By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
By Sept. 12, 2001, it was clear the front lines of America's musical response to the previous day's attacks would have a certain native twang.
That afternoon, I was in the safest place an American could be — the middle of nowhere, driving across vacant grasslands toward Denver from a Sept. 11 hike of the Black Mesa in a remote corner of the Oklahoma panhandle — and the airwaves, already saturated in those parts by country music, were thick with over-earnest patriotic songs DJs had dredged-up for the occasion.
Lee Greenwood's God-forsaken "God Bless the U.S.A." was repeated about every 20 minutes. They also dug into chestnuts old and new — Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" (a celebration of working stiffs released just weeks before), Billy Ray Cyrus' "Some Gave All" (honoring military servicefolk, from the same album as "Achy Breaky Heart"), even Merle Haggard's Vietnam-era "The Fightin' Side of Me" (pity, once again, that "squirrelly guy who claims he just don't believe in fightin'").
Eventually, I'd had my fill. I put in the only angry political music I had in the car: the first album from the Clash.
In the months to come, though, country music led the charge — and had the greatest popular success — with songs addressing the 9/11 murders, ranging from tender contemplation of the tragedies to blatant, boot-clad jingoism.
On the softer end of that spectrum, country gentleman Alan Jackson hit No. 1 just two months after the attacks with a thoughtful, plaintive ballad, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." With the dust barely settled in New York City, Jackson could only muster questions — not so much about the causes of the attacks but about Americans' personal reactions to the crisis. Beyond echoing the common JFK-era query of its title, the song probes for responses both public ("Did you burst out in pride for the red, white and blue / and the heroes who died just doin' what they do?") and private ("Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her? / Did you dust off that Bible at home?"). Mawkish, maybe, but it served its purpose.
Toby Keith, of course, was more blunt. By summer 2002, after Jackson and much of country music had spent months being courteously somber and reflective, America had reached the anger phase of its grief, which pushed Keith's next album to No. 1 on the strength of his own parenthetical single, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." With imagery that includes the Statue of Liberty not only making a fist but shaking it, Keith — with trademark subtlety — warned evildoers everywhere: "You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / 'Cause we'll put in a boot in your ass / It's the American way."
I expected that kind of confidence and rage from rock 'n' roll, instead, and boy was I let down.
A month after 9/11, musicians gathered at the Concert for New York City, an event organized by Paul McCartney. The former Beatle himself had watched the Twin Towers attacks from the the tarmac at JFK airport, and debuted his reaction song at the concert. "Freedom," however, is a viscous melody and a pitying lyric — one which never directly addresses the tragedy, waxing generally about the broad virtues of its subject. "We will fight for the right / to live in freedom," McCartney sings.
McCartney played the song everywhere, marketing it as the ultimate 9/11 anthem, but it never caught on. In fact, it was frequently employed at rallies with a less peaceful intent. McCartney told Britain's Telegraph last year: "I think it got hijacked a bit, and [turned into something] a bit militaristic. Mine was in the spirit of 'We Shall Overcome'; you know, 'Fight for your rights' in the civil rights sense; [it] doesn't mean, 'Go out and hit people.' It was a pity: it kind of stopped me doing it, actually."
Neil Young, who 31 years prior had rushed into a studio to record "Ohio," a quick response to the Kent State shootings, did the same in the fall of 2001 and released "Let's Roll" that November. Over a slow, moody jam that inverts the idea of holy war, Young celebrates those who revolted against their captors aboard Flight 93, ultimately bringing it down in Pennsylvania. Passenger Todd Beamer's words became Young's title, as well as a rousing catchphrase for months to come. The catchphrase had a much longer life than Young's song.
Clear Channel Communications, the company that eventually spun off today's Live Nation, didn't help matters by circulating among its 1,200 radio stations a list of 165 "lyrically questionable" songs, suggesting DJs steer clear of them in the weeks after 9/11 in the name of sensitivity. Some might have been understandable — Soundgarden's "Blow Up the Outside World," Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," the GAP Band's "You Dropped a Bomb on Me," Peter, Paul & Mary's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" — but the list also included puzzling choices such as Neil Diamond's "America" and John Lennon's "Imagine."
It was a rock-centric list, which probably helped open the field of musical catharsis to country's well-heeled patriotism. DJs had free rein to draw from an arsenal that already included Faith Hill's "Star-Spangled Banner" from the year before as well as new flag-wavers from LeAnn Rimes ("God Bless America"), Randy Travis ("America Will Always Stand"), Charlie Daniels ("This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag"), Kenny Rogers ("Homeland") and Hank Wiliams Jr. ("America Will Survive," a rewrite of his 1982 single "A Country Boy Can Survive").
And, yes, "God Bless the U.S.A.," Greenwood's curse from 1984, returned to the charts in October 2001, peaking again at No. 16.
FIVE GOOD 9/11 SONGS
I'll leave you with a few antidotes to all that yee-haw saccharine and sentiment. Here are five of my own favorite songs addressing a wide array of perspectives on 9/11:
Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising"
Sung from the point of view of one of the New York City firefighters headed up the stairs of the World Trade Center, Springsteen's anthem, the last-minute title track to his 2002 album, was the worthiest of the popular 9/11 songs if only because of its utter disinterest in retaliation. Instead of an uprising, Bruce goes for a broader, transcendent kind of uplift.
Fleetwood Mac, "Illume"
A couple of years later, this Stevie Nicks song appeared on Fleetwood Mac's heralded comeback album, "Say You Will." It's touching in its candlelit consideration — simply a musing on the national mindset (after she "saw history go down" and was thinking about "how we could make it / what we've been through / all of the trauma"). "I didn't set out to write a Sept. 11th song, it just happened," Nicks said that year. "I also wrote one called 'Get Back on the Plane' and a song called 'The Towers Touched the Sky,' but it was just too depressing." Wise choice, and a lovely meditation.
