Say Hello To Heaven – R.I.P Chris Cornell

On Monday, I was at a memorial. A catholic service. The deceased had killed himself. Mixed with the grief was a disbelief – an incomprehensible place where nothing can possibly make sense. I was trying to explain depression to a friend. It wasn’t working. A hushed conversation in the back of a funeral parlour isn’t going to do it. Where is a good place?

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Some people talk to me about music. It’s built into the description of being a music geek. Like minded people communicate in that somewhat nuanced language, and others will ask you about it when something happens… usually a tragedy. As I walk into my son’s school yard another parent begins.

“Did you hear about Chris Corn…”

“Stop.” I reply. “I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I don’t want to talk about it. Especially in the school yard. And definitely not as a casual conversation.”

He stumbles with his next words. “Sorry, I just…”

“No problem. Just not going to talk about it.” And with those words I deliver my child to the door of the school and walk home.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

My turntable spins. A line keeps coming back to me. I grab the liner notes to verify it. Fuck Wikipedia and the second-hand sources that screw up lyrics on the best of days.

“He hurt so bad / like a soul breaking / but he never said nothing to me…”

In the spring of 1991 I picked up this record – Temple Of The Dog. It was before Soundgarden had released Badmotorfinger in October, and I was telling a recently met acquaintance/friend about it. I hadn’t realized he was the Entertainment Editor at the campus paper until he asked me to write a review. Although, “Hunger Strike” would go on to be a hit the following year, it was “Say Hello To Heaven” that had sold me on the record. It was a song Chris Cornell had written after his former roommate Andrew Wood had died of an overdose. Wood, the vocalist for Mother Love Bone passed before the bands debut record had hit the streets. Like all overdose deaths tend to do, the lines between substance abuse and mental illness get blurred. Wood’s public persona had been one of fun loving and flamboyance, Cornell’s interpretation said something far more personal.

“Since you can’t say to me / now how the dogs broke your bone / there’s just one thing left to be said…”

Cornell’s voice soars into what I think is his most poignant moment. “Say hello to heaven.”

The turntable spins.

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Other people talk to me about depression. I’ve been pretty open about my own battles with it. But, trust me when I say that like minded people do not communicate with conversations about it. You don’t walk up to someone on the street and say, “so, I hear you feel like you’ve been run over and dragged on gravel.” Or… if they do, I’ve not joined that club. Those that have gone through it will either talk about their own experience, or listen as someone talks about theirs. Usually, these take place either one on one, or, if you’ve ever been hospitalized, a group setting. I tend to try and bring a sense of the ridiculous when I do open up, mentioning the full on weeping despair I once had over not finding a clean pair of socks. While a person’s tone can be jocular or matter of fact, there is nothing casual about depression, anxiety or mental illness. Still, my lack of foot covering story gets a laugh as a ‘WTF’ moment.

Still, life can be wonderful and then you have an episode…

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In June 2001, I was looking out the window of a hospital room down upon a place I had dubbed the “crop circle refueling station.” A fire hydrant in the middle of a large grass field, mowed in circles until it reached the concrete of the building itself. Detoxing off of thirteen prescriptions given for a mixture of pain and overwhelming sadness. It had been six months since I cried about the socks. Three months since the back surgery to remove two herniated discs, one of which had been calcified and impaled the sciatic nerve. The doctors hadn’t caught onto the fact that the ‘Oxy’ mixed with an already diagnosed ‘clinical depression’ was causing a severe reaction.

My life was good, but it felt like shit.

I was so heavily medicated I wasn’t sure which thoughts were real and which were the drugs. What I do remember most about that time in my life… an eternity worth of sleep seemed a whole lot better for me and everybody else than sitting around and waiting for the pain to subside. Three days after I arrived in the hospital, down to just my meds for cholesterol, it felt like a fog was lifting off my brain. Looking down on the “crop circle refueling station” I wondered what the fuck had happened to me.

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^^^^^^^^^^^

April 2001. A month after my surgery.

The meds say half a pill before bed. That was an hour earlier. I want to be better. I want to sleep. Fuck it! I’m taking more.

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Chris Cornell’s wife released a statement on Thursday. She believes her husband had taken a few extra Ativan tablets after his concert on Wednesday night. A medication that helps with anxiety when taken in low dosage.

Problem with anxiety… patience for medication to kick in doesn’t work so well. If you are having a panic attack, or looking darkness in the eye waiting isn’t something you are prone to do.  In a moment like that, when the abyss creeps in, it’s easy to over medicate. And that’s when the real shit begins.

