What do these three great rock bands: The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, and The Ramones, all have in common? After all, they are considered to be coming from very different styles, and in certain instances, fans of one group might hate one of the other bands.
The one essential element that ties them all together is that they have a large body of great songs that stand the test of time. No matter the image, style, marketing, or controversy, it always comes down to the songs.
Jagger can rock a stadium, Bon Scott and Brian Johnson can shriek, and Joey Ramone once wore his iconic ripped jeans, leather jacket and sunglasses, but none of that matters too much in the end. Those things, in and of themselves, won’t sell records. It is always about the songs, and without great ones, an artist has essentially nothing.
Even though these groups embody different styles: The Stones (classic blues-based garage rock), AC/DC, (hard-edged blues-based rock with heavy metal elements), and The Ramones (punk), the sense of classic songwriting is still there, where immediacy, structure, melody, and hooks are present.
As a songwriter, I draw parallels between the writing of Rogers and Hammerstein to Jagger and Richards, because both teams created classic songs that have transcended generations, and still stand the test of time. With the Stones, songs from Satisfaction, to Brown Sugar, to Start Me Up still hold up today.
I remember Joey Ramone commenting that he drew upon the chants of the Bay City Rollers for some Ramones tunes. Even though the Ramones are considered punk, many of their best songs, such as Blitzkrieg Bop, Sheena Is a Punk Rocker, and I Wanna Be Sedated, are catchy, pop-oriented, and in the best sense, sing-songy.
AC/DC may have vocals that wail like a banshee, and loud assault-style guitars, but their best songs are catchy rock/pop anthems, like Back in Black, Highway to Hell, and You Shook Me All Night Long.
Musicians, producers, engineers, and even singers can be found, but the songs are the priceless gem stones that are the cornerstone of any artist’s career. In the instance of these three seemingly unrelated bands, they’ve got enough classics to fill more than an entire concert set.
As a songwriter, I have always said that one can never have enough great songs, and that the more that one can write, the better. With these bands, it’s clear what their songs have done for them and the millions of fans they have touched, and will continue to do so, beyond ever-changing styles and the publics’ fickle tastes, for generations to come.
Donna Summer, who had been battling cancer, transitioned into spirit today at the age of 63.
Being referred to as “the Queen of Disco,” can have a semi-derogatory tone. That’s because in the musical world, the word “disco” is the equivalent of your kindergarten classmates chanting on the playground that you’ve got the cooties.
However, if we look at the pop music of today, a large portion of it IS disco, except almost completely done on machines, with auto-tune, and a more technology based production style. Still, the stigma of being called “disco” is a hard one to break.
The reality, though, is that Donna Summer was a tremendously innovative artist. “I Feel Love” was one of the first hit records to use a deliberately mechanical computer based sound, with the music actually being performed on sequencers. She was perhaps the first artist to create an international pop sound, versus one that was regional or national. That sound, which incorporated a more global sensibility, featuring dance, American R&B, euro, synthesizers, and yes, even guitars, paved the way for artists like Madonna.
I connected with a lot of Donna’s work, but I especially loved “Hot Stuff,” which featured her commanding, sassy vocal. That track not only had a sexy groove (featuring drummer Keith Forsey, who also played on Billy Idol’s cover of “Mony Mony”), but an outstanding guitar solo. I use to perform “Hot Stuff” when I played music for strippers in the mid 1980’s, and as a cover during some of my solo shows.
Let’s salute Donna Summer, as not only the “Queen of Disco,” but as a truly groundbreaking artist who helped to pave the way for so many who followed her lead. Revisit the remarkably innovative hit, “I Feel Love” — Skafish
In the 1980’s, the Ray Parker Jr. song “Ghostbusters” became a smash hit, fueled by the hit movie. I heard from a friend who was a radio DJ that Huey Lewis was told that Parker’s song was a direct rip off of his track, “I Want A New Drug.” I immediately responded by saying that I bet Huey would say that it’s no big deal, it’s rock n roll, and let it go at that. The DJ told me that was exactly what Huey said, at least at first. That was until he found out that Ray Parker Jr. deliberately plagiarized Lewis’ song on purpose! At that point, Lewis decided to sue Parker for copyright infringement. Ultimately, the case ended up being settled out of court, with Ray paying Huey a then undisclosed sum.
After listening to the brand new Lady Ga Ga track, “Born This Way,” (written by Ga Ga and Jeppe Laursen), I’m debating a similar question: Did she blatantly rip off the Madonna hit “Express Yourself,” (written by Madonna and Stephen Bray) on purpose, or was it just inadvertent theft through unoriginal songwriting? Could it perhaps be intended as a deliberate homage? As I’ve composed hundreds of works, it’s quite obvious that “Born This Way” is clearly plagiaristic of “Express Yourself.”
It poses the tricky question of whether Madonna would sue. It’s clear to me that she’d easily win the case, but that could be a public relations nightmare for Madonna, making her look very over the hill and unhip. Yet from a legal point of view, if Madonna lets Ga Ga get away with this, it weakens her ability to defend herself against others who would infringe her intellectual property.
Typically, the legal issue with songwriting plagiarism has a lot to do with the actual melodies being too similar between two different songs. On “Born This Way,” the melody is practically identical to “Express Yourself,” but it doesn’t stop there: the chord structure is virtually the same, as is the tempo and the overall feel of the track. I bet those who edit mash-ups could marry the Madonna and Ga Ga track together as one in their sleep.
Unless it’s a deliberate homage, I can’t believe that someone, whether her army of writing partners, producers, record executives, managers, handlers, lawyers, or even a friend, didn’t point out to Lady Ga Ga just how obvious the rip off is. Maybe nobody said anything to her because she’s now surrounded only by yes people. Someone with ANY musical perception would have had to have heard the shockingly blatant similarity.
It’s such a shame that this is the best an artist of Lady Ga Ga’s celebrity and stature can come up with, especially when her last major hit, “Bad Romance,” was a terrific single, and that the entire world was waiting to hear “Born This Way!”
Check out the very unoriginal track here, judge for yourself and leave a comment here on my blog!