Ministry, "Lies Lies Lies"
Though I'm doubtful of Al Jourgensen's conspiracy theories, I support his monstrously rocking skepticism on this typically jagged, distorted track from the recently reunited collective. "I'm on a mission to never forget / 3,000 people that I've never met," Jourgensen growls affectionately before warning that the attacks might actually have been planned "not by Al Qaeda, not by bin Ladin / but by a group of tyrants / that should be of great concern to all Americans."
Loudon Wainwright III, "No Sure Way"
This pensive folk song from the typically frank and poignant Wainwright, on his 2005 album "Here Come the Choppers," was written just a few days after 9/11 as Wainwright rode the subway into Manhattan — which traveled underneath ground zero for the first time. "They say heaven's high above us hell's not far below / In that subway tunnel there was no sure way to know," he sings. "When you face something that huge, you think, 'I'm not even going to think of writing a song about this. It's too ridiculous and too maudlin,' " Wainwright told me in March. "I'm sure there are hundreds of songs written about 9/11 now. ... Like the words I used in the song, it felt 'obscene.' "
James, "Hey Ma"
McCartney went for indirect and missed; this British band was a little more direct and much more moving. Opening in the aftermath ("The towers have fallen / so much dust in the air"), grandiose singer Tim Booth swings between indignation — "Please don't preach me forgiveness / You're hardwired for revenge" — and graphic grief — "Hey ma, the boy's in body bags / coming home in pieces." That it's the title track to one of the group's finest albums is a sweet bonus.
Honorable mention — In addition to Neil Young, another moving ballad from the viewpoint of the Flight 93 passengers came from, of all places, a Velvet Revolver track called "Messages." Singer Scott Weiland sounds great on the recording, weaving his brave cell-phone farewells between languid solos from guitarist Slash. Surprisingly effective, and it still holds up well.
Clarence Clemons and the rock sax solo
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
In a March episode of NBC’s hit comedy “30 Rock,” writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) panics because she has no “plan B” for her career and thus nothing to fall back on during an unforeseen professional hiatus. She stumbles through dark backstreets as she’s taunted by the voices of “people whose professions are no loner a thing” — such as travel agents, American autoworkers, the CEO of Friendster and a man who “played dynamite saxophone solos in rock and roll songs.”
This wasn’t the first winking obituary for the rock sax solo, but this week’s news might be the last. Sax player Clarence Clemons died Saturday from complications he suffered from a June 12 stroke. He was 69.
Clemons was a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — a pillar, given the way Springsteen leaned on him, both literally (the Boss supports himself on the Big Man in the iconic photograph on the “Born to Run” LP gatefold) and figuratively (utilizing Clemons’ impassioned sax solos to intensify his lyrical themes) — and, for at least one generation, Clemons was the epitome of the hooked horn’s particular power in a musical genre for which it was not designed.
A creation of the Romantic era (invented in 1846 by Belgian clarinetist Adolphe Sax), the saxophone evolved to become a signifier of romance. The bent woodwind never took hold in orchestral music but found solid purchase in military bands, where its portability and honking volume were valued. Marching bands, concert bands, big bands, jazz — its migration was natural and swift. By the 1950s, as rhythm-and-blues evolved into even more guttural rock ’n’ roll, musicians like Louis Jordan and King Curtis finessed this suitably throaty instrument into the robust soul that would define the rest of the century.
With its roots in rock’s genesis — Ike Turner’s 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” possibly the first rock single, was credited to Jackie Brenston, the band’s singer and one of the song’s two sax players — by the 1970s and ’80s the saxophone was often employed to evoke that era’s rose-tinted innocence and authenticity. When a third-generation rocker wanted to trace his New Wave stead to some age-old cred, he plugged in a sax solo — from David Bowie reinventing himself (again) by lamenting “all Papa’s heroes” in “Young Americans” and Billy Joel linking his contemporary tastes to the classics in “It’s Still Rock ’n Roll to Me” to INXS’s horn-y claims on American soul (“What You Need,” etc.) and the popcorn purity of the movie “Eddie and the Cruisers” (with John Cafferty & the Beaver Brown Band providing “On the Dark Side” and the rest of the Springsteen-parody soundtrack).
Within that cocoon of Eisenhower-level security, the more relaxed sax solo became an emblem of true heart and romance. (How do you imply that insipid bad-boy Rob Lowe has a heart of gold in the movie “St. Elmo’s Fire”? By making his rawest expression of his passion be through an extended sax solo with his bar band.) Among wind instruments, its reedy timbre sounds the most like a human voice, finishing lyrical thoughts by saying things a human just can’t say. But several Foreigners (“Urgent”), Quarterflashes (“Harden My Heart”) and Spandau Ballets (“True”) later, the cliché became a caricature, and Liz Lemon’s fears became inevitable.
But at the heart of that golden — or brassy — age was the hulking sideman who best encapsulated the instrument’s classicism, passion and romance, sometimes in a single sustained note. Clemons played tenor sax with studied passion much more than technical skill. This wasn’t jazz, this was rock. It was all about feeling — and reaction.
“There’s a lot of pride Bruce took in watching the response that Clarence would get from the audience with his solos,” Alto Reed, sax player for Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, told the Chicago Sun-Times this week. “The songs would come to life with the first note of a sax line. He was brilliant. His tone was not your typical, classic horn-section sound. It was growly, gassy. You could feel the energy coming out of his sax. Big Man, big sax, big sound.”
Clemons turned in many memorable sax solos for Springsteen songs — “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” I usually throw in his huffing on “I’m Goin’ Down” — but few argue over which was his greatest accomplishment: “Jungleland.”
