day fell during our trip to Boston.  I think it was near the end of our stay.  I say "I think" because this was unquestionably THE bummer vacation of all time, sort of like if the movie Groundhog Day had somehow taken the bad acid.  In the week we were there, we made maybe two half-assed attempts to look at neighborhoods and/or apartments.  We did that in the first two days.  The rest of the time, every day went exactly like this:

* Wake up right at the crack of 4 PM.

* Get showered and moving by about 6 PM.

* Have dinner in some chain restaurant or other on Route 1 near the hotel.

* Take random ride to some area of Boston, see all the sights there are to see on a dark, snowy February evening in New England.  Stop somewhere to shop for absolutely nothing at all.

* Go back to the hotel so Emma can call her mother.

* Venture out for late-night meal at whatever eatery was open around 2 AM.

* Watch late night TV (often consisting of what seemed like hours of Family Feud as hosted by the guy from Home Improvement) and listen to Emma bitch about some "ailment" or other (none medically verifiable) until sunrise and pass-out, generally in that order.

To be fair, two good things happened during this fantastic death-trip: Newbury Comics was good, as always, for some great vinyl, and in watching so much late-night TV I encountered the utter genius of SCTV for the first time.  Other than those two things, though, the whole vacation was a slow trudge through Disintegration City.  I've been on terrible vacations before and since, but none of them could even come within shouting distance of this one.  Perhaps the best day was the last one: true, I found myself at home in my own bed at the end of it, but getting there was quite the ordeal.  In the morning, we went to the emergency room, where a doctor told Emma that the jaw pain she'd been complaining of was unquestionably psychosomatic.  From there, we headed home via Salem, where we went to the Witch Museum.  Did Emma mention that some of her relatives were witches?  Did she really need to?  All in all, a fitting end to one hell of a journey.

But I'm a bit ahead of myself, mostly because this Valentine's Day derived from the rest of the awful trip only in that we had dinner that night at Bennigan's, a chain I'm disappointed to learn is still in business.  We may also have exchanged cards; that idea rings a faint bell for me.  Talk about true romance!  I also remember sitting at the table in the room, drinking a few beers while she took her fifteenth nap of the day.  I think that happened on Valentine's Day, but who can really be sure at this late date?  I remember briefly thinking somewhere around the fourth beer that being alone might actually be more fun than this.  I was correct: while it would be a few years before the really good Valentine's Days started rolling in again, even the in between ones were never this abysmal.

It's a bit of a depressing story, granted, but there is an amusing postscript to it.  Just over three years later, Rhea and I are taking one of our first trips as an OFFICIAL COUPLE up to Boston to do some music shopping and just generally spend a day somewhere else.  This entire trip happened on a whim, and as such we hadn't bothered with any silly details like, oh, finding a place to stay for the night ahead of time.  So Rhea calls her best friend, who finds us a good rate on a place on her computer.  We get directions and drive there...and I'm sure you can all see where this is headed.  We are at the front desk filling out paperwork for a few minutes before exactly which hotel we've ended up in dawns on me.  Rhea looks at me: "You look a bit pale - is everything alright?"  It's a good thing she didn't tell me I looked like I'd seen a ghost, because in a way I had.

I told her everything was fine, which it was.  After all, how many chances for random redemption do you really get in life?  I'm just glad Rhea never asked too many questions about how I knew exactly where the nearest grocery store and Newbury Comics were.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Seven Valentine's Days 1: 2012

By the time this is available for you to read, thanks to the wonder of scheduled posting, I will be in upper Manhattan, waiting for Rhea to get out of class so that we may go for our Valentine's dinner over at our beloved Tom's Restaurant.  Just before writing this post, I've put the finishing touches on tonight's gifts and presentation.  They're nothing big: a small photo album with fifty-two carefully selected pictures from my hard drive that I think do a good job of telling our story, and a DVD that thankfully just finished downloading that you'll hear more about on Day Seven of this series.  As for presentation, the t-shirt that I'll be wearing under my hoodie would probably just look like some sort of retro-rock hipsterism to you, but Rhea - and only Rhea - will get the joke.  That, friends, is where the magic lives in all of this.

It's a funny thing: back when I was younger and far more doomed, I always pictured Valentine's Day after The Big Win as being bigger and fancier somehow.  Champagne and tuxedos or something, I don't know.  I suppose it's easy to mythologize what you don't immediately have at your disposal.  Now that it's here before me though, I couldn't imagine doing anything other than what we've got planned tonight, save for maybe the Love Castle, which we've done in years past.  Why?  Well, folks, there's a secret to all of this - and unlike other folks who've scored The Big Win and then play all their cards close to the vest, I'm going to let you all in on it.  Ready?  Here goes.

