It seems fitting that as the curtain comes down on 2000, we should reflect on our personal obsessions. In the same year that saw musical fetishism come out of the proverbial closet -- thanks in large part to the big-screen adaptation of High Fidelity -- a celebration of those odd material addictions that possess even the most sane among us seems in order.
For some folks, their particular mania might be collecting Pez dispensers or cookie jars, but whatever the vice, we all have our embarrassing quirks and peccadilloes. For us, it's music-related materials: CDs, tapes, vinyl, videos. That's why we've again decided to reveal a little more of ourselves and sate your ravenous appetite for year-end (or beginning, as it were) polls with this, our second annual Top 10 Personal Obsessions list.
You'll find that some of us are drawn to the illicit appeal of the "unauthorized" or "bootleg" disc, while others find a lure in the exotic nature of imports. A few are more addicted to the quest itself -- whether that journey takes us to suburban record retailers or moldy smelling thrift shops. And then, of course, there are those who specialize in collecting stuff that most rational thinking humans wouldn't be caught dead listening to or watching. In any case, the next few pages should offer a startling insight deep into our souls and record collections.
Top 10 Imports
For a grossly underpaid and overworked writer, collecting import CDs can be a real financial burden. Frankly, the average cocaine habit is less costly than a monthly binge of Australian singles and Japanese remasters. At least coke addicts have detox and rehab to help get themselves clean. The only people import junkies can turn to for support are other similarly deluded fools, the kind of people who think the world might end if they don't get the U.K. reissue of the original mix of To Hell With the Boys as soon as it hits the streets.
With single CDs running anywhere from 20 to 50 dollars a pop (and multiplying exponentially for double, triple and boxed sets), you could easily plunk down the bulk of your disposable income -- not to mention most of your rent and food money -- trying to keep up with the latest overseas releases.
The odd thing is no one's ever offered up a reasonable explanation for why imports cost so much. The bit about tariffs, taxes and shipping costs somehow rings false. Personally, I think it's part of an international conspiracy between Bertelsmann, Sony and Universal to deplete my savings, but, hey, that's just a theory.
1. The Undertones, The Singles Box Set (Castle Music) Exhibit A in the case to have my credit cards taken away from me. This handsomely packaged, magnificently detailed and completely overpriced collection (from Ireland's answer to the Ramones) is composed entirely of tracks that I already own in at least one, if not multiple versions! This 12-disc box features all the Undertones' singles and B-sides remastered in individual sleeves with the original artwork restored in mini-45 format. Frankly, the versions of "Teenage Kicks" and "Jimmy Jimmy" found here don't sound any better or worse than the "remastered" ones that Rykodisc put out in the early '90s, or those that appeared on last year's less elaborate Castle Music double-disc comp True Confessions: Singles = A's + Bs. But, hey, at 75 dollars it seemed like such a bargain. Somebody, please help me.
2. Small Faces, Nice (NMC Music Ltd.) A great two-CD multimedia package of arguably the greatest Mod group of them all. Trumpeting itself as the first official Small Faces live audio and video release, the material -- billed as "originally recorded in experimental colour" -- comes from five separate German TV and stage appearances circa 1966-68. Watching Messrs. Marriott, Lane, McLagan and Jones decked out in full Carnaby Street regalia performing classics like "Itchycoo Park," "Tin Soldier" and "Here Comes the Nice" is worth every penny of the relatively modest $20 price tag. The accompanying 50-page booklet includes lengthy interviews with all the Small Faces and testimonials from three generations of U.K. rockers influenced by the band.
3. The Posies, At Least At Last (Not Lame Archives) Though technically not an import, this four-CD boxed set of odds 'n' sods from the Seattle power poppers -- released by Fort Collins, Colorado-based imprint Not Lame -- was marked and priced as one, because of a wrangle with the distributor. Since breaking up two years ago, the Posies have proved to be an unbelievably prolific outfit, releasing a live album from their farewell tour (Alive Before the Iceberg), a greatest-hits collection (Dream All Day), an acoustic concert set (In Case You Didn't Feel Like Plugging In) and now this multidisc gathering of "Demos, Live Recordings and What Not 1987 to 1998." At Least At Last again illustrates the almost comical excess inherent in this sort of fetishistic buying behavior. I mean, does anyone really need an a cappella outtake of the intro to "Spite and Malice," a live rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" recorded at Seattle's Kingdome or Muzak versions of "Golden Blunders" or "Suddenly Mary"? Apparently so, judging by the $72 receipt tacked up on my wall.
