Sunday, September 25, 2016

AC/DC Should Break Up (and Other Stupid Comments from the Peanut Gallery)

Cliff Williams, 1981
AC/DC bassist Cliff Williams announced his retirement from the band with the conclusion of their recent Rock or Bust world tour.

And now AC/DC should break up.

Of course, they should have broken up when longtime vocalist Brian Johnson was forced to retire due to hearing problems.  Or they should have broken up when rhythm guitarist and founding member, Malcolm Young, was diagnosed with dementia. Or they should have broken up when Phil Rudd, the drummer on nearly all of their classic albums, found himself in legal hot water for drug possession and allegedly soliciting the services of a hit-man. Or maybe they should have broken up decades ago when Bon Scott, the vocalist with whom they first found success, died from asphyxiating on his own vomit after a drinking binge.

These are all things you'll hear coming from the peanut gallery.

Rock fans are an opinionated bunch, aren't we? We always have something to say about our favorite (and least favorite) bands, and we say it loudly, regardless of our degree of knowledge or insight. Because of the visceral qualities and intense impact of rock music, and the way we incorporate it into our lives, fans feel a deep connection to musicians that they have never met, and somehow feel qualified to pontificate about their art and private lives.

I am frequently guilty of this myself. However, in the back of my mind, I never really forget that I am full of crap.

Fans complain when a band breaks up, when a band doesn't break up, when their new album isn't like their last one, and when their new album is just a rehashing of their last one. Sometimes you can't win with these people.

In the case of AC/DC, we are dealing with very specific, and some quite tragic, circumstances. Just a
few years ago, what was considered the "classic" lineup of the band (unless you prefer Bon Scott) was completely intact. Now only lead guitarist Angus Young remains.

The first casualty was founding member Malcolm Young, rhythm guitarist, co-writer of most of the band's material, and brother of Angus. Since being diagnosed with dementia, he was reported as having a complete loss of short term memory and unable to communicate. This is bad thing to happen to a band mate, a worse thing to happen to a brother.

Brian Johnson's departure from the band due to hearing problems (he was apparently warned by his doctor that another tour with the band could result in total hearing loss) was another shock. Johnson had attributed his hearing problem to car racing (who knew it got so loud in there?), and not to decades of touring in a notably loud rock band. Still, the band replaced him with Guns and Roses vocalist Axl Rose for their 2016 tour. Initial statements from Johnson indicated that this was done very much against his will, and that he was disappointed to be replaced before a second medical opinion declared his hearing damage to be less severe than feared. He later made a statement thanking his bandmates for their support. Quite a change of heart.

This reminded me of how Jon Anderson was unceremoniously dismissed from Yes, the band he co-founded in 1968, while dealing with health problems that prevented him from performing. Similarly, initial statements expressed sadness, disappointment, and shock, only to be contradicted by later statements in which he gave his support and approval to the rest of the band. Was this another change of heart, or did someone get a call from the lawyers?

Perhaps this is baseless speculation (but as a rock fan, that's what I do), but I have to wonder if Anderson and Johnson were approached by management and cautioned again disparaging members of the band and damaging the brand. Rock bands are also a business, after all.

This is the weird thing about bands. A lot bands started with a bunch of kids from the neighborhood coming together, guys who knew each other since they were twelve. These are often intense, volatile, and deeply familial relationships. Bands are also a business. Even the smallest time music ensemble requires management and at least one member with some business acumen.  The biggest bands are organizations that employ dozens of people. Breaking up a band, or "dissolving the partnership," often involves liquidating assets and can even include severance packages for longtime employees. It must be weird being a top tier touring act. You go from being a bunch of kids in a garage to being an organization that is too big to fail. When fans say, "why don't they just quit?" it doesn't take into consideration the future of the guy who has been on the road crew for, say, the Rolling Stones, for the last twenty years.

The "classic" line-up in their last days
It also doesn't take into consideration the specialized skill set that these guys have. I am pretty sure that Angus doesn't have his carpentry business to go back to. If anything, his family business was rock and roll. Angus and Malcolm's older brother George was a member of the seminal Australian band the Easybeats, and co-wrote their classic hit "Friday on My Mind" before devoting his time and energy to fostering his brothers' ambitions, guiding the early career of AC/DC and producing their early albums.

Can you blame Angus if he entertains the notion of continuing the band all by himself? If you had one entity in your life which was your livelihood,  your passion, and the ultimate mechanism for preservation of your youth, wouldn't you hold onto it as long as you could? (AC/DC for all of their integrity and strengths is a band that refused to mature, just look at Angus' stage outfit. He wears the same schoolboy uniform that he did four decades ago.)

So hold off on your judgment if Angus Young doesn't immediately declare the end of AC/DC after the departure of Cliff Williams. AC/DC is his life and his legacy. And he's been through a lot in the last few years. On the other hand, it would hypocritical of me to tell legions of rock enthusiasts to hold their tongues. It's not I ever tried to. At any rate, this is just my opinion. I will probably have a completely contradictory one tomorrow.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Ruminations on Jim Carroll

A week or so ago, I was going through my rather disorganized collection of old, rare (and not so rare) live "bootleg" concert recordings, and found myself compelled to dig out an old show of poet/punk musician Jim Carroll from 1980. I hadn't listened to it in years, and given the fact that I have been in a jazz/fusion and Italian prog rock kick of late, I can't really say why I felt the need to bring it out now. The fact that it was around the anniversary of his death (he was working at his desk when he died of a heart attack on September 11th, 2009) did not occur to me. I don't believe that there was any cosmic message, but it did make the timing seem appropriate.