The ultimate whisper to a scream, “Jungleland” is an epic from Springsteen’s 1975 breakthrough album, “Born to Run.” Springsteen relates the tragic story of the Magic Rat and his star-crossed affair with the “barefoot girl” amid a scene of urban angst and frustration this side of the Jersey state line. It’s “a holy night” filled with people who are “hustling,” “hungry” and “hunted,” and just as the most “desperate” are ready to split (“Just one look / and a whisper / and they’re gone”) the song slams on the brakes, stops chugging forward and — announced by an arresting, almost dissonant long note, like a siren in the band’s rear view — becomes a detour down Clemons’ own backstreets of American imagery and sound.
It’s a song within a song, two-and-a-half minutes within the nearly 10-minute anthem and a necessary non-verbal underscore of the hopeless scene Springsteen has been setting up. Clemons’ sustained warning wails a while longer, defiant against the cascade of cymbals and piano chords behind him, before beginning its eulogy for the Eden that sometime, somehow turned into Jungleland. Twice, three times he returns to the major chord, the hopeful tone, voicing the Rat’s own hubris and bringing the song’s pent-up rage to a rolling boil. In the end, though, Clemons and his narrative collapse whimpering and spent as the piano takes over. Springsteen returns to wrap up the story, and it’s even worse than we expected for the Rat and his girl: “They wind up wounded / not even dead.” But we already knew that. Bruce’s jittery homily left the options open, but Clarence’s rock-steady solo confirmed the despair to come.
“That’s the flip side of rock and roll,” wrote Bob Lefsetz, music industry observer and publisher of the Lefsetz Letter, of the “Jungleland” solo this week. “The exuberance — and then the solitary feeling that you’re Wall-E, alone in a city without heart, without hope.”
Clemons often relayed the story of working on his “Jungleland” composition for 16 straight hours. Today, his results are not only loved, they are liked: There’s a dedicated Facebook page called “Clarence Clemons’ Sax Solo in Jungleland.”
In a surprise twist, Clemons re-emerged this spring and seemed ready to bestow validation on the rock and roll sax solo with the help of an unexpected admirer: None other than Lady Gaga tapped the E Streeter for saxophone parts on three tracks for her third outing, “Born This Way,” one of the most anticipated and talked-about albums of the year. In the video to Gaga’s latest single, “Edge of Glory,” Clemons sits on a building stoop while Gaga dances in the street and on the fire escape. He hardly moves, except to finger the valves of his horn. Gaga has said the song is rooted in her own experiences witnessing her grandfather’s final moments before death; the week the video debuted her young fans were making their own “get well soon” video for Clemons after the stroke.
What was he doing there, with Lady Gaga of all people? He was doing what he always did: Adding gravitas and a much-needed counterweight to an outsized personality and the frenetic music s/he produced. In the “Edge of Glory” video, Clemons is the only other person in the scene — the only figure with whom Lady Gaga deigned to share the spotlight, just like Springsteen. His music and instrument were as key to that role as his size and personality, and let’s hope rock never forgets his lesson.
Eddie Fisher's other life
By Thomas Conner
© Obit magazine
We can talk about Eddie Fisher’s singing career, if we must. In fact, don’t we have to, at least a little? Fisher’s obituaries move quickly through the two dozen hit songs to get to the scandalous affairs, the drug addiction, the good stuff. Headlines last week included “1950s Singing Star Was Brought Low by Scandalous Love Life,” “The Tabloid Legacy of Eddie Fisher” and “Eddie Fisher: The Man Who Put a Gun to Liz Taylor’s Head.” But if we’re really going to talk about Eddie the Slimeball — which, of course, is what whets our contemporary media appetites — we have to discuss Eddie the Singer.
Fisher was a pioneer of tabloid notoriety; he became best known for entertaining us not with his stiff old traditional songs but with his randy new romantic exploits — a mid-century turning point for the entertainment industry. Today, fame can be achieved in Napoleonic fashion, simply by declaring oneself famous, and contemporary celebrities suffer their falls from grace from lower and lower heights. But Fisher was beloved before he was belittled, earning a level of fame equal to his eventual infamy. He wouldn’t have had so much of the latter without surrendering so much of the former.
The popularity of Fisher’s recording career confounds modern ears. His consistent run of hits from 1952 to 1956 included million-sellers “Any Time” and “Tell Me Why,” plus “(You Gotta Have) Heart,” “Wish You Were Here,” “I Need You Now,” “Oh! My Pa-Pa” and “Cindy, Oh Cindy.” It’s starchy, sentimental stuff. Most Fisher records today sound positively antediluvian, moreso than his contemporaries (Sinatra, Crosby, Como, Bennett). The strings are syrupy, the rhythms plod and they’re presided over by Fisher’s self-described “lyric baritone,” which had more in common with Scarlatti than sock hops. The melodrama of “Oh! My Pa-Pa” is smothering — it’s the kind of record we’d expect to hear in “The Godfather,” played on a Victrola by a momentarily wistful mobster just before he whacks or is whacked.
But the timing was right for the crooners to heave one last gasp. Frank Sinatra lost his record deal in 1952, and Elvis Presley wouldn’t walk through the door at Sun Records until August 1953, so Fisher lead the charge with a parade of post-war pandering. “Tony Bennett, Perry [Como], Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole even Bing Crosby, they all cared about creating a legacy, a catalog of songs that meant something. … I didn’t,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Been There, Done That. “I recorded pretty much whatever they put in front of me.” One of those songs was “I’m Walking Behind You,” which Fisher recorded April 7, 1953. By June, it was a No. 1 hit. Frank Sinatra recorded his version five days before Fisher. Sinatra’s take hit No. 1 in October. The song’s lyric delivers a leering love letter from a groomsman who’s stalking the bride: “If things should go wrong dear / and fate is unkind / look over your shoulder / I’m walking behind.” Fisher — a fresh-faced teen idol even though a twentysomething, and admittedly not caring what the words meant anyway — delivers his reading dispassionately, by rote, like someone singing a foreign language phonetically. Sinatra’s reading is considerably coyer. He’d learned two years earlier how to hop out of one marriage and into another, ditching his first wife for twice-married Ava Gardner. Fisher’s similar lessons, in love as well as fame, were still to come.
