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sticky fingers: the life and times of jann wenner and rolling stone magazine

January 26, 2018

I recently finished reading Sticky Fingers, Joe Hagan’s 2017 biography of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone magazine. Even as a lifelong classic rock fan and Rolling Stone reader (albeit one who started reading full sentences around the time Nirvana was releasing Nevermind) this book gave me a whole new perspective on the era I love so much.

It quickly made me realize that I’d taken Rolling Stone for granted – knowing enough when I started reading it in high school to know that it was the music magazine that put heroes of mine, like Tom Petty and Bob Dylan on the cover, and still wrote about them even in issues with Britney Spears on the cover. Identifying as a reader of Rolling Stone back then helped me to establish what I thought of as my music-lover street cred. I knew that it started in San Francisco, and that the first issue had John Lennon on the cover, and that it was founded by a man named Jann Wenner but I didn’t really dive much deeper.

When the controversy over Hagan’s book began to bubble last year – Wenner himself being displeased with the level of personal detail it revealed, it shot to the top of my book list. Not because of the controversy but because I realized that all these years later I didn’t really know the whole story of the magazine I still subscribe to. Living in Los Angeles this past fall I was able to attend Hagan’s author event at Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard. He gave a great talk and spoke about the immense undertaking of authoring a biography on Wenner. But during the talk it became clear that Wenner was not just the true-blue rock fan I had always just assumed him to be, he is a tremendously powerful and divisive force in the pop culture and media landscape.

Sticky Fingers shows the ways that Rolling Stone helped to shape the mythology around rock & roll. How it, and largely Wenner himself, authored the winner’s history of rock that I grew up learning. This is probably not news to anyone who saw Rolling Stone unfold in real time, but I think for my generation it should be required reading. The Rolling Stone version of rock & roll history is the equivalent of the school textbook version of rock & roll history. Smoothed out edges, clean narratives, clear heroes – that isn’t what the true story of anything looks like but it is the packaged image that Wenner and Rolling Stone have successfully sold into mainstream culture.

Jann Wenner is a fascinating character and the book ultimately grapples with the question a lot of people in his life seemed to have asked themselves over the years – is he really a good guy or a bad guy? Of course no one is simply one or the other, but I think every reader of this book could come away with their own judgement of his particular mix.

I have always loved the “classic rock” era – not just for the incredible music but for the unique political, social, and cultural environment it was born out of. Over the  years I’ve read heaps of histories and biographies but Sticky Fingers illuminated an important corner of this world that I hadn’t fully considered. It’s a book that I’m glad to have on my shelf and one I heartily recommend picking up.

thank you, tom petty

October 5, 2017
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From the very beginning.

I was born in 1984. I was born into a world that already had Damn the Torpedoes and Hard Promises and dozens of Tom Petty songs that still sound simultaneously classic and brand new today. There was never any “discovering” Tom Petty for me because he was always there.

From my earliest snapshot memories of childhood – those hazy ones you can’t quite wrap your hands around because they’re just fleeting fragments. The first record I remember loving was The Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1. It came out when I was 4 years old and I can still see those dark sunglassed faces leaning up against the stereo in our house. I could sing all the words to “Handle With Care” before I had the slightest idea who Jeff, Roy, George, Bob and Tom were or how important they would become in my life.

I loved the “Don’t Come Around Here No More” video on MTV. I’d never seen anything like it. I already felt a kinship with Alice in Wonderland because in the confused way a kid’s brain makes connections I thought maybe it was about me – Alison Wonderland. It scared me when they all ate Alice’s cake dress at the end of the video but I was too hooked to ever look away.

When my parents got the Heartbreakers Greatest Hits CD I played it so much that part of me still always expects to hear “Something in the Air” whenever “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” ends. At 9 years old I was pretty sure “I Need to Know” was my favorite song.

My first rock & roll concert was a Tom Petty show with my dad when I was 16. I loved it.

In college I experienced my first true heartbreak around the time his Highway Companion album came out. I played “Damaged By Love” and “Square One” until I couldn’t wring any more feeling out of my twisted-up insides.

Every step of the way, every stage of my life – Tom was there. Woven into the fabric of my very existence.

I’ve been deeply fortunate to see him live many times since that first concert at 16. And for the last 11 years with a level of access that I could never have even dreamed about. Every single show is a memory I treasure.

The last time I saw Tom and The Heartbreakers was the first of their 3-night closing run at the Hollywood Bowl, just two weeks ago now. I watched the whole show wandering through the crowd, taking in different vantage points and reveling in the shared delight of the audience. I stopped to watch several songs from the tip-top of the Bowl, letting the music flow through me and the 17,000 other people singing along to every word – so awash in gratitude that my eyes welled up with joyful tears. I didn’t know then that it would be goodbye.

I know I’m far from alone in claiming a personal relationship with a majority of the songs in Tom’s extensive catalog. Each album I discovered, each track I connected with became a part of me. His songs are mile markers in my life, guide posts as I’ve navigated the world and growing up.