4. Van Der Graaf Generator, The Box (Virgin) Curiosity compelled me to splurge on this multidisc retrospective of the U.K. prog-rock act. Compiled by front man Peter Hammill and fellow band members, the set is a comprehensive document of the group's 10-year run from 1968-1978. It presents an amazing overview of the band by pulling together material from various BBC sessions, studio albums, long-deleted singles, "bootlegs" and Virgin Records archives. For diehards, The Box provides a trove of previously unreleased material and hard-to-find cuts, while casual fans will marvel at the impressive sound quality of the remastering as well as the elaborate and informative packaging: 48-page booklet, previously unpublished photos, a reminiscence by fellow prog rocker Tony Banks of Genesis, a comprehensive gig listing, discography and memoirs by the four main group members -- Hugh Banton, Guy Evans, David Jackson and Hammill -- themselves.
5. Various Artists, The Xfm Live Sessions (Select) This disc is the cheapest one in the bunch, as it actually came along free with the purchase of the January 2000 issue of U.K. music glossy Select. The 14 tracks here are culled exclusively from in-studio appearances on London's cutting-edge radio station 104.9 Xfm. Among the many fine cuts is a beautiful acoustic rendition of Guided By Voices' lighter-waving ballad "Hold On Hope" and an equally elegiac turn from the Flaming Lips, who weave through a stripped-down version of "Waiting for Superman." But the hands-down highlight of the disc is Sebadoh's take on "Cold As Ice." Listening to indie-rock godhead Lou Barlow rework the Foreigner classic is the kind of stuff that great import dreams are made of.
6. Thee Headcoats, Elementary Headcoats: Thee Singles 1980-1990 (Damaged Goods) Another terrific singles comp, and fortunately none of the tracks were previously in my possession. Pulling together a decade's worth of sides from Billy Childish's main outfit, Elementary offers up 50 tracks of retro pop, garage and rock goodness, along with an exhaustive discography. As irresistibly entertaining as the songs themselves are, the titles do you one better. "(We Hate the Fuckin') NME," "The Day I Beat My Father Up," "I've Been Fuckin' Your Daughters & Pissing on Your Lawns" and the closing "Art or Arse?" are among some of the more engaging selections.
7. Vic Godard & Subway Sect, What's the Matter Boy? (Universal) The reissue/repackaging/remastering of What's the Matter Boy? marks the 20th anniversary of the punk/New Wave classic. A fixture at early Sex Pistols shows, Godard was encouraged by the group's manager Malcolm McClaren to form his own combo. Though he was heavily connected to the punk scene (Godard was a protégé of Clash impresario Bernie Rhodes and opened up on the group's 1977 White Riot tour), he had little in common musically with his anarchy fueled contemporaries, instead combining everything from Northern soul to French pop and angular rock with his own writerly style on this 1980 debut. The 2000 anniversary edition boasts a vastly improved sound quality over the 1996 domestic release, plus expanded packaging and liner notes by Edwyn Collins, who praises Godard as "the best songwriter of his generation."
8. Teenage Fanclub, Howdy! (Columbia) Glasgow's finest release their first disc since 1997's Songs From Northern Britain, and their first since the band's former U.K. label home Creation closed up shop. Taking the happy, chiming, Byrdsy tone of the last disc even further, the band delivers 12 solid testimonies to the merits of multilayered harmonies, sun-kiss lyrics and ringing 12-strings. It's not clear when, or even if, Howdy! will get a stateside release, so sinking $28 into this one seems like a good investment. (Side note: The first European single from Howdy!, "I Need Direction," features a smashing, gender-bending B-side take on the Pixies classic "Here Comes Your Man.")
9. Liquor Giants, Up With People (Rubber Records) It speaks volumes about the sorry condition of both major and indie record labels in the U.S. that Ward Dotson (Gun Club, Pontiac Brothers) had to venture Down Under to get his band's latest album released on Australia's BMG imprint Rubber Records. Why, say, Matador couldn't have put this disc out -- as it did with the band's 1996 self-titled effort or 1998's Every Other Day at a Time -- and saved fans of clever Beatlesque pop and dirty, Stonesy rock 20 bucks is beyond me.
10. Paul Weller, Heliocentric (Island) While the former Jam front man's sixth solo album doesn't quite rank up there with In the City or All Mod Cons, Heliocentric is a stirring return to form after the brooding, boring traditionalism of 1997's Heavy Soul. Unfortunately, Weller's planned fall U.S. tour was canceled as he faced a scurrilous rape charge at home. Whether that had anything to do with it or not, Heliocentric has yet to see an American release. This, despite raves in the international press and better-than-expected sales numbers abroad. Here's hoping that the Guvnor and his music make their way to American ears in 2001.
Top 10 Thrift-Shop Treasures
I stopped finding the albums I'd always wanted to own at thrift shops years ago. Now the habit of buying records for a quarter has led me to acquire all the records I never wanted to subject myself to. Sure, for the same loose change I could probably feed a child in Somalia for a week, but where's the fun in that? Give a kid a cup of rice and he's licked hunger for a day, but teach that child a little something about thrifting and he can keep a whole village fed up with his stack of useless vinyl for a lifetime. Here are 10 of my priceless purchases for 2000.