Valentine's Day is actually meaningless.  I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.  Surprising, I know, coming from someone who's all in love and everything, but it's the truth.  How you treat your loved one on Valentine's Day doesn't mean any more than how you treat them on, say, the Wednesday afterword, or any other random day.  At best, Valentine's Day is an excuse to maybe pick up an extra gift, or wear a shirt that your lover will either love, laugh at, or both, but that's all it is.  It's a kick up the backside at best.

If you can't find reasons to love and laugh the other 364 days of the year, you have no business claiming to be in love no matter how great a display you manage to put on for one day.  If you need to be told to do something special for your partner, you have relationship problems that Hallmark can't solve.  If you take the opportunity to act as loving and goofy as you might any other day when you just happen to be in a particularly good mood, then you're both into Valentine's Day and above it.

That's where Rhea and I are.  Quite frankly, dinner at Tom's - sometimes even with presents in tow - happens often enough on days that aren't designated for love.  If the supposed import of today served as a catalyst for us to clear space in our schedules to make it happen tonight, then good on it.  I expect that tonight will prove the best Valentine's Day we've had yet.  In fact, I expect that with such certainty that I've written this in advance.  I expect that next year will top it.  Ain't love grand?

It is, at that.  It's also worth fighting for and continuing to believe in even if it doesn't have your number right now, no matter how obnoxious the hype is.

New Daily Series: Seven Valentine's Days

Ah yes, folks: love it or loathe it, Valentine's Day is once again upon us.  With it comes a new, limited-run daily feature here on Turned on Its Ear: Seven Valentine's Days.  Starting today, and for the next week, I'll be looking back on some of the more prominent loving and loathing I've had the pleasure, pain or both of experiencing come mid-February.  Think of it as a romantically inclined, shorter-running 31 Holi-Days.

I'd like to take a moment before we start to point out that this is an equal-opportunity series.  As we're about to explore, it took me a long time to both find Rhea and get to the point where we are now: happy, committed, working hard every day towards a promising future.  Today's kickoff post will be about today, and it will be appropriately lovey-dovey and celebratory.  But that's now: prior to the current era, folks, I've had some doozys, and we'll be yukking it up over those stories before the week is out.

Checking in from time to time with my Facebook feed today, I see all of the public love notes.  They should be there, but I also try to never forget that I wasn't always one of the people sending or receiving one.  In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't that long ago in my life that Valentine's Day was as likely to be a hellish pink nightmare helmed by Cupid screaming "LOOK WHAT YOU DON'T HAVE" in a voice I'd always imagined to be similar to Gilbert Gottfried's.  Given that, I always try to respect the lovelorn even while celebrating Valentine's Day.  I'd also like to underscore the fact that this will be a series for everybody; let's just say that I don't necessarily think that Hallmark will be banging down my door for the publication rights once it's all said and done.

Look for part one later on tonight!

[AeroTuesday] "Toys in the Attic" (1975)

[Meta-note: feeling much better this week, thanks.  I'll be retooling last week's head-full-of-phlegm Get Your Wings piece sometime later on this week.]

In some ways, I feel about Toys in the Attic as I did about Cheap Trick at Budokan when I was writing about that band's albums: yes, it's great.  Every bit as great as it's cracked up to be, in fact.  But what can I possibly tell you about it that you don't already know?

That's a good question.  We'll start with the obvious: I'll assume that, given the fact that you're savvy enough in the ways of the world to have gotten online and found this blog, you already know everything about every last beat, note and howl of "Walk This Way" and "Sweet Emotion."  If by some strange collision of events in your life you don't have every note of either song branded into your gray matter, go forth and be dazzled by the funky beats, facile riffs, and lyrics that blow past merely clever and head straight on 'til morning.  Some classic rock becomes classic merely because it's on the radio all the damned time.  These two songs were birthed as classics; I can only picture some teen-dork listening to the album for the first time sometime back in '75 and knowing what he was going to be hearing all summer long.  Were I not one year old at the time, said teen-dork could well have been me.

