Friday, March 11, 2016

Martial: Girl From Mars

Purchase: Ash, Girl From Mars

Last week I talked about my worry that in writing for a blog about music, I should do more to highlight unknown bands and songs. The relationships a music fan has with a band that no one knows, that he can lay a personal claim to, is a special one.  I have plenty of those bands in my playlists—been to their shows, bought their t-shirts—and I still feel a little territorial when someone says, “Hey have you ever heard so and so?” Of course I have! I still feel very protective of Philadelphia based rockers Marah—I was listening to them when no one else was.  If someone tells me about them, asks, “Have I heard …” I get that odd, big-brother sense of over-protectiveness.

Perhaps it’s more a possessiveness, wanting to keep something so good to myself, so it doesn’t change. So the sound isn’t corrupted. Isn’t that dumb, that sense we get of wanting to jealously guard our favorite music? It’s the need to be part of an exclusive club, private membership in a special fraternity.  And yet, in the same breath, I feel bad that a band like Marah hasn’t made it big, sparked a rock n roll revolution, become the superstars they deserve to be. They even had a guest spot from Bruce Springsteen (maybe you’ve heard of him? And, no, you cannot borrow my CDs…) on an album, Float Away with the Friday Night Gods, produced by Owen Morris, who was responsible for Oasis’ first three albums (You might have heard of Oasis, not really sure…). So, if Marah hasn’t made it, it’s not for lack of trying. You just haven’t been listening. Which, according to my own strange and selfish standards is how it's supposed to go I guess.

Why, though? I still haven’t gotten anywhere close to an answer for why we like to keep our favorite bands as our own thing. 

I’d welcome your comments on your own musical omerta for bands that you’ve been hiding.

So, on to the theme for the month: Mars, or some variation of that myriad meaning word. I was hoping to find a song about Marvin the Martian from Warner Brother’s Looney Tunes, but I pretty much kept hitting David Bowie’s Life on Mars. There’s been plenty written by writers far more talented than I about Bowie, and the powerful, sweeping and lasting influence he had and will always have on modern music. One can’t forget Bowie’s (or really, Ziggy’s) Spiders from Mars—if there is any positive at all about the icon’s passing it is that, personally, I was able to reconnect with that most brilliant album and take that long, analytical and nostalgic look at perhaps one of rock’s greatest albums. I don’t think I would have paid as much attention to the album had Bowie not passed away.  

That is a little strange, I guess, but it brings up another strange phenomenon—the way we glom onto a dead celebrities body of work in the turbulent wake of their leaving us. Spikes in album or book sales is  so commonplace to really need no mention as a result of one’s passing. Does it take someone’s leaving us to assert their value? Or is it simply that human truth that absence makes the heart grow fonder? That is an adage reserved to describe a separation of lovers, but I think it applies to how we treat the memory and work left behind when an icon passes. Sometimes, I think our newfound obsession is simply a human need to be involved and part of a story. But, it’s still hard not to find fault with people who use an artist’s death to proclaim their deep and profound love for their body of work or their cult of personality. It’s a little like all these teenagers I see wearing Kurt Cobain t-shirts, but then, it’s not really like that at all. Maybe more like all these idiots who took to Facebook to declare Whitney Houston one of R&Bs greatest of all time after she died…Or maybe, it’s just Facebook, and this sudden lack of privacy and the ultra ubiquity of…of everything and anything at all that gets broadcast as an endless feed of information, each trend, idea, oddity, stupid joke or new sensation, insisting upon its own importance, screaming too loudly for our already frayed and ruined attention?

I digress. Too much.

This month’s theme: Mars.

There’s a cool band called Ash from Northern Ireland, and while they may not be one of the “best kept secrets” I dare say their popularity has never really reached too far in America. I don’t know much about them, but I know people love them. They have that certain kind of cult status that comes to bands like I was talking about earlier.

Written in 1993, Ash’s biggest hit, a dirty bit of pop perfection, “Girl From Mars” was featured on their major label debut, 1977. A little grungy, a lot boppy, “Girl From Mars” sits in a perfect niche between all the sounds that the 90s produced, but it fits best in the overdrive-dusted guitar, verse chorus verse hymns of the late Brit Pop movement. A little—a lot perhaps—influenced by what Oasis brought to rock music, Ash, at least on1977, delivers a brilliant, car ride radio sound—drums, guitars, four on the floor rock, with the distinct British twist.

The song itself is silly little idyll about a love affair from the past and memories of “dreamy days by the water’s edge/…summer nights…/fireflies and stars in the sky…” Pretty standard stuff as far as the kind of love affairs we might write songs about go, until you realize that the singer is wondering why the love affair was unrequited (“I know you are almost in love with me”), and the reason is that the girl herself is from Mars. Maybe she wasn’t even there? Is it metaphor? Was she just his imagination, his ideal girl, the kind we fall in love with simply because the fantasy is so perfect we know it won’t ever be achievable in real life, with a real girl. Some of us fall in love with movie stars and their images moving across the screen. Some of us invent fantasies and chase ghosts trying to make those fantasies real. And some of us fall in love with girls from Mars…because sometimes girls from Mars are the only girls we can find…

Stay away from these girls, though...