Since Sid Vicious’ last public event occurred at my concert in New York at Hurrah’s in December, 1978, the story has never — not even one time — been reported accurately by anyone in the media. And not one person from the media has ever made any legitimate attempt to interview me about what happened back then, even though all the action took place at my performance, literally a few feet in front of me. No one could ever claim that I’m not easy to reach, and no, my band and I weren’t drunk or high that night either….
I had that pesky little sneaking gut level feeling that, just like everything else I’ve ever read and heard about Vicious’ last public event, “Who Killed Nancy” would also be filled with falsehoods, erroneous information, and omissions. Still, I wanted to keep my promise to my Facebook friends, so I finally watched the DVD on New Year’s Day, 2011. Just as I suspected, the film barely mentioned anything at all about what occurred that night, and, of the little that was said, much of it was startlingly inaccurate.
First, here is the miniscule bit of information contained in the film that was correct: This occurred at Hurrah’s in New York City. A band (merely referred to as a “loud band” in the film), was playing. Sid Vicious attacked Todd Smith (the brother of singer Patti Smith), and glass was everywhere.
Here are the “let’s make up whatever we fancy” falsehoods that were stated in the DVD: Todd Smith was referred to as “some drunk moron,” who deserved to be attacked. It was erroneously claimed that Sid was dragged out of the club by his buddies.
Now, for those of us who care about that old dinosaur, the truth: First, Todd Smith was absolutely not drunk that night. Of course, he didn’t deserve to be attacked, and was hardly just “some drunk moron.” He was unassumingly doing his job, which was to watch the stage so that he could help out in case any equipment malfunctioned or anything else went wrong at my show. Todd was his sister’s (the legendary Patti Smith) road manager; he was only working the Skafish show that night as a favor to us since Patti was not on tour at the time.
Secondly, Sid was not dragged out of the club by his friends or anyone else, but by then Skafish road manager, Jimy Sohns. At the time, Sid Vicious was out on bail for the alleged murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen on October 12, 1978. He specifically came to Hurrah’s to see Skafish play, even though in the movie, the actual name of my band was not mentioned even one time.
He was brought to the show by Danielle Booth, who hung around with my band back in 1976-1977. Danielle, who claimed to have been a groupie for The Rolling Stones when she was 14, was from Dune Acres, Indiana, and her family had money. When Skafish first played CBGB’s on April 12th and 13th 1977, she hitched a ride with us from the Chicago area to New York. A while later, Danielle and Sid Vicious became friends and bonded through doing drugs together.
When Vicious came to see our show, he stood right at the front of the stage and was staring intensely at us during our set. Artist Robert Mag snapped the picture of Sid (above in this post) minutes before the attack. During our performance, Sid first began making gestures from the audience at my guitarist/vocalist Karen Winner. As our set progressed, Sid took notice of Skafish female drum roadie Tara, and started making flirtatious advances toward her, including pinching her.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Tara, she once dated Cheap Trick singer Robin Zander, and was brought to her first Skafish show in Chicago in the fall of 1976 by the band. She then may have become the first female drum roadie ever when she started working in that capacity for Skafish shortly after she saw us perform.
I was not surprised that Sid noticed Tara, as people were often attracted to her. In February, 1978, when Skafish headlined the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles, Doug Fieger (who had yet to form “The Knack”), was at the time a member of the opening band, “The Sunset Bombers.” Fieger, like Vicious, took strong notice of Tara, and subsequently wrote the song “Oh Tara” about her, released it on the Knack’s debut LP “Get The Knack” and dedicated it to her. At the time, Tara completely rebuffed Fieger’s gesture of the song’s dedication to her, and in the same way, she was not in the least bit interested in Sid’s flirtatious advances either.
By the time Vicious was making overtures to Tara at our show in New York, we were all used to unpredictability at our concerts, so no one lost their cool. Todd Smith (who was dating Tara at the time, and subsequently married her) simply went up to Sid and politely asked him to just wait to flirt with Tara till after the show, as she and he were watching the stage for us that night. In addition to what I observed from the stage, Tara later confirmed to me that was exactly how Todd dealt with the situation, as he was not confrontational, upset, or territorial in the way he approached Vicious regarding his making advances toward Tara on any level.
That’s when Vicious, totally unprovoked, suddenly smashed a beer bottle right across Todd’s face. Smith did not fight back. As for the Skafish band, since we were so used to all kinds of violence at our shows, we just played on. Ironically, at the time of the attack, we were performing the rather sedate “She Lives For Love.” Sid’s ambush-style assault caused Todd to be rushed to the hospital to receive multiple stitches.
Reacting immediately to the attack, our then road manager Jimy Sohns (singer for the legendary “Shadows of Knight”), rushed from behind the mixing board where he was doing sound. He punched and strong-armed Vicious, dragged him through the club and threw him down the flight of stairs that led up to Hurrah’s. Amidst the unpredictable insanity, we completed our performance that night, as usual.
Then, a little less than two months later, Sid Vicious unfortunately and sadly died on the morning of February 2, 1979 from a drug overdose taken the night before….
For me, as I look back on this event that happened a little over 32 years ago, it is still crystal clear to me. Since I’ve been victimized by revisionist history throughout my entire musical career, I once again felt it necessary to set the record straight after watching the DVD “Who Killed Nancy.”
In most versions of Vicious’ last public event, the majority of the actual story is simply left out, and the blanks are filled in any way that fits someone’s preposterous flight of fancy. I have read various contradictory accounts by several people who all claim that THEY were the ones who actually grabbed Sid Vicious that night and removed him from the club. Some associates of Vicious assert that it was HE who was the victim of an unprovoked attack by Todd Smith, and that the glass from Todd’s assault is what actually cut him, not Sid.
I’ve been in disbelief every time I’ve read that the person Sid flirted with was one of my band members, instead of Tara. I don’t know where people got this one, but I’ve read that the assault occurred at 2:30 AM, way AFTER my band and I finished our performance. Oops – and one more for the road: I’ve noticed multiple accounts that this occurred at Max’s Kansas City. The erroneous misinformation that’s falsely sold as “history” just gets more “colorful” all the time, especially the inaccurate and utterly ludicrous claims about Todd Smith’s role in all of this.
I learned a long time ago both as an artist and as a person that unfortunately, truth is not something that people as a whole value, even though everyone would swear that’s exactly what they want. After all, who would admit to lying and/or wanting to be lied to? What people perceive as truth, though, is often what is emotionally convenient to them, and bought into via those who know how to effectively manipulate the media and get their point of view out there, no matter how inaccurately.