I mentioned beats twice in the last paragraph, so let's take a moment to give the drummer his due.  If I claim that Joey Kramer was the first drummer in a loud, badass rock band to consistently bring the funk behind the kit, I'm sure somebody will immediately bitch that so-and-so did it first.  So I won't.  Instead, I'll say that Joey Kramer was the first drummer in a loud, badass rock band to master consistently bringing the funk behind the kit.  There's a clear through-line from Kramer's groundbreaking work to otherwise dissimilar bands like Killing Joke in the '80s or Therapy? in the '90s who also thought it might be a good idea to wed their sledgehammer rock to beats you could do something other than march to.

But what of the rest of Toys in the Attic?  The other two semi-hits were the speedy title track and the blues cover "Big Ten Inch Record."  The former is a favorite; as you may well have surmised by now if you've nosed around elsewhere in this blog, I'm a sucker for the fast-and-punchy ones.  "Big Ten Inch Record" is an enduring fan favorite with good reason, but somehow I've never really grown to love it.  It's great, don't get me wrong - it does exactly what it sets out to do - but it's just never clicked with me for some reason.  Weird, I know, but our ears are like that sometimes.

What else have we got on this platter?  Well, there's "Round and Round", one of those Brad Whitford-helmed monsters that I just love, that I thought was the HEAVIEST GOD DAMNED THING I'D EVER HEARD when I first encountered it as a teen-dork in the late '80s, at least until I heard the follow-up to it on their next LP (relax, we'll cover it in full next week).  There's "Uncle Salty" and "Adam's Apple", great rockers with the sort of brilliantly crafted lyrics Steven Tyler just kinda left on the vinyl as though it was no big deal in those days, only they still dazzle writers like me all these decades later.  There's "No More No More" a clever slice of life-in-the-band that sends Jon Bon Jovi and his steel horse a-packin' ten years before the fact.  Lastly, there's the grand finale: "You See Me Crying."  It's funny that seemingly-identical ballads would become a thorn in Aerosmith's artistic side a couple of decades down the road, because in the '70s they were one of the few hard rock bands who knew how to make 'em, and make 'em count.  "You See Me Crying" isn't "Dream On", which isn't "Seasons of Wither", which isn't "Home Tonight" - and none of those songs' respective parent albums would be quite as good as they are without them.  The fact that I was in the crowd at Jones Beach the only time "You See Me Crying" was ever played live in its entirety remains one of the cooler concert moments in my live-gig history.

The crazy part of all of this?  This isn't even their best album.  We get to that one next week.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Grammys: Music's Blandest Night

Ahh, the Grammy awards: the one night a year that I'm absolutely proud beyond belief to be a snob.  On the positive side, I found Glen Campbell's performance absolutely heartwarming; the guy's got Alzheimer's disease and is aware that he's deteriorating, and he still looked like he was having more fun than every other performer put together.  I like the Foo Fighters in that way that I'll never completely love them, but I consistently enjoy them when they pop up somewhere.  I think Adele's got talent; I admire the way she belts without showboating like an American Idol wannabe, but I don't think I could sit through an entire album of her.  I dug L.L. Cool J as a host, too: he was personable and kept things moving at a nice, gamely clip.

The rest was the rest: modern country will never be for this proud Yankee, and that Taylor Swift song about how people who don't think she's the greatest thing since sliced Velveeta are just freaking mean was all kinds of painful.  Yeah, I know, it's not fair to criticize a teenager for being her age, but I'd be lying if I called her performance anything other than cringe-worthy.  Still, she was better than Paul McCartney, who simply cannot sing on key anymore.  That closing Abbey Road medley was probably the strongest case in favor of Auto-Tune I've ever heard.  The rest was music for people who don't actively listen to music.  Music as background hum, something to make the commute more bearable, the reason artists like Katy Perry or Nickelback sell in the millions. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but it does make the Grammys' use of "Best" in names of their awards pretty arguable.  "Favorite" or "Most Popular", sure, but there are as many "Best"s as there are individual listeners.

PS: I had originally intended to voice my disgust with the continued career viability of Chris Brown by simply paying him no mention at all.  Then I saw this.  Warning: click that link only if you have nerves of steel and an iron stomach.  Seriously: what the fuck is wrong with people?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Whitney Houston: 1963-2012

Above all else, my condolences and positive thoughts go out to all those who loved the woman and/or her music.