As horrible as the past few days have been the deepest comfort is knowing his music will always be with us, there to help pull through the dark times and to amplify the good times. What a gift that is to leave behind.

Thank you, Tom. So much.

 

keep on rockin’ in the free world: a desert trip diary

November 25, 2016

dt6It’s been well over a month since I got home from Desert Trip. But it took me several days to float back down to earth and resume some cognitive function that wasn’t just endless loops of song fragments. And then the election happened and the whole world got flipped on its head. But now it’s Thanksgiving weekend and while 2016 has, for the most part, been a relentlessly bad year, Desert Trip was a high point of all my years and an experience I am truly thankful for.

My sister Madi and I attended the second of the two weekends, which turned out to be ideal. I spent the entire first weekend slavishly following along with all social media coverage of the event. (Back in post-Desert Trip reality I often have to remind myself that this was the reason I started following Rob Lowe on Instagram…) Not being there the first weekend only built up my excitement, whereas going the first weekend and being back at home for the second, knowing what I was missing, might have killed me. Ignorance truly is bliss.

Day 1 – October 14

dt2Our Desert Trip experience started at the shuttle pick-up location in Rancho Mirage. We got there early, ready to board the first shuttle headed for Indio and wring every moment out of the weekend. We were definitely the youngest people at our shuttle stop (this would not be the case when we got to the festival) but we had our first “you’re seeing your grandparents music!” conversation with a sweet older couple from upstate New York. The shuttles arrived ahead of schedule, loading in was easy and efficient, and when we got onboard the carefully curated pre-Desert Trip festival playlist prompted several enthusiastic singalongs.

Arriving at the festival grounds we took the first of our daily treks from the shuttle stop to the gates, a slog we lovingly referred to as “The Death March.” It was a long, hot, dusty, walk for us General Admission folks. Pedicabs were lined up to help cart people to the gates but we were carefully pocketing our cash in order to blow it all in a premeditated merch buying frenzy.

We had “VIP” General Admission tickets, which got you no closer to the stage than regular General Admission, but did feed you in the event’s all-you-can-eat-drink-and-booze Culinary Experience. Full disclosure: I panic bought these VIP passes because the day tickets were released, after waiting for hours in the online queue, regular General Admission had sold out and I was too scared to navigate off the main page to seek out reserved seating or standing seats because I’d seen tweets about the site kicking people out so I just bought the VIP GA. In the end – it worked out great.

Culinary Experience was a cool addition – lots of vendors to sample, a swanky separate area from the general mass of humanity and most importantly we were greeted post-Death March with cold towels and access to air conditioning. And let me tell you, in the 90+ degree midday desert heat I would have left my husband for that cold towel.

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Life in Culinary Experience wasn’t too rough…

After casing the Culinary Experience scene we ventured out to do some exploring of the general grounds. It was then that we made the fateful decision to buy our merch. Now I will say this festival was exceptionally well run. The shuttle system was honestly one of man’s greatest achievements, and there were air traffic type controllers directing traffic through the restrooms which made for some of the shortest ladies’ lines I’ve ever stood in, but despite all the great efficiencies elsewhere the merch tent was nestled deep in one of Dante’s inner circles of hell.

 

For some unknown reason, there was only ONE full merch tent. There were a few smaller merch areas beyond general admission, accessible only to people with reserved seating and only carrying a fraction of the inventory available in the large tent. So here we are, essentially one shop for 75,000 people. We took a deep breath and stepped into one of the dozen-plus lines extending out from the tent under the relentless southern California sun, eager to get our merch purchased before inventory inevitably started to run low later in the weekend. We stood in that sweatfest of a line for nearly 2 hours. At one point, an older man waiting near us actually passed out and was taken away by medics. After this they started handing out water bottles but the line continued to move at the pace of a slowly melting and particularly unmotivated snail. At first you think the pace is due to the people in the front of the line taking forever to decide but it was actually just a horrifically inefficient system. Anyhow, we made it out of there eventually with merch in hand, blood pressure elevated, water bottles empty, and significantly less goodwill towards humanity in general.

Now onto the music. Actual music critics and actual journalistic outlets have covered the music in detail so I will continue to offer my diary-style impressions of the experience.

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Bob Dylan was first, and after all the hype about him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature the day before, I knew that he wouldn’t say a word about it, or anything else, to the crowd. He proved me right on this but his set included many more of his classics than usual and he sounded better than I’ve heard him in years. The crowd on night one felt like they were overwhelmingly there for the Stones though and there was a lot of chatter around us in the General Admission standing area. At one point we ended up behind three of what I can only assume are South America’s answer to American Frat Bros. They seemed generally indifferent toward Dylan’s set until the encore when he launched into “Like a Rolling Stone” and they came alive like someone had flipped a switch – jumping, howling, singing. It was a lot to be standing right behind but they were so gleeful in their delivery that I just rode the wave with them. But as soon as that song was over and “Why Try to Change Me Now” started they turned to each other and began speaking loudly and actually singing Rolling Stones songs – during Dylan’s set! So Madi taught them some choice English phrases and we moved along to a chiller area of the crowd for the second show.