By 1955, Fisher was on TV, starring on his own show with a soft drink sponsor, “Coke Time with Eddie Fisher.” (That he was later addicted to cocaine for many years must have made that title quite the joke around the glass-topped coffee table in the Fisher living room.) He had seven Top 20 hits that year, starting with “A Man Chases a Girl (Until She Catches Him),” an uncredited duet with Debbie Reynolds, she of the sweet and sunny face who’d become a movie star in 1952 with her turn in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Their marriage that same year boosted their visibility in the press and marked the point at which their artistic careers became a sideshow to their more entertaining personal lives. Two winsome smiles, two wholesome careers — Fisher and Reynolds became an idealized celebrity couple, the Brangelina of their day. They starred in a film together (“Bundle of Joy,” 1956), started a family, became known in the movie magazines as “America’s Favorite Couple.” By 1958, Fisher was named Father of the Year by the National Father’s Day Committee (Congress had just made it a holiday in 1956) and was photographed smiling with toddlers Carrie and Todd on his lap. That month, Fisher was singing a six-week engagement at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. Reynolds invited their good friend Elizabeth Taylor to stay with them there; Taylor was still grieving the loss of her husband and Fisher’s friend, Mike Todd. On Father’s Day weekend, no doubt to the eventual dismay of the National Father’s Day Committee, Fisher and Taylor fell in love.
What happened next hijacked Fisher’s public image for the rest of his life. News of the affair hit that fall. On May 12, 1959, Fisher finalized his divorce with Reynolds and, three-and-a-half hours later, married Taylor. His celebrity stock plummeted — but his headline count remained steady. For five years, magazines such as Photoplay, Modern Screen and Confidential splashed the various love triangles across their covers — a smiling Reynolds with the kids in a stroller, headline: “Debbie answers her daughter’s question: Won’t Daddy be with us all the time?”; Fisher and Taylor in formal attire next to a limo, headline: “How Eddie is saving Liz from her honeymoon jinx”; eventually, a photo of Taylor and her new lover, Richard Burton, and my favorite headline: “A Rabbi & Three Ministers Discuss: Love … Lust … and Liz!”
As Fisher’s ignominy increased, his singing career fizzled. “My career had leveled off to simple stardom” is how Fisher described it. The hits stopped coming in 1957, rock and roll had arrived, and Fisher wisely did not try to adapt. His recordings became infrequent and, he said, “Eventually the music simply became a means to the drugs and the women.” But the freak-show factor remained, and his nightclub and occasional Vegas bookings remained somewhat consistent. His new career was that of tabloid sensation — at which he proved to be as successful an entertainer as he was at the microphone. Celebrity rags launched in the ’20s were now going mainstream, and Fisher reliably helped fuel their new genre of inadvertent entertainment. Once Taylor eventually (and inevitably) dumped Fisher, he began a lengthy string of headline-baiting affairs — Marlene Dietrich, Ann-Margret, Judy Garland, Juliet Prowse, Michelle Phillips, Peggy Lipton, Mia Farrow, Angie Dickinson, Kim Novak, Dinah Shore, Stefanie Powers — and married three more times to Connie Stevens, Miss Louisiana Terry Richard and businesswoman Betty Lin.
He wasn’t the first high-profile celeb to indulge in a reckless personal life, but he was one of the first whose tabloid infamy eclipsed any actual artistic achievements he might have started with. “It isn’t the music that people remember most about me, it’s the women,” Fisher admitted. Granted, the music wasn’t that memorable, but without it Fisher’s life story wouldn’t possess the narrative that makes all falls from grace, from the bookstore literature shelves to the supermarket checkout stand, so satisfying, for good or ill.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Much can be made of Janelle Monae's fantastic soul music — its Afrofuturist revival, its wacky narratives, the timing of its critical success during the administration of America's first black president — and something will be made of it right here in this column. But the most important thing to understand about this exciting rising star is this: Don't deconstruct it, just dance.
Any enlightenment to be had will come eventually. Monae works both sides of the truism offered by fellow space cadet George Clinton: "Free your mind and your ass will follow." She's got big ideas behind her words and music, but she doesn't preach. She dances, usually spontaneously.
"I don't choreograph pretty much anything I do," she said last spring in a BET interview. Watch the video for her hit "Tightrope"; she clearly has a relative idea of how she wants to move, but she's also clearly making much of it up as she pivots down that asylum hallway. "So I'm merely creating art right in front of my eyes and the audience's eyes. It's like a spiritual, out-of-body experience. I feel very possessed." She added, in an AP interview: "I want them to allow the music to transform them as much as it's transformed me."
Get them moving, and their minds will follow.
"The ArchAndroid" (pronounced "the ARK android"), Monae's universally acclaimed debut CD, is a highly theatrical statement. When I refer above to her soul music as fantastic, this is not merely a superlative. Drawing from the same wells of other musicians who've used sci-fi and fantasy as African-American allegory, Monae claims a wild backstory to her songs: She is an inmate of the Palace of the Dogs Art Asylum. She has time-traveled here from the year 2719, and her DNA has been used to create an android freedom fighter named Cindi Mayweather, sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from an oppressive group called the Great Divide.