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Friday afternoon the CD player is shooting a laser on a plastic disc and I’m being flooded with traces of doom. Every god damned lyric has me projecting bullshit about how dark everything must have gotten over the years. I’m looking for reasons. Except, you know, they just don’t exist. What am I searching for…

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A month ago, I was talking to my thirteen-year-old son about Vic Chesnutt. His suicide came up and we both cried. He asked why, and if it was wrong. It went something like this…

My head began to hurt. “I don’t have a good answer for that. Some people will hold up a Bible and tell you it is a sin. Others will talk about how selfish it is to hurt the people you love by ending your own life. Personally, I don’t buy into that. I believe that mental illness… depression; it takes away the hope you have for a good future. It only leaves you with the impression that your pain needs to end, and that you are a burden on those who suffer through it beside you.”

“That doesn’t make sense!”

“What?”

“The burden thing. Mommy pays for you to be home with us. You’re not a burden. So what if he owes money.”

“Part of being an adult is the desire to be self sustaining. That our own life should not impede or lower the people we care about.”

“THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE! When Grandma and Grumpa got sick you moved and took care of them didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Were they a burden?”

“No. I was exactly where I needed to be. Where I wanted to be. However, they didn’t see it that way. Grandma saw me leave my family to take care of her and it really bugged her.”

“That’s what I mean, if you were sick I would want to be with you.”

“That is how depression works. You forget that people really want to be there for you. You don’t want to ask for help. You don’t want to hold people back from their own lives. You just want to end the pain.”

The conversation went on… it never really reached a satisfying conclusion.

^^^^^^^^^^

Looking through the scores of articles published in the first 24 hours, I come across one in the Huffpost, from Julie A. Fast, an expert on mental illness and a survivor herself. I’m struck by a small paragraph near the end of the piece.

“If he has a brain like mine, he has an illness and his brain was triggered by something that resulted in a suicidal episode. It may have had nothing to do with his amazing life. Sometimes an illness is simply stronger than the person. Sometimes medications mess with our sensitive brain chemicals.”

The words hit me with a mix of confirmation, resignation and an awful strong desire to say “No shit – Sherlock.” I’m pissed off at everyone and no one at all. I resist the idea of opening a bottle of wine as Cornell’s epic voice pleads “reach down, and pick the crowd up.”

^^^^^^^^^^^^^

The day Kurt Cobain died I was the Entertainment Editor of my campus paper. Quite a few people were bugging me to write an obituary. When I didn’t, a couple staff blamed the EIC (Editor In Chief), actually suggesting she didn’t want one. It was ludicrous. She knew why I didn’t, and I never had to explain myself. She could always see right through me. It was personal. As someone who had visited dark places, I wasn’t prepared to go there. I couldn’t express myself in terms that would bring anything remotely insightful. It had nothing to do with all that ‘voice of a generation’ crap, just a sadness that I couldn’t comprehend. Always regretted not saying something, but I simply can’t find words for it. Still haven’t got them.

Kurt Cobain – Elliott Smith – Mark Linkous – Vic Chesnutt – Chris Cornell. All artists I adored.

What’s the old saying… there but for the grace of God, go I?

I don’t know these people, but I know that place. I can’t help but take it personally. Every suicide I hear about hits me. My ears burn. I ache. I place it in a compartment tagged “to deal with later” and wait until I have time alone. Then I ache some more.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Last year a friend posted an article on Facebook – Suicide Rates Amongst Middle Aged Men Rises 43% in the last 15 years. Chris Cornell was 52. I turn 50 in July.

Fuckin’ Facebook and its fuckin’ statistics.

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Twenty-four news cycle, major media, outlets that only mention artists when tragedy strikes, headlines about a voice silenced, and I feel rage. Misdirected rage. Quite honestly, why should I give a shit about all the talk about ‘grunge’ and ‘Seattle’ and ‘vocal range’ and the hyperbole surrounding it. 1990’s superlatives that lessen the time to a cliché. I’m smart enough to know what I’m searching for; the need to find something – someone to articulate how I’m feeling. Words that parallel my thoughts and give them voice. A smarter person than I to bring perspective. I’m searching, listening, searching and listening. Nothing so far.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

It’s Saturday morning. It starts with “Big Dumb Sex.” Cornell sreams ‘fuck’ enough times to make even Zac De La Rocha blush. This back before Soundgarden could fill a stadium. Before metalheads and alt-rock fans had been hearing “Jesus Christ Pose” on Walkman’s. Before people were bringing his voice up in conversations about rock’s greatest vocalists. It’s just a stupid fuckin’ song by a barely twenty something guy. The hook is the fact that he is using profanity to the point of hilarity, as a means to say “this is my version of pop music.” A parody of all the glam metal/big hair bands of the day. Essentially, it was meant to make you laugh. No deep meaning. Just a moment of being a dumbass.

