Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Flash! A-aaaah! (Flash Gordon part three)

Did you miss part 1 or part 2?

The next day, Monday, I did the vocals in the afternoon. The evolving rough, literally caffeine-fueled, punk feel of the recording was too fast for me to get all the words in. Also, the notes of the melody are way out of what I might conservatively think of as "my vocal range." As I am sometimes able to do, I put all these limitations out of my mind and just did it and it's fine. It was super fun.

I have been thinking about Alex Chilton's death. When I heard about it, I immediately had the idea to record one of his songs and maybe even make a video of myself playing it and post it online. Then I thought about how very, very many people very much like myself will do that very thing. Alex Chilton was a master at confounding expectations, mixing genres, and doing exactly what he wanted to do in music without any consideration for commercial success or even, you know, logic.

I began to think of my Beatles/Punk version of Queen's "Flash (A.K.A. Flash's Theme)" as a spiritual tribute to Alex Chilton and so it is.

Finally, has anyone listened to "Chimes of Freedom" from Another Side of Bob Dylan lately? I mean really listened, not just let the recording you've heard a hundred times wash through your ears. I actually listened to that the other day and it was shocking how compassionate, wise, and moving it was. How many songs anywhere near the rock genre actually celebrate "the gentle" and "the kind"? I just sat on the couch and cried and loved everything and everyone. Okay, that's where I'm at with the whole thing.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Flash! A-aaaah! (Flash Gordon part two)

Did you miss part 1?

So now we are in 2010. As part of my anthologizing project of putting everything I ever recorded on my cassette four track onto my computer for potential remixing, I recently came across "Marriage of Dale and Ming (And Flash Approaching)". It was every bit as hilarious as I'd remembered and also strangely moving. I'd still only ever recorded the two songs, and that was in 1996 and 1997. At this pace, two songs in fourteen years, I would finish the 18 song album in 2066, at 94 years of age, three years after Zefram Cochrane invents warp drive and the Vulcans make contact with Earth. To pick up the pace, I decided to record a third song from the soundtrack, using a fun, simple beat that had been going on in my mind on and off for a few weeks.

At first I could not find the music. I had to give the original book back about thirteen years ago but I had the good sense to make copies of all the Flash Gordon songs. I had put them in a pristine white folder I found in a dumpster (not that I was looking there, you understand. It practically jumped out at me. Originally it contained information about a hospital's taxes or some such thing.) along the river in Northfield behind Division Street. Can you believe the things people just throw out? Anyway, I searched my archives but it still took me a few days to find it, and I only found it while I was looking for something else.

I have been listening to a ton of Beatles lately and have had this cheerful beat going through my mind a lot. I thought it was the beat to "She Loves You" but a quick look at my Beatles Complete Scores revealed that it's not quite. Nevertheless, I used the half measure intro to "She Loves You" and the beat I had in my mind as a starting point for my new recording, which I decided would be "Flash (A.K.A. Flash's Theme)" That was the song that most intimidated me in terms of actually finishing the album, so I decided to tackle it head on. I had it in mind to use a typical Beatles/Ringo tom-heavy "bridge section" beat for the bridge section but couldn't really find one in Complete Scores, so I just used a dramatically slowed down version of the lopsided "Ticket To Ride" beat for the bridge.

I set up my drum kit last Sunday. That in itself was an adventure, as I haven't had it set up for a while. I had to take the heads off, clean it, remove the sponges the previous owner had put in for no reason I can discern and I never got around to removing all of until now, reassemble, and tune it. I recorded the drums first and they were a little too fast. Take four was good enough that I thought I would continue with it. Next was acoustic guitar, then bass, then electric guitar.

For the electric, I used a Chandler mother-of-pearl "Serious About Tone" pick because I've heard Brian May is nuts about picks and sometimes uses English coins to get the most powerful sound. They don't make those picks anymore but I have a stash. I knew I wouldn't get the Queen guitar sound, so I went for The Carpenters instead. On "Goodbye To Love" Richard C. plugged his electric directly into the recording sound board and turned it up until the VU meters were deep in the red. It's awesome. I did a similar thing and it sounded very raucous and inspiring. I ended up taking an impromptu solo during one of the spoken sections. It ended up sounding like a surf instrumental.

If you really want to know the kind of thing that is almost always going on in my actual mind, sometimes even while I am talking to people in person, you will continue bravely on and

Go to part 3.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Flash! A-aaaah! (Flash Gordon part one)

I guess "This is a big f***in' deal" beats "As of now, I am in charge here." Joe Biden lives up perfectly to the wonderful way the Onion portrays him. Thanks, JB! Love it. I really do. That's not sarcasm. It's like a faint glimmer of the glory that was President Bill Clinton. That is also not sarcasm. It's so hard to tell on the electronic web, where almost everything is sarcasm but I remain endlessly, undetectably sincere. Anyway, what I was going to say before I got distracted by the internet, was...