I find it compelling that this piece of rock ‘n’ roll history unfolded right in front of my very eyes. It fascinated people in December of 1978, and as I’m sure that we’ll see even more “versions” of that night popping up from here on out, I’m more than willing and happy to tell anyone who genuinely cares to know what really happened back then the actual truth.
I grew up listening to my mother, a world-class coloratura soprano, sing at the house with her opera singing friends. Later, my mother, along with my high school choral director, taught me how to sing correctly (as in using the voice as nature intended it so it does not get damaged). After performing and making records of my own, I also taught voice to others. As I have a great appreciation for the combination of emotional power and expression, technique, relaxation, and confidence that is so essential to being a phenomenal vocalist, here are my 10 favorite singers (in no particular order), who truly have impressed and still inspire me:
1-Muddy Waters: I certainly appreciate the fact that Muddy was a friend and supporter of mine, and in my opinion, he is the unquestionable king of the electric blues. Waters is also the godfather of the modern rock band, and a large part of why the Rolling Stones and every other pale blues/rock band even exist. Muddy’s commanding vocal delivery and alpha-male-testosterone-laden voice let you know just who the man is every time he opened his mouth. Even as he aged, he didn’t lose the vocal power that was unquestionably his.
2-Howlin’ Wolf: Like Waters, Howlin’ Wolf is another classic Chicago blues legend of incomparable vocal talent. His large, intimidating stature matched his voice which sounded like a chainsaw that could hack through literally anything on earth. Wolf captivated fans with his ominous and even spooky delivery on tracks such as “Smokestack Lightnin’,” the Willie Dixon penned “Back Door Man,” and “Evil (Is Going On).”
3-Elvis Presley:Beyond being one of the largest cultural icons of the 20th century, the king of rock ‘n’ roll was actually a quite good technical vocalist, who paid attention to pitch, tone, and technique much of the time. He had the rare gift of being able to pour so much emotion into every single line of each song he ever sang. Presley’s uncanny ability to take even mediocre songs like “Too Much” and “Stuck On You,” and through his vocal delivery, transform them into number 1 smash hits lands him as one of my absolute favorites.
4-Luciano Pavarotti: What else could be said about Luciano’s near flawless voice? With a gorgeously balanced and rich tone, Pavarotti’s voice was a perfect blend of chest, head, and middle registers. As classical music is so regimented of an art form, it takes a phenomenal vocalist to bring about the richness of expression that connects to a broad audience within such a restrictive, rigid musical format, and Pavarotti masterfully did just that.
5-Aretha Franklin:When the Queen of Soul shouts out “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” you give it to her right on the spot. One of the most powerfully primal vocalists ever, Aretha belts out every song with unquestionable authority, range, and vocal resonance. When I heard Aretha speak in an interview about how she wanted to sing classical music, I was so impressed with the fact that she refused to restrict her talent to the styles she is most known for.
6-Bessie Smith: Some nights after performing my solo show, I would emotionally wind down by coming home and listening to Bessie Smith in the early AM hours before falling asleep. With a voice as big as a Mac Truck, Bessie simply opened her mouth and sang without the benefit of any modern technology, and let her voice wail. Smith also had fantastic vocal discipline and control, and didn’t strain her voice in the same way that so many blues singers commonly do.
7-Maria Callas:What I like so much about the voice of Maria Callas, is that when she sang a classic aria, it was unlike so many other female opera singers who sounded more prim and proper, formal, and even prissy. Callas’ voice (even within the rigid confines of classical music), possessed a primal dominance and aggressive spirit that could simply overtake her listeners while unlocking the inherent emotional potential of the composition.
8-Little Richard:When Richard sang rock ‘n’ roll back in the 1950’s, his voice was truly like no other. Commandingly hitting high notes that decades later, only the best heavy-metal-wailers could deliver, Little Richard may simply be the most compelling and dominant straight-out rock ‘n’ roll belter of all time. In fact, Jimi Hendrix (who had played guitar for Richard), had remarked that he wanted to do with his guitar what Little Richard did with his voice.
9-Frank Sinatra: His words, phrasing and delivery always captivated his listeners with each song he sang. In the classic tradition of singers who actually sang entire songs through with no technological “fix-me-ups,” Sinatra delivered every performance with the authority of being the only boss in town as he so masterfully displayed in tracks like, “New York, New York.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sinatra also had the gift of being able to convey the sense of intimacy that he was singing only to you.
10-Paul McCartney:To me, Paul is one of the best pop singers ever. I give him credit because his vocal performances have been quite consistent on his studio recordings, and he largely still sounds great live. Someone I knew who had worked with Paul McCartney told me that he ideally needs 2-3 days rest between performances, and even today, when he’s in good voice, he sounds as wonderful as he did back in the 1960’s on such tracks as “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yesterday.”
As an artist, I have spent my entire life waging an all out assault and war against artistic mediocrity in any way I could. I’m especially referring here to safe, disposable, forgettable, predictable pop (meaning “hit records”). To have the supposedly sacred gift of the hit record, the music must be a statement of complete mediocrity, as fine art is never for the masses. As the masses can only receive and relate to the level of consciousness they possess (which is of course, mediocre at best), that’s the kind of “art” they’ll gobble up and buy. The same boring chords and melodies grace the airwaves and the charts over and over, and when someone comes along who adds just a smidgen or a twist of a different flavor, they’re heralded as geniuses.
Throughout the history of popular music, the historical and cultural value attached to an artist has been largely based on how famous they’ve been. However, in today’s culture, someone’s sole value as an artist is now based on how famous they are – pure talent, innovation and artistic contribution don’t really matter. All one has to do is to be famous and all kinds of erroneous labels are attached to them: genius, pioneer, visionary, trailblazer, icon, legend, etc.
When I saw a parody video by the comedy musical group Axis of Awesome on this very subject, I wasn’t able to stop laughing all day. And if you’re a musician or have ever been around music making, you’ll really get how brilliant this video is. First, they take just 4 chords, and convincingly assert that all pop songs of the last 40 years only use these 4 chords. And then they back it up by performing an extended medley of these songs without missing a beat, even performing 2-3 of them simultaneously. Since these songs are so utterly mediocre from a musical perspective, 2-3 of them can be performed at the same time as if they are all the same song.