Comments, please, on any of the nonsense I’ve put down here today. I’d love to know what you think—about your favorite unknown bands, or girls you’ve fallen in love with who might, or might not, hail from outer space…

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Martial: The Mars Volta

The Mars Volta: L'Via L'Viaquez (live) 
[purchase Frances the Mute]

First, a little plug—In addition to continuing to contribute here, I have started a new blog to allow me to write about music and life, without being limited by the bi-weekly themes we have here. Please check out Another Old Guy....Writing About Music, and like its Facebook page. Thanks.

I’ve written in the past about the pleasure that I have gotten from going to concerts with my kids. There was a brief period in each of their lives where they were old enough to want to go to shows, but not old enough to go there by themselves, or where the location was deemed inappropriate for attendance without parental supervision. And, being the lover of music that I am, I often was designated (or volunteered) to be the supervising parent.

When my son was in his early teens, he and his friends became fans of The Mars Volta, and I had to agree that they were an interesting band. It is always interesting to play “spot the influence” when you listen to new artists, and the first thing that came to mind when I heard The Mars Volta was King Crimson, due to their complex song structures and the mix of rock, jazz and avant-garde sounds. One difference, though, was that while later Crimson lineups incorporated some elements of New Wave music, they never really adopted more hard core punk sounds, or emo. The Mars Volta, with their roots in At The Drive-In, though, cite, among many others (including King Crimson), Throbbing Gristle and Black Flag, as influences.

Although I had only listened to a relatively small amount of their music, I was intrigued, and when my son and his friends wanted to go see the band, at the Roseland Ballroom in NYC in 2005, it was not a hard sell to get me to drive them in, see the show (and provide appropriate supervision) and drive them home.

It was quite an experience. As I thought about writing this piece, I tried to remember back 11 years (almost exactly), to how I felt about the show, and I found this review, which pretty much nailed my experience:

Admittedly, their “noodling” did get boring at first (I wondered if I was going to like the show during the first 20 minutes), but I actually grew to like it more and more as time went on. What seemed a little boring at first, completely swept me away with it by the end. 

Another influence that added to The Mars Volta’s eclectic mix is Latin music, which is no surprise considering the background of a number of the members. For the show that we saw, the band invited salsa music legend Larry Harlow to join them on stage. You can see him in the blurry picture above that I found online. Harlow, who is not Latino, but is actually from an Eastern European Jewish family, has had a long, celebrated career as a multi-instrumentalist (with piano a specialty), songwriter and producer in the salsa world, and is nicknamed “el Judio Maravilloso.”

Harlow’s piano adds a traditional Latin touch to the great song L’Via L’Viaquez, both on the album cut on which he played, and live, as you can hear in the featured version. I haven’t listened to The Mars Volta much recently, and I don’t think that my son does, either, but whenever one of their songs pop up on my iPod’s random shuffle playlist, I remember both how inventive they are, and that night at the now, regrettably closed, Roseland Ballroom.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Martial: Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die

purchase Country Joe "Feel Like ..."

You've likely seen "The Martian" and you may have read some of the debate regarding the accuracy of the depicted storms on the planet (Yes, there appear to be winds: No, they don't appear to be as severe as shown.) However, embedded in the psyche/definition of Mars, is a certain amount of stormy violence. Mars is the Roman god of war. A rather stormy entity.

And then, there is the whole Venus/Mars conceit: men are stormy/warlike; women are beautiful and pacific - but, it is opposites that attract. It's human nature for men to be martially inclined and for women to be ... "lovely". After all, Venus is the Roman god of love, and the related word roots apparently go back as far as Sanskrit - leaving us with War and Love/Aggression and Beauty. Ergo, it seems logical that you could expect a plethora of "ballads & odes" in popular culture/music/literature that delve into our theme this week. And, there are many - depending on the path you take through the memes related to Martial/Martian/Mars-ian.

I guess I chose this here  post partly because of my age, and partly because of my beliefs: I would have registered as a "Conscientious Observer" if I had not been exempt from the draft as someone who was eligible for a one-way trip to Vietnam on my 18th birthday back in the early '70s. Sadly, I was a fraction too young to get parental permission to attend Woodstock, but - well before the movie and related hype - was following Country Joe "Fish". And so his iconic "Fish Cheer" and "Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die" represented much of what I and much of my generation believed in. Because, the end result of much that is martial is that someone has to perish. Often - on the personal level - in vain - despite the glories of nations and ideologies. And that's not my bag. Perish? We all do. To "support" a misguided government's agenda? Ask Country Joe. Talk about stormy relationships with your society ... Sheesh!