1. Johnny Mathis, Johnny Mathis Sings the Hits of Burt Bacharach and Bert Kaempfert (Columbia) Sure, Frank Sinatra once called Johnny "the African Queen," but is that any reason for Mathis to mess with the lyrics to "I Say a Little Prayer"? "The moment I wake up/Before I shower and set up" -- aarrggh! Could it have killed Johnny to find another rhyme? I mean, even Rupert Everett in My Best Friend's Wedding sang "before I put on my makeup" and he's not a . . . oh, never mind.
2. Pretty Things, Silk Torpedo (SwanSong) Sure, the Scorpions practically invented the blueprint for Spinal Tap with their sexist album covers, but before those sour Krauts, there were the Pretty Things. The concept for this LP sleeve? A sailor bids his Singapore mama farewell from the deck of PT 102 by ejecting her out on a torpedo. Hey, what ever happened to a kiss and cab fare home?
3.Various Artists, NOW That's What I Call Music 1 (Virgin EMI) The original template for the currently popular contemporary hit compilations, as invented by the British in 1983. Compared to what passes for music NOW, Limahl, Kajagoogoo and Men Without Hats seem like the most brilliant musical minds since Schubert!
4. Debbie Drake, How to Keep Your Husband Happy: Look Slim, Keep Trim, Exercise Along With Debbie Drake (Epic) I suspect when most husbands hear the word "trim," a leaner, slimmer wife isn't what they have in mind.
5. Mister Rogers, You Are Special (Small World Records) Uriah Heep ripped off the cover idea for its Look at Yourself LP from this album, which has a Mylar mirror glued on to the front so that it makes you look like a distorted troll. If after this visual aid you still doubt that "You Are Special" indeed, the album includes other motivational themes like "Children Can," "You've Got to Do It" and the cautionary "You Can Never Go Down the Drain." And after all that, if you're still feeling low, ol' Fred Rogers suggests "Just for once I want you all to myself, just for once let's play alone." I know that Mister Rogers is the world's gentlest authority on child psychology, but when his voice comes creeping through the tweeters, I'm not thinking nurturing caretaker. I'm thinking mildewy crawlspace.
6. Rusty Warren, Knockers Up, Rusty Warren Bounces Back, and The Sin-Sational Rusty Warren (Jubilee) America's other favorite redhead. Any comedienne known as the "knockers up" gal demands a pickup, even if it's at the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. I bought three Rusty Warren albums this year because she's like the loudmouth friend your mother had when she still invited booze hounds over on Saturday nights. Like an oversexed Rose Marie, Rusty keeps harping about the modest hooters the Lord endowed her with for fear they'll actually get smaller if ignored. Thrill to her sandpaper voice on such showstoppers as "Grab Yourself a Handful, It's Free" and "I Like Everybody," her opening number, where she sings this healthy credo: "I like to go through life with my knockers up/Let my boobies bounce to the Hut! Hut! Hut!" The funniest thing about this adult album from 1960 is that today, they'd probably bleep the word "boobies" out!
7. Various Artists, To Sir With Love Original Soundtrack (Fontana) After frugging around the house listening to the Mindbenders' "It's Getting Harder," I came to the frightening realization that I cursed myself to a life of free-form spaz dancing by subconsciously emulating Sidney Poitier (that's Sir, to you) dancin' with those snotty Brit kids. This is what is known in analysis as a "breakthrough."
8. David McCallum, It's Happening Now! (Capitol) You remember him as Illya Kuryakin on TV's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Amazingly, there wasn't a gadget that the enemy agents from THRUSH could devise that could stop him from conducting Muzak versions of "Winchester Cathedral," "Louie Louie" and the Troggs' "I Can't Control Myself." Before he was through, McCallum had four similar albums out. Uncle! Uncle, already!
9. Telly Savalas, Telly (MCA) Savor this bit of liner-note logic, straight from the chrome dome himself: "People know that singing is not my bag but if I say 'Hey this is how Telly feels about this song or that song,' I can't make mistakes. I can only make mistakes by pretending to be a great singer." After hearing how Telly feels about "Help Me Make It Through the Night," I think the only mistake I can make is listening to it again.
10. (tie) Donny Osmond, Portrait of Donny (MGM) What makes this album so valuable? Certainly not the three suitable-for-framing "candid 8x10 glossy photos" of Donny "thinking of you." Or the hit versions of "Puppy Love" and "Hey Girl." Nah, it's the impassioned rendition of "Let My People Go." Yes, for centuries, the Man has been holding the Mormons back.