In addition to that, they left out 1950’s doo-wop hits which they could have also included, as so many of them use the exact same 4 chords. Just think, if I could only use those 4 chords, I’d be famous too, lol!
Then, I came across another video that captures the same spirit: A comedian named Rob Paravonian talks about his experience as a young cellist performing the Pachelbel Canon in D. Then, in the video, he starts humming multiple pop songs that all musically fit on top of the Canon. Ironically, all of those songs have the same 4 chords as mentioned in the Axis of Awesome video. For me as a musician, I found this to be as hilarious as one of my favorite movies, This is Spinal Tap.
As the musical world turns, our current artistic culture continues to be as lasting and brilliant as a gourmet McDonald’s cheeseburger.
I have always liked Mick Jagger both as a songwriter and a front-man. He’s my kind of performer because he takes charge and dominates the audience like an alpha-male lion tamer, just as a great entertainer must, especially in the context of the huge arena concert where so many things can go awry. As a front-person, one must always feel like he or she is playing in the Super Bowl to win and be the MVP – every single performance. This is the mindset I have always tried my best to have as a performer, and with my unbridled audacity, I fondly remember one reviewer referring to me as a “Mutant Mick Jagger” back in the day.
So when Mick Jagger was slated to be on Larry King Live recently (in part to promote the re-release of the Stones’ classic LP Exile on Main Streetalong with a companion film documentary of the time period), I was excited to see the interview. In watching Mick and Larry, I was somewhat surprised at how animated and engaging Jagger was, but most of all, quite startled by his humility. (Usually legendary rock stars like Jagger & humility are never spoken of in the same sentence.)
Instead, Mick could have easily told Larry, “Because we’re fucking great!” or “We’re the worlds’ greatest rock n roll band,” which he certainly could have gotten away with saying. Yet he didn’t, and that showed a great deal of awareness on his part regarding the actual reality of how and why The Stones’ success and fame happened. He didn’t let his ego get in the way, which would have been easy to do because of the level of success he’s received throughout his career. Mick may have called it like it is, but are luck and being at the right place at the right time really what they appear to be?
The word “luck” suggests something incredibly fantastic that happens to us seemingly out of the blue and at random with no actual cause behind it. However, “luck” is never really what it seems to be as things really do happen in our lives for a deeper spiritual reason than what meets the human eye. Even for those who are spiritually cynical, physics does indeed prove the immutable law of the universe that for every effect, there is an initial cause. In short, there is always a reason behind everything that happens to us.
As many of you already know, I have been trained by great spiritual masters since I was a teenager, and can easily speak with the spirits of the dead. And I understood from a spiritual perspective exactly what Mick was saying, as synchronously, I had been thinking of this very subject a few days before his interview with Larry King. When Jagger refers to being lucky and being at the right place at the right time, he is actually speaking to something that is quite spiritually profound.
There is a great metaphysical/spiritual phrase that states, “When nature supports a decision, you know it’s the right one.” In practical terms, what does this phrase really mean and how does it apply to musicians and entertainers like The Rolling Stones?
Presumably, every artist who gets into the game initially has a dream and the desire to make it. Then, they work hard and try their best to hit it big. Often, there is a business push by a record label. Yet, is that enough for someone to become successful? Of course it isn’t.
Becoming successful takes way more than what the artist or anyone associated with them can do to make it happen, as many artists who work hard and have talent never hit it big. Jagger spoke to that quite eloquently when he mentioned in the interview the often sad truth that there are a lot of artists who are talented and work hard but don’t ever make it.
For those who do strike gold like The Stones, something else outside of themselves must happen in addition to their hard work, talent and business push. The energetic universal force of nature that humans cannot control must support it, like a cosmic tidal wave that carries us in a certain direction. And this force has absolute direction, precision, intention, and purpose in our journeys. It brings people, things, and occurrences into our lives with precise synchronicity and perfect timing. This is all beyond what any of us can humanly do for ourselves. Think of it like being taken on a wondrous ride in a rocket to the moon or the magical miracle of winning the lottery.
In pragmatic terms, we witness this cosmic phenomenon when things just fall into place, miracles happen and everything comes together in a way that appears to be out of the blue. Never forget that if one thinks of all of the uncountable variables that would have to occur to make it big, and then stay there as The Rolling Stones have for multiple decades, they are humanly incalculable and/or controllable.
Why did Mick Jagger meet Keith Richards? Was that random? Why did their song Satisfaction sell ten million copies in the mid 1960’s? Why do things seem to keep falling into place for The Stones? Is it all an accident? The phenomenal success of The Rolling Stones represents a situation where nature clearly supports the decision.
Again, if someone is not spiritually minded and just dismisses it all as the luck of the draw with a little bit of business and talent thrown in for good measure, physics clearly dismisses that line of thinking by proving that everything that happens has an initial cause behind it – it is never at random. I just like to look at those provable causes from a deeper, more metaphysical and spiritual point of view.
Even as I reflect on my own artistic career, there have been times when nature supported what I was doing which was far beyond my own efforts and control (even though I was obsessive about it all, lol). The mere idea that I made it to the international stage within four years of debuting in Chicago without ever granting interviews, playing the game, or having any big money behind me speaks to this truth. The fact that I connected with Miles Copeland who signed me to an international record deal and put me in the classic film, Urgh! A Music War (which is what I’m probably the most well known for at this point in time), are examples of nature supporting a decision which was not of my doing.
When my most recent album, What’s This? 1976-1979 was finally released on April 1, 2008, it was over thirty years later, and for decades, it seemed like it would never see the light of day. However, when it was supposed to, it was released. The phrase, “When nature supports a decision, you know it’s the right one,” applies to that record being born. And I’m so grateful to have witnessed the meaning and implications of this great spiritual statement many times.
Whether Mick Jagger understands it spiritually or just in a practical sense, he’s wise enough to know that there was something that has been happening all along which facilitated The Stones’ great success that is far beyond hard work, the fans, and being tactical. Whether any of us think of it merely as luck and being at the right place at the right time, or as something quite spiritually profound, it is the atomic force of this universe which can move mountains in a heartbeat that does it. And every so often, we see how nature does that in such a remarkably precise, magical and wondrous way with artists and entertainers like The Rolling Stones.
