On a sunny day in 1989 when I was just 14, I heard Jane’s Addiction for the first time.
I was at my friend Nate’s house. As I sat on his bedroom’s itchy tan carpet, near the waterbed with the imitation leather rim, we watched their debut record spin. It was a live recording, and like many teenagers whose musical awakening came before the internet, we’d inherited it from a cooler elder — Nate’s sister’s boyfriend.
The album was recorded at a club called The Roxy, on the Sunset Strip. As a concert recording, some fans called it “the live album.” We called it “Triple X,” after the indie label that released it. Unlike other live records where applause fades in before the music starts, Triple X launched right in with no introduction: fast drums, soloing guitar, and a high-pitched banshee singer howling cryptic lyrics that went way over my 14-year-old head: “Oh, mama lick on me / I’m as tasty as a red plum / Baby thumb / Wanna make you love.” The song was called “Trip Away.” I had no idea what tripping was, but the music slayed me.
After a blazing crescendo, the audience clapped, seconds passed, and a slow bass line played a new rumbling melody. The drummer pounded a single beat over it: boom. Then two more ─ boom boom ─ building tension. The guitarist slid his pick down the guitar strings, smearing a wicked echo across the rhythm, then the banshee yelled “Goddamn!” and broke into “Whores.” “I don’t want much man, give a little / I’m gonna take my chances if I get ’em. Yeah!”
To a middle class kid in Phoenix, Arizona, this music had a primal abandon that I hadn’t yet encountered, but whose wildness attracted me.
As a teenager in the late 1990s, I learned a hard truth about music: Your album collection couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be taken seriously without a copy of Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits. That’s why I went to the Tower Records on 4th Avenue in New York City one afternoon in ninth grade to cop the album, with its maroon cover and purple CD. Of all the records in Petty’s discography it’s by far his best selling, a perfect record for road trips, cookouts, and everything in between.
Throughout his career, Petty’s songs cut to the core of human emotion. His catalogue expressed an everyman bent, one that was shared by anyone who came in contact with his music, which was everyone. Petty and his Heartbreakers were a classic rock mainstay from the moment the first album dropped in 1976. His singles ran the gamut from love to heartbreak, depression to longing. “American Girl,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “You Got Lucky,” “Free Fallin‘,” these were songs meant to be sung off pitch and in unison. How else could you know the classics if you didn’t own the one album that had them all?
Maybe it’s because we don’t have guitar gods anymore. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, that sound is — well — it’s old. And the new crop of stars don’t inspire the pursuit of guitar god status the way someone like Carlos Santana did.
Here’s Dave Gruhn, a 71-year old Nashville guitar dealer who helped sell off part of Eric Clapton’s collection:
“What we need is guitar heroes,” he says.
He is asked about Clapton, who himself recently downsized his collection. Gruhn sold 29 of his guitars.
“Eric Clapton is my age,” he says.
How about Creed’s Mark Tremonti, Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer? He shakes his head.
“John Mayer?” he asks. “You don’t see a bunch of kids emulating John Mayer and listening to him and wanting to pick up a guitar because of him.”
Sir Paul McCartney has a similar take on the decline in the guitar’s popularity.
“The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after,” the former Beatle says wistfully in a recent interview. “So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there.”
“Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently,” McCartney says. “They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”
Something Edgers doesn’t address in his article? Uke sales have doubled in the same period in which guitar sales have declined. In her Ukulele Anthem, Dresden Dolls front-woman Amanda Palmer says you can teach someone to play the ukulele in “about the same to teach someone to build a standard pipe bomb — you do the math.” A kid can pick up the uke and find it satisfying in considerably less time than it takes to master the guitar. A few years back, a young Hawaii resident named Jake Shimabukuro made heads spin with his ukulele cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, proving that the uke’s simplicity doesn’t limit its musical possibilities.
Prince Mural by Johnny Silvercloud via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Prince made too much music for just one person. He knew this, banking thousands of hours of unreleased material in the vaults of his Paisley Park studios. A year after his unexpected death on April 21, 2016, we’re no closer to realizing what he stashed away in his vaults, but what he gave away in his lifetime represents an important chapter in his legacy.
A year after his unexpected death. Prince was the soundtrack to the most naively optimistic years of my life, the years that my life was first my own. Years full of risk and erratic income and the first time I fell in love as something resembling an adult. A year after his unexpected death. I still catch my breath when there’s a Prince song on the radio. I can’t sing along without my voice literally choking on the emotion I still feel from this loss.
At Pitchfork, Stephen Thomas Erlewine reminds us that Prince existed beyond his own discography. We know about “Manic Monday” and “The Glamorous Life” and “Jungle Love,” but there was so much more. And much of it went to women.
Prince’s cottage industry as a songwriter for hire was a key part of his purple reign in the mid-’80s. He wasn’t contracted to write hits but instead gave songs to acts he deemed worthy. Usually these were women, which emphasized Prince’s androgyny and feminine empathy, but also reflected the practical reality that he no longer had Vanity 6 and Apollonia 6—the short-lived girl-groups he built, respectively, around his ex-girlfriends Vanity and Apollonia in the early ’80s—as a vehicle for exploring this side of himself. Certainly “Sugar Walls,” the tune he gave to Sheena Easton in 1984, felt like a throwback to Vanity 6’s sex-saturated 1982 hit “Nasty Girl,” and Easton delivered it with a heavy-handedness befitting its single-entendre. But if “Sugar Walls” treads familiar territory, “Manic Monday”—written for the scrapped second Apollonia 6 album—was a genuine departure into psychedelic pop. In the Bangles’ hands, “Manic Monday” carried a bittersweet sparkle suiting the Paisley Underground scene, which inspired the Revolution’s Around the World in a Day.
There’s an Apple Music playlist included at the end of Erlewine’s homage to Prince’s diverse side projects. You might want to grab your headphones.
If [Rhiannon] Giddens were to tell us in a memoir that she’d been thinking about her own child when she sang, it would make the line a poignant narrative moment. But really, what would that reveal that we don’t know from her performance? It might risk drowning out other information we already have: Michael Brown’s mother in tears at a press conference last summer; Mamie Till choosing an open coffin for her son in 1955; Jimmie Lee Jackson, shot protecting his mother in an Alabama café in 1965, days before marchers massed in Selma.
A singer of mixed African American, Native American, and Caucasian ancestry, Giddens is occasionally asked in interviews to offer up a personal explanation for her connection to the music she sings. On NPR’s Morning Edition last winter, Renee Montagne asked, “I know you’ve recorded songs in Gaelic. Is that your tradition?” You could hear Giddens kind of sigh—OK, here we go. “That whole idea of, is it my culture—you know,” she replied, “it gets asked of me in a way that white people who do blues music don’t get asked. I don’t know all of my genealogy, but my point is that if music speaks to you, I think that you have the ability to do that.” And she’s right to push back; when she sings Scottish folk, audiences don’t need a genealogical chart to know they’re witnessing something extraordinary.
—Sara Marcus, writing in The New Republic about how the immediacy of music always outlives and out-performs the effect of reading a biography, or viewing a documentary about a musician ─ a phenomenon she calls the “power of songs over their singers.” Marcus’s piece ran in August 2015.
Ringo first met [Harry] Nilsson after the singer did a gonzo version of Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep-Mountain High.” “It was bordering on madness, and so we thought, ‘We gotta meet this guy,’ ” says Ringo. While Nilsson’s destructive friendship with Lennon got the ink — they drunkenly heckled the Smothers Brothers at L.A.’s Troubadour, and Nilsson infamously ruined his voice doing a cover of “Many Rivers to Cross” with Lennon sitting at the console — it was the drummer in the world’s most famous band and the songwriter who hated playing live who became inseparable as they drank away the 1970s.
“He was my best friend,” says Ringo softly. “Yeah. I loved Harry.”
The two made an unwatchable Dracula movie together and tried to collaborate through their drug-and-booze haze. “I had one song with 27 verses that I gave to Harry to edit, and he got it down to about eight verses,” Ringo says. “It never got recorded.”
A professional musician calls for a rethinking of how we value (and pay) artists in the digital era:
Rather, fairness for musicians is a problem that requires each of us to individually look at our own actions, values and choices and try to anticipate the consequences of our choices. I would suggest to you that, like so many other policies in our society, it is up to us individually to put pressure on our governments and private corporations to act ethically and fairly when it comes to artists rights. Not the other way around. We cannot wait for these entities to act in the myriad little transactions that make up an ethical life. I’d suggest to you that, as a 21-year old adult who wants to work in the music business, it is especially important for you to come to grips with these very personal ethical issues.