"I believe we're going to be living in a world of androids by 2029," she told the Guardian newspaper, apparently with a straight face. "How will we all get along? Will we treat the android humanely? What type of society will it be when we're integrated? I've felt like the Other at certain points in my life. I felt like it was a universal language that we could all understand."
That capitalized Other — the stranger in a strange land — is a common sci-fi theme and has shown up throughout the legacy of Afrofuturist music, from DJ Spooky's trip-hop back through Dr. Octagon's "Earth People," Digable Planets' "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," Afrika Bambaataa's scratch-cut classic "Planet Rock," even Herbie Hancock's own android assembly in "Rockit." Before that, Clinton's Paliament/Funkadelic launched the "mothership," and the first contact with black aliens occurred right here in Chicago, where Sun Ra landed with his Arkestra in the mid-'50s and eventually claimed "Space Is the Place."
Gerald Majer, in his Beat-like recollection of Chicago's avant-jazz scene, The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz, attempts to describe the tug-of-war between black American history and sci-fi futurism exploding from Sun Ra's early '60s concerts here, enigmatically concluding: "Space is the place: you move in, you move aside, you dance where it divides."
The divide between sanity and madness is central to Monae's cosmology. Her vision of the future is not optimistic, singing in "Locked Inside": "When I look into the future, I see danger in its eyes / Hearts of hatred rule the land while others left outside / Killing, bleeding Citizen, while music slowly dies / and I get frightened, see, I get frightened." The love of her man, however, will keep her from "going crazy."
"So many people deal with so many obstacles every day that they need to relieve some of that stress," Monae said in a recent Vibe interview. "So 'Tightrope' deals with balance and not getting too high or too low. So I just really focused on creating art, songs that I felt would connect to people."
Her musical journey started when Janelle Robinson left her native Kansas City for New York City to study theater. She wanted to be a Broadway star. When that dream faded a bit, she relocated to Atlanta, where she met like-minded artists, like Chuck Lightning, and formed the Wondaland Arts Society (which releases her music, now distributed through Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy label). Outkast's Big Boi discovered her and began pushing her on his compilations, even slipping her into the Outkast movie "Idlewild." (He guests on "Tightrope"; she appeared on his solo debut this year, too.) The theatrical flair continues — videos are planned for each song on "The ArchAndroid," as well as a graphic novel and, yes, a musical.
So, free your mind — it will come back to you — and trust yourself to just enjoy the groove. Monae's voice is clear and strong. Her music is Motown sharp and James Brown funky. She dances like someone who knows how but doesn't spend a month rehearsing. Last time she was in town, she opened for Erykah Badu and completely upstaged her. (Word so far on this tour is the same is true of her Georgia friends in Of Montreal.) Let the very human beats and belts carry you away, then chat about the big ideas on the way home.
with Janelle Monae
• 7 p.m. Saturday
• Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
• Tickets, $23, etix.com
Listen without prejudice: Look past the sex, drugs, the weird TV. George Michael can *sing*
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's the one good thing that I've got.
— George Michael, "Freedom 90"
I don't know about the whole show, ABC's new "Eli Stone" — it looked a wee bit hokey, like "Touched by an Angel" for couples who conceived their kids after episodes of "Ally McBeal" — but the George Michael clips give great YouTube.
Check out his debut in the series premiere. Eli's having sex and becomes ... distracted by ... music. He stops, investigates — and finds George Michael in his living room singing "Faith." George Michael interrupting someone's sex life for a moment of religious clarity! And still they claim that irony is dead.
Throughout this first season of the show, there was George Michael continuing to repurpose his songs as a guardian angel in Eli's dream sequences. The stuffy law firm winds up singing and dancing to "Freedom 90." The firm defends a teenage girl for playing "I Want Your Sex" over the PA during an abstinence-education rally. In the season finale, George Michael brings Eli out of a coma by singing of "a new dawn, a new day" in the standard "Feeling Good." But first Eli asks him, "Are you God?" George Michael smirks and replies, "Well, some men have said so ..."
It's wholesome! It's lurid! It's both!
George Michael — and for the purposes of this article he shall be referred to by his full name, a la his namesake on another of the pop star's rather inadvertent TV touchstones, "Arrested Development" — isn't God. He ain't even saintly, God knows. But as he comes ashore this summer for his first American tour in 15 years (with a stop Wednesday at Chicago's United Center) thank heavens we can finally re-examine the man for what brings him here — and what really matters in our lives as pop music fans.
Because when we're done chuckling about his latest arrest for public sex (Larry Craig was such a copycat) or drugs (as he lit a joint during an interview on Britain's "South Bank Show" in 2006, he explained, "This stuff keeps me sane and happy") or drug-related traffic stops (green means go, red apparently means nap) — entertaining as those are in pop culture's hippodrome of hypocrisy — the scandals have nothing to do with why we still listen to the music.
And we do still listen to the music. Turn on a radio, real or online. He's still in the playlists. He's a favorite quick, universal pop cultural reference in movies as well as TV. ("The Rules of Attraction," for instance — dreadful little adaptation, but the hotel-bed dance scene scored by "Faith" redeemed every penny of admission.)
Perhaps this is a good reminder as we recover from the R. Kelly child pornography trial — look at all those fans still eating up his output (OK, bad choice of words) — and as we brace for another comeback by the self-proclaimed and similarly acquitted King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Wacko Jacko, certainly, deserves the nickname, but who out there is so self-righteous that they could suddenly deny the basic bliss of "Off the Wall" just because its creator wound up in court? Likely the same gnarled gnomes who pick apart a politican's every gaffe in a frustrated attempt to canonize a saint instead of hire a public servant.
Some young trick even claimed recently that Boy George chained him up as a slave in the pop star's basement. Now the bloke is barred from entering the United States (Homeland Security finally pays off!). And you wanna diss George Michael for smoking the occasional spliff and not averting his gaze when a hot cop makes eyes?