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Outside the funeral home my friend and I get a bit into the whole self-referential morbid mortality thing. He wonders how people can catch up inside a funeral home. How laughter can continue in a room with the deceased. I take a different angle.

“Do me a favor. If or when I go – laugh. I don’t care what the circumstances are – laugh. I don’t want how I died to define me. I don’t want singular moments of when I was exceptional or unexceptional being the focus. I want The Lemonheads punk version of “Amazing Grace” played at the memorial. I want stupid stories regaled for all to hear.”

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I didn’t know Chris Cornell. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want Wednesday night in Detroit to be his epitaph. So, If, like me, you are looking for something to make sense of it… stop.

Just go put on a record.

Don’t watch the latest CNN updates.

Just put on a record.

Listen.

Repeat.

I suggest the Soundgarden cover of Devo’s “Girl You Want” from the EP SOMMS. It’s awesome fun and a great way to remember a person in their happier “dumbass” moments.

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Big Star + Rock Hall = An Inductee That Would Really Matter… or… Big Star – Complete Columbia: Live at University of Missouri

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A friend asked me “Why, of all the albums being released on Record Store Day 2016, are you waiting in line for a 90’s live album from a 70’s band?” The tone and nature of the question was meant to be mocking, as he loves to have lively music debates, particularly ones that push my buttons. However, instead of just reacting, I took a deep breath and thought about it. Then, just to be annoying I told him I would ‘write the answer.’ (hehehe…)

The reasons are three-fold.

Like many people, the album I first attach to a band tends to have the greatest impact. While I heard songs by Big Star from time to time, it wasn’t until the release of Columbia that I had a complete work in front of me which represented the band as a whole. A world opened up. Here was a collection of songs that didn’t need to be ‘epic’ stories of human struggle (ie. Bruce Springsteen) or carry images of Mordor (ie. Led Zeppelin) to have powerful depth. They also didn’t include anthem-like clichés to get people fist pumping in the air (pick your own example, as there are so many). “In The Street”, “Back Of A Car” and “September Gurls” leapt out of my speakers and made my own angst seem to matter. These songs were simple coming-of-age tales detailing everyday experiences without the ‘syrup’ provided by many of the ‘so-called’ classic rock bands of the day. Instead, Big Star gave us the kind of tunes that made you want to pick up a guitar and learn to play. Furthermore, you found yourself singing, not in some vain attempt to impress or attract anyone, but as an outlet to express yourself. Which is perhaps why I had been hearing covers of their songs by other artists as time went on; The Lemonheads, Matthew Sweet, The Bangles, The Posies, Teenage Fanclub and later Beck were all doing renditions of the songs of Alex Chilton or Chris Bell. The Replacements even wrote a song entitled “Alex Chilton”, dropping the line “never go far, without a little Big Star.” All of it was packed into this one album.

Next, this wasn’t an example of a band cashing in on fame. Big Star never had the kind of fame you could cash in on. Columbia was quite literally a concert put together by fans for fans and later released in a similar fashion. Two campus radio staffers at the University of Missouri quite literally asked Big Star alumni Jody Stephens if he would be willing to do a reunion show, and got a yes if Alex Chilton was up for it. Surprisingly, Chilton agreed and, with the addition of the Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow to cover for Chris Bell (deceased) and Andy Hummel (left the music business), the band played an amazing set to (merely) an estimated 200 people. Yet even with a small venue, they managed to attract much of the music world. That show got glowing write-ups in all the major music magazines of the day. It was pretty unanimous amongst the press that those not lucky enough to be in attendance had missed something special. Fortunately, this record gives us a glimpse of a show that has attained somewhat legendary status.

Finally, Columbia solidifies my absolute belief that Big Star should be in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. All three of their initial studio releases (#1 Record, Radio City, Sister Lovers/Third) land consistently on various magazines’ Top Albums of all-time lists; all three are referenced by multiple generations of artists as being influential in their music; and all three are revered by fans lucky enough to have heard them as being close to their hearts. More importantly, their music has endured through the most insanely bad luck of any band in rock history. Their 1971 debut #1 Record was hailed as triumphant by music critics, but due to poor distribution and marketing by Stax, no one could find a copy to purchase, even when songs were played on the radio. Follow up Radio City suffered a similar fate, with Columbia records refusing to distribute the record because of a disagreement with their newly acquired Stax label. By the time Big Star released the gorgeous yet challenging Sister Lovers/Third, the band had completely disintegrated with only Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens remaining. They went their separate ways and that should have ended the story… but it didn’t.