I was not a fan of Jim Carroll growing up. Like many my age, my first awareness of him was tied to the film version of his teenage memoir, The Basketball Diaries, not that I ever saw it. In fact, I had no desire to. I think my perception of Leo DiCaprio at the time as being just some pretty boy had something to do with it. I also recall that the movie came out five months after the death of one of classmates from a heroin overdose, and I remember saying that I thought that the movie was probably just a bunch of heroin chic bullshit, and the fact that the kid in this movie was a junky didn't make him an artist. Apparently, the eighteen year old version of me thought he was qualify to make these statements without seeing the movie or reading any of the works by the real life artist. In retrospect, and this is harder to admit, I think that as a depressed and angst ridden adolescent, I probably didn't want to be shown up in that department. What's more, I was probably envious of the gritty, urban experience that I was denied by growing up in a small college town. In the end, I didn't see the movie simply because everyone else was, and I never bothered to read his books or poetry.

For all of these reasons, I was not thrilled when he took the stage at the Bottom Line in New York in January of 2002. I had gone to see Ray Manzarek, for whom he was opening, and in spite of my unjustified antipathy to Carroll, I had arrived early enough so that I would see his opening set from its start.

He took to the stage with a languid stroll that seemed like the caricature of the aging street poet, but was natural and unapologetic in his bearing, as if he knew no other way to move. He apologized for seeming lethargic, claiming that he was sick and had taken some cold medicine before the show (something I was not sure I believed). I don't remember what he said next, but I remember that my first thought was that he was not as pretentious as I imagined he would be. I wasn't quite in his corner yet, though.

That would take an additional ninety seconds.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of hyperbole. However, the turnaround happened quickly enough that I remember being surprised with myself, being aware even at that moment that my opinion went from active and deliberate aversion to pure engagement and admiration in a bizarrely short period of time.

He launched into a performance that causally blended reminiscences with distillations of short stories and articles that he had been commissioned to write over the years, with the occasional poem sprinkled in. The delicately jagged urban romance of his poetry presented a stark contrast to his humorous, sagacious, and slightly self-effacing storytelling. His tales expressed a persona that was sensitive, but tough; streetwise and resilient, but painfully aware of the ridiculousness of modern life.

Telling the story of waking up to the sound of an intruder in his apartment, and his measures to protect himself and his girlfriend, he recalled a moment of petrified recognition of his situation, standing buck naked in the middle of a dark room with a knife in his hand thinking, "but what if he has a gun?" We laughed along with him as he described his chivalry withering with his sudden attack of self-awareness.

He related how he was approached by some periodical or another for a story about a "first time," and how they didn't like the story that he proposed: The first time he watched a friend receive a high colonic. The fact that he clearly was not above scatological humor endeared me to him even more.
He launched into a story about how he accompanied a friend, who apparently either lost a bet or couldn't resist a dare, to a clinic to undergo a colon cleansing. "They take this shit really seriously," he said apologetically.

He spared no details as he described the bucket of soldiers figurine that his friend that his friend had swallowed as a child and emerged in pristine condition from his bowels. "It was the machine gunner. That one was my favorite," he said, lying down on the stage, getting into the gunner's position, just in case we didn't know which one he was talking about.

Apparently that story didn't go over well with the periodical in question.

The story they accepted was "the first time I killed a deer." I cringed. I don't know why, but in spite of everything I had heard over the past hour, I was anticipating some trite kind of coming of age hunting story or some circle of life bullshit diatribe infused with machismo. Instead he told the story of a weekend in the country with friends, with him as the fish-out-of-water city boy, in the middle of the night unable to sleep because of the oppressive sounds of nature, when he became overwhelmed by a blood curdling bleating sound coming from the yard. As he and his friends eventually all got out of their beds to investigate, they were horrified to find a family of deer gathered around one of their young, impaled on the picket fence. Apparently, they had all leapt the fence, and the baby fawn didn't clear it. It's cries of agony ripped into the air and burrowed into the minds of all of the weekend guests. Carroll related how it somehow fell to him to do what was decided must be done, to relieve the baby deer of his misery, how he was furnished with a revolver, how he stroked by the fawn's head and cradled his chin in his hands before pulling the trigger.

The room was silent. Clearly the rest of the audience was as moved as I was.  I sat there imagining what he felt, the confusion of reconciling a violent act, willfully committed lovingly, and feeling shame and guilt for doing the right thing. By this time, any preconceived notions I had harbored about this artist had been utterly obliterated.

He concluded his set with a recitation of a few more poems, now joined on stage by Manzarek  accompanying him on piano. I was never one for poetry readings, but I listened intensely, now caring deeply about what he had to say.

After that Manzarek took the stage for his "set" which consisted of him playing solo piano versions of Doors songs interspersed with reading passages from his new novel, The Poet in Exile. The book told the story of musician named “Roy,” who had played keyboards in a seminal 60s rock band, and embarks on a journey to seek “The Poet,” his former lead singer, who had seemingly died decades before but was in fact living on an island somewhere. It was too sad to watch. My friend and I left during one of the musical interludes. (I wrote more in detail about that experience here.)

Carroll in his early 80s punk rock heyday
So basically, I went to see Manzarek, and by accident I discovered Jim Carroll, who I was predisposed to dislike. It was a beautiful bit of serendipity and those little confluences are the things I love about living in New York City (and one of the reasons I miss The Bottom Line, a truly unique place, but that's another story). And although I never did go out and read The Basketball Diaries, that evening proved to be a very special one for me, and I feel fortunate that happenstance put me in the room with a great American artist. I am glad that in spite of my preconceptions, I was able to have an open mind and appreciate that moment. And now, seven years after his death, I think how lucky I was to have my mind changed while he was still alive, and I was able to experience his artistry in person.