I’ve seen the Rolling Stones once before, three years ago in Chicago, and they blew my mind. My sister hadn’t seen them before and I was giddy at the prospect of sharing her first Stones show with her. Mick burst onto the stage at Desert Trip and had the audience in the palm of his hand for the rest of the night. He also had some kind words to share about Dylan’s award. Though my favorite commentary was when Keith Richards was on the mic for a few songs and gave his own congratulations to Dylan for “winning the Nobel Peace Prize!” Ah, Keef – never change. The highlight of the Stones set for me was “Gimme Shelter.” Their powerhouse backing vocalist Lisa Fischer was unable to attend the Desert Trip shows but they were able to fill her shoes spectacularly with Sasha Allen. Howling out Merry Clayton’s famous refrain as the desert wind whipped around her I felt like I was watching something from another world. She was clearly having a blast up there and her energy was infectious. Holding your own on a stage with Mick Jagger is no easy task but she was phenomenal. The Stones set ended in an appropriately extravagant fireworks display that left electricity pulsating through the crowd.

Day 2 – October 15

dt4Day 2 was the surprise highlight of the whole weekend. On paper, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones in one night should be pretty much impossible to top in my musical universe but Neil Young and Paul McCartney delivered an evening of pure magic. During the day we took took in the Photography Experience – 3,500 square feet of some of the coolest rock photos ever taken. I left with a resolute desire to start saving my pennies so that I can one day hang some true-blue rock art in my home.

Neil Young began his show by playing an acoustic set of classics including “After the Gold Rush,” “Heart of Gold,” “Long May You Run,” and “Old Man.” Almost from the first chord I was an emotional mess. There was something about standing there, on a field with 75,000 people, in the dusky desert sunset, listening to a legend like Young plaintively sing songs he’d written about the passage of time as a much younger man. It was beautiful.

Then Promise of the Real came out to join him and my jaw was on the floor for the rest of the show. This band absolutely shreds. Fronted by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas, they infused a brand new vitality into Young’s catalog. But it wasn’t all just hard rockin’ in the free world. About midway through the show Neil played “Harvest Moon” as a picture perfect supermooon was rising over the stage behind him. The crowd unfailingly and enthusiastically erupted in cheers every time the word “moon” was uttered. But then partway through the song we heard cheering near us that wasn’t inspired by mention of our lunar satellite – we turned around to see a man on one knee, proposing to his girlfriend during the song. A circle formed around them and everyone within viewing distance started clapping and cheering. It was a really lovely moment and as you can guess, it made me cry. Again.

And then I cried again when he played “Like a Hurricane” as the desert winds picked up and swirled around me. Neil and Nature just seem to have a thing going on. And I didn’t cry, but I cheered, when he took to the front of the stage on “Mick’s microphone” to “break the law!” by hurling packets of organic seeds into the audience. Instructing the lucky recipients to go home and plant them and then call the police to report themselves for breaking California’s ridiculous law against the transfer of organic seeds across county lines. How lucky we are to have a Neil Young in this world.

The closing song of his show was, appropriately, “Rockin’ in the Free World.” I truly would have stood there for another two and a half hours if they wanted to keep playing so realizing it was the last song was bittersweet, but luckily the guys stretched it out as long as possible. There had to be no less than four full fake-out endings, with applause drowned out by the band jumping back into the title refrain. I felt like a yo-yo in their hands and my sister and I were both laughing with delight at their resolute resistance to letting their night end.

Next up was Paul McCartney, the first artist of the weekend that I hadn’t yet seen live. Coming off the glow of Neil Young’s transcendent performance I wasn’t sure what to expect. But within the first few bars of “Hard Day’s Night” I was fully swept up and spellbound for the duration of his entire 38-song set. (Noise curfew ordinances don’t apply to Sir Paul, thankfully.) There’s so many moments I could call out from his performance – his tender tributes to his mates John and George, and the recently passed George Martin. His performance of “Maybe I’m Amazed” (which was my wedding song) dedicated to his daughters in the audience – Stella and Mary. The sweet simple beauty of his acoustic “Blackbird.” Bringing out Neil Young and watching him shred the solo of “Day in the Life” so hard that he handed his guitar tech an almost entirely stringless instrument at the end of it. The lights coming up on the audience as 75,000 strangers rapturously sang along to the “Hey Jude” refrain with one of the only two Beatles left on the planet. Oh, and he brought Rhianna out to perform their recent hit “FourFiveSeconds” which was fantastic but the pop superstar’s appearance was really only a footnote to a truly enchanted evening. I also cried a bunch during his set, but you would have too.

Despite Paul’s performance running well past midnight, and despite having been on our feet for the better part of 10 hours, Madi and I couldn’t fall asleep after the second night. We were vibrating with energy, trying to process what we’d just been a part of. It was a night I will never forget.