Fans exchanged cassettes with Big Star tunes. Those in the know kept talking and searching until a market was created for re-releases. More than two decades removed from their first record and people were seeking them out based on little more than conversations and scratchy recordings emanating from a tape deck. By the early 90’s, Ryko had reissued Sister Lovers/Third and a put out a compilation of Chris Bell’s solo material, I Am The Cosmos. Then Columbia was released in 1993.  A tribute album was recorded by a virtual who’s who of 90’s alt-rock artists (ironically, it also suffered from bad luck and wasn’t released until years afterward). When Columbia was released, it may still have been hard to find the first two Big Star records in stores, but here were the songs; live, rough and glorious in their presentations. All members were taking on vocal duties, with Jon Auer doing an incredible job on the solo Chris Bell single “I Am The Cosmos.” As the 90’s continued, That 70’s Show used “In The Street” as their theme song and a new generation started to discover the band. Finally, their albums could be found in record stores.

Somehow, without radio backing or touring, people were seeking out this music.

Which brings me to the Rock Hall…

If, as I believe, rock ‘n’ roll is about more than money or popularity, then Big Star should be inducted and Columbia is a perfect example of why. Here is a band whose art transcended obscurity by nothing more than word of mouth and shared recordings. Without the help of corporate money and radio exposure, their music found a way to not only be heard, but in fact influence generations of future musicians. Hell, the entire sub-genre of “power-pop” can’t even be considered without Big Star being mentioned as its greatest practitioners. It is hard to picture the sounds of the 90’s alternative music scene without the influence of songs that Alex Chilton and Chris Bell provided. Then, you add the Big Star reunion to the mix.

Complete Columbia: Live at the University of Missouri 4/25/93 exemplifies the very idea that great music will find fans and that record sales are not as important as the art itself. On-stage that day in ’93 were two musicians who had created some music playing with two other musicians that had been directly inspired by it. Twenty years separating their careers, yet you could hear just how much Big Star had meant to the future of rock music. They weren’t just another band that you hummed along to distractedly on a transistor radio; they were the band you sought out and told anyone and everyone willing to listen that Big Star were “FUCKING AWESOME!!!”

So my friend… you ask me why I’m arriving early on RSD 2016 to line up for a copy of Columbia… or even, why they should be in the Rock Hall… well, it’s because Big Star created music that really matters… what other reason is there?

A Perfect Storm… or Sonic Youth – Goo

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It can be difficult to quantify the importance of a single LP, not only as a piece of art, but also on its impact on the zeitgeist. Music being a quite subjective form of expression usually gets defined by observers in two very different, if not opposing standards – sales (numbers sold) and contextualization… being the present, historical and critical importance perceived by music writers and individuals alike. Every so often the two standards align within a moment that one can point at and yell (in their best Charlie Brown voice) “THAT’S IT!!!”

Goo acted as such a watershed. While being the most commercially accessible album Sonic Youth had produced to date, it changed how other artists saw themselves and their art within the music world. Without compromising their artistic vision, the band had joined a major label and sounded just as fucking insanely awesome as ever. Following Goo, Nirvana signed with DGC on Kim Gordon’s recommendation. Neil Young released Weld on the advice of Thurston Moore. Hell, they even made Steve Albini’s cries of sell outs to all major label acts seem like a distant voice lost in a strong wind. After all, if Sonic Youth were recording for DGC, then how bad could it be?

Just look back at the classic documentary 1991: The Year That Punk Broke. For many, this was ‘the’ introduction to the world of 90’s alt-rock having just witnessed Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr. Babes in Toyland and more pre-grunge explosion (grunge is such a useless word). Thing is… the real subject and focus of the film is Sonic Youth and their tour in support of Goo. Everyone in the film went on to either moderate or phenomenal success.

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Like any band that has the repertoire of Sonic Youth, arguments will always ensue about where albums rank against one another. Dirty was more commercially successful and Daydream Nation got more critical laurels, but Goo was proof positive that Sonic Youth could take their brand of indie-avant-rock into the public consciousness. Basically, if you’re a music-geek, then Goo is essential.