As I've mentioned before, it's always the obituary version of an awkward silence when it it's time to eulogize someone who wasn't necessarily the star whose poster hung on your personal wall.  While I may never have bought one of Ms. Houston's albums, her meteoric rise to pop stardom coincided exactly with my immediately pre-adolescent discovery of pop music on the radio.  So omnipresent was she at the time that I don't really even need to own one of her records; the likes of "Saving All My Love for You", "I Wanna Dance with Somebody", "How Will I Know" and their ilk are etched note-for-note in my gray matter.  She certainly didn't fade after that initial burst, either: try - just try - to not hear that tonsil-busting held note in the chorus of "I Will Always Love You" now that I've mentioned it.  Impossible, isn't it?  Indeed, and also iconic.

Currently, there is no word on the cause of Ms. Houston's death, but I'm sure most of us jumped to the same conclusion upon hearing the news.  Perhaps we'll be proven wrong, but it's probably more likely that she, like Rick James before her, became a bit too aware that cocaine is a hell of a drug.  I can phrase it as cleverly/flippantly as I want, but the truth is that 48 is pretty young to have your ticket punched.  Self-destruction isn't always something you can just shut off because you want to, no matter what the Dr. Phils of this world claim.

One last thought: should Ms. Houston's demise prove to be self-induced, it will be no more trivial, and no less sad.  Rest in peace.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Speaking of My Cold...

Rhea, bless her heart, stopped off and brought me home some sorely needed NyQuil reinforcements earlier today.  You know, there are few things in life better than having someone go to CVS for you when you've got a nasty cold.  Attached to her receipt was the following:

Okay, CVS, riddle me this: since I am over the age of eighteen, does that mean that I'm free to either (a) drink as much NyQuil as I can until I barf green and then pass out, hopefully in that order or (b) use the stuff to cook up as much meth as I can handle?  Because you're right: those are both pretty mature, adult pursuits.

Jesus, I need to shake this cold and get back to pondering more useful things.

[AeroTuesday] "Get Your Wings" (1974)

(Author's Disclaimer: the following was written while I was in the throes of a particularly nasty cold.  Mistakes - and things that just plain don't make sense to anyone whose head isn't swimming in soup - will be corrected later in the week.  Comparisons of my current head space and the band's similarly muddy, if induced by drugs less legal than NyQuil, one whilst making this album will be snickered at and dismissed.)

LORD OF THE THIGHS!  End of review.

Alright, well not really, but my point is this: if that song doesn't offer everything you could want out of your loud rock 'n' roll, then maybe you and I had best not do lunch anytime soon.  The clever, snarled - not to mention cleverly snarled - lyrics.  The funky, swaggering beat (really, there are fewer more underrated rhythm sections than Kramer/Hamilton).  The growling, proto-punk guitar tone that wouldn't have sounded out of place on the Social Distortion album I was listening to this morning.  The not-quite-buried piano that puts the whole thing over the top.  In terms of sex, swagger and smarts - always the criteria by which rock 'n' roll should be judged, by the way - it's hard to imagine anyone else's 4:14 that delivers more.

The general consensus of other criticism I've read seems to be that while Get Your Wings marks a major step forward from the debut it isn't quite in the same class as the twin masterpieces that followed it.  Sorry, but only the first half of that statement works for me.  The production isn't quite as tight as it would become, but there is absolutely no difference in quality between these eight songs and the ones on Toys in the Attic or RocksGet Your Wings is the work of a band freshly confident in their sound, and a singer who's just figured out the moves and mannerisms that will make him iconic in short order.  In many ways, Steven Tyler is the reason that the Aerosmith of Get Your Wings sounds so much more like a band that's truly gone pro than the band captured on their debut.  On that record, you could compare him to several of his contemporaries; on Get Your Wings, he's become the front man to whom endless others will be compared.  That's a hugely important shift.

Then there's the songs.  We've already slobbered over "Lord of the Thighs", and you should already know all about "Same Old Song and Dance" and that riff.  The album's other hit-in-retrospect was their cover of "Train Kept a Rollin'", which immediately rendered all previous versions (sorry Yardbirds) as well as all future ones (sorry Motörhead) utterly unnecessary.  For all of that, though, the great secret of Get Your Wings lies in its lesser-known half: the massive crunch of "SOS (Too Bad)", the authentic funk of "Pandora's Box", some of the toughest-sounding psychedelia ever put to vinyl in "Spaced", and that's all before we even mention...

SEASONS OF WITHER!  End of need for bands to ever record ballads again, with the possible exception of "Mandocello".  Sublime, beautiful, timeless, cheese factor of zero.  Just like the rest of the album, but even more so.