Day 3 – October 16

dt1Day 3 affirmed to us why most festivals are three days long. Our routine had become pretty well established but the sun, the standing, and the ever-present dust were starting to take their toll on us. (Shout out to all the people twice our age who were still killing it…) Before the final set of shows that evening we displayed some kind of festival-induced Stockholm Syndrome by voluntarily returning to the purgatory of the merch tent. We stood in line again, this time for about an hour, to buy a Paul McCartney t-shirt that had caught our eyes on our first pass through the tent but since the previous night’s life-affirming performance had become an absolute essential purchase. So we pounded a few free drinks in Culinary Experience and dove back in. This attempt was far better than the Day 1 nightmare though, the sun was starting to drop in the sky, instead of relentlessly forcing all the moisture from our bodies, and we made friends with two women in line behind us who ended up sharing their room temperature vodka + juice in a water bottle and swapping stories about seeing our favorite bands. (One of them had seen The Rolling Stones 16 times!) When we got to the front of the line, slightly buzzed and running up against the first chords of The Who taking the stage, the only size they had left in our coveted shirt was XXL (which we are not), without hesitation we purchased two of them. One does not endure the merch line twice in order to just give up at the first obstacle.

With our tent-sized shirts in hand we ran into General Admission for The Who. For whatever reason I’ve never personally emotionally connected with The Who, so this was my least favorite performance of the weekend. As Madi observed, their set (which, notably, was exactly the same as the first weekend, and their recent tours) felt the most like “Oldchella” – that is to say, the most like a band of old rockers running skillfully through their greatest hits. That said, it was still an absolutely killer performance – Daltrey’s voice rang out over the desert night and Townshend delivered his iconic windmill arm (enough to actually cut his forehead with the mic, long live rock and roll). It was easy enough to picture them in a different time, scandalizing Monterey Pop by destroying everything in sight. Plus, “Baba O’Reilly” was basically built for a Desert Trip-sized delivery and it rocked.

The closer for a weekend of headliners was Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. I’d seen him on The Wall Live tour several years ago and was incredibly moved by the performance. So I knew there was a reason Goldenvoice had picked him to close it all out. The crowd on Sunday night was a sea of Pink Floyd shirts and the wafting marijuana increased several fold after The Who’s final bow. Waters’ set started with the trippy, spacey Floyd stuff. The visuals on the towering screens were awesome and I was initially pretty envious of everyone who had thought to toke up before the show. But then he veered into Wall territory and suddenly Desert Trip’s incredible sound system was overtaken by helicopters, machine guns, dogs barking, and sirens. My first thought was pity for everyone who had been, until that moment, sweetly floating in the jam band ether before being abruptly thrust into the quadrophonic sensory assault of Waters’ dystopian military nightmare.

Much has been made of Waters’ outspoken anti-Trump performance so I won’t rehash it here other than to say it was awesome at the time and pretty hard to think back on now.

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Not my photo, but had to give a visual for the rainbow.

Towards the end of his set I started to become distracted by a huge cloud of smoke and/or dust that was rolling towards the crowd from behind the trees, roughly from the shuttle pick-up and drop-off area. People around me started putting their bandanas over their faces, fearing it was a dust cloud. Madi reasoned that if the shuttles were all on fire they’d probably tell us about it, right? Well turns out all that smoke, coming from a quarter mile or more away, was consummate showman Waters’ doing. At the climax of “Eclipse” when the smoke had finally drifted out over the whole crowd lasers from the top of the stage shot into the night, creating a 3D-Star Wars-Burning Man-acid trip-version of the iconic Dark Side of the Moon cover. Suddenly we were all dancing under a rainbow ceiling that stretched as far back as your eyes could see. I’ve seen lots of photos of this effect since that night but nothing captures how truly incredible it was. I wanted to freeze time and just live under those lasers for the rest of my life.

 

By the time we reached “Comfortably Numb,” Waters’ final song, you realized what a journey he’d just taken you on. His shows are masterfully assembled to deliver a powerful message. It was the perfect set to close the weekend.

—-

At the airport the next day, my voice was gone (downside of inhaling dust for 3 days straight), my body was aching and returning to the real world felt daunting. Luckily, the airport was fully overtaken by Desert Trip denizens. It seemed everyone I saw was wearing a wristband or a t-shirt. And even though it was much busier than a typical Monday at the Ontario Airport (the lone Mexican restaurant had run out of both beans and guacamole, and was running low on cheese when we left) it was a nice half-step into reality, to just overhear folks rehashing the weekend everywhere you walked.

It wasn’t Woodstock, but it wasn’t just “Oldchella” either. There was a definite feeling in that crowd of being part of something pretty legendary. Even if Goldenvoice continues to stage some iteration of this festival going forward (which seems likely) it will be hard to top this lineup. As Pete Townshend said, these artists have been playing with or around each other for the better part of 50 years (or more). They are the vanguard of the classic rock era, and witnessing them take the same stage over those three days was nothing short of magic for me. I know it’s only rock and roll, but I really, really like it.