I always find homophobia, especially in America, to be a combination of two extremes: the laughably absurd, and the terrifyingly tragic.
Absurd, when we see homophobic athletes hugging each other tighter than they’d ever with a woman, gently patting each other’s asses all game long, and even kissing, all under the guise of being absolutely straight “real men” together at war!
Tragic, in the case of the countless men who have been murdered, harassed, etc. because of being gay, or even for just being perceived to be. Of course, the Matthew Shepard murder is one of the first to come to mind. I’m sure most of you know the case, where twenty-one-year-old Matthew was brutally murdered in Wyoming simply because he was gay.
I was also quite emotionally struck by the suicide of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an eleven-year-old Massachusetts boy who killed himself because he could no longer take the bullying and taunts of his classmates for being perceived as being gay. Right before his twelfth birthday in April, 2009, he hung himself because of almost an entire year of daily harassment, where of course, the school did nothing about it. I wrote an essay about it here on my blog entitled Still, there’s no liberation here.
So in the seemingly endless struggle for gay people to have equal rights in a country that prides itself on equality but doesn’t legislate or live it out, here is the latest installment in Mom’s Apple Pie homophobia:
A dating website dedicated to gay men called mancrunch.com recently submitted an ad to be run during the Super Bowl of 2010. In it, two regular looking guys, wearing different football jerseys suddenly realize their attraction for each other as their hands gently touch in a snack bowl while watching the big game. Then, they start mock-madly hugging/kissing, while a male friend of theirs looks on with his jaw on the floor.
Well, of course, CBS television rejected the ad – as if any of us couldn’t predict that one, lol. CBS claimed that they just weren’t sure of mancrunch.com’s financial holdings. Conversely, a representative for the website says that they have more than enough cash to pay for the ad. We all know the real reason why CBS cited financial concerns. Even though they won’t cater to gays and lesbians for this ultimate testosterone muscle-flexing fest, they certainly don’t want to offend them, either. So I’m sure there was some hush-hush meeting behind closed doors where executives deduced that the only safe way to nix the ad (without experiencing the backlash of the national and international gay community) was to express financial concerns — as if a gay check wouldn’t clear the bank in the same way a straight check would, lol.
From a business point of view, both CBS and mancrunch.com are acting smart, and handling this in ways that benefit their respective interests. In the case of CBS, running that ad would mean that they would receive countless complaints, idiotic boycotts by religious housewives, and a lot of sensationalistic pseudo-media controversy. The network would take a strong financial hit as advertisers would frantically pull their dollars like scurrying cockroaches that have just been hit by roach spray when the lights are turned on.
Imagine if the ad actually ran: regular beer drinking jocks all across this country would be saying, “What the fuck, man, what is this mother fucking bull shit – two dudes, kissing!?” Perhaps, hoards of television patrons may even turn off their TV sets in disgust, pray to Jesus a while to purify themselves as if they were washing away cooties on their skin, while the good ole’ boys could run out and get drunk to find some man-validating pussy.
We’ve all seen how the religious right can create such a stir by boycotting products. With their shrill, relentless, judgmental voices, they intimidate sponsors and television networks into conforming to their uptight, hateful values. Imagine the family scene with little toddlers in front of the TV, as their parents and grandparents gasp in utter panic as two men show sexual/ romantic interest in each other. CBS shows would be boycotted all across this country as fast as one could say “In the name of Jesus,” alongside similar threats to any sponsor’s products that advertised on the network.
Mancrunch.com’s strategy is simply brilliant because it’s presumable that they knew that this ad would never get on CBS television for the super bowl. However, in submitting it, the media is already extensively covering this story. This brought a huge amount of traffic to their website, which is exactly what they wanted. Whether they paid for the ad to run during the super bowl or just reaped the cost-free benefits from the exposure they’re getting in the media, they can’t lose, as this ad certainly went viral and brought a huge boost to their client base.
Here’s the proof: First, it made a splash on the internet Then, in recent days leading up to the Super Bowl, Larry King Live covered this story where they aired the ad, along with people on both sides of the issue who debated the whole ordeal. In that show, a representative of mancrunch.com claimed that they’ve had 50 thousand new subscribers sign up in just the past week, obviously from all the attention this story has gotten.
For the Super Bowl, CBS is willing to run a Pro-Life ad featuring some down-home boy-next-door heartland college quarterback in it. Yet, if they want to run such a divisive ad (as this country is so split on abortion), so be it – but then let the mancrunch.com ad run, too. There was an article that stated that CBS worked with the organization doing the pro-life ad for months, but the Mancrunch ad did not get that same consideration.
So as we see that even in 2010, prejudice, homophobia, and the divisive, hateful qualities of traditional America are still well in toll. In my case, not only was I abused virtually every day of my 12 years in school for being perceives as being gay, called a “faggot,” attacked mercilessly by both students and shockingly, even teachers as well. The abuse didn’t stop there: When I entered the world of rock n roll, I naively thought I had found a home. How wrong I was, as rock n roll, especially punk, is a very conservative, narrow-minded art-form.
My contributions to Chicago and the world’s musical history have been virtually erased, especially by the punk community, which is just as myopic in its vision as 1970’s corporate arena rock was. When I created punk, new wave and alternative in Chicago and broke all the rules both musically and visually, there was one big problem: I could be perceived as a faggot. Besides gender bending, I presented one of the most ugly, unflattering, unattractive physical presentations in rock history – and Chicagoans, at large, weren’t having it. Whether it was me stripping down to an old, musty one-piece old-ladies bathing suit with babushka, or people seeing my actual breasts, the punk community, especially in Chicago, couldn’t deal with it.
David Witz, a writer for the Chicago Reader wrote in February 1978 about the terror of a “faggot” like me actually representing Chicago. As truth be told, I was the only Chicago artist back then to take it to the national and international stage and was the first American artist to secure a recording contract with one of the most influential record labels of all time to the birth of punk, new wave and alternative music, IRS Records. Witz begged people to boycott my performances and flee from seeing me.