So we welcome back George Michael — the beleaguered pothead, the lonely john, the misguided angel with the angelic voice — and with his new tour arriving here this week and his new greatest-hits CD ("Twenty-Five," out now), let us remind the masses of the most important part of his rollicking, ever-evolving Wikipedia biography:
Dude can sing.
Give him five songs
Without getting too old-man, everything-was-better-when-Roberta-Flack-was-on-FM on you, the robots are taking over popular song. If it's not a young woman showing off her vocal gymnastics by cramming 18 notes into each syllable (thank you, Mariah), it's a young mallpunk whose mediocre voice has been so "doctored" by ProTools software that he sounds like the second cousin of Matthew Broderick's computer in "War Games." Those who hunger for real singing — who relish the experience of being lifted up by a single powerful voice carefully evoking the words of a well-crafted lyric — are reduced to making pop stars out of young opera tenors. Mamma mia!
Pull out your old George Michael records. You didn't sell them all, despite what you claim at parties. Log on, catch up with the last few albums you probably didn't buy. Listen again. The familiarity of his hits can obscure his formidable talent. There's gold in them thar skills.
I'm not even that big a fan. I only own two full albums, "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" and "Songs From the 20th Century," plus a few of the hits. I just never thought he was worth the butt of the joke. (OK, the butt of Dana Carvey's "SNL" butt jokes, funny stuff.) Here we are in another election year; let's take this opportunity to train ourselves to keep perspective amid petty character assassinations. Suck it up and listen to at least these five songs — five songs from the solo George Michael catalog that showcase the man's incomparable pipes and will make all the gags irrelevant:
— "A Different Corner" — After proving that Andrew Ridgeley's contribution to the Wham! equation was virtually nil (as everyone with ears suspected) by scoring a massive solo hit with "Careless Whisper," George Michael released this second single in 1986, and was it ever solo — the first record to top the British charts that was written, performed, arranged and produced by a single person. The song sways ever so gently in a somnambulant cradle of bass, piano and patient synthesizers, over which George Michael's voice coos, aches and, when the words demand it, wails. The only special effect you hear on this recording is the perfect echo of the room.
— "Faith" -- Wondering what all the fuss was about a few weeks ago when Bo Diddley died? Wasn't he just some academic hero of bluesmen? The simple, chukka-chukka-chug acoustic guitar riff that props up this easy, urgent hit is a prime example of how far Diddley's influence spread. When an artist like George Michael — berated by then as a bubblegum trifle — needs to lean on some credibility, he brings out the shave, the haircut, and both bits. (Heck, this riff was so simple even Ridgeley could've played it.) But its freshness — dig the way he shifts gears between the breathless and the bombast — is evidenced by its near ubiquity in pop culture, even eclipsing the song everyone wouldn't shut up about in 1987, "I Want Your Sex" (which is — huh? — not on his new greatest hits double disc!).
— "My Baby Just Cares for Me" -- Did anyone buy this collection, "Songs From the 20th Century"? Released in 1999 — when doing a covers album was past de rigueur and had become de manded — George Michael tossed out his take on a bunch of his favorite tunes, spanning the century in question, from "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" to the Police's "Roxanne." His reading of this old, jazzy standard brims with effervescent, almost mischievous joy ("even Ricky Martin's smile ..."), and his vocal delivery over all those runs is smooth as buttah.
— "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- Recorded in 1985 at Live Aid but not released until 1991, this exciting concert moment ("Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Elton John!") shows how strongly he delivers outside the studio. His reading of this classic rock ballad is so fluid and lovely, almost soulful, that Elton's entrance is frankly an unwelcome interruption.
— "They Won't Go When I Go" -- George Michael's most awesome performance. On the acclaimed but less successful 1990 "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" album, George Michael set out to prove himself an artist and adult, which he could have accomplished simply by choosing to attempt this Stevie Wonder album track. But his transcendent recording, afloat on a tidal gospel arrangement, bests Wonder's original and sets us all up for the notion that — yeah, Eli — maybe he is an angel.
It's not all golden, of course. He's tossed off his share of stinkers — try to stay awake during "Jesus to a Child," I dare you — and all we can say for the Wham! years is, hey, it was what it was (and sometimes, c'mon, it was fun). But compare him to his contemporaries, and he indeed begins looking pretty saintly.
Boy George? A crap solo career and the aforementioned legal troubles. Rick Astley? He's about to release a greatest-hits set with more than one song on it, go figure. Pet Shop Boys? Undoubtedly iconic, but they didn't exactly rise above the dance-club rut. Paul Young? (Crickets chirping.) Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet, Dead or Alive and all the other 1980s chart toppers now playing the state-fair circuit? Shudder.
George Michael stands with the icons of that particular age (and their peccadillos), with Madonna (spiritual slut) and Bono (spiritual hack) and Michael Jackson (arrogant oddball). And these days his voice — granted, it's been well-rested of late — sounds better than any one of them.
So, children, come back. Forget the jeers of rock critics, and ignore the sanctimonious temperance leagues. Put down the gossip rags. Give some thought to what the experience of listening to music means and the power a strong voice can transmit through your bones. Come see a happy, fulfilled singer at possibly another peak of his performing career.
It may be your last chance, after all. He once again recently mulled over the possibility of retiring, with a maturity to his perspective that made us love him all the more: "Mainly the reason is because I'm 45 and I think pop music should be about youth culture. ... It shouldn't be an endurance test."
I won't let you down
So please don't give me up
Because I would really, really love to stick around ...