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this much madness is too much sorrow

November 13, 2016

When I started this blog, almost seven years ago, I didn’t really know what my intent was. I think I had recently come to terms with the fact that I was never going to be on the masthead at Rolling Stone and wanted to just have a place to document my own thoughts on the music that is so deeply important to my life, and the lives of so many. I lived in Austin and worked part-time (I think that’s known as “living your best life”) so the writing was prolific at first. Then I moved to Minnesota where the inspiration and the time both ran a little lower. Then I moved to Colorado and got married and bought a house and adult life pushed out my non-paying faux career.

But now, five days after the apocalypse, I’ve decided that whether anyone reads another article on here or not ever again, I need this. Like so much of America I’ve been wandering in a heartbroken daze since that horse’s ass of a human being was elected leader of the free world. Compounded by the gut-punching losses of both Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell, I’ve been crying off and on all week (more on than off) and looking for places to direct these feelings of bewilderment, sorrow, and helplessness. But this morning I went to my record shelf and pulled out Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere album. Quoting Almost Famous has become dangerously basic but Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s line about “if you ever get lonely just go to the record store and visit your friends” is a legitimate proverb in my life, and dropping the needle on that album filled my heart in a way that nothing else has quite been able to in these last few days.

So I’m back, and I’m reprioritizing this quiet corner of the internet for myself. Even if my readership continues to be mostly blood-related, expressing ourselves is more important than ever now and this is my favorite way to do that. I have 2,500 words about my euphoric Desert Trip experience last month sitting in a draft waiting for my attention so that’s going to be coming soon. In the meantime, I recommend watching Ron Howard’s excellent Eight Days a Week documentary, and being reminded of how The Beatles healed our nation’s broken heart in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. Things have been worse, and things will get better.

In defense of Desert Trip

October 6, 2016

desert-trip-poster-2016-billboard-1548I’m going to Desert Trip next weekend, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. My sister and I are going together, she’s 26 and I’ll be 32 by the time we get there. We’re staying in my grandmother’s senior living community down the road in Desert Hot Springs (a legit blessing since hotel prices are so astronomical). When I made it through the online ticketing queue, after hours in line, my hands were shaking so badly that I could hardly type in my credit card number. This is true, real excitement people.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit of a Pollyanna, but in order to fully enjoy the festival I’ve decided today to stop reading any articles about it. Even before tickets went on sale I felt irritated by the #Oldchella hashtag floating around Twitter after its announcement. Or the low-hanging fruit of jokes about walker accessibility and naptimes. Yes, there will be old people at this festival and they’re actually my preferred audience anyway. Most shows I see are attended by a lovely older crowd. And I’ll never forget attempting to act my age by attending a festival in Baltimore several years ago where the young audience jeered and booed Bob Dylan because Kanye West was up after him and was clearly the main event. I was so disheartened. It also might have been an all-time high for my blood pressure…

Beyond the harmless but annoying jests about age, there is a lot of talk about how much money the festival will be making. Yes, I paid a LOT for our tickets. Yes, the festival is expected to gross something insane like $160 million. But you don’t get The Rolling Stones or Paul McCartney or any of these top-tier classic rock era folks to show up for free. They’re making money off my passion but I’m getting the experience of a lifetime in return. It feels like a fair trade to me.

Which brings me to my final point, remember up at the top where I said I’m 32 and my sister is 26? A festival like this has never been held in my cognizant lifetime. I won’t speak for the Boomer crowd who certainly may be attending to relive glory days of rock festivals, next weekend WILL BE the glory days of my rock festival life. I can’t go back and see The Beatles, so I’ll go next weekend and see Sir Paul. I can’t return to when Bob Dylan sang his songs appreciably close to their written melody, so I happily embrace the gravel toned reworkings that I get from him today. So be as cynical as you want about the age or the pay rate or the current abilities of these artists but I don’t want to hear it. I’ll be here counting down the hours, saving up happily for an overpriced t-shirt, and reveling in the glorious fact that the rockers who hoped to die before they got old are still here and giving us a weekend that I’ll be lucky enough to tell my grandchildren about long after they’re gone.

gig grab bag: desire turns 40

January 5, 2016
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gig grab bag logoRolling Stone tipped me off to the fact that one of my favorite Dylan albums came out 40 years ago today. Desire was released on January 5, 1976. The article refers to it as an “exotic masterpiece” and I won’t argue with that. But it prompted me to think what words I would use to describe it. All albums have a certain feel but this one has more than that, it almost transports you. Scarlet Rivera’s haunting violin and Emmylou Harris’ otherworldly voice create a rich, swirling backdrop. The sounds are thick, his voice is commanding, and there’s a darkness behind it that is palpable – a darkness that sounds like loss.

I don’t know how much my interpretation is shaded by knowing that Dylan was separated from his wife during the creation of the album, or that (at least according to rock & roll legend) his estranged wife was in the recording booth while he sang “Sara.” He was singing directly to her, through the glass and through a breaking heart. Maybe it’s that kind of intimacy, from one of the most guarded artists on the planet, that gives the album its tense and dangerous edge. It feels a little like trespassing.