If you’re looking to pick up a 12” version there are a few options. Your first is the original LP from 1990, some limited quantities came with a bonus 7” of “Kool Thing” and are decently priced at under $40 through discogs. They were limited at the time to 3000 copies so some e-bay resellers are asking as much as $200 for “near mint”… so do some research if you’re looking for it.

The most coveted edition is the 1996 Mobile Fidelity 200 gram vinyl. As per usual, MF did the recording at half cutting speed to ensure sound quality and did a limited run. Of course, this also means a high price on the resale market with vendors asking for over $200 in many cases. Again you’re looking at tags like “near mint.”

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The next option is for music enthusiasts and can be purchased “new.” In 2005, Goo was re-mastered and put out as a four LP set. The first two discs contained the album proper on Sides A, B and C while D had ‘B-sides and outtakes.’  The second set of records contained demos and unreleased material.  Also included was a 16 page booklet. This can be special ordered through most record stores or ordered direct through the bands website.

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This year Goo got another re-master and re-release. This time out it is on a single disc. You can find the standard black vinyl at all the usual outlets, or a pink/white swirl through Newbury Comics. The coloured vinyl edition is limited to 1000 copies and sounds pretty damn good against the CD.

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Any way you look at it, Sonic Youth provided a road for other bands to follow, and Goo was a significant part of what would follow in the 90’s alt-rock era. It’s worth the price of admission.

Give Me Crap If You Must… or… Temple Of The Dog – Eponymous

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Right now… as I’m writing this, I’m feeling an epic moment of personal nostalgia. Looking over at a recently purchased purple piece of vinyl spinning on my turntable I can’t help but reflect back nearly twenty-five years. Usually when someone says that an album changed their life it is pure hyperbole. It is something said by someone to say they connected in a deep way to a certain record. In my case it literally shaped my entire university experience and the lifelong friends I made.

Let me explain. In the summer of 1991 I found myself really getting into an album that almost no one had heard of – Temple Of The Dog. Remember, this was before Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger; before Pearl Jam had released Ten and even predates Nirvana’s Nevermind. Hell, Soundgarden’s most commercial song to this point was probably “Big Dumb Sex” which had Chris Cornell screaming fuck enough to get the old “explicit lyrics” sticker on the front of Louder Than Love.

As school resumed in September I had started taking a film course and was regaling a new acquaintance on the perfection that was Temple Of The Dog. After a few moments, he interjected with… “Why don’t you review it for me?” I must admit, I was more than a little dumbfounded and probably had that “um, yeah, um, ok” look in my eyes until he explained that he was the entertainment editor at the campus paper. The next day I showed up with a hand written review and from that point on, I became an arts critic during a very interesting time in the musical universe.

Little more than a month after that conversation Pearl Jam was playing an industry gig at the Rivoli in Toronto. Trust me when I say this… the Rivoli is small, very frickin’ small. Ten had been released, but no one was caught up in it yet, and I retold the story again to my friend trying to sell him on the idea of an interview. Mike, who has a bit of a poker face, didn’t seem to think it would be a problem. It would be the first time I would stick a microphone in front of a band, so I was a little nervous and started checking my schedule the next day. My memory at this point gets a bit fuzzy on certain details, but what I remember with absolute clarity is this – I had an exam the morning after the interview. So I returned to Mike and let him know I wouldn’t be able to do it. Casually… between two friends, I cancelled an audience with Pearl Jam before they were “PEARL JAM.”

It wouldn’t be until the next summer I’d do my first interview with The Skydiggers, and from there I did have chats with a lot of great bands. Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub, Cracker and the Lemonheads all come to mind. However… um…, what can I say? I did well on the exam.

Now many years later I found myself searching for a vinyl copy and apparently it is a very hot commodity. Discogs has selling the original 1991 LP for $1000 USD with the average of past sales coming up at over $200 and a recent sale over $500. The same record made in Europe goes for a much more reasonable $80.

That same year a limited edition picture disc was released but I couldn’t find any for sale to fix a price point.

In 1992, with the success of both Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the album was given a huge push behind the release of the single “Hunger Strike.” Several European editions were released on red vinyl and all seem to go between $50 and $100.

Eight years later, a vinyl reissue hit the market on clear vinyl that has a history of selling under $50.

Jump to 2013 and Music on Vinyl did a complete remaster of the record on 2 pieces of black 180 gram vinyl with an etched side 4. Simultaneously, they also released a limited edition hand numbered purple LP set. A&M also reissued the record on a single red platter.

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Finally, last year, Music on Vinyl reissued 1200 copies of the purple set on 180 gram vinyl to be sold through Newbury Comics. The two, while described as purple, are differing shades, making it slightly cooler than the last batch. However… it seems to have already sold out. You can find copies through Discogs or e-bay for under $50 USD, or just grab the regular black vinyl which is still widely available at the usual retailers.