It didn’t stop there: over thirty years later in the historically inaccurate Chicago punk documentary You Weren’t There, released in 2007, my musical contributions to Chicago and world culture were purposefully and completely erased. Because of the gender-phobia/perceived as gay/not being visually stereotypic issues, instead of receiving credit for what I accomplished and started musically, I was lumped in with fringe local performance artists. Websites such as the Chicago punk data base have trivialized and marginalized what I’ve done as an artist, saying I wasn’t really punk.
It’s just the same old homophobia I experienced in my high school locker room, except now, it is by the rock and punk community who bend history more than I ever did with gender. It gives me renewed meaning as to why I wrote such protest songs as No Liberation Herein the first place.
We tend to think of acoustic musical instruments as somehow being natural and organic: like a piano, acoustic guitar, violin, and a drum kit – but in reality, are they really? Why are the steel pieces of a drum kit natural? How about the wood of an acoustic guitar? What’s organic about the cast iron that’s used in a piano?
Over the last centuries, we’ve seen an evolution involving materials that are used in the making of music: whether it is the hammers and ivory of a piano to the heavy duty strings of an upright bass, or even the enormous machinery of a massive pipe organ. Could there have been purists even back then who thought it was anti-human to produce music using anything other than the only true natural instruments that exist on earth: the human voice and the sounds of nature?
Then, after electricity came along, we saw the whole game change in the 20th century: microphones could amplify the voice and alter its quality; performances could be recorded and reproduced. Was it natural to amplify the human voice? Couldn’t a purist have thought it hypocritical for some machine to make a person sound artificially louder than they were actually singing?
Imagine how some may have felt when multi-track recorders were introduced. For the first time ever, one could record music, and then overdub (“add-on”) more music to what had already been recorded within the same song. Then, when multi-track recording become even more sophisticated, entire albums started being recorded part-by-part: meaning the drummer played alone, then the guitarist could do his part separately by himself, etc. Even though it ended up sounding like everyone was all performing together at the same time, they weren’t. What about purists who thought that everyone should be forced to play at the same time when recording, just like it would have to be really done in a “live” performance? Could this all have been seen as some type of fraud and technological trickery!?
I remember in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s when drum machines were infiltrating the music- making market. Even though rhythm machines had existed before on such instruments as the Hammond Organ, people in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s were starting to make records using drums and rhythm from a non-human artificial machine. Did it cause controversy? Of course it did, as many people thought it was a fake and bogus way to produce rhythm on a record.
In addition to drum machines that produced mechanically perfect rhythm, sequencers also emerged, which allowed musical notes and parts to be entirely programmed and executed by a machine. Therefore, artists no longer had to play their instruments. I remember hearing Depeche Mode defend their work by saying that music is about “ideas,” and not necessarily being able to play an instrument. There were people who vehemently criticized groups like them and Human League. These were artists for all intents and purposes who did not have conventional musical ability to be able to play an instrument, or certainly, not to any technical level worth noting.
Yet, now, rhythm machines and sequenced music are commonplace and just accepted as a part of our musical culture. You would hardly hear anyone today complain about a drum machine, or a sequenced (machine played) musical part. Why is that?
The reason is that people are like sheep – and whenever something becomes culturally engrained in our collective psyche, it becomes accepted. Even though people think of themselves as being individuals with unique viewpoints because of their loudness, rudeness, and over-opinionated jabs, the collective culture is easily manipulated. If something is done long enough and becomes popular, it gets established as part of the conventional aesthetics of the time.
It all starts with the kids who are more open at the time because they’re young. When they first heard groups like Human League and Depeche Mode, they didn’t say: “Oh my God, they’re not playing those tick-tocky precise parts. It’s done by a fucking machine!!” It sounded good to them – it was new, seemed fresh and became popular. Plus, many other artists kept doing the same thing. Therefore, it is now as acceptable as electric guitars have been for several decades.
In the 1980’s, Metallica and REM were also quite successful, but do we ever think of them as decade-defining artists? Of course not, because they weren’t “pop,” which is what defines musical history in the overall sense in any given time period. That history involves artists who have multiple hit singles, the general sound of music that a lot of artists are doing, and the music that the masses can accept which is always watered-down.
The 1980’s is thought of as a combination of synth-music and heterosexual drag queen pussy-lovin’ “I’ll kick your ass, faggot, even though I’m wearing lipstick” hair metal, lol. The 1980’s was the first decade that openly celebrated and flaunted pop music that not only wasn’t played by a person, but also sounded artificial to the ear: synthesizers had repetitive, robotically fast mechanical notes, we heard programmed, fast hand claps that humans wouldn’t have done, there were some robotic voice effects, and drum machines that sounded like loud firecrackers popped out of a cannon, too.
I’m actually quite thankful for drum machines, as it gave me the ability to record my album, Best Kept Secrets that I released independently in May, 1992. Without a drummer, I was able to bypass a problem that could have wiped out the project. Because of my musicianship, I was able to program a drum machine to be anything I wanted it to be: from the feel of a real drummer to something deliberately electronic sounding.
I also have no problem with sequencers, even though I don’t need them. Anything that could be sequenced, I can play just as well and actually more quickly than it takes to be programmed on a machine. Every once in a while, I used a sequenced part on some songs to Best Kept Secrets, because I only had 4 tracks to work with as the record was done on a 4-track cassette recorder. By having something already sequenced, that mechanical part could be playing at the same time that I was performing a musical part, which allowed both the sequenced part and my part to be recorded onto a single track. Nothing like two for the price of one, lol! Is this clear to someone who doesn’t understand the muti-track recording process?
In the 21st century, the role of technology and machines in music has a far more expanded place than ever before in the creation of music – and some people embrace it, while others hate it with a passion. In reality, most of the music the consumer gets now is highly processed whether it sounds so or not: from rhythm machines and sequencing, to auto-tune pitch correction on the vocals, all the way now to the newest fad which are robotic vocoder voice treatments. Sure, auto-tune robot voice effects will fade, just as huge snare drums of the 1980’s became passé, but a new electronic machine-made gimmick will come along to replace them.
As I was browsing You Tube yesterday, I noticed a brand-new song that really represents what I’m saying here to a “T.” To anyone who knows music at all, it is presumable that none of the musical parts in this track were actually performed by anyone in the way someone sits down and plays a piano keyboard, and that at least the auto-tune robotic vocals were done electronically as well. Since it was machine programmed and executed, it would be hard to actually perform live. Check out Boom Boom Pop by Blacked Eyed Peas:
Another example is the biggest selling downloaded single ever for one week since Soundscan started tracking those figures. It just sold over 600,000 copies in one week, and is TiK ToK by Ke$ha.