So here is one thing I am doing. Many years ago a sister of a friend was a huge Queen fan. I am a Queen fan only to the extent that I really, really love their original Greatest Hits album from 1981. This friend's sister had a spiral bound book with the entire oeuvre, dramatically reduced to chords, words and melody, and maybe a few bass notes or instrumental lines here and there. When I saw the transcriptions of the music to the 1980 film Flash Gordon I laughed and laughed. Why?

I have only ever heard the title song, but I am pretty sure the soundtrack music has more to it than is conveyed in the book. Curious, I recorded "The Kiss (Aura Resurrects Flash)" adhering strictly to the written music. Some of you reading may have on some old CD or even tape I gave you. It's the one with delicate nylon string guitar, a soaring Casio keyboard melody, no words, and long, inexplicable pauses. I mean I recorded it EXACTLY in accordance with the music as written in this strange little book. According to the book, there are several measures with absolutely nothing, which is only part of what made me laugh. The recording ended up being very beautiful and poignant if I may say so.

I put up an mp3 of the song to explain what I mean here.

I put up a scan of the music I'm working from so you can look at it while you listen to the recording. View scan.

I resolved to record the entire soundtrack without ever listening to Queen's version. I felt that listening to Queen's version would pollute my feelings and my vision and the relationship I was developing with this strange little book. About a year after I recorded "The Kiss (Aura Resurrects Flash)" I recorded "Marriage of Dale and Ming (And Flash Approaching)". So that was two songs in two years. I thought that was an appropriate pace for the project and figured it would be sort of an overview of my recording process as it evolved over the years. Like a greatest hits album can be for a normal band, only it would be a solo, cover version of Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack. Good grief. You could not make this shit up. You have to live it.

Go on to part 2.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

So You Want Some Big Star

Here's the thing. They really only made two albums and sort of three. Those are essential, but even so you have some choices.

1. #1 Record/Radio City (best edition)

Their main two albums are #1 Record and Radio City and those are both included on a great CD that was originally released in 1992. This has Ballad of El Goodo, Thirteen, Way Out West, etc. If you only buy one CD, I think this is the best place to start. Maybe. Or maybe Third.

The thing is, in 2009 the album was remastered and reissued with two bonus tracks. These bonus tracks are inessential and, to me, disruptive of the overall listening experience. I read the amazon reviews and gave it a miss. I still love my old CD from 1992, which sounds perfectly great to me. The old CD without bonus tracks is now technically out of print and, as you can see from the link above, expensive. You could just buy the mp3s and cut the bonus tracks out of your iTunes playlist. Of course, you don't get the artwork and booklet, but you could get this book for all the reading matter you could want:

Rob Jovanovic's excellent Big Star bio


2. Third/Sister Lovers (best edition - Rykodisc, of course)

The "Third/Sister Lovers" album is different and sort of bipolar but also essential. It's easier to get the best edition because there is really only one on CD.


All of the songs from these albums are also included on the 2009 box set, but some are in alternate mixes and so forth so I think of the box set as being more for people already familiar with the band.

So those two CDs (three albums) are really the place to start. Enjoy. Be sure and let me know if you need more because there is a lot to enjoy and I can certainly advise. If I had to select one other album that is radically different from Big Star but equally indicative of what a shockingly amazing musician Alex Chilton was, I would throw this out there:


Have fun!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Wild To Be Young (Alex Chilton, part 3)

Did you miss part 1 or part 2?

It's wild to be young, isn't it? You can actually fall fully in love with stuff without thinking about it. Someday, if I keep borrowing their albums from the library and listening to them once in a while, I might like Yo La Tengo a lot, or any of these other bands that smart people recommend to me. But I can't remember the last time I really fell in love with a band the way I did with Big Star or Trip Shakespeare or...that's it really. Oh, and They Might Be Giants. And kind of Ben Folds Five, but I was still only like 26 when I heard Whatever And Ever, Amen. And I still haven't bought every single thing he's done and seen him live every chance I could since then like with Alex Chilton or Matt Wilson.

Which reminds me. I can stop looking at the bar/band/show schedules in the back of City Pages now. Matt Wilson has an online presence and an active band and notification of upcoming shows again (finally!) and Alex Chilton, the only other name I was ever really searching for, is gone.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Shows (Alex Chilton, part 2)

Did you miss part 1?

I saw Alex Chilton in concert three times, all in the 1990s, each time with a different group. I saw him at Mill City Music Festival in Minneapolis. It was the big REV105 stage out on 1st avenue and he was playing before Soul Asylum. There were these crappy little punks two or three deep standing at the stage with their backs to it, squatting for Soul Asylum. Alex was constantly trying to get the sound men to turn down the volume on his own guitar, which was ear-bleedingly loud, a characteristic shared with every other band I saw that day. (Including a mutilated version of The Lovin' Spoonful (without John Sebastian for fuck's sake) and Etta James (who did some nasty things with the microphone if I remember correctly.) It did not surprise or terribly sadden me when this festival disappeared.)