Beck… without the Beck? Or Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World Soundtrack

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Writing songs for fake bands can turn out some pretty good tunes. The Monkees and Spinal Tap built careers around that shtick, and let’s not forget the memorable Citizen Dick in Singles and… well, it’s a very long list. One of my favourite is Sex Bob-Omb from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. While I admit to being a fan of the movie, it’s the soundtrack that I became pretty obsessive over for a few months back in the day. First it contained that awesome Plumtree song “Scott Pilgrim” that had originally inspired the books. Then you had some top notch Canadian content with Metric and Broken Social Scene stealing their… um, scenes; by appearing as rival band Crash & the Boys. However, it was the Beck songs written for Sex Bob-Omb that had my son and I singing along on the summer road trips.

By writing garage inspired tunes for a fictional act, Beck took a step back towards a more lo-fi sound and created an EP worth of memorable tunes. The energy and enthusiasm expressed in the soundtrack material was similar to what had drawn me to Beck on Mellow Gold. It was playfulness with words mixed with catchy hooks and surrounded by pawn shop guitar sound. (Seriously folks, check out Beck’s live appearances with that wonderful cheap piece of shit 60’s Silvertone. The sound is raunchy, broken and incredibly brilliant. Honestly, I own one myself and love it.)

With the deluxe edition, you get both the Sex Bob-Omb recordings and Beck versions. While the two are quite similar to one another, Beck has a nonchalance in the delivery that allows lines like “Jesus in the rear view / and the highway patrol is up ahead / in my garbage truck…truck” to move past silly and into ‘fun rock-out’ territory. Unfortunately, ‘deluxe’ was digital download only, so the extra three Beck recordings are not on vinyl or CD.

The original vinyl pressing from 2010 was on red translucent wax. Due to demand, there was a 2013 reissue that is identical to the initial release. You can still find copies out and about at record retailers, so don’t go nuts in the reseller market and pay ridiculous prices.

Being a Beck fan, I picked up the LP and just bought the three extra tracks from itunes. It isn’t my usual thing, but when your kids are singing along to your ipod mix on the trip to see the grandparents… well, it feels like money well spent.

Aimee Mann: She isn’t the Ramones… but she is pretty damn cool! (A first concert story)

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Back in university there was only one major thing I was envious about regarding my roommate/friend – his first concert. The first band he ever saw live was the Ramones; only the ‘coolest’ band to have ever graced the planet earth. Oh, you can mention ‘better’ or ‘more popular’ bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Smiths, the Cure, etc and so forth… but unless you can tell me you saw James Brown live at the Apollo, or the B 52’s in an Athens dive as your first show, he had you beat.

Of course, his first concert outshone mine easily. I’m embarrassed to say, but that first for me was in the freezing cold at Nathan Phillips Square featuring Platinum Blonde. Sure, there are many bands that could rank worse as a first show, and it wasn’t a bad night either, but “It Doesn’t Really Matter” isn’t exactly “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” A few years later, with one four year old at my feet, and another child on the way, I vowed to make sure that my kids would get a cool first concert; something ‘worthy’ of telling college roommates about in a childish game of ‘mine is better than yours.’

So it was that in 2008, a couple things had lined themselves up. Local record store Sonic Boom (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World filmed a couple scenes in there) had acoustic concerts every so often in the basement of their Bloor Street location. I attended a Nada Surf show with the ‘former roomy’ and when it finished I saw the bands singer/songwriter Matthew Caws hanging out with some kids. Not ‘kids’ as in a middle-aged definition of people of the teenaged variety… but honest to goodness children. Not being the most perceptive of individuals, it only dawned on me right then, that… well, um, a record store is a safe and… dare I add, perhaps even ‘cool’ place to see a concert.

!!!LIGHTBULB!!!!

Five months after watching Nada Surf, and barely 8 weeks after my second child was born a quick e-mail announced that Aimee Mann was going to be playing a set at Sonic Boom. Since the early 90’s I had become a pretty big fan of Mann’s music. She had put together a consistent string of outstanding records that caught a great balance between power-pop (Big Star), new-wave (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe), and the alt-rock scene of the times. Bachelor #2 was a staple in my house as the new millennium began and 2005’s concept album The Forgotten Arm seemed to be just more proof that she should be a household name. In other words, Mann had become an essential part of my life’s soundtrack. Alas, critical praise doesn’t always result in record sales. Of course, and from a purely selfish perspective, it also meant that seeing a ‘bucket list’ artist in a strange different style venue was about to happen.