I wanted to commemorate the anniversary with this gig grab bag – Dylan performing on PBS in 1975. “Oh, Sister” from Desire is first, followed by “Simple Twist of Fate” from that year’s Blood on the Tracks. The back to back songs are illustrative to me of how different those two albums, released only a year apart, really are. Dylan has always kept us guessing and still does today.

2015 holiday gift guide

November 29, 2015

It’s that time of year again… in-laws, grandparents, aunts and uncles begin to ask you for your Christmas Wishlist. I guess they don’t necessarily call it a “Wishlist” anymore when you’re 31, but I still do. And luckily, this year there is an abundance of new and wonderful box sets, films, and books about music to more than fill my wishlist, which I now present to you with the far more professional title of “Holiday Gift Guide.” Hit it, elves:

 

Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes
I’ve been excited about this one for awhile now, as a legit Petty book has been noticeably absent from the rock-biography scene. Peter Bogdanovich’s excellent 2009 documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream is as close as we’ve really gotten to an in-depth look at the icon. Zanes’ biography has received rave reviews, and made headlines a few weeks back with its reveal of Petty’s heroin use. If Santa doesn’t get me this one, I’ll be buying it on December 26th.

 

1+ The Beatles
Rolling Stone called this CD/DVD or Blu-Ray set a “treasure of Beatles footage from every phase of their career.” Anyone who wouldn’t be happy to receive this as a gift is a legitimate Grinch.

 

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Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll by Peter Guralnick

I’m honestly embarrassed to admit that I’ve owned this book for weeks and still haven’t started reading yet. In my defense, it certainly isn’t for lack of interest – I’m just currently in the death grip of a fiction series that has, for all intents and purposes, taken over my life. That being said, I can’t wait to dive into this book. Peter Guralnick is a national treasure, his two-part biography of Elvis Presley is a masterpiece and I have no doubt he will bring that same marriage of deeply meticulous research and immensely readable narrative style to the subject of Sam Phillips.

 

The Cutting Edge 1965-1966 Bob Dylan

By all accounts, Volume 12 of Bob Dylan’s Bootleg Series can’t be missed, and for good reason. The incredibly fertile period from 1965-66 that it covers yielded the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde and Blonde. Not a bad 24-month stretch… There are several options for owning this collection of outtakes, alternate versions, and rehearsal tape. The cheapest is the “Best of” 2-CD album. The link to the left here will take you to the 6-CD Deluxe edition which runs you just over $100. And if you’re feeling flush, or swim regularly in a pool of gold coins a la Scrooge McDuck, you can visit Dylan’s website and purchase one of the 5,000 available Collector’s Editions which includes “Every note recorded by Bob Dylan in the studio in 1965/1966” and a bunch of other bonuses for a cool $600. On a related note, please adopt me.

 

 From the Vault: Live in Leeds 1982 The Rolling Stones

I could watch live Rolling Stones shows forever. Without question, they are one of the best live acts of the rock & roll era and I take great joy in watching the genesis of their concerts over the span of their 50+ years. And while they more than delivered when I  was finally able to see them live in Chicago a couple years ago, I was two years shy of being born in 1982 and now relish the opportunity to experience this show. The footage comes from the last stop on their European Tour in support of the Tattoo You album and was the final time Ian Stewart would perform live with the band. This set includes both the DVD/Blu-Ray and a 2-disc CD of the show.

 

Complete Them 1964-1967 Them

The first time I heard Them’s “Could You, Would You” was on some independent radio show and it set me to Googling before the song was even over. (Sidenote: “Them” is perhaps the most maddening band name to search…) I fell in love immediately with the raw, garage-rock sound of Van Morrison’s early band. This 3-disc box set, which will be released on December 4, includes their albums The Angry Young Them and Them Again as well as a third disc of rarities and unreleased tracks.

 

The Ties That Bind: The River Collection Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen is a notoriously prolific writer. His 1980 double album, The River, took two years to create and spawned stacks of songs in addition to the 20 that made the final cut. As Bruce says in the “The Ties That Bind” documentary, looking back now several of the songs that were scrapped could have easily made the final album, and vice versa. This collection gives us the chance to decide for ourselves with 4 CDs and 2 DVDs worth of material, including unreleased tracks, live performances, rehearsal footage, and a sit-down discussion of the album’s creation with The Boss himself. A fascinating collection, if only for the glimpse it gives us into Springsteen’s dogged pursuit of perfection.

 

So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead by David Browne

I’ve heard nothing but great things about this latest telling of the Grateful Dead story, released in this, their 50th anniversary year. The book is being praised for its inventive format and for the new interviews Browne conducted with the band’s surviving members – a fresh take on the original long, strange trip.