- - -
GEORGE MICHAEL THROUGH THE YEARS
You'd be perfectly within your rights to have forgotten that George Michael has a shred of talent. In the last 10 years, he's had plenty of media coverage, hardly any of it about him singing. To his credit, you'd be hard-pressed to find a worldwide celebrity who has taken his public embarrassments in such easy stride. He copped to the whole bathroom arrest by joking with Oprah in 2004: "They don't send Columbo in there, you know. They send someone nice-looking."
Here's a look at the high notes and low notes of George Michael's nearly 30 years in the public eye. And consider this: Can you think of a single moment in all these years when he's been clean-shaven?
November 1979: Forms his first band, a ska group called The Executive, with pal Andrew Ridgeley.
April 1982: Ridgeley and George Michael, now teamed as a duo called Wham! (named, so the record company said at the time, for the sound these two made when they came together ... now stop laughing ...), release their first single, "Wham! Rap," in which George Michael (gulp) raps lines such as, "Hey, jerk! You work! This boy's got better things to do."
July 1983: The debut Wham! LP, "Fantastic," enters the British albums chart at No. 1.
June 1984: Now on a bigger label, Epic, the single "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" hits No. 1.
August 1984: Even though the song appeared on the second Wham! album, "Make It Big," the single "Careless Whisper" is billed as solo George Michael. It's an instant No. 1 and is Epic's first million-seller.
December 1984: A Wham! world tour begins as George Michael is featured on the charity Band Aid hit "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
April 1985: Wham!'s tour of China, the first visit to that country by a Western pop act, generates enormous worldwide media coverage, much of it centered on George Michael.
July 1985: George Michael duets with Elton John on the latter's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" during Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. The recording won't be released until December 1991, and it hits No. 1 two months later.
June 1986: Taking a stand against the band's manager selling out part of his interest to a South African company (or at least seizing on a fantastic excuse), Wham! decides to split up and plays its farewell concert for 72,000 fans at Wembley Stadium.
April 1987: "Faith" is released, the George Michael solo debut. It'll sell 6 million copies in a year. Today, it's minted at least 15 million copies.
June 1987: The "I Want Your Sex'" single hits the streets, but not many airwaves. Some American radio stations ban it, and British DJs are allowed to discuss it only by referring to it as "I Want."
March 1988: Wins a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," his duet with Aretha Franklin.
February 1989: Wins another Grammy for Album of the Year, for "Faith." (Yes, it was released in '87. The Grammys, to put it mildly, are slow on the uptake.)
September 1990: "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" is released. It sells "only" 4 million copies.
1991-95: Begins a long legal fight to escape his contract with the Sony corporation. A casualty in this battle is "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2," which dies in preproduction. (Three songs from the project are eventually donated to the AIDS charity disc "Red Hot + Dance," and the song "Crazyman Dance" turned up on the B-side of 1992's "Too Funky," his final recording for Sony.) He's silent for the next three years during the court fight.
July 1995: Settles with Sony, signs with Virgin Records.
May 1996: "Older" is released, becomes the fastest-selling album in the history of Virgin Records.
June 1996: Meets his current partner, art dealer (and former cheerleading coach) Kenny Goss.
April 7, 1998: Arrested for "engaging in a lewd act" in a public bathroom at the Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills, Calif. Anyone who didn't know he was gay gets the memo. He's charged and released on $500 bail.
April 10, 1998: Finally comes out of the closet in an interview on CNN, saying, "This is a good of a time as any. ... I want to say that I have no problem with people knowing that I'm in a relationship with a man right now. I have not been in a relationship with a woman for almost 10 years." Not a single gasp is heard.
May 1998: Pleads "no contest" to the charges, is fined $810, ordered to perform 80 hours of community service and seek counseling — and was banned from the park.
November 1998: The video for "Outside," from "Ladies & Gentlemen — The Best Of George Michael," parodies the restroom incident.
December 1999: Releases "Songs From the Last Century," an album of covers, from "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" to the Police's "Roxanne."
April 2000: Joins Melissa Etheridge, Garth Brooks, Queen Latifah, the Pet Shop Boys, and k.d. lang to perform in Washington, D.C., as part of Equality Rocks, a benefit concert in support of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian organization.
May 26, 2004: Appears on "Oprah" — his first U.S. television appearance in more than 10 years — to promote a new album, "Patience," and discuss his arrest.
Early 2005: Goss and George Michael open the Goss Gallery in Dallas.
Feb. 26, 2006: Arrested for drug possession after he's found slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes near Hyde Park Corner in London. He later describes the incident as his "own stupid fault, as usual."
May 2006: While driving his Range Rover in London, hits three parked cars. Later is found by a passer-by again slumped over the steering wheel at a traffic light.
September 2006: Scandal again, but one we can support — he's chastised for a tour prop, a giant figure of George Bush in a ... compromising position.
Oct. 1, 2006: Found unconscious again at the wheel of his Mercedes in the middle of traffic. He pleaded guilty and was banned from driving for two years, plus more community service.
December 2007: Plays himself in a public park looking for action in the series finale of HBO's "Extras."
Jan. 16, 2008: Signs a fat book contract with HarperCollins for a memoir which he is to write "entirely himself."
April 1, 2008: Releases the double-disc greatest-hits CD "Twenty-Five," featuring 29 songs, including a new version of "Heal the Pain" recorded as a duet with Sir Paul McCartney.
June 17, 2008: Opens his first U.S. tour in 15 years in San Diego. Tells the California crowd, "I was watching TV yesterday and saw two women get married!" He then launched into the song "Amazing," which he dedicated to Goss.
Sean Layton: Walking before daylight
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
He was the quiet one, but the silence he has left behind
has carved a cavern in the Tulsa music scene that will not
be easily filled.