So it was that during the early evening May 9th, 08 my wife and I took the boys out to see Aimee Mann. Needless to say, the youngest was in a car seat hanging out with my wife just in case he expressed any discomfort with the noise level. However, my 4 year old and I were sitting cross-legged in front of the small riser where he began to ask me a thousand questions about the small soundboard and the instruments on stage. He had a poster clutched in his hands and was smiling from ear to ear. Since his birth he had seen me playing guitar and singing songs and was now completely enthralled by the prospect of seeing a real music artist. Mann didn’t disappoint. Playing a few selections from @#%&*! Smilers, which was due for release a couple weeks later, she had everyone in a great mood. By the end of the set my son was convinced that Mann was the world’s greatest songwriter, and that she was smiling at him between songs. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him she was looking at where she was placing the capo on her guitar… and that the neck of the instrument was pointed in his direction.)

After the set, we waited around for about 30 minutes to see if we could get the poster signed. I’m not usually one for signatures, but I figured a momentous occasion like a first concert would be a great opportunity for my kids to have a keepsake. So we looked at the vinyl and cassettes which shared the basement with the stage, and kept an eye on the door for her exit. Unfortunately, whoever was interviewing her after the show was getting a really good chat, because she just never came out of the backroom in time for my son to get it signed. The baby needed to get home, and so we jumped into the rusty old minivan with a poster, our memories and a great first concert story.

Eighteen months later, my first born would get his second concert poster signed by a confused looking J. Mascis and a very gracious Lou Barlow after a Dinosaur Jr. acoustic set at Sonic Boom. (I mean come on, how many times do alt-rock legends get five year-olds walking up for an autograph.) Since then we’ve been to a bunch of small sets or shows. Both my boys (now just about to turn 12 and 8) enjoy going to shows at Sugar Beach where they can play in the sand before a band breaks into song.

Over the years, I’ve seen Mann perform a couple times, each time more impressive than the last and yet she still remains on my bucket list for a couple reasons. One, I’d eventually like to get to one of her annual Christmas shows. But, even more importantly, I’d like to have the kids go to a full concert that they’ll actually remember without daddy reminding them of when playing music on the stereo. When she last came to Toronto with The Both we were away on holidays and missed the chance. All joking about bragging rights aside, taking my kids to a concert isn’t about bravado, it is about bonding. Doing those things that allow memories to grow and be sustained.

So my old roommate has the Ramones… and that is pretty cool. But, on some future day when they’re at college and a friend asks “what was your first show?” both my children will be able to give a sly grin and reply – “Aimee Mann… and I wasn’t even in kindergarten yet.” The older one can even add “and, it’s on youtube. You can see my dad and I on the floor waiting for the music to start.”

Thanks for the memory Aimee

Barrettbites Top Ten Spectacular Vinyl Releases of 2015

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Try as I might to live in denial of it, the music world has evolved into this digital place where music is consumed by means of digital downloads and streams in the millions. Still, there are those amongst us for whom vinyl has remained the preferred method of listening and enjoying our cherished music collection. The tactile nature of removing wax from a sleeve, gently dropping a needle on a spinning disc, sitting back in a chair and, finally investigating the album cover for bits of information that will further connect, and maybe even enhance the joy received when the music seeps into your consciousness.

For those of us caught up in vinyl, sometimes we are given opportunities to get rare and collectible records that are not only artistic expressions by the artists, but also the people who are creating the vinyl itself. Coloured vinyl not only sounds as great as the standard black, but stands out in the crowd for its unique look combined with awesome tunes. Here are ten outstanding examples of 2015 releases that took that extra step in not only releasing music, but providing incredible presentation too.

Lou Barlow – Brace The Wave

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Alternative lo-fi stalwart Lou Barlow (Sebadoh & Dinosaur Jr.) put out a solo work this year that not only sounded great, but also looked the part. Brace The Wave crashed the psyche with Barlow’s patented confusion and self loathing, dropping lines like “remember we were hipsters sleeping with our cats / young and thin and fucking crazy.” The album was desolate and beautiful in directing pain into expression. The vinyl itself had two variant editions. The first was sea foam green and the second was a combination of sea foam green and pink wax limited to 500 hand numbered copies. Needless to say, that 2nd option sold out quickly.

