Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Shiny Happy Hall-of-Famers

The most underrated band of the last two decades, R.E.M (its not that they're not rated highly, they should just be rated higher) was finally inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall Of Fame earlier this year. The evening was kicked off by a rambling, warm, surprisingly funny speech by Eddie Vedder. (Note to Nirvana fans: Look out for the extremely generous and touching reference to Kurt Cobain)

(More or less every word and unintelligible noise Vedder made that evening)

"Good evening.

Uhh….Yes! Uhhmmm, you know, as a kid growing up in school if you were ever to even to day dream about being a musician, one of the most appealing aspects that you could think of, of being paid to play music is that you would never ever again have to write another paper or give an oral presentation. But here we are and I must say that I am hugely honored.

Um, you know, there are two well-written biographies on REM: one is 397 pages and the other is 408. It's difficult to even attempt to scale that down to a few paragraphs but I will try as we don't want this to be as long as that Ramones speech I gave a few years ago [grimace]. Uhh, REM's music is truly all encompassing. They've used every colour on the pallet, they've invented colours on their own, they've painted this huge mural of music and sound and emotion as big as buildings… and they're still adding to this day. And the story of how they got together could not be written, especially considering this evening, could not be written any more… romantic. And that is that Michael Stipe and Peter Buck first meet at a record store where Pete is working, and uhhh, - Wuxtry Records in Athens, Georgia. Their first conversation, their first discussion, uhhm, was about Patti Smith's first four records [pause for applause]. Uh, drummer Bill Berry and bassist, etc, Mike Mills, they get to know each other in high school. They play in a high school band together, the two pairs of friends meet in college in Athens, 27 years later they are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! You see how I cut the middle out to make it move along? [audience cheers]

But! There are a couple of things I need to address, the hardest one being Michael Stipe. And, how do you explain the dialogue between Michael and the listener -- a dialogue that grew up and we grew up with it? Uh, such wisdom in the feelings in these songs that, I think, they helped us find things that we knew were inside us, and I think they helped us find things that we didn't know we had inside us. And I can say, there are things that I hold and feel [hand on heart] very deeply about inside here that Michael Stipe put in there himself. What's really incredible about this is, is that while this is happening… this all happens without ever being able to understand a fucking word he is saying… this is early records and it is, it was, it's such a beautiful thing and it's so open to interpretation all of this… You know, I was so lucky enough in the summer of 1984 to see REM play live at a small place in Chicago, uhm, and I could go on an on because I remember absolutely everything about it, but what I'll say is that it changed how I listen to music and what I listened to because after that I started to just listen to them exclusively. At that time they only had one and half records, and I've done the math so I didn't exaggerate – this record “Murmur”, it's 44 minutes, it must… “Murmur”… if I take three months over that summer of '84 and do the math, “Murmur” runs at about 44 minutes, I believe I listened to it 1260 times. And one of the reasons I was listening so incessantly was that I had to know what he was saying. It's so beautiful, you know, with intent and passion, and, in Michael's case, an unbelievable set of pipes, uh, you know, you're brought into a world of interaction and interpretation. The lyrics have become… they get more direct, uh, and now they even, now he puts the lyrics inside the record so you can actually… he's a …. he should… he should be so proud because he's a true poet: he can be direct, he can be completely abstract, he can hit an emotion with pinpoint accuracy, and he can be completely oblique and it ALL resonates. That's Michael…. well, that's PART of Michael… uh, yeah… [shakes head] there's so much to Mike – I love him.

Peter Buck plays guitar like a guy who worked in a record store… and when I say that, I say that I say it it it it's not necessarily derivative of all this music that he knows, all his guitar playing. It's that he knows his music so well it's more the thing that he plays through the holes and invents things and hits the spots yet to be covered and, I think, thereby pushing the progression of Rock and Roll. I think of him and his beautiful daughters and what he's contributed, cutting a path for alternative music for bands like Nirvana and Radiohead and forever on after that. Uhm, from a record store in Athens to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a tremendous journey.

“Now, if REM had a secret weapon, I would say it was Mike Mills. He plays bass, piano, a number of instruments and is the writer – a genius writer – of music but, uh, the secret weapon, I believe, is his voice. Uh, it's, uh, it's really not a background vocal, it's almost like a second lead vocal, and I think it really is what makes so many of their songs, uh, absolutely haunting. Uhm, and, it's, uh, you see, it's… stealth – he's stealth – or actually, actually he was stealth until about 14 years ago when he took to wearing these really bright coloured suits with massive embroidery and rhinestones… and that's a gutsy move at the time because this, you know, Grunge – this was about the time Grunge was in fashion so this was…

Now, I don't know if you know the story about drummer Bill Barry… but right around that time, the time of the suits, uum, Mike's suits, Bill Barry has a, uh, he, he he's playing in Switzerland and in the middle of a show, an aneurism bursts in his head, and he almost dies and uhm… I think I read somewhere that it might have been triggered by, a strobe light… but I was just thinking about it might have been one of Mike's suits [audience and REM laugh]… the Orange one, perhaps!

So, in all seriousness, Peter Buck has said that if uh they weren't in Switzerland at the time and they had tremendous doctors, he may not have lived. And, uh, Bill recovers after a couple of months of intensive rehab and then, um, they do some more… they finish that touring cycle, they make another record, they tour some more. At that point, I think, that the most difficult uh hurdle they've had to reach was when Bill had to say that he didn't think that he could keep playing with them. And he did it… when he did it, he said, “But I need to know that you will continue”. In his own words he said, “I can't be the shmuck that broke up REM.” And so much to his relief, they have continued on and done incredible things. Ummm, but I have, I – I wonder if I should go into this? I have a theory about Bill and why he couldn't continue, and I don't even think it's, ummm, I don't think it's the touring. I don't think it was the travelling. I've studied photos of them through the years and it… it appears to me, the reason that Bill couldn't continue, was photo shoots. I'll explain: you make a record, you mix a record, you put the artwork out, you plan a tour, and then you do… photo shoots. And photo shoots. And what happens is they say, “Bill! Can you just stand in the back now, if, all right, you just, poke your head through right between Michael and Peter. That's right. Now if you just lean forward and – chin up please! – chin up! – now, don't look at me, look at my hand! All right. Now would you be so kind to… can you just give me the big eyes?”
This happens and I think it made him crazy. I've… I'm just reading into it… Not crazy! But he had to stop, he was… If you look in the photos, you can see him glaze… and he's, like… “I can't do this anymore! I can't do this anymore! I'm just going to go and be a…fucking farmer!”. Which he did. And I believe he's lived happily ever after since. And, uh, as a fan, it's an incredible, exciting thrill to see him here tonight.

Um, in closing here tonight, on a personal note, I'll just say that Peter moved to Seattle a number of years ago and now they have great musicians from Seattle playing in their band – um, a great drummer called Bill Rieflin, um, Ken Stringfellow and Scott McCoy, who is here tonight. Peter has been just a tremendous part of our musical community there. And, when he moved there, Seattle music and everything was getting a little bit out of control and they really took us all under their wings, as they have with other musicians like Thom Yorke and people of class. And, um, they became like big brothers and as survivors there was a lot they could teach us. Umm, they couldn't save us all, though they tried, and how I wish it was Kurt Cobain who was giving this speech tonight. I would be so happy to have been the second choice after him. But what I'm sayin' is that no matter what we can give them back in the form of this honour, we'll never match what they have given to us – and this is not even mentioning social causes and activism, which should not be a postscript. It's – they've taught us a lot about THAT as well, and inspired us. So I am truly indebted to say that as representative of so many, and I say thank you from myself and the huge numbers of people around the world who have been moved by them, um, and by some strange power invested in me, right now, I hereby induct REM into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Over too soon

Remember an innings of 93 by a certain Indian batsman in an ODI against Sri Lanka after a long injury break? That was the first time i dared to write something about Sachin Tendulkar. It will take a less allusive article (and probably a better writer) to elucidate how Sachin not only meant the world to my generation, but how he actually was our world...

Over too soon

The sun was out
When he was in
Like the moon
Its over too soon

Speaks to me
Like an unfinished symphony
Remember the time?
The dust from the dunes
Its over too soon

Fair weather friends
Make amends
Curse themselves
For following trends
As for us
We don’t say much
Its not even noon
Its over too soon

We were young
When he walked in
But I could have told her
That he would grow older
But then she’d ask
If we could go on
When he was gone
In our cocoon
Its over too soon

Good Hotels

Good hotels are always sexy.

The virgin cleanliness of the room when you first enter. The full length mirrors in the bathroom. Strangers congregated in lobbies and coffee shops and herbal parlours. Saunas with aromatic massages. The anonymity of it all. The ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door. The curtains translucent like shimmering veils. Cool women in cocktail dresses, in restaurants talking to their husbands, or their boyfriends, or taking a break from them. The crisp uniforms of room service. The knowledge that as you walk down the carpeted corridors there are, in rooms to the right and left, honeymooners, and professionals, and people determined to break off their marriage in dramatic fashion. The sheer convenience of it all (in good hotels, the sheets are changed daily and in your absence). Good hotels are always sexy.

Good hotels are also lonely.

The way in which the staff tries to act friendly. The plastic covering on the cups, the bottles and the soap. Honeymooners, hand in hand. A short note for you when you open your suitcase. Time on your hands. The antiseptic perfection, an exact apotheosis of normal life. Newspapers with their local interest stories and regional politics. Getting your meals ordered to the room, because what’s the point eating alone. May as well watch TV (in good hotels all sitcoms seem that little bit warmer). Good hotels are necessarily lonely.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Real Bright Side

When was the last time a song grabbed you by the collar and said ‘LISTEN’? If the answer to that is ‘You’re beautiful’ by James Blunt, please stop reading. If the answer is ‘Mr. Brightside’ by The Killers, then hang on. There was something in that call. An out-of-control quaver in the voice that unfortunately could not do enough to differentiate itself from the fifty other quavering male voices clogging up the charts. The lyrics didn’t help much either. It did sell some 50 million copies though. So what? I predicted that their next album would crash through the floor, and not only that, the first single would be an exact replica of ‘Mr. Brightside’, and would end up being bought only by the president of the Killers’ fan club and the band members’ parents.

I thought I was right too. For the first fourteen seconds of ‘Read my mind’, a synth lays down a sort of ocean texture. Then, just before you write it off completely and wait for the next White Stripes album, a cymbal crashes and the singer gets right down to it.
‘On the corner of Main Street, just tryin' to keep it in line, you say you want to move on and, you say I'm falling behind. Can you read my mind?’ It sounds like a challenge. By the time he’s told you that he ‘never really gave up on breaking out of this two-star town’ you realize that you’re squarely in young Bruce Springsteen territory, with all its defiance and world-weariness and clich├ęs that become resonant because they are sung a certain way.

The singer starts off cool but keeps getting more and more worked up as the song progresses. Finally, wrapped up in his own story, he loses his bearings. His voice loses the melody altogether, and with the band holding the tune tightly in the background, he simply starts chanting loudly ‘I don’t mind if you don’t mind, coz I don’t shine if you don’t shine, put your back on me, put your back on me…’ It sounds awful on paper, but it works so well on record, and is so damn exhilarating, that The Killers actually manage to seem like a band with something to say and not just a pose. It ends with the most Springsteen-like non-Springsteen lines I’ve ever heard - ‘the stars are shining like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun, can you read my mind?’