Sean Layton, 29, an immensely talented Tulsa drummer,
died last weekend, ending a career that invigorated the
creative spirits of countless local musicians and music
A funeral took place Monday morning, but the real
tribute occurred that night at Living Arts of Tulsa when
dozens of Layton's friends and fellow musicians — one and
the same, in most cases — conducted a drumming circle in
Layton was the first drummer for the Jacob Fred Jazz
Odyssey. After leaving the band in '99, he joined Steve
Pryor's Neighbors, which also included Jacob Fred bassist
Reed Mathis (who is already planning a retrospective
tribute CD of Layton's songs). Until several months ago,
Layton was ubiquitous in the Tulsa music scene, providing
the pulse for projects from Mummy Weenie to Leslie Brown.
I have interviewed Layton maybe a half dozen times. He
rarely spoke up, but when he did, it always mattered. It
was usually the last word on a particular subject. I
remember a typically circuitous interview with all seven
members of Jacob Fred, a discussion of the band's reasons
for recording all of its records live. Layton seized a rare
pause in the harangue and said, "We're just a live band and
there's nothing we can do about it." End of discussion.
For Layton, that's how life and music was — a spiritual
compulsion. He spoke little about his art, choosing to
channel all those things he couldn't do anything about into
his drumming and singing. His work on kits for the
Neighbors was certainly enough, but in that band he began
to expand his talents into composing and singing. His voice
was unmistakable — a lot of Leon Redbone and a little
Charlie Brown. He sang beautiful lyrics capturing his awe
at everything from the majesty of a forest to the dancers
It's those positive messages his friends will remember
"I went and looked at my bookshelf after I heard that he
died," said Jacob Fred keyboardist Brian Haas this week.
"There are at least 30 titles in there that he gave to me.
He spread so much knowledge and goodness in his life. He
also introduced me to so many people I know in the Tulsa
music scene. He affected my life in ways that will always
be remembered and deeply, deeply appreciated."
As a mere listener, I am cautious about claiming that a
musician affected my life as deeply as he did a fellow
player. Then again, those of us in the crowd are who
they're making the music for, and it is their mission to
affect us. Layton never failed to lift my spirit, and I
rest easier believing at least that his is now lifted as
high as it can go.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Contrary to popular opinion, I don't hate Hanson.
Sometimes I grow weary of dealing with the story — fielding
daily calls from an endless stream of pre-teen girls, foreign
journalists and creepy sycophants who think I have some inside
track on the personal habits, bodily markings and whereabouts of
the world's newest pop triumvirate. One guy even offered to snap
infra-red photos of the boys in their secret rehearsal spot. Yeesh.
Nobody really hates Hanson. Even the ghouls who create web pages
glamorizing fantasies about assaulting our cherubic idols don't
really hate them. Real hatred rarely inspires such tribute.
Cynics who naturally rail against anything that becomes hugely
popular can't hate them completely. The songs are too good, the
melodies are too sweet and Taylor has too much raw soul. I can't
tell you how many times such people — myself included — have
begun discussions of the pop trio by saying, “Well, I don't have
anything against their music, but ...''
But what? All other arguments are irrelevant. If you dislike a
group because of its look, you're shallow. If you dislike a group
simply because of its popularity, you have an inferiority complex
that should be dealt with. If you dislike a group because the
members' personalities chafe you, you're missing the point of pop
As Diana Hanson, the Hanson mom, told me early this year, “All
that stuff about what it was like for them to play Legos together
is diversionary. The music is what matters, and that story is out
Hanson's “Middle of Nowhere'' album was a triumph for pop
music. The melodies are catchy — resistance is futile — and the
words frequently nonsensical. It's bright, cheerful and completely
disposable. “MMMBop'' sounds great every time you hear it, even
after a hundred listens, and it demands nothing intellectual of
you. That's pop. It could be gone tomorrow, but it will have served
its purpose well.
For those reasons, I love the guys. I'm a power pop fanatic, and
this music fits into my personal groove. In my reporting and
criticism, I attempt to craft a more personal tone than your basic
national media outlet. In so doing, I often end up sounding more
snide than is warranted.
The last thing I want to become is part of the Tulsa music
scene's problem. Tulsa's scene suffers mostly because area media --
and fans — consistently disrespect their own. I have infinite
respect for what these boys have achieved this year, and I hope
others join me, regardless of musical tastes, in puffing with just
a bit of pride in our hometown sons' accomplishments. Perhaps we
could do the same for numerous other impressive musicians in our
talent-packed local scene.
Of course, there's the rub: Hanson may have been born and
home-schooled within our city limits, but they are hardly a product
of the local music scene. The 300-plus local gigs Hanson publicists
love to tell you about likely were as much as 95 percent private
functions — not exactly dues-paying circumstances. They made
virtually no effort to test their mettle in the Tulsa marketplace,
where clubgoers choose to pay for the performance.
In the end, bypassing that probably helped Hanson succeed better
than anything. After all, Leon Russell — previously Tulsa's most
famous rock 'n' roll product — usually charges a greater fee when
he plays Tulsa. Why? Because the audiences here aren't as big, and
they don't respect him. Had Hanson suffered in the local concert
scene, Mercury Records might not have mustered the confidence to
support the boys as heartily as they did.
Therein lies my only valid gripe against the group: since the
album hit, Tulsans have not seen hide nor hair of the boys. They
have completely ignored their hometown fans. They even canceled
their scheduled appearance at Tulsa's centennial homecoming
celebration in September — a bad PR move that only made their
heads look larger from the perspective of us little people back
home in Green Country. Then again, maybe this is why Tulsa fans are
so punchy; if we do help someone reach stardom,
we'll probably never see them again.
It's something to think about the next time someone complains
about Tulsa's dearth of culture and fame. Suggest that next weekend
they blow their movie-rental bucks on a cheap cover charge at a
local club. Hear some music. Socialize instead of retreat. See what
And thank you for your support.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.