Monday, August 17, 2015

Major Tom has been identified (and yes, he's alive)

You know that you're old when you read a question that starts like this:

Anyone into retro music knows the song Major Tom by Peter Schilling.

Considering that today's oldies stations play Nirvana, it's understandable that someone considered the song "Major Tom" to be retro. The person goes on to say:

Did you know there's a David Bowie song that also talks about Major Tom?

I can't be too harsh on the person that asked the question - I'll personally admit that I was listening to Wings before I was listening to the Beatles. I had heard of the Beatles, of course - they were just like the Monkees, only wackier!

For the benefit of those who are not as ancient as myself, Major Tom is a fascinating character who has popped up in music several times. The previously linked Straight Dope post recounts the good major's history, from Bowie's original 1969 song "Space Oddity," to a subsequent 1980 mention by Bowie in "Ashes to Ashes," to Schilling's 1983 continuation of the story. I haven't really written about this before (I mentioned "Space Oddity" in passing once), but Major Tom is a fascinating fictional character.

Or so I thought.

Those who are familiar with the Major Tom story know the details - composed in 1969 and rush-released to take advantage of the Apollo 11 moon launch in America, the first song's official title "Space Oddity" is an obvious play on the previous year's blockbuster film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Or is it?

The subsequent references to Major Tom in "Ashes to Ashes" indicate the Bowie considered Major Tom to be, to some extent, autobiographical.

Or did he?

I try to shy away from conspiracy theories, but there are several data points, scattered through the years, that are just too powerful to ignore. After extensive research, I have concluded that "Space Oddity" is not about the moon at all, but is about another "Oddity" that the culturally-attuned Bowie learned about.

Around the time that Bowie's song was being released, a young man was preparing to begin his second year of college. Although he was in Boston, he wasn't going to Harvard or MIT. He was attending a junior college - Grahm Junior College - planning to study radio and television. Now many people who study radio and television in junior college do so with the goal of becoming a star - say, a star on a hit TV sitcom. This student, however, was clearly marching to the beat of his own drummer. A few months after "Space Oddity" was released in Britain, the student mounted his first college play. The topic? God. His earnings? Five dollars...five dollars. (His wallet hurts a lot.)

Over the next few years, as Bowie himself went through ch-ch-ch-changes, the student continued his own oddity odyssey. After leaving junior college, he began performing routines the audience. People would cringe at the failures of his routines, and of his jokes, until he blew them away with a surprise ending.

Word got around, and eventually the "stand up comic" found material success as a star on a hit TV sitcom.

You know the rest of the story - how he hated the sitcom, how his alter ego Tony Clifton got fired from the sitcom, how he began to wrestle women, how he lost a vote to remain on one of the few shows ("Saturday Night Live") that could fully use his talents, and how he surprised everyone by dying. (Maybe.)

Let's observe a moment of silence.

Now listen to "Space Oddity" again, and consider this unescapable fact - Bowie wrote the song about a not-yet-to-emerge performing genius from America. Someone whom the industry tried to put into a mold, but who found a way to break out of the mold in so many ways. The "foreign man" who disappeared from the airwaves.

Now I'm sure that many can poke holes in my theory. Why would Peter Schilling take the trouble to say "he's alive" BEFORE Andy Kaufman's purported death? Why did the first recorded visit of Bowie to America take place in 1970, not 1969?

Yet I can see no other explanation for the song. And when you look at the people involved in the subsequent conspiracy - Bowie, Michael Stipe, Jim Carrey - it all makes sense.

If you believed they put a man on the moon
Man on the moon
If you believe there's nothing up his sleeve
Then nothing is cool

(Additional reading)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

What is @modernwest ?

On March 2, 1964, four young men reported to a train station in England that was being used as a movie set. The four men were stars of a film that was eventually going to be called "A Hard Day's Night."

The four men were not chosen for their acting ability, and if they had been given a say in the matter, they probably wouldn't have made a film at all. They were making this film because they - the Beatles - were extremely popular musicians, and making a film was an easy way for pop stars to make extra pounds or dollars or whatever. (Elvis Presley made both, when you think about it.) In fact, the film itself may not have been the major product - United Artists had the rights to release the film soundtrack in the United States, gaining a number one album hit in the process.

The four men would act in several other films, both playing "The Beatles" and playing other roles, but only Ringo Starr made a significant number of non-Beatle non-vanity movies (although George Harrison became a film producer).

Which brings us to Folsom, California, on Saturday, August 8, 2015. I had spent the week in nearby Sacramento at the International Association for Identification conference, and was visiting relatives over the weekend. We all went to see a musical artist on Saturday night - not Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, but Modern West at the Harris Center at Folsom Lake College. The Harris Center has three stages, and Modern West played on the largest of the three stages. But before the band played, we in the audience saw a whole bunch of movie clips. The movie clips were from films such as "Dances with Wolves," "Field of Dreams," "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," "Thirteen Days," "Waterworld," and "Wyatt Earp."

So why would this band show film clips from a whole bunch of unrelated films? And why would the audience sit through these film clips?

Whoops, I guess I forgot to mention something. The lead singer of Modern West is a guy named Kevin Costner. Perhaps you've heard of him through his film work.

Yeah, we were in the Uecker seats. "Field of Dreams," indeed.

In one respect, this is the reverse of the Beatles' situation. Rather than having musicians dabbling in film, you have an actor dabbling in music. But in another respect, it's very different. Costner chose to pursue this.

But it was always more than just an idea for me. It was a feeling that I had been unable to articulate. For a long time now I have felt the need to connect with people in a more meaningful way than just the autograph. I have found myself here and around the world in different situations where the only exchange has been just that…a quick signature on the run usually followed by a “gee, he’s taller than I thought.”

I always thought that music could build a stronger, more personal moment for me. It would create the opportunity for a genuine exchange much greater than the movie, TV interview or magazine. It would be real, full of mistakes and without apology. But most of all there would be the chance to have some fun. The question was, would it work? I thought it could but I wasn’t really sure.

Did it work? One of my relatives was not impressed at all, but I enjoyed myself. If I had to compare Kevin Costner and Modern West to someone else, the best comparison would be to a kinder and gentler Kris Kristofferson (who happens to be a musician who has dabbled in acting). The songs are delivered well and touch on some interesting subjects - "Famous for Killing Each Other" is a personal favorite - but I don't know that Janis Joplin is going to cover any of them (especially in her present state).

If you're in the Solana Beach area, you can hear the band tonight (August 11) at the Belly Up Tavern.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Two different evangelical album efforts in the early 1970s

We love to pigeonhole people, and as a result artists such as U2 and Bob Marley are generally considered to be "secular" artists, while artists such as Amy Grant are generally considered to be "religious" artists. The truth is much more complex - as complex as people themselves, as a matter of fact.

In the early 1970s, two musical acts straddled this imaginary divided. Both Johnny Cash and the Osmonds were considered to be secular artists, but both were known for their religious beliefs. And in the early 1970s, both released ambitious musical efforts on the "religious" side of the spectrum.

Cash's effort, "The Gospel Road," was the more ambitious of the two in some ways - "The Gospel Road" was a soundtrack to a movie of the same name, filmed in Israel no less. And in those pre-Camp David days, filming in Israel was about as daring an effort as filming in Israel in 2015. Add the fact that Cash had never produced a movie before, and you can see the difficulty involved.

Rather than look at the movie, I'm going to concentrate on the soundtrack. This is part of what Raise my Glass to the B-Side said:

Despite the endless number of tracks (76 on the CD issue, 77 on my LP), there are really only ten songs on here, several of which are drawn from Johnny’s back catalogue. Motifs from the tunes are used as background music throughout the film as well. Overall the music is what you would expect of Cash approaching gospel music in the early 70s. The Statler Brothers and Carter Family are featured frequently, providing a wall of harmonies. The backing is simple acoustic guitars on the quieter moments, and the tic-tock, boom-chicka-boom of the [Tennessee] Three (still with Carl Perkins) on the upbeat numbers.

While the reviewer praised certain songs, the final verdict was not so good.

Despite some excellent music, as a whole, the album doesn’t work. I find the mood changes too abrupt – the first LP is light and buoyant, gurgling along with Perkins guitar through the Gospel Road. The second LP is heavy with narrative of Jesus’ death, bogged down by overwrought musical backing. Listening to the full set in one listen is a long haul. What would have worked far better would be a true soundtrack: “Songs from The Gospel Road.” An abridged narration by Johnny (similar to Ride This Train or America) could have tied the songs together and told the story in a far more efficient manner than simply handing over the entire film’s dialogue. It would also allow us to hear each song in their entirety rather than chopped up verse by verse.

While the Osmonds didn't try to make a movie with their effort, it had ambitions of its own. Remember that the Osmonds music evolved over time; they started as a barbershop quartet (before Donny joined), and eventually evolved into a bubblegum pop act. But after a couple of albums, they began to branch out more, recording my favorite Osmonds song, "Crazy Horses." I always thought it was a reference to the Apocalypse, but the brothers claim that it's about evolution.

After "Crazy Horses," however, they did decide to cover the apocalypse - and just about everything else in Latter Day Saint theology - in "The Plan." But this was not only an ambitious lyrical effort. While Cash pretty much stuck with a Tennessee Three type sound, the Osmonds decided to go all White Album on the public.

The end result is a testament to the group's versatility and skills as musical craftsmen but The Plan ultimately doesn't work for a few important reasons. The first is that the songs are too serious and overblown for their own good: "Are You up There?" and "The Last Days" have solid melodies, but their preachy lyrics are too awkward and diffuse to convey the group's beliefs with any real power. The other big problem with The Plan is that it is overwhelmed by its own musical ambition: the abrupt jumps from fuzzy acid rock ("Traffic in My Mind") to orchestrated show tune-styled arias ("Before the Beginning") to frenetically bopping big band soul ("It's Alright") result in more genre-hopping than a single album can handle.

Well, except for the aforementioned White Album - and there are people who hate that album too.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Songs end up in the strangest places

If you find a song that you like, you may share a link to the song on your Twitter account, or your Facebook page, or your blog.

But over the weekend, Liz Ryan shared a "Your Woman" video (not "My Woman"; "Your Woman") on the LinkedIn feed.

Hey, social networks are social. And people still remember Jyoti Mishra (who has continued to release music, by the way).