10. (tie) Procol Harum, The Best of Procol Harum (EMI/Stateside) A best of Procol Harum that doesn't have "Whiter Shade of Pale"? That's like a Cutting Crew best-of without "I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight."
Top 10 Bootleg Things They Don't Want You to Hear
Where were you when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show? When you first heard the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K."? When Bono waved that friggin' white flag and yawlped, "This is not a rebel song"?
Or when you encountered your first bootleg album? For record collectors, that was the moment when an entire, previously unenvisioned universe winked open, and your heroes would never appear quite the same again.
For me, it happened sometime around '74 or '75. I was off at college, and while I'd read about these illicit gems -- most notoriously, Bob Dylan's Great White Wonder collection of Basement Tapes and the Rolling Stones' Liver Than You'll Ever Be document of the '69 tour (it prompted the band to issue its official Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out live album) -- I'd never actually fitted my paws around one. One afternoon, wandering down Chapel Hill's main drag, I stuck my head in a small business that doubled as a record emporium and head shop. As I browsed through some albums located, significantly, in nondescript boxes beneath the main bins, I chanced upon a pair of favorite-band titles I'd never heard of: Golden Eggs, by the Yardbirds, and Who's Zoo, by (natch) the Who. Each bore intriguingly reverse-anthropomorphic cartoon depictions of the artists in question, the Yardbirds as freshly hatched baby chicks being menaced by a henhouse-invading fox, the members of the 'oo as four morose-looking caged beasts. Significantly, both records were loaded with unreleased songs. And it slowly dawned on me that there was a lot of material that either the artists or their record companies, ever the careful image cultivators, didn't necessarily intend for me to hear.
An obsession was born. A quarter-century later, I'm here to tell ya, pal, that you can keep your Napsters, Gnutellas and Diamond Rios. In 2000, real collectors cared naught of MP3 gewgaws because the bootleggers kept us very busy, and very happy, indeed.
1. The Beatles, Thirty Days: The Ultimate Get Back Sessions Collection (Vigotone) As this 17-disc (pro-CD-R) box was scrupulously detailed in the October 26 issue of New Times, I'll just add a few side comments. The Vigotone label has ascended to the top ranks of contemporary bootleggers not only by ignoring conventional wisdom that claims collectors are satisfied just to hear the music, but by indulging outrageously elaborate -- and costly -- productions that surpass the reissue efforts of practically everyone out there with the exception of Germany's Bear Family. (It's no secret that the astute archivists at Sony, Sundazed and Rhino sometimes take their musical and artistic cues from bootleggers.) Earlier this year, Vigotone turned a lot of industry heads with its 26-disc Jewels and Binoculars box purporting to be the end-all/be-all documentation of Dylan's 1966 studio and concert exploits. Here, you get close to 20 hours' worth of the Beatles' January '69 sessions that gave the world Let It Be. Much of this had already made the rounds of collectors' circles; earlier in the year, the Yellow Dog label offered its own eight-CD look at the January 1-15 period (The Twickenham Sessions), and Vigotone itself has covered the '69 material to an extent on previous titles. Still, Vigotone has done an impressive job in terms of selecting the most interesting and significant moments, remastering the (mono) studio tapes, and packaging Thirty Days in a handsome 11" x 11" box complete with an exhaustively annotated 50-page book. Price? Get back, Jo Jo! Plan on five bills, minimum. (If you don't fancy making a visit to your local loan shark, one less comprehensive option would be Get Back Glynis, on the Secret Trax label, a double disc touting the "early Glyn Johns remixes" and the "final Glyn Johns remixes" of Let It Be -- then called Get Back prior to Phil Spector's unfortunate involvement -- material.)
2. Beach Boys, Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 17: Smile Sessions (Sea of Tunes) Elaborate even by this Beach Boys specialty label's general high standards, this three-CD box collects fascinating studio outtakes, unreleased songs and fragments of material from the aborted '66-'67 Smile project. (The box comes on the heels of Vol. 16 in the Sea of Tunes BB series, an 18-cut envisioning, via mostly finished takes, of what might have become of Smile, generally acknowledged as the most legendary unreleased album in history.) A massive, informative 112-page book also appears in the 9" x 6" box.
3. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Live/1975-88 (Orange) First came the CBS Live/1975-85 Bruce box. Then came the bootleggers' response, the two-CD 75-85: The Outtakes, which was precisely what it claimed: material recorded for but left off the official set. Now comes the ultimate elaboration, a flawless-sounding four-disc (pro CD-Rs) box, tapes also direct from the source (how do folks get their hands on this stuff?), and extending its purview by three years to include selections from a pair of '88 Tunnel of Love concerts, July 25 in Copenhagen and July 14 in Basel, respectively. Included is a colorful 12-page booklet with track listings and commentary.