I think Chilton played "In The Street" and maybe some other songs from his then most recent albums High Priest and Black List. Honestly, it was a disappointing show. He did not seem engaged and I couldn't really blame him and I've always held it against Soul Aylum for no good reason.

I later saw him at First Avenue with the 1990s version of Big Star with original drummer and singer Jody Stephens and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. This was a better show, although the first thing I think of was his awkward, speaking-to-each-other-but-into-the-microphones fight with Jody before they played the song Jesus Christ.
Alex: We're gonna do this next song, but I don't want you to actually think we believe any of this crap.
(Some in crowd cheer)
Jody: I think it takes more courage to admit that you do believe.
(Others in crowd cheer or laugh nervously)
Alex sort of groaned and rolled his eyes and they went ahead and did the song. So I guess maybe Alex wasn't a Christian and Jody was/is? You think? Did we need to know that?

The other problem with that show was that the big pauses in the song Big Black Car were filled in with hi-hat quarter notes. Yes, the band all knew when to come back in but all the tension and despair that builds up between sections of that song was popped like a balloon.

The best show I ever saw him give was, strangely enough, a free show with the Box Tops at Taste Of Minnesota in St. Paul. In the Box Tops he didn't really write or play any instruments and as I understand it he quit way back in 1969 because he felt like a tool of the producers, who wrote all the songs, oversaw the recordings and record releases, and kept most of the money.

I guess the Box Tops got control of the name and at least some share of the money because the band I saw (with all the original members) was totally great and enthusiastic. Alex was singing his heart out and climbing the scaffolding at the side of the stage. His voice was energized and powerful, a truly soulful synthesis of the gruff voice he used on those original Box Tops recordings and the calmer, nuanced voice he had discovered and used in Big Star and his wonderfully varied solo work.

After the show he was actually standing behind a table in a tent signing autographs and talking to fans. I desperately wished I had brought one of my many CDs of him. I wanted to talk to him but didn't know what to say. How could I have put it that wouldn't have seemed totally weird?

I watched him sign a few CD booklets then someone tried to hand him a cassette, undoubtedly of their own music for Alex to listen to. He laughed and said he had stacks and stacks of tapes and he'd never get to listen to it. He was laughing and nice about it but he just left the tape on the table. Now that I'm older I totally get both sides of that.

When I was young I wanted to send my music to him and to Matt Wilson of Trip Shakespeare for no real particular reason except that I saw myself as part of the same line that led from The Beatles to those guys to me. Hearing Alex say that he had stacks and stacks of tapes that he'd never get to listening to made me realize I was not alone in that feeling (which I never actually acted on).

There's an interesting parallel here. Hearing Alex talk about all the tapes people sent him made me realize that I was not alone in wanting my idols to hear my music. When I first heard Alex' music it had made me feel that I was not alone in the way I felt back in 1993.

Go to part 3

Friday, March 19, 2010

Thanks, Andy (Alex Chilton, part 1)

The fall of 1993 was a good time to become a Big Star fan for a few reasons. Logistically, Rykodisc had just issued the first complete, good sounding CD editions of the Third album, a live radio show, and Chris Bell's complete solo work. The previous year had seen the band's other two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, released on a single disc.

Personally, I was not doing so well. I may or may not have been suffering from what scientists today call clinical depression. Also, there was a girl. I thought about death a lot. I needed something to make me feel like I wasn't alone. Big Star music was that something.

Like most people who love the band, I did not hear about them from the media. I heard about them from other people who loved them. Trip Shakespeare, a band equally deserving of greater acclaim but which has received even less, covered "The Ballad of El Goodo" on their final album, Volt, which I loved. I did not know anything about the listed authors Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. If you can, try to imagine a world in which information about these mysterious people was not immediately available to me. There was nothing about them at the college libraries. If there was such a thing as searching the internet I was not aware of it. I had to actually ask people!

I asked the most knowledgeable music guy I knew, Andy Honigman. He provided me with a tape of a record of Third and his CD of #1 Record/Radio City, which, oddly, was signed by the drummer from Walt Mink. (Oh, by the way, which one's Mink?)

The Third/Sister Lovers album spoke to my emotional state like no other music ever had. I shortly thereafter bought the CD myself, along with all the rest of the band's music. I listened to it a lot. Along with Trip Shakespeare and R.E.M.'s then-new Automatic for the People album, this music and my own emerging writing and playing gave me a reason to get up in the morning. The music gave me a sense that other people had felt the way I felt. All this music was important to me, but Big Star was the most.

I learned the Big Star songs The Ballad of El Goodo, Thirteen, Give Me Another Chance, I'm In Love With A Girl, Blue Moon, Way Out West, In The Street, and the Chris Bell songs You And Your Sister and I Am The Cosmos. Except for the Beatles there is no other band whose songs I've put more effort into and had in my playing repertoire for longer. I'm being intentionally dramatic and overstating the case just a little when I say slightly (but only slightly) disingenuously that Big Star's music saved my life. Certainly it strengthened my friendships as I played those songs with people I loved and began to get the idea to name myself after the band's home town.

Go to part two.