In addition to vocoder voice treatments, the music on this track certainly wasn’t actually performed by anyone in the way you would see someone play a drum set or a musical keyboard live. A machine was programmed to do it. Because of the robotic, mechanical nature of the musical parts, it would be quite problematic to duplicate this song in a live show. It would seem that the choices would be to do what Britney Spears does, which is to have the band mime the musical parts like on a video shoot, or just run the track without anyone pretending to be playing anything and add some dancers.
Kids and young adults are used to this kind of thing as we now have more than a generation of music listeners who have grown up on perfect rhythm and machine-made music – not just well-played drums by a person with human feel, but mathematically perfect rhythm and musical parts executed by a machine. It’s now an aesthetic and a sensibility, and expected by listeners. Even if they don’t know so consciously, they need that “feel” to get into a record.
Of course, purists and older people are going to consider this type of music utter crap, but is it any different than a great drummer who saw drum machines as a cheap cop out back in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, or competent arena-rock musicians who hated The Ramones?
However, with technology and machines being so prevalent in today’s music, it creates a weird sort of a dilemma for live performance as this type of music is not able to be authentically duplicated by actual people who would play or sing it. First, the sounds are so diverse and integral to the music and constantly changing, that you couldn’t get a “live” band to recreate that. In addition, the parts are mechanically perfect as programmed into a machine, so people playing them wouldn’t create a feel that sounded right. If there are electronic robotic treatments on the voice, how could someone just duplicate that singing straight into a microphone?
So what does an artist do? Perhaps Britney Spears knew it all along as she’s just lip-synched her way through her performances. Here’s a question: Would the audience who would pay to see these artists really care if anyone was playing, or even singing anything live? They may not want it rubbed in their face that the show is largely or totally canned, but it’s the product that needs to be perfect, not the reality or integrity of the aesthetic. Meaning, which would a kid rather hear: Britney singing horribly, a band who can’t match the sound and feel of the record, or hear pristine vocals and a backing track that was bang on? They want product-perfect, of course, and the experience of the concert to be right. That entails the music and singing being the same as the record and the visuals matching or being similar to whatever the videos are.
For kids today, music is thought of as a backdrop for the experience: of celebrity, the bigger-than-life persona of the artist, and the vibe – and that needs to match the record. Therefore, it might be better for these artists to just fake it live, where the “concert” becomes like a video shoot. For hip-hop, the backing musical tracks have almost always never been “live,” with at least the rapping being live. However, I’ve heard rappers double-tracked; meaning that there is a pre-recorded track of their rap mixed in with the actual “live” rhymes. To me, it’s ludicrous to imagine why that would need to be done, but I’ve heard it.
As this generation of kids grows into being adults, it will become accepted for music to be completely artificially made, and even performed that way. Again, it’s back to the sheep theory, which is that the collective culture will accept anything done long enough that becomes popular. Musicianship doesn’t matter to them, as the person who is the Producer or behind the machines becomes the magician, not the collective performing of a band of musical performers. It’s a different ball-game now.
On the other hand, many of today’s so-called “rock” bands who I’ve heard live have sounded dreadfully horrible. For me, I can really hear how auto-tune and rhythm corrected their records are. It’s as if the actual artist “live” sounds like a flabby, middle-aged second-rate wedding band performing a lame cover version.
Musicianship takes hard work and a lifetime of dedication, because besides the emotional and spiritual commitment needed, there is a tremendous amount of physicality that is involved in singing and playing correctly, and in today’s culture, people are lazier than ever. Could you imagine some kid playing simple scales at the piano hours a day, instead of learning how to operate a software music program that gives them instant results? I think we know the answer to that question in most instances. Even most of the rock bands of today can hardly even play a banal, basic guitar solo….
So as we move further into the 21st century, purists will complain about the current state of affairs. Who knows, there may even be movements of musicians who vehemently take a stand against technology to the degree it’s integrated into music today, but will we ever go back to a mid 20th century sensibility, where people played their instruments (whether acoustic or electric), and actually sang?
What’s next? I think we’ll see programs that you can tell what you want to have and it will create it for you: “I want a classical feel with a hip-hop beat and jazz chords,” and it will spit it out to you – all under the guise of being an original song. How about a program that could rip-off someone else’s song and change it just enough to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit? It’s all possible—and probably in the works.
Back in the 1950’s, the question was actually asked if rock n roll was just some silly, adolescent passing fad. That seems comical to even speculate on now, but the same question can be asked about the role technology and machines will play in the creation, production and “performance” of music today and in the future. The answer is simple just as it was with rock n roll back in the 1950’s: technology and machines are definitely here to stay.
A young aspiring songwriter that I know was so impressed with Led Zeppelin’s songwriting yet couldn’t figure out how they wrote their songs, so he recently asked me where these songs actually came from. As songwriters, we’ve all asked ourselves these questions: “Do songs come from us through our talents, thoughts, and emotions? Are the songs we write merely based on absorbing and assimilating ideas we’ve heard from others?” Many of us have asked, “Is it possible that songs come from a higher power?” Some of us, including music fans, just consider it to be an unanswered mystery.
First, I want to let all of you know that I am not some Johnny-come-lately who suddenly discovered spirituality. The reason I say this is because I recall a fun night I had at the Metro in Chicago in the late1980’s when Polygram Record’s executive and Chicago area native Billy Cox invited me to go with him to see one of his bands from England who was performing there. At the time, he was trying to get me signed to Smash Records, which used to be a very successful label decades earlier. Polygram had acquired ownership of the label and was resurrecting it and looking for Chicago talent to sign.
At the concert, I remember Billy hysterically joking with me about how big rock stars get bored with being multi-millionaire egomaniacs, suddenly find God, then dress in all white and start stupidly running off their mouths about spirituality which they know nothing or very little about.
Some of you may already know that I have been seriously studying metaphysics and spirituality consistently since I was 16 years old and I’ve been extensively trained by highly enlightened spiritual masters. To many, it was considered a campy joke when I listed credits on my first records for spiritual guidance, psychic assistance, and astrologers, as certainly no one was really doing that in the world of punk, new wave and indie.
However, I was dead serious – and I knew back then that most folks would not associate being a hard core rock n roller, (one who has even raised the eyebrows of those in the rock n roll community) with understating the laws of the universe, being able to talk freely to the spirits of the dead, prophetically seeing the future, karma, past lives, and knowing what happens to people when they die. However, for any of you who really know me, you’re probably aware that I have always defied generic classification and stepped outside of the limits of what an audience would be able to accept – and paid for it dearly, lol.
So as I began explaining the spiritual truth of where songs come from to this young songwriter, I also felt inspired to also share this with all of you as it is something that has been clear to me for decades, and a great source of inspiration.
I want you to first think of eternity and how big you can imagine that to be. Then, think of eternity being created by universal mind: the mind that originated, created and joins all (yes, even those of us who feel disconnected, alienated and angry). Then, think of how big that is, and imagine for a moment just how many songs could fit into that infinite space.
Even for those who are non-spiritual and consider it to be corny, remember that I’m the one who challenged organized religion by writing the first blatantly sacrilegious rock song in history with “Sign of the Cross.” So I differentiate between spirituality and organized religion in that one can exist with or without the other.
Keep in mind that physics proves that everything in this universe is interconnected. Whatever a child is doing in India right now affects what I’m doing in Chicago — in real time. So if you’re having a hard time with the “spiritual” part, think of the provable truth that physics teaches regarding connectedness.
In universal mind, there is a treasure trove of infinite masterpieces that are just waiting to be freely channeled and brought into physical manifestation to entertain, enjoy, offer emotional catharsis, promote connection, provide social commentary, lead, enlighten, heal, and bring about anything else you can imagine! The artist is simply the vehicle to bring this through and should do so with utter humility.
Regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, writing a song is a transcendent spiritual process, whereby our higher self channels the song directly from universal mind where all ideas originate from by literally plugging into this consciousness and bringing it through themselves and into physical manifestation: therefore, a creation! It’s just like plugging your guitar into an amplifier and Voila! There is sound!
The more the artist “gets out of the way” by surrendering themselves (especially their ego), the purer and more universal the work is. When the artist interferes with the process through worry, doubt, feeling blocked, self criticism, to opening their energy then shutting down, the more their personal stuff pollutes the creation. Let the song lead you on a wondrous journey; not you try to lead the song. To whatever degree your mind and spirit is truly open, the more access you’ll have to this incalculable treasure trove of masterpieces just waiting to be channeled.
Often, different artists who don’t know each other simultaneously “plug into” the same or similar ideas that exist in universal mind. Have you ever noticed how exact or near exact song titles and ideas appear in songs at the same time? I have. This would be where the songs were created independently of each other without either party being able to hear the other’s creations, as these songs weren’t released yet on record.
Or have you ever noticed how certain styles manifest in different parts of the world at the same time independent of each other where artists have not heard each other yet? I experienced it first hand, when I started dreaming of a new revolutionary sound as early as 1973 and started bringing it into style, sound, concepts and songs, which ultimately gave birth to the Chicago punk movement in February 1976. The Ramones were doing it in New York. In England, it was happening with the Sex Pistols and others there. It was also brewing in Los Angeles and many other places throughout the world.
That, of course became punk, new wave, alternative, then indie. Remember, this was way before the internet where information was instantaneous. For example, I didn’t hear the Ramones until their debut album in August 1976, and they didn’t hear me till they saw me perform at CBGB’s in New York in April 1977. Of course, the pace things cross pollinated at then was far slower.
Back then, it wasn’t just that people were fed up with long air, extended guitar solos and that in and of itself changed the musical world forever. These new styles and songs that came into being have always been present in universal mind as linear time doesn’t exist there as it does here on earth. So when it was ready to occur on earth, these new sensibilities were released into the ether for artists to channel and provide to the world as part of the natural evolution, growth and innovation that occurs in the physical plane.
For artists to be a part of this utter magic of songwriting and creation, they need to build and keep their connection with universal mind. It’s of crucial importance to not sever that delicate, precious connection for even a moment by closing your mind and shutting down, engaging in criticism of others or condemning yourself. Celebrate everyone, everything and be grateful for all the ideas you’ve been given as they are free gifts! Whatever criticism you receive should not be internalized, and perhaps more importantly, don’t attach to praise or approval as that greatly weakens you.
Every artist must keep improving their skill sets, fine tuning the process and continuing to grow, as whatever degree one evolves, just gives them a wider access to this infinite treasure trove of great universal masterpieces. These divine gifts are freely given and freely received by us on earth – from the spiritual planes to the radio waves that blast it back into infinity. Each and every song is a gift — a moment of divine transcendence which will then continue to be shared and experienced by all who are touched by its creation.
From universal mind to the songwriters who channel the work to everyone who is touched by these creations, it is an eternal connection that transforms all of us. Think of the first time you heard a song that just blew you away: it could have been the Beatles, Elvis, or a one-hit wonder. I recall a friend of mine, a great blues guitarist and photographer named Keith Boyan who had been afflicted with polio before there was a vaccine. When we first met around 1975, I remember him telling me how he started spinning uncontrollably on the floor the first time he heard Little Richard and couldn’t stop. The power of Little Richard made someone who had polio move – and in that moment he felt healed.
When any of us have been touched by the utter magic of music (which is all of us), it lifts us above and beyond our five mundane, stuck, heavy and weighted down senses into the world far beyond. Just like the eagle that soars high into the heavens above the clouds: music is cathartic, joining, challenging, healing, connecting, freeing, empowering and more. Whether it’s death metal, a sweaty blues riff, a protest song, a gospel hymn or anything else, it is exactly the same as it all comes from the same spiritual source.
That is what songs are all about as they “plug you in” and get you outside of yourself. They take you above to where you’ve never been before to somewhere magical, other-worldy and transcendent: physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. You’re entire being gets lit up! Whether it’s Keith Boyan spinning on the floor to the great Little Richard, a teenager in their room pretending to be Mick Jagger, a young girl crying to a love song that touches her deeply, or a stadium of people at a concert unified joyously, songs are the one thing that cross all social, cultural, religious and racial barriers — all divides, and every sense of primitive tribal human prejudice there is. The “song” forever unlocks every single door – and sets us free.