4. Van Morrison, The Genuine Philosophers Stone (Scorpio) 2000 seemed to be a banner year for raiding the vaults (the aforementioned Beatles, Bruce and Beach Boys; a Traffic title, Low Spark of High Heeled Sessions; the Band's Academy of Outtakes collection of material originally recorded for Rock of Ages). Ditto Scorpio's three-CD Morrison collection, an alternate peek at the artist's unreleased archives (Them BBC sessions, '68-'69 demos and more), suggesting that Van has a wealth of material to consider if he ever gets around to issuing Philosophers Stone Vol. 2. The packaging itself is worth noting, a trifold mini-LP sleeve with individual slipcases for each disc and a nice booklet featuring a Morrison interview.
5. Miles Davis, More Live Evil (Zipperdeke) While not specifically a sequel to the epochal '71 Live Evil set -- it's an On the Corner-era concert -- this double disc is still a worthy artifact for any aficionado of the groundbreaking early '70s jazz-rock fusion that Davis relentlessly pursued. The gig was taped for Japanese TV in Tokyo on June 20, 1973 -- now where's the video transfer of the six-song, two-and-a-half-hour mindfuck?
6. The Clash, Capitol Radio (Gold Standard); From London to Jamaica (Midas Touch) In 2000, taking a cue from 1999's Clash reissues and the From Here to Eternity Live CD, bootleggers unleashed a slew of Clash material. Here the former title appears to be from an FM broadcast and is a powerhouse 23-song set recorded at Passaic's Capitol Theatre on March 8, 1980. Clearly Clash-in-their-prime period: Joe Strummer's larynx-shredding barks in "London Calling" have to be heard to be believed. The latter, a superb soundboard recording, hails from a Jamaican rock festival held at the Bob Marley Center on October 27, 1982 (also on the bill: the Grateful Dead); while an occasionally ragged performance, there are some compelling dub workouts.
7. Steve Earle, The Unrepentant (Doberman) Britain's Doberman is a pro-CD-R label whose trademark of quality, both in the visual design and sound quality departments, makes its limited editions highly desirable. In addition to numerous Springsteen and Neil Young titles to its credit, this year Doberman unveiled a number of not-to-be-missed live sets from Dylan, Van Morrison -- and this Earle two-disc concert. Recorded on the Transcendental Blues tour in Colne, England, on May 26, 2000, it spotlights an energetic gig and offers flawless sound. Seven bonus tracks from the previous night's show in Warwick -- an FM broadcast at that -- round things out.
8. Rage Against the Machine, The Art of War: Rage Against Coachello (Wonder Boy) Hard to say why so many contemporary punk, metal and "hard music" bootlegs sound so shitty; you can count the quality Korn, Deftones, Slipknot, et al., boots on one hand. Not so this one, taken from either a soundboard or video source and recorded on October 10, 1999, at Coachello, California. Not only is the sound the equal of an official release, the performance itself is brutal and inspired.
9. Rolling Stones, Brussels Affair (Rattlesnake) As one bootlegging maxim is that thieves know no honor -- the Secret Trax label mentioned in the Beatles notes above routinely reboots the hard-to-find products of Japanese Fab Four specialists Silent Sea -- it's still a fine day for collectors when the pirates drop anchor long enough to remaster and revamp a classic, out-of-print title. Brussels Affair has long been considered one of the great Stones titles, a soundboard tape from the October 17, 1973, concert at Forest National Stadium in Brussels. For its "Definitive Edition," Rattlesnake has kindly cleaned up the first-generation tapes, tossed in a handful of bonus tracks (Vienna, September 1, 1973), and added a photo-crammed booklet in the process.
10. Bob Dylan, Don't Waste Your Words (Rattlesnake) Additionally, Rattlesnake is a top Dylan-centric label, consistently unearthing the best-sounding tapes around. This September 27, 2000, Rotterdam Bob2K double disc is no exception. (Bonus tracks are from Brussels October 2, 2000.) Incredibly, the label had the title pressed up and on the streets within six weeks of the original concerts.
Top 10 Record-Hunting Finds
"I did all my Christmas shopping this year in one night, on [one of several hundred interchangeable Web sites]," said my companion over a late dinner at Tempe's Pita Jungle. "Bought something like 10 CDs for the people on my list in a half an hour, and I didn't even leave the house."
"[Expletive deleted] Christmas," I mumbled.
"I can't understand you when you talk in brackets," she replied. "Anyway, you're just jealous because I didn't have to deal with the crowds."
"Christmas is, in and of itself, a mean-spirited, guilt-inducing and just plain awful time of the year," I said more directly. "I don't want to argue about that, but quite apart from my personal feelings about the whole enforced-gift-buying bonanza, doesn't online buying ruin the thrill of music hunting? Doesn't the prospect of stumbling over some completely random pleasure in the used racks or the cutout bins give you the tiniest of jolts? It's like collecting stamps by phone order."