 

These are just my top picks, but there’s lots more out there right now. What’s on your wishlist this holiday season?

wedding playlists – mercury sound style

October 4, 2015
My dad shreds the solo on

My dad shreds the solo on “Maybe I’m Amazed” during our wedding ceremony

I took a little hiatus from blogging this summer to get hitched – a month ago today, actually. As I shared after our engagement, my main focus during wedding planning was on building the perfect playlists. It was an intense summer in our house as I played the various iterations of my three lists ad nauseam hoping to eliminate any off notes or rough transitions. The lists all started out pretty huge so paring them down was the real challenge. My flight to Oregon the week before the wedding was spent listening to the dance mix and making notes about last-minute rearrangements. It sounds a little crazy when you put it all out there like that but without the services of a professional DJ I felt a LOT of pressure to be sure I was cultivating a mix that would fit the day well and of course, inspire an epic dance party. I am happy to report that my borderline-neurotic levels of work paid off and the playlists were successful on all fronts. I hadn’t really planned to share them here but I got a few requests from my guests so I thought, what the heck. Maybe they’ll prove helpful for another DIY bride down the road. I had three separate lists for our wedding: Pre-Ceremony, which is all slower-tempo love songs to set the mood. Post-Ceremony, which brings the energy up during dinner before dancing. And Dance Party, which should be obvious. I didn’t set out to make the dance party list essentially chronological through the decades but once I got going and it naturally shook out that way I just ran with it. So here they are, my three playlists from my best day ever.

Disclaimer: a lot of these songs were picked for sentimental or nostalgic reasons so this isn’t the same thing as just my Top Favorite songs. This is what they call a real world application, people :)

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The ceremony also had a gorgeous violin & guitar version of “All of My Love” and an original song, “Buttercup,” penned and sung by my dad.

“like a rolling stone” turns 50

July 20, 2015

Dylan at the

Bob Dylan and Mike Bloomfield at the “Like a Rolling Stone” recording session, June 1965. I had this image as a huge poster in my room through many cross-country moves…

“Like a Rolling Stone,” Bob Dylan’s pioneering anthem that would change popular music forever, was released on this day in 1965. It’s hard to imagine exactly what it must have felt like to hear it for the first time – to be driving along wholly unprepared to have that sound come out of your speakers. As Bruce Springsteen famously said in his 1989 speech at Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “I was in the car with my mother listening to WMCA, and on came that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” This six-minute, vitriol laden, sneering question that demanded an answer came right on the cusp of the counterculture explosion of the Sixties, and people responded. By the week of September 4th it had reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, coming in just behind The Beatles with “Help!”

In 2005 music critic and Dylan scholar Greil Marcus released an entire book about the song. 225 pages about six minutes and six seconds of music. I was in college when Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads came out, which meant two things – I was broke and I was also a well-oiled fast-reading machine. So, one afternoon while walking home from class I popped into our university bookstore just to see if it was there. With no real intention other than to flip through the book and be sure I had the title right to add to my Christmas Wishlist I ended up standing in the aisle for three solid hours and reading the whole thing in one pass. It’s a weird feeling to finish a book and then put it right back on the shelf but that’s exactly what happened. A few months later I went to a book signing of Marcus’ and told him that I’d read his entire book standing up in a bookstore – how’s that for an introduction? It was a good enough story that he gave me his business card and we struck up a sporadic email correspondence. Pretty exciting for a Dylanaholic like myself… Anyhow, if you want to get into the deep down minutiae of the song – how it came to be, what it means (or rather, as is always the case with Dylan – what people think it means) then definitely check the book out.

Only five days after its release, Dylan first played “Like a Rolling Stone” publicly at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, that infamous performance where the presence of his electric guitar nearly registered on the Richter scale. As the furor subsided it became a staple of his live performances and, in recent years, a common encore number on the Never Ending Tour. Though, according to his website, he hasn’t played it live since November of 2013. Maybe he felt the anniversary creeping up and opted to make it dormant, knowing a multitude of commemorations like this were coming… Maybe he’s just sick of it. Since that first disastrous performance 50 years ago there are 2,011 known instances of it appearing on one of his live set lists. (BobDylan.com is really more of a library than a website…) I can’t imagine doing anything 2,011 times, aside from maybe brushing my teeth or buckling my seat belt. For the trivia nerds amongst us – that isn’t even his most-played live song, it’s second to “All Along the Watchtower” with a whopping 2,252 performances.

And while he may very well be sick of playing the song that Rolling Stone magazine dubbed the #1 Greatest Song of All Time (if such a title can reasonably be conferred onto anything…) I’m glad for the times I’ve been able to experience it live. My very first Dylan concert was at Key Arena in Seattle in 2001. I was a few days shy of my 17th birthday and thrilled beyond measure to be seeing Bob Dylan in person, albeit from the nosebleeds of a giant venue. The whole night was pretty magical but I’ll never forget the encore. Bob and the band launched into “Like a Rolling Stone” and the audience went absolutely crazy. He sang it fairly true-to-melody, allowing the closest thing to a singalong that you could expect at a contemporary Dylan show. During the choruses the lights swung out on the crowd and illuminated a sea of faces shouting “How does it feel?” at the top of their lungs. It was one of those times when I’m sure I couldn’t have wiped the ear-to-ear grin off my face even if someone had offered me a million dollars to get rid of it. There was electricity in the air. Thousands of people, each with their own deeply personal connections to The Greatest Song of All Time getting to mouth the words along with its creator. It’s a feeling I will always remember.

