Thursday, January 12, 2012

Back to the music and other stories

For as expansive as my tastes are, there are a fair amount of musical styles, mostly modern ones, that I simply can't relate to. There is no resonance, to use the musical term. What follows is a recent single from Slash's band, Velvet Revolver:

Now, I was never a big Slash fan. Guns 'n Roses was not really my cup of tea, although I appreciate the driving beat on Welcome to the Jungle and I certainly appreciate Slash's talent on guitar, for which he's become pretty widely recognized. But neither his playing nor the band's ("Velvet Revolver" immediately makes me think of both the Velvet Underground and the Beatles' Revolver; subliminal intent or just me being old?) on the above "Set Me Free" evokes anything from me at all. Nothing leaps from the music to make it memorable. It's simply a constant drone in one direction or another. Of course, having Scott Weiland as your lead singer doesn't help in that respect. Since he stopped aping Eddie Vedder in the early 90s, he seems to have reverted to the level of "growl" as a vocalist. Since most of the band is already producing what is essentially an elevated growl, that doesn't help. There is no contrapunte, as it were.

Now, that could simply be my disaffection for the musical style. I have never been a heavy metal/hard rock person; vastly preferring the speed and anarchism of punk when it came to guitar-dominated music. But, in hearing this, I can think immediately of a similar song from my deep, dark past that has the same kind of beat and elevated string work that is appealing:

Having not heard much of anything from Van Halen since 5150, I've long thought that Fair Warning was their best album because of its simple approach (none of the synth stuff that soon dominated their music) and very bluesy theme. "Unchained" lacks the speed of most punk and, in fact, has the same droning approach as "Set Me Free" but there's enough blues foundation and style to it that it doesn't sound like it was produced on an assembly line. Imagine a stamping machine. Every time it strikes the line, there's another casting of a Scott Weiland-fronted 3.5 minute single.

On something of a tangent, my most memorable moment of Weiland's career was a date on which he actually didn't appear. In the mid-90s, KISS began their "Return to the Makeup" tour in the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Sponge and Stone Temple Pilots (Weiland's band) were supposed to open for them, but Weiland's addiction to heroin caused STP to cancel. In the end, a smaller local band that I don't remember (probably because we didn't see them, having spent an hour or two outside the stadium drinking...) and Sponge did the openers. We made it inside for the last couple numbers of Sponge's performance and our seats were on the playing field, some 60 rows back from the stage, which was set up in front of the right field seats. I was there with my business partner, Jeff Donaldson, his brother, and a few of his friends. Jeff had come up with the tickets through his job at Chrysler and had had to talk me into going. As noted before, most heavy metal acts are a non-starter for me. I remember being fascinated with Gene Simmons as a kid because he was all demonic- and sorcery-like and I'm a geek like that, but I had long since left it behind.

Jeff's brother had to use the facilities, so we wandered over to the row of porta-johns by home plate. Looking to my left, down the line of the stage, I noticed that there was no security. People were just milling about. I pointed this out to Jeff who was, like me, always willing to take advantage of an opportunity. The three of us kind of sidled over and sat down in some seats right near the corner of the stage as darkness began to fall. As soon as the lights came up for KISS' entrance, we hopped up and plunged into the crowd. There we were: front row. And to this day, despite my nonchalant attitude about the music, that remains one of the best shows I've ever seen. I walked away drenched with sweat on a humid July evening, a good proportion of which was probably not my own. (If that's at all repellant to you, may I suggest never engaging in martial arts? You can't be afraid of human contact...)

The music itself didn't move me. Sure, I responded to the old hits that I'd heard incidentally on the radio a thousand times (Detroit Rock City, etc.) But what really got me was the showmanship. The band had been doing this for 25 years and, clearly, knew their stuff. I didn't run out and buy a backlog of KISS material, but I could now appreciate it in ways that I couldn't before. Is that part of what resonates with Velvet Revolver fans?

Approaching this from a different angle, here's a band that I first heard live, down at the Falcon Club in Hamtramck:

That's Gangster Fun, a ska outfit that played in the 80s and 90s. I'm a fan of ska, in general, although I don't get as excited about classics of the genre, like UB40, but instead swing back a little closer to the punk end (surprise!) with bands like Streetlight Manifesto:

Nevertheless, what sold me on Gangster Fun was their electric stage presence, especially their front man and vocalist, John Bunkley. The above recording is from one of their albums and it isn't exactly inspirational. While it still had their trademark bouncy beat and John's sly smile behind the lyrics, I wouldn't be surprised if few of you, my faithful 3 or 4 readers, weren't impressed by it. But if you saw them do it live, it would be a whole different story.

I've had this experience at other times with performers like Chris Whitley:

whom I saw open at a Tom Petty concert (Why was I at a Petty concert? I got talked into it, of course. Admittedly, his earlier material from the late 70s is often quite good.) I was impressed enough with his performance to pick up an album, but never went past that because his material at the time just didn't sell me off the stage, unlike Gangster Fun. Would I be more interested in Velvet Revolver after seeing them perform, seeing their intensity, their connection with their audience, their devotion to their own art? I don't know.

In many ways, I've often found that the ability to do it on stage is more appealing to me than anything that can be put on an album. Sadly, in Gangster Fun's case, John left the band in the early 90s. I saw them perform shortly thereafter and they simply didn't have... it. I still enjoyed the music and they produced some good material in following years, but a little bit of the magic was gone and when I hear their music now, I think back fondly to following them to every club in the metro area but am also slightly chagrined at the loss of what was, for me, a great thing. That may be one of the key things that separates me from a lot of more recent music that is so heavily produced that many of the people producing it can't do so in a live setting without computer backup or lip-synching. Would Velvet Revolver's "Set Me Free" be better in concert or worse? Or will it always simply be a question of my general distaste for that style of rock?

Is there a limit to how many things can resonate with any individual? I'd like to think not, but it's not something I can answer anytime soon.