"God, you're a snob," my companion sneered. "Listen, the CDs I bought for gifts were all stuff I could have gotten at a retail store, and there's no way I'm spending gas money and standing on line at fucking Arizona Mills just to pick up Faith Hill or Outkast or Blink 182. That's for them, tweedle-dum, the people I have to buy for." She bit into her chicken wrap. "For myself, now," she continued around a mouthful of tomatoes, "no gas bill is too great. I'll go to any lengths, drive any hundreds of miles and root through rooms full of dusty records just on the off-chance. Hours on end; of course I will. That's the fun of it. Won't you?"
True. My companion, perhaps the same as you, appreciates the treasure-hunt prospects of the simple, life-spanning music store crawl. And in the giving spirit of the season, as well as the unbridled avarice it inevitably encourages, allow me to gloat with you over the completely random pleasures the little Lord Jesus saw fit to drop into my hands during 2000. And despite my decidedly negative feelings about the holiday season proper, here's hoping the coming year provides you with comparable joys.
1. Negativland, Negativland (Seeland). Found at: Stinkweeds in Tempe. Surely, I thought, this cannot be right. I can't be staring at one of the 15,000 vinyl copies of Negativland's first album from 1980, each one in a unique handmade jacket built from magazine clippings and wallpaper swatches. Surely I cannot be seeing this precious item hanging by a thumbtack on the wall between that Jesus and Mary Chain picture disc and the Samhain boxed set. "Hey, asshole," said the counter jockey helpfully, "are you going to suck oxygen all afternoon or are you going to make a purchase?" Well, it didn't take me four seconds. My copy is #8902. Feliz navidad!
2. John Coltrane, The Prestige Recordings (Prestige). Found at: Zia Record Exchange on Indian School. After three months of trying unsuccessfully to obtain this monstrous set via special order -- every note Coltrane recorded for Prestige, running 16 discs total -- a sharp-eyed acquaintance of mine hipped me to a copy sitting patiently on a "Boxed Set" shelf in uptown Phoenix, even as we spoke. I have always relied on the kindness of strangers, but having a couple of close friends watching your back is equally important.
3. Hank Williams, The Complete Hank Williams (Mercury), used. Found at: Zia Record Exchange on University in Tempe. I know, I know, it's not complete, and it's missing a lot of the Luke the Drifter bits, and the packaging is wonky, and there are quite a few serious complaints that could be raised against it. But man, oh man, what a playlist. Ten discs of pure honky-tonk dee-light at 50 percent off the retail price. I don't want to know what series of events led to someone abandoning this set, but if it were me, they'd have to pry my cold, dead fingers from around it.
4. John Coltrane, The Complete Impulse Recordings (Impulse), used. Found at: Stinkweeds. Five months before the Negativland score, I was a confirmed Stinkweeds hanger-on because of this find. Again, at a 50 percent price cut. Unbelievable. I felt like I should come back and light a candle, or leave a plate of food after hours or something, to appease the kind spirits.
5. The Residents, 25 Years of Eyeball Excellence (Bomba Records), Japanese import. Found at: Zia Record Exchange on University. Part of the frustration of being a Residents fan is knowing there are at least four hours of music you'll never in your life be able to hear, since they're scattered all over double-45s and cassettes long out of print, or only available on foreign vinyl pressings, or recorded straight to wax cylinder and stored in a warehouse in Shreveport, Louisiana, or some other horrible obstacle like that. But this 25th-anniversary compilation collects a lot of the hard-to-find stuff in one place, like an early version of "Santa Dog" (listed here as "Fire"), the infamous covers of "Good Lovin'" and "Satisfaction," and the grand-slam winner, "Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life," a tape pastiche of Beatles songs even weirder than "Revolution 9."
6. Miles Davis, The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia), advance promo CD copy. Found at: Zia Record Exchange on University. I held it in my hands. It was four discs of music, the whole shootin' match just as on the elaborately packaged boxed set, but here available in a black-and-white advance package, without the liner notes, essays and whatnot. Just the music. For an obscenely low amount, say, under 16 dollars. I shook as I took it up front, just knowing there was going to be a mistake, a mislabeling, harsh words exchanged. Nothing like that happened. I spake not a word, I just handed over the cash. And then I slipped off into the night like a man who's committed the perfect crime. I hope nobody got fired.
7. Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue, Hold the Fort for What It's Worth (no label given). Found at: Rockaway Records in Mesa. I'd heard about this recording, a two-disc set presenting a full concert from the Rolling Thunder tour, for many years. But I wasn't prepared for it to be this engaging, nor this well-recorded. Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez and Kinky Friedman all take center stage for a turn or two, and the set list is strong and varied: "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Isis" share the bill with a full-band rendition of Woody Guthrie's "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)" and the goofy but somehow compelling "Vincent Van Gogh." There's a single-disc release with some of the same material called Creatures Void of Form, but it doesn't touch this one for packaging, sound quality or sheer weight.