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

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Seemingly a part of everyone’s best of 2015 list, Barnett topped that by landing four Grammy nominations a few days back. Sometimes… is the kind of record that you just can’t help but play over and over again, as wit and rock join forces. In a rather unique move, the album was released with 4 variant editions being sold in different geographical regions. North Americans had orange coloured vinyl combined with a 7” and turntable slip mat. Australia and New Zealand had heavyweight white vinyl. The UK got two variants which included versions that were 2 LPS’s of orange translucent vinyl or two yellow translucent LP’s.

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

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Not to be outdone by Courtney Barnett, not only does Sound & Color end up on every year end list and receive four Grammy nominations, but it also lands one of those nominations in the Album Of The Year category. Upon its initial release, Alabama Shakes put out a clear variant edition for mass release and a more exclusive white coloured edition on sale at Urban Outfitters outlets.

City & Colour – If I Should Go Before You

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Combining folk, soul, country and rock, Dallas Green and Co. put out a record that changes direction much like the seasons. It seems appropriate that they would also release four different variant editions for their fans. The first, sold through their website and at shows was on ‘black smoke’ vinyl. The second, also sold on their home page, was a very ‘holiday season’ looking two disc set on red followed by green vinyl. Only 300 were issued. The next set, limited to 1000 copies, was exclusive to Newbury Comics on two pieces of ‘coke bottle’ green 180 gram vinyl. Finally, from band’s store was the ‘Beauty Bundle’ box set. Limited to 1000 copies, it included two pieces of ‘bone’ colored 180 gram vinyl that plays at 45rpm, as well as a bunch of other goodies for the hardcore fan willing to drop $80.00.

Calexico – Edge Of The Sun

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Such is the landscape that Calexico creates in its musical atmosphere, it just isn’t enough for them to write a bunch of singular songs that are placed together to create an album. They carefully craft a soundtrack which puts together music to evoke an emotional response. Their blend of Mariachi-Americana brings up a south-west location, but the camera then pans towards the setting sun and you’re hooked. Set on two pieces of 180 gram vinyl, their single variant edition has one turquoise while the other is mint green coloured. Looks and sounds great.

Juliana Hatfield Three – Whatever, My Love

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A natural follow up to 1993’s Become What You Are, (which it is), Whatever, My Love flows with much more ease than any of Hatfield’s more recent work. Released through American Laundromat Records, Whatever, My Love had a printing of only 500 vinyl copies, split between a clear version (125) and a purple splatter variant (375).

Langhorne Slim & The Law – The Spirit Moves

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Slim is a bit of an eclectic master, with themes of joy and misery intermingling with equal passion. Essentially, he is fearless in bending songs around multiple influences. Horns play on a number of tracks and in a different way each time. On “Spirit Moves” he uses them as a counter melody, similar to Johnny Cash’s classic “Ring Of Fire” and then brings them back later for “Life’s A Bell” as a Memphis Horns/Stax/Otis Redding tool for emotional emphasis. With the ever present acoustic instruments, some songs drift towards sounds reminiscent of Nick Drake and Cat Stevens, but the album as a whole pulls everything back into that unique Langhorne Slim vision. The variant vinyl is ‘coke bottle’ clear matching the tone of the album cover.

Django Django – Born Under Saturn

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Riding slow moving waves of psychedelic electronica mixed with surf rock, Django Django deliver a record that is a thrill for your ears. Born Under Saturn is like taking a drive (as a passenger) in a convertible with a blindfold on; you don’t know where the hell you’re going but the journey sure feels incredible. They also had one of the most outstanding looking pieces of vinyl for their alternate editions having orange translucent vinyl with white splatter effect giving it a look of fireworks going off.

Metric – Pagans In Vegas

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Haines sticks mostly to the themes of broken relationships and rising back up after a fall. While this album might seem like a bit of rock ‘n’ roll cliché at times, Metric pulls off the desired impact of connecting us to the music. So when Haines’ vocals demand “the stars above” on early single “The Shade (I Want It All)”, the listener feels entitled to it as well. Metric put out two alternate vinyl versions of Pagans In Vegas. Sold through the band’s own web store, the first variant was on 1180 gram audiophile vinyl and limited to 1200 copies. The other, sold through Newbury Comics, was on white coloured vinyl and limited to 1000 copies.

Alvvays – Eponymous

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While this Alvvays debut record was technically a 2014 release, its steady rise in prominence has made it a 2015 staple. Led by the single “Archie, Marry Me”, Alvvays has created an album that is a damn fine ‘90’s – esque’ alt-rock record. In addition to the standard black vinyl sold through record stores, the band released four other versions. Included in the mix was electric blue, clear, orange and a pale blue splatter.