So cheers to a song that pushed boundaries, created fresh frontiers, transcended generations, and still kicks open doors for new listeners 50 years after its inception. Raise a glass, fire up your turntable, and howl at the moon – “How does it feel?/To be on your own/With no direction home/A complete unknown/Like a rolling stone…”

an ode to vinyl…

June 29, 2015

Photo by Monkey Business Images / Rex Features

Photo by Monkey Business Images / Rex Features

I have a confession to make. Well, maybe more than one. But for the past year I’ve been living without vinyl. My records made the move from Minnesota to Colorado with us last summer, along with my turntable, and my sweet old receiver, and my big, warm vintage speakers. But, while the movers managed to only mangle beyond recognition one item of furniture, it seems as though they made a concerted effort to lose every screw, nail, or knob that could be wrested free from wherever it belonged. One such lost accessory was the grounding peg to one of my old speakers. Sidenote/digression: “grounding peg” may or may not be an actual term, I might have completely made it up. But it’s the tiny peg that sticks out from the back of the speaker that you fasten the grounding wire to, with whatever you call the fastening part. While I may love records, I’ve never claimed to be adept at the technical side of record-listening. I’ve spent more time on the phone with my dad in my life trying to troubleshoot my assorted turntables and stereo set-ups because I insist on buying actual old school stereo components that still use tubes and belts and different colored wires and things I don’t understand – instead of just buying the new digital equipment that some 19-year-old at Best Buy could actually help me with. It’s silly, and self-inflicted but it’s the path I’ve chosen.

So anyway, the “grounding peg” is gone – it’s sitting along a highway between Minneapolis and Fort Collins or in the back of a moving truck somewhere in North America, but either way, it’s gone. So my second confession is, I’m also lazy. When I realized the speakers were kaput for the time being I put fixing them on my to-do list and there it stayed for roughly 8 months. I also needed a new stylus for my turntable. But getting it without having speakers to play through seemed silly so I turned to my iTunes library and felt a pang of guilt every time I passed my poor neglected shelf of albums.

The treasure chest...

The treasure chest…

And then, my future in-laws turned everything around with possibly the world’s greatest engagement gift. We went over to their house for dinner a few weeks ago and a huge, colorfully wrapped box was sitting on the table. I assumed it was a kitchen appliance or some other usefully functional household item. It turned out to be about 50 of their old records, in ridiculously good condition, AND their Bang & Olufson turntable from 1986. (I know it’s from 1986 because the receipt is still included in a bag with the operating instructions. $269 from Classic Stereo Ltd. in Kalamazoo, Michigan…) We brought the box of treasure home and, while putting all the records on the Shelf of Guilt, I could almost hear them crying out at me – “Why did you bring us here? To rot on a shelf? Fix that stereo and let us rip!” (If you haven’t noticed, I have a tendency to personify inanimate objects.) So, the gift spurred me into action. Still without a lead on the piece I needed to fix the speakers I jerry-rigged a solution by getting a few connector pieces from RadioShack (yes, we still somehow have one in our town) that would let me run my turntable, through my receiver, and into our digital speakers. Okay, we had sound. Then I got the new stylus and rebalanced the tonearm –woefully out of wack from bumping along a 900-mile journey in the back of a moving truck. I’m glad to report that victory is mine and the sweet, sweet sound of vinyl is now filling our home once again.

Sometimes I wonder why I even bother with the added hassle of maintaining a record collection and a way to play them that doesn’t suck. Why not just plug my monster iTunes library into my speakers and call it a day? I’ve gone through other periods of record neglect but something always draws me back to them. I can’t say what, exactly. But I think it’s the whole experience. The multi-sensory engagement with the music that digital options just can’t touch. Growing up, my family played records all the time. I have vivid memories of holding records in my hands, running my fingers over the bizarre cut-out faces on Some Girls, and knowing every song on both sides of The Traveling Wilburys: Vol. 1 without having any sense yet of the legends who comprised the band. I remember nights when my mom would push all the furniture to the walls in the living room and we’d dance (but never jump) to the Born in the USA album. And I knew which one it was because it was the one with the guy’s butt on the front. I remember seeing my mom’s maiden name scribbled across all her many, many John Denver albums and as I got older, even without reading the names, I could start to tell which albums were hers and which were my dad’s. (Gordon Lightfoot = not my dad, Thin Lizzy = not my mom, it wasn’t that hard).

Those memories of flipping through records have always stuck with me and I look forward to someday flipping through records with my own kids. Answering questions about why this one has a butt on the front, and teaching them how to hold just the edges, and how to find the groove for the right song. It just isn’t the same as scrolling together through my iTunes library and trying to explain to them that this thumbnail image actually represents a big, wonderful, musty smelling, 12” square that they can reach into and pull the music out of. So yeah, cheesy as it may sound, carrying on the vinyl tradition means more to me than just having a cool vintage record collection. Or being able to hear songs the way they were first heard. Vinyl records are a big part of what music means to me, and I’m real happy to have them back.