8. Florence Foster Jenkins, The Glory of the Human Voice (RCA). Found at: Goodwill on McClintock and Southern in Tempe. Florence Foster Jenkins, in case you got here late, was this dotty old broad from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, who married into money and found herself, at middle age, possessed of a burning desire to sing professionally. Her absolute lack of talent -- there's no other way to put it -- was matched only by her genius for promotion. She soon became a runaway hit with tone-deaf New York matrons who wanted to consider themselves patrons of the arts, and those whose senses of humor ran toward the vicious. She's available on CD now, but for a long time the only way to appreciate Florence Foster Jenkins was on vinyl, and this album, from the late 1950s, is the way to go; "Musical Snuff-Box," "The Queen of the Night Aria," they're all here, all exquisitely painful to listen to. She was P.D.Q. Bach before P.D.Q. Bach was cool, but Jenkins isn't kidding. This is undoubtedly the best quarter I ever spent.
9. Groucho Marx, An Evening With Groucho (A&M). Found at: Bookman's in Mesa. Presenting a Carnegie Hall concert by Groucho Marx late in his life, after his television career had all but ended, this double-record set is beautifully packaged and contains several songs that had become associated with him: "Lydia the Tattooed Lady," "Oh, How That Woman Could Cook," "The Toronto Song" and so forth. The history of American comedy isn't yet available on CD -- particularly missing are the Jewish comedians who worked the Catskills and upstate New York circuits -- and Groucho here draws from his entire career on stage, on record and on the screen. Not to be missed: the anecdote in which Groucho tells of having his cigar accidentally knocked from his hand one cold winter's afternoon in NYC, exclaiming "Je-sus Christ!" and turning around to see the priest who'd bumped into him from behind. The priest's quick response as he hands Groucho a replacement stogie: "Groucho, you just said the magic word."
10. Lenny Bruce, Live at the Curran Theater (Fantasy). Found at: Rockaway Records in Mesa. Parts of this infamous concert made their way onto CD via the boxed set Howls, Raps, and Roars in 1994, but the two and a half hours of Bruce's November 19, 1961, San Francisco appearance represented here (more than an hour of digressive or repetitive material was cut, according to the liner notes) are astonishing in their coherence and quality. Over six sides, without track listings, Bruce talks about his Philadelphia drug busts and his obscenity trials, he reads from Tropic of Cancer, he rips George Shearing to shreds, and throughout it all he has the Curran audience absolutely in his hands. Later performances would be shaggier, more devoted to his legal troubles, and the humor would turn tragic -- it was like listening to Bruce fall apart in front of you -- but this album captures Bruce at the beginning of the slide, while the whole mess still seems ridiculous to him; he simply couldn't believe he was being "arrested for speaking English." Put this album up against any records by supposedly edgy comedians from about 1980 forward, and it's just laughable. This triple album is the best representation of what it was like to be in the audience for Bruce's shows, and it still has the power to shock 40 years later.
Top 10 Rock-Star Films
This year I went searching for the dark underbelly of rock icons' careers -- the creative roadside debris that most fans like to pretend never happened. Along those lines, you can't go wrong with rock-star film projects, particularly ones that these musicians had the gall to direct/write themselves. Some I'd seen before, but taken together, it's inspiring to see how little regard your typical rock legend has for such bourgeois conventions as structure, narrative and coherent editing. So, with the exception of a couple of documentaries, this list is a tribute to all those lovable egomaniacs delusional enough to believe that the ability to string three chords together automatically gives you license to become François Truffaut.
1. Neil Young, Journey Through the Past (unreleased bootleg, 1973). Leave it to Neil Young to take reels of exciting concert footage and find a way to make a deadly dull film out of it. Combining the worst elements of Bob Dylan's Eat the Document and Renaldo and Clara, Journey is an example of a bored rock star trying to graft a story onto pre-existing documentary material, and succeeding only in exasperating even the most stoned midnight-movie ravers. Suggested alternate title: The Hand-Held and the Damage Done.
2. Perry Farrell, Gift (Warner Bros., 1993). Perry Farrell as a heroin addict: What a stretch! Like much of Farrell's work, this film -- co-directed by his then-girlfriend Casey Niccoli -- is a little too enraptured with the decadent, beautiful-loser myth for its own good, but Farrell handles his junkie role admirably, and the tight close-ups of Jane's Addiction onstage offer the best evidence of that band's live power.
