Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Analyzing the Dead Rock Star Sales Spike

As I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog, I worked in a record store (well, alright, the music department of a Borders bookstore, semantics, whatever) for the better part of a decade.  Lou Reed’s passing on Sunday reminded me of one of the stranger phenomena that I noticed in my time amongst the CD racks: the Death Sales Spike.  When any famous and/or notorious performer would kick the bucket, we’d be swamped within hours with people looking to buy something – anything – with that artist’s name on it.  The early birds of course got the plumpest worms, but a few hours in even the worst albums (insert Metal Machine Music/Lulu joke here) would get snapped up as though they were the toppermost of the poppermost.

Now that most of the record stores are as dead-and-gone as Mr. Velvet Underground himself, I decided to see if this strange ritual had made the jump to the interwebs.  Brought up Amazon, typed “Lou Reed” into the search box, et voila: “Temporarily out of stock. Order now and we'll deliver when available” appeared as a chorus nearly as insistent as “Walk on the Wild Side”’s doot-de-doo-s.

But why?  Why, if you were never interested enough while the artist in question was alive, would you suddenly need their album on your coffee table upon their death?  Before the music industry committed hara-kiri, I understood going to the record store as a social thing, a place to congregate and talk it out with like-minded souls.  I also understand not being able to find your copy of Transformer or New York and suddenly needing another - current events can be a bitch for the disorganized.  What I’m talking about here is something different altogether: were I still employed at that upscale, Westchester County Borders, I’d probably have a fight on my hands between folks generally more inclined to the Josh Groban end of the musical spectrum over the single copies of (from memory now) Transformer, Berlin, New York, The Velvet Underground and Nico, and whatever random solo/VU best-ofs we generally kept in stock.  Were any of these people actually going to go home and listen to Lou Reed?  The optimist in me hopes they would, managing to expand their horizons a bit in the process; the realist in me knows that it was probably more a game of “look what I have that you can’t get right now”, and shrugs grumpily.

I’m thinking back to Whitney Houston’s death.  I wasn’t a fan beforehand, never owned a single album of hers and still don’t.  I eulogized her on this blog for two reasons: her story was an interesting/tragic one, and she was part of the soundtrack of my youth, whether I chose her to be or not.  Maybe that’s the crux of it: sure, the customer I described above never listened to Lou Reed in their life, but maybe an old friend – or some long lost unrequited crush – did.  Maybe the thought of Lou Reed – or at least the Lou Reed Persona – reminds them of a more rebellious time in their lives.  Maybe Lou’s loss reminds them of what they’ve lost, and they need a chunk of him, an artifact, to grab on to.  Maybe smart-ass blog writers eulogize people like Whitney Houston – performers whose music did nothing for them – for the same reason, whether we’d like to admit it in daylight or not.  And maybe, just maybe, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in a bit of momentary nostalgia when it beckons.

For all the maybes I’ve just mentioned, there is one thing I’m absolutely sure of: there is no bad time to legitimately try to discover music that’s new to you.  If Lou Reed’s passing has pointed you in the direction of his music, congratulations: there is much of value to discover, and no time like the present to do so; the online record stores may be wiped clean at the moment, but the torrents are well-seeded – and after all, it’s not like Lou needs the royalty checks anymore.  If you’re looking for a good, accessible place to start, might I suggest 1984’s New Sensations, an excellent, underrated album chock full of catchy, thought-provoking, image-making songs.

It’s an album entirely about life.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

R.I.P. Lou Reed (March 2, 1942 - October 27, 2013)

Yeah, I know: it's hard to wax melancholic for someone as deliberately abrasive as Lou Reed.  Somehow, the idea of blubbering, shaking and/or crying at the news of his death doesn't seem to fit The Lou Reed Persona - surely one of his most deliberate and lasting creations - one bit.  So I won't; instead, I'll share my Lou Reed story.  It seems that nearly every New Yorker (or at least every New Yorker who'd care about Lou Reed in the first place) has one, and this is mine:

It was the late '90s, and I was on line in the venerable East Village used record store St. Mark's Sounds, waiting to buy a handful of CDs. Slowly, it dawned on me that there was something really familiar about the older guy in the leather jacket on line in front of me.  Then the "slowly" part ended, and I had two thoughts in quick succession: (a) I think that's Lou Reed, and (b) somehow, I expected him to be taller than that.

I decided not to say anything right away, although I had my confirmation as to Reed's identity quickly; in his unmistakable speech (which, as you undoubtedly know if you're reading this blog, is exactly the same as his singing voice), he began to bitch and moan at the clerk about not being able to use his credit card or something.  As this droned on (not unlike Metal Machine Music really), I realized that I would be saying nothing at all to Lou Reed.  Why?  For the exact same reason it's hard to eulogize him: it seemed entirely predictable to me that any sort of "pleasure to meet you, I enjoy your work" from me would be met with the exact same "yeah, right, go get bent" attitude he was dishing out to the clerk.  But to be able to tell people I stood on line behind LOU REED and listened to him complain about not being able to charge his cheap, promo-copy used CDs?  Priceless, as they say in those dopey (ahem) credit card ads.

Eventually he paid cash and headed out.  We made eye contact, and I nodded at him; surprisingly, I got a nod back.  We both bought our music and spilled back out onto the street - just another perfect day in lower Manhattan.

Thanks for everything Lou, you cantankerous genius.

* * *

Edited to add a personal favorite of mine, a brilliant bit of writing as timely now as it was in 1989.  If you're like me, I'm sure a minor miracle will do.  Amen, Lou.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame 2013 Nominees: Shrug, Rinse, Repeat

This is not going to be one of those things where someone begins by saying “I don’t care about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” and then rants about it for several wall-o-text-tastic paragraphs.  Obviously, I care to some extent about the Hall and its always interesting yearly list of nominees, or else I’d be using this space to write about something else (how ‘bout that Government Shutdown, eh?).  Let me break it down a bit for you, dear readers, using what may be a Turned on Its Ear first: a sports analogy.

My parents are die-hard fans of the New York Mets.  Even if you know as little about baseball as I do, surely you must realize if only by sheer osmosis that this means they don’t have a lot of cheering to do in the post-season.  Even though it’s all but a foregone conclusion that their team has absolutely no playoff/World Series hopes, they both still watch all the post-season games.  Not with the fervency with which they root for the Mets, but still with an active interest.  Why?  Because it’s related to something they love.  It’s not the part they care about most, but it’s still worth checking out for them.  Similarly, my feelings about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: I don’t take it very seriously at all, but I do keep a mildly interested eye on it.

Usually, any denouncement of the R&RHOF is immediately followed by a tirade about how it’s all down to Jann Wenner’s personal tastes, what a tool he is, etc. etc. ad nauseum.  This sort of criticism hits the side of the building, but misses the target itself.  Regardless of who has final say over the nomination/induction process, the very notion of a hall of fame for Rock – or, really, any other genre of music – is a silly, silly thing.  In the Sports world, which loves its various halls of fame, things are far more cut-and-dried: either you have the statistics to get in or you don’t.  Music is more subjective, and the statistics don’t mean nearly as much.  If we went by sales alone (really the only statistic there is for music), Milli Vanilli would be a shoe-in for the R&RHOF while a group like the Velvet Underground would be eternally outside the gate.  That’s obviously absurd, not to mention completely not indicative of actual influence/importance, so clearly there must be some other standard.  Given that any other standard is bound to be subjective and arbitrary, whether it’s Jann Wenner or Joe Schmoe who has the final say is irrelevant.

That's right, true believers: the whole thing is unscientific, unverifiable, and nothing more than a big glass monument to the tastes of a specific group of unelected officials...and that's all it will ever - or, for that matter, can ever - be.  Still, it’s amazing to me how worked up some people get about it.  My advice to them is simple: depending on your age, either open the music folder on your PC or walk over to your LP/CD stacks.  There, right before your eyes, is your own personal and perfect Music Hall of Fame, expertly curated for your own tastes.  Spending more time enjoying it and less time giving yourself a heart attack over someone else’s opinions is a great option.

But hey, analyzing and arguing about the teams – oops, I mean artists – is fun!  So let’s have a look at this year’s list of nominees, and my thoughts on their chances on getting to attend a really fancy dinner come springtime:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Not a chance in hell.  A bit of a weird nomination, really, given that I don’t feel like they’ve had much cross-generational reach of any kind.  They’ll probably have to just settle for having appeared at Woodstock as far as enshrinement for the ages goes – not a bad runner-up prize, really.

Chic: Has a pretty good shot at it, and should be in.  It doesn’t matter if you think you’ve heard Chic or not; you’ve unquestionably heard them sampled somewhere along the way.

Deep Purple: How has the band responsible for arguably the most famous riff in all of Rock ‘n’ Roll not been inducted yet?  Dunh-dunh-dunh, dunh-dunh-dunh-in!  Next.

Peter Gabriel: Don’t care one way or the other, since he’s already in as a member of Genesis.  Failing to show up for that induction will probably kill his chances as a solo act, though.

Daryl Hall & John Oates: Should have been in years ago, and the time is probably right given the recent – and very well warranted – reassessment and rediscovery of the excellent, far-reaching work they’ve done for the past forty years or so.

KISS: I’m not what you’d call much of a fan.  I’ve found ways to relate to them because Rhea (my fiancĂ©e and eternal partner in crime, for any newbies out there) digs ‘em greatly, much as she’s done with my geeky love for Rush.  That said, of course they should be inducted: how many later-to-be-famous people picked up guitars because of this band?  Like ‘em or not, their influence is enormous, and not solely attributable to makeup and pyro.

LL Cool J and/or NWA: One or the other will get in, and either is fine with me.  (Side note: you’ll not hear any bloviating from me about how hip-hop acts don’t belong in the Hall; the style is derived from – and shares much with – rock ‘n’ roll.   Deal with it.)  NWA are probably more influential, but if I were hosting a televised gala, I’d want to tap into LL’s camera-friendly charm if I could, and I’m giving him a small advantage on that basis.

The Meters:  An institution.  Sure, why not?  No idea what their actual chances are, though.

Nirvana:  An absolute lock.  Not even worth debating.  I’m not a fan at all; honestly, listening to someone’s death trip has never been high on my list of fun pastimes.  What’s more, while I think Kurt Cobain had great taste in influences, I don’t think the music he created from those influences ever matched their quality, let alone bettered them.  And none of that matters at all: his band’s influence remains nearly as omnipresent two decades on as it was when he was still alive, and if that doesn’t land an artist in the Hall, I truly can’t imagine what would.

The Replacements: I love them mightily, and I’d love to see ‘em get in.  Will they?  Don’t know, but now would be the time: three recent reunion shows were very warmly received, and their influence on the band discussed in the previous paragraph is inarguable.

Linda Ronstadt: if she is to get into the hall – and why not, really – I hope that it happens now, before her sad bout with Parkinson’s disease degenerates her any further.  It would be a good thing for her family and fans, and as such I’m in favor.

Cat Stevens: Not hall-worthy.  Wrote a handful of pleasant, folk-influenced songs in the ‘70s, but not someone I’d consider a major artist or particularly influential several decades later.  His religious beliefs have nothing to do with this, by the way.  Strictly as an artist, I think he’s too lightweight.

Link Wray: Introduced power chords to Rock ‘n’ Roll – what more is there to say?  Surprised this didn’t happen years ago.

Yes: Certainly worthy of induction, but something tells me that it’s not gonna happen.  Last year, the R&RHOF introduced a fan voting system, something I firmly believe was put into place so they could induct Rush without, you know, having to get their hands dirty or admit it or anything.  This year that spot will go to KISS, mark my words.  So sorry, Yes – maybe next time.

The Zombies:   Not likely.  Far bigger in England than America, and the Hall’s always been pretty Yankee-centric.

A few closing thoughts: while I know it’s fun and fashionable to deride Jann Wenner and his friends as a bunch of know-nothing, sycophantic half-wits (and they may well be), the above list is really pretty solid.  Out of sixteen nominees, there are only two (Butterfield and Stevens) that I can’t really build a case for, regardless of my own personal tastes.  That’s actually a pretty good batting average for an institution that’s, you know, totally stupid and useless and all.

Same time next year, then?