3. Prince, Graffiti Bridge (Warner Bros., 1990). "You know what your problem is? You've got too many problems, that's what your problem is." So says spurned girlfriend Jill Jones to Prince early in this deranged musical fantasy, and if this strikes you as witty banter, Graffiti Bridge is the movie for you. Ostensibly a sequel to Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge is really an excuse for Prince to unload all that conflicted, incoherent, lovesexy spirituality he'd been dabbling with for much of the '80s. Bad sign: The comic highlight is watching the Time's Terry Lewis run to the rest room after gulping down a hot chile pepper.
4. Bob Dylan, Renaldo and Clara (unreleased bootleg, 1978). Can someone explain why the rock icon most known for his facility with words chose to make his definitive film statement without a script? The concept might have worked if some of the non-actors (Sara Dylan, Joan Baez) had risen to the challenge, or if His Bobness had given them some idea what this opaque, four-hour treatise on love, dreams and Bicentennial-era America was shooting for. The tight shots of a white-faced Dylan onstage are terrific -- especially a reggaefied "It Ain't Me Babe" -- but the rest of it feels like a meandering put-on for voyeuristic Dylanologists. Bad sign: The character of Bob Dylan is played by Southern rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins.
5. The Clash, Westway to the World (SMV, 1999). What is it about middle age that makes formerly ferocious British punks such sentimental weepers? If the sight -- or rather the sound, since he was filmed in a dark room -- of Johnny Rotten crying over Sid Vicious in The Filth and the Fury wasn't enough of a jolt, Clash front man Joe Strummer getting misty over the lost potential of his band will convince you that London's no longer calling. This documentary, directed by longtime Clash associate Don Letts, can be frustrating because it constantly cuts off concert footage in midsong, but it's more than justified by the chance to see these aging -- thicker-around-the-middle, and thinner-on-top -- former gobsmackers tell their epochal tale.
6. Neil Young, Human Highway (Shakey Pictures, 1982). If Journey Through the Past is a migraine-inducing mix of Eat the Document and Renaldo and Clara, this is Young's Graffiti Bridge. An intentionally cheesy mix of lowbrow humor and environmental preachiness, Human Highway is surprisingly entertaining. Young is a hoot as a bespectacled, doofus mechanic (oddly reminiscent of Jim Varney's Ernest character) who dreams of being a famous singer, just like Johnnie Ray. The members of Devo make a welcome appearance as nuclear power plant workers who glow in the dark. Simultaneously futuristic and retro, Human Highway explains how Young could have released the techno Trans and the rockabilly Everybody's Rockin' in the same year.
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7. Paul Simon, One-Trick Pony (Warner Bros., 1980). Simon is too fastidious to just wing it like Dylan or Young, so his screenwriting debut is characteristically thoughtful. Simon is appropriately understated as Jonah Levin, a '60s-era one-hit wonder trying to hang on to his career. With the help of Lou Reed as a sleazy producer and Rip Torn as a ball-busting record exec, this film skewers the shallowness of a record industry bent on radio-ready hooks. Unfortunately, Simon's Kramer vs. Kramer-esque domestic scenes are a bit awkward, particularly his tearful singing of "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" while embracing his wife, played by Blair Brown. I also could have lived without his bathtub tryst with a nude Mare Winningham. But that's just me.
8. David Byrne, True Stories (Warner Bros., 1986). Like many of the films on this list, True Stories did damage to the auteur's career, but not because it sucks. In fact, it's a clever, if slightly off-putting, homage to small-town Texas eccentrics, and it shows an impressively sure touch for a first directing effort. But Byrne's Talking Heads compatriots felt frozen out by all the coverage the film got, and relations within the band never recovered. Since Byrning down the house that made him famous, "the Orson Welles of rock," as Byrne was then branded by Time magazine, has been about as productive as the post-1940s Welles.
9. Wings, Rock Show (Miramax, 1980). Sure, Paul McCartney's greatest cinematic transgression against good taste was 1984's Give My Regards to Broad Street, but I'd rather clean Kenny G's sax reeds than sit through that piece of tripe again. So, in the generous spirit of the New Year, I've chosen this concert film, which documents the final show of Wings' 1976 American tour. Strangely, this film didn't see the light of day for four years, by which time Wings was nothing but a bug stain on Paulie's rearview mirror. Methinks me knows why the delay. Crowd-pleasing as these shows were, they also seem highly quaint when set against the punk movement that grabbed England by the throat only months after this was filmed. In retrospect, even the most-interpreted songwriter in history had to realize that "Magneto and Titanium Man" wasn't likely to get covered by the Damned.
10. Monkees, Head (Rhino, 1968). Better as concept than reality, Head gets off to a great start -- with a Monkees suicide scene set to the trippy "Porpoise Song," and a series of wicked social-commentary vignettes. But the stoned weekend retreat that produced this screenplay simply couldn't sustain a full-length film about the destruction of the Monkee myth. But pop-culture obsessives should take note: This is the only film you'll ever see that features both Frank Zappa and heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston.