MUSIC IN THE AGE OF DRUMPF, PT. 3: SOUNDGARDEN’S “JESUS CHRIST POSE.”

Exploitation of religion for personal gain did not begin with Donald Trump or the current Republican party. It goes back to the time of Christ himself. But it’s become an American pastime as rich and widespread as baseball or systemic racism, thanks to the likes of such charlatans as Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, and Joel ‘my teeth are so bright they’re a road hazard’ Osteen.

Over the last year and a half, Donald Trump has been suckling at the teat of the religious right with aplomb, from appearances at anti-LGBTQ organizations to constantly reminding people that The Bible is his favorite book (and that he doesn’t know a single passage by heart) to choosing a man who caused an AIDS epidemic in his own state when he was governor as vice president. Trump played the religious right like a harp from hell (to borrow a rather biting quote from Danny DeVito in Batman Returns), convincing them that a conniving, vagina-grabbing, misogynist adulterer was somehow the better choice for president than the woman who’s currently becoming a pastor. Trump may not know how to quote The Bible, but he sure knows how to exploit it.

Soundgarden recorded “Jesus Christ Pose” in 1991 for their breakthrough album, Badmotorfinger. Only a few years had passed since incidents such as the Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals were top stories, convincing the public that televangelists were hypocritical and disingenuous in their faith, concerned primarily with bilking their viewers, which consistently largely of the Midwest working class and little old ladies who wanted something to do with their retirement funds. Whether it was their devastating hateful homophobic rants about AIDS or their numerous extramarital affairs, t.v. preachers were rightfully considered a stain on the moral fabric of America. And yet, they still found and are finding audiences.

“Jesus Christ Pose” is one of the angriest songs I’ve ever heard; the guitars and drums are fast and furious, like the musical equivalent of a stampede. And then, after a minute or so, comes the voice from on high, like a freight train running through your senses:

“Aaand you staaare at me in your Jesus Christ Pose…”*

Chris Cornell was renowned for the authority and intensity he could conjure in his vocals, his well-honed distortion and grit skills adding power and weight to his already commanding voice. On “Jesus Christ Pose,” he sounds like he’s trying to level a small town with his voice. The anger is palpable. I don’t know if Cornell was necessarily a Christian, but he did speak highly of Jesus Christ, and is certainly incensed at what’s going in his name.

Most of all, “Jesus Christ Pose” is about calling out the martyr complex used to gain sympathy with the gullible, who beg for money in the name of God so they can fuel their hedonistic lifestyle under the guise of piety. Chris is having none of that shit.

The most biting passage in the song’s five minutes comes in its final verse, where Cornell asks pointedly whether these heretics are willing to make any real sacrifice:

“Arms held out

In your Jesus Christ pose

Thorns and shroud

Like it’s the coming of the Lord

Would it pain you more to walk on water

Than to wear a crown of thorns?

It wouldn’t pain me more to bury you rich

Than to bury you poor.”*

The song ends with one of Cornell’s most insane screams, a culmination of the anger and rage he’s been conveying throughout the song.

“Jesus Christ Pose” became an instant classic, perhaps second to “Black Hole Sun” as the band’s most recognizable song. The controversial video, which featured the band performing in a desert amidst flashes of subliminal religious imagery, was banned from MTV, giving the song even more notoriety.

“Jesus Christ Pose” is a song the band performed regularly right up to Cornell’s tragic passing in May; he never did a version where he didn’t sing the lyrics with conviction and venom, probably because the song has never stopped being relevant. Thanks to the current political climate, it will likely be for another 25 years.

*All credit goes to Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, and Ben Shepherd, Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management US, LLC

REVIEW: Netflix’s ATYPICAL.

CAST: Keir Gilchrist, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Amy Okuda, Michael Rapaport

Me and my girlfriend both have Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism. We also love watching t.v. and movies. These two commonalities combined when I first saw the trailer for Atypical, a Netflix original series about a young teen with autism who starts dating for the first time in his life.

Autism has been portrayed fairly often in recent years in pop culture; from the obvious entries such as Rain Man to the unconfirmed theories that Sheldon Cooper is an aspie, the spectrum has become a common motif. It has been tackled with various degrees of success in terms of accurately portraying it, but also as being sympathetic to those in real life with the condition. The latter was my big worry with Atypical.

Atypical is the story of the Gardner family, and how their dynamic often hinges on the progression and regression of Sam (Keir Gilchrist), a teenager with high functioning autism who needs constant attention. His mother, Elsa (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in an Emmy worthy performance) has spent her whole life monitoring Sam’s behaviors and quirks, to the point where she almost lost almost any sense of freedom or identity of her own. By contrast, his father, Doug (Michael Rapaport, equally affective and moving), has never been able to forge a relationship with him, due to his inability to grasp the complexities of his condition and never being able to do typical ‘dad’ stuff with his son. Finally, Sam’s younger sister, Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), is Sam’s caregiver, providing him with lunch money at school and defending him against bullies; it’s not a role she necessarily relishes, as it interferes with her relationship, her social life, and her promising career as a track star.

When Sam’s therapist, Julia (Amy Okuda), suggests that Sam start dating and form a relationship, the Gardners’ lives are thrown into a tailspin. As Sam begins to become more comfortable with being on his own and developing his independence, Elsa is forced to confront her own lack of independence, as she has attached her entire purpose in life on her vigilance for Sam. This leads her down a path that threatens to shatter her family irreparably. By contrast, Doug begins to finally bond with his son, as Sam’s constant questions about girls and relationships allow him to finally find a subject to relate and help him with. Casey is finally given breathing room to not have to worry about Sam, although her mom’s attempts to replace Sam’s issues with hers drives a wedge between them and occasionally leads to rebellious and poorly thought out retaliations.

The most crucial and impressive element of Atypical is how much it gets right; while my own position on the autism spectrum is higher than Sam’s in terms of overall functionality and social skills, I still find myself relating to the struggles he faces early on the series: I found it impossible to smile properly at girls without looking deranged, I made grand and often inappropriate statements of affection to women who either didn’t like me back or could never be with me for practical reasons (age, etc.), I bragged about sexual misadventures at inappropriate moments. Furthermore, Sam’s relationship with my parents mirrors my own. My mother was very hands-on until I finally had to assert myself that I was capable of being independent and handling the difficulties of life and relationships, as well as basic tasks I struggled with when I was younger. My dad, like Doug, struggled for years to find common ground with me, but eventually we developed a healthy, loving and thriving relationship. And my younger sister has always looked out for me, often to chagrin of my ego and the idea that a little sister shouldn’t have to look out for her older brother.

Special credit must go to Gilchrist, who portrays Sam with a genuine sense of understanding and sympathy. It is very obvious he did the homework for the role, so to speak. His performance is up there with Hoffman in Rain Man as one of the most accurate and touching portrayals of those on the spectrum. The show’s creator, Robia Rashid, also gets huge plaudits from me, as she is largely responsible for the show’s success in handling its subject matter.

Atypical is essential viewing for families who have relatives on the autism spectrum, or just for people looking to understand the complexities of it with a better understanding.

GRADE: A

WHY BORN IN THE U.S.A. IS THE ESSENTIAL PATRIOTIC ANTHEM (FOR THOSE WHO UNDERSTAND IT).

Perhaps no hit song in the last 40 years has been misinterpreted, misrepresented and misused as much as Bruce Springsteen’s signature anthem, “Born in the U.S.A.” Every July 4th, you will hear that cannon blast synth riff and defiantly sung chorus, as millions of beer drinking yahoos sing along beating their chest thinking the song is about how flawless America is.

The misconception of “Born in the U.S.A.” began shortly after the song’s release in 1984. The album of the same name, featuring the now iconic image of Springsteen standing in front of the American flag in a pair of blue jeans, launched Springsteen to super-stardom and made him a household name; that included the White House, as Ronald Reagan decided to play the song at his various re-election campaign rallies around the countries. By putting emphasis on the chorus, which simply features the title repeated over and over again, the song lost context and left many to see it as a sort of modern day pop Star Spangled Banner.

Of course, it’s anything but. “Born in the U.S.A.” is the story of a Vietnam veteran recounting how his country failed him upon returning home, refusing to provide him with employment, benefits, or anything to help him with live with the scars of war. The song began life as a haunting acoustic number during the sessions for Springsteen’s now legendary Nebraska album in 1982, a record in which The Boss explored the darker side of the American Dream by embodying those who never attained it. The song ultimately didn’t make the final cut, leaving it to be revisited in the sessions for Bruce’s next record, which was intended to be more commercial.

The album Born in the U.S.A. was intended to be more commercial, as Nebraska failed to win mainstream success despite performing brilliantly with critics. Bruce began experimenting with more hook based melodies as well as modern drum machines and synthesizers, giving way to songs such as “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days,” as well as five other Top 10 singles from the album. Over the course of the sessions, “Born in the U.S.A.” grew from a quiet acoustic dirge into a powerful, bombastic rocker, punctuated primarily by Bruce’s aggressive vocals, Roy Bittan’s iconic synth hook, and Mighty Max Weinberg’s explosive drumming; the final song was a violent masterpiece of sound and fury.

Anyone with ears and a brain can see from the first lines that the song is an indictment rather than a love letter:

“Born down in a dead man’s town

The first kick I took was when I hit the ground.

End up like a dog that’s been beat too much

Till you spend half your life just covering up.”

These are not the words of a man standing in front of his barbecue, shotgunning Coors Lights and wearing a bald eagle shirt; the narrator has clearly been neglected by his country. As his identity becomes clearer throughout the song, so does the meaning behind it:

“Come back home to the refinery

Hiring man said ‘Son, if it were up to me…’

Went down to see my V.A. man

He said ‘Son, don’t you understand?’

The song is one of many of Bruce’s sympathetic ballads devoted to the plight of the Vietnam Vet; “Shut Out the Light,” “The Wall,” “Brothers Under the Bridge,” and numerous others present a similar tale of frustration and sadness, putting a light on one of the most shameful periods in our country’s history. Through these songs, Bruce managed to give a voice to these veterans on a national scale, something they not have been achieved without him; that’s not hyperbole, Vietnam Veterans for America founder Bob Mueller has said it himself.

Unfortunately, the song became lost in translation almost immediately thanks to Reagan’s co-opting of it. The song’s chorus became a shout of pride rather than ironic detraction, and the song’s violent riff became a sound of excitement rather than fury. Of course, the blame can’t fall solely on Reagan: Bruce opening each concert on the tour – his biggest ever – standing in front of the American flag, decked out in an all American outfit consisting of ripped denim and a star-spangled bandana, looking like Rambo with his newfound muscular physique, no doubt had something to do with it.

Since its release, Bruce has worked tirelessly to re-educate Americans on the true meaning of the song, often performing it in its original acoustic form, or including PSA’s about the Iraq War before the song during the Rising Tour, or simply not performing it for many years. Despite these efforts, “Born in the U.S.A.” remains a staple of July 4th weekend.

And you know what? It really should be. If anything, “Born in the U.S.A.” becomes even more fundamentally American when you understand the song, because it speaks to the greatest freedom we have as a country: dissent. It is a song that takes it country to task for its sins, a rallying cry for us as a nation to decry jingoism and fix what’s broken. In the age of Donald Trump, where are our flaws are more apparent than ever (especially our president’s failure to provide meaningful benefits to veterans), the song’s message rings louder and clearer than ever to those willing to listen to and really understand it.

No artist in music has done a better job at analyzing the American Dream vs. the American Reality than The Boss, and “Born in the U.S.A.” is truly his magnum opus when it comes to his ability to create an honest, ‘warts and all’ portrayal of what’s good and what’s terrible about our country. Remember this when Ted ‘I Shit My Pants to Get Out of the Draft and Then Insulted Vets in An Interview’ Nugent rambles on about supporting the troops.

REVIEW: Baby Driver

baby-driver-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000_zpsoujtutkgBaby Driver

Director: Edgar Wright

Cast: Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza Gonzales

Rating: R

Genre: Action, Thriller, Comedy

I can’t remember the last time a film intrigued me just based on a trailer as much as Edgar Wright’s latest, Baby Driver. With its solid cast, original plot and characters, and killer soundtrack, it had all the makings of a new favorite. Having finally seen it last night, I can safely say Wright not only met my expectations but exceeded them.

Ansel Elgort stars as the titular Baby, a highly skilled getaway driver for a revolving door of bank robbers employed by crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), whom he owes a significant amount of debt to. Baby’s driving prowess is powered by his love of music; his trusty iPod is always on hand during a job, drowning out a bad case of tinnitus he acquired in a tragic car accident as a kid. He lives with a foster parent, Joe, who is wheelchair bound and unable to speak except through sign language. It is Joe’s concern for Baby’s life of crime that is the primary motivation for him to go straight after one last gig. That is, until he meets Debora (Lily James), a diner waitress with a heart of gold and a voice like silk. Baby and Debora bond over their love of music and need to drive away to a better life, the latter unaware of Baby’s occupation.

When Doc ropes Baby in for one last job, things begin to shift into high gear when he’s introduced to Batts (Jamie Foxx), a genuine psychopath with no respect and a willingness to kill just for the fun of it. Batts’ ‘loose cannon’ attitude creates tension with Baby as well as the two other constants in Doc’s crew, lovers Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzales), the former of whom is the only member who seems to have some level of respect for Baby. This tension ultimately leads to Baby’s work life, home life, and love life coinciding in the worst way possible, leading to an explosive finale that words cannot do justice to.

As an action film, a love story, and even a black comedy, Baby Driver succeeds on every level. The car chases are filmed beautifully, giving the audience a vicarious adrenaline jolt without resorting to the fast paced, seizure inducing editing that highlights Michael Bay debacles. The relationship between Baby and Debora is unconventional and endearing, making you root for them from start to finish. Finally, the film is frequently hilarious, from Baby’s never ending supply of sunglasses to a mask purchasing expedition that gets lost in translations to just about every one of Foxx’s lines, few films blend together genres so beautifully.

For all the great writing and direction, what really makes Baby Driver crackle is the cast: Elgort plays Baby with the perfect mix of ‘aw, shucks’ naivety and James Dean-esque swagger, often having to rely on facial expressions and gestures as opposed to heavy dialog to make the character come to life, and doing so effectively. James is perfect as Debora; while it’s essentially a damsel role, James plays her with such a purity that it’s impossible not to endear yourself to her when her affair with Baby becomes a life threatening situation. Spacey, of course, is his usual dynamic self, playing Doc as cold and stoic, but also managing to convey a subtle layer of genuine concern for Baby’s well-being. Gonzalez plays Darling with the perfect sort of grimy sex appeal needed to counteract with James’ innocence.

Finally, there’s Jon Hamm, who simply steals the show as Buddy; aside from Baby, Hamm’s character has the most depth of any character in the film, pivoting seamlessly between friend and foe on a dime and really endearing you to him even in his sleaziest moments. His relationship with Darling, along with Hamm’s natural charisma, make him a complex antagonist rarely seen in action films these days. Though Hamm has won acclaim since his Don Draper days, his performance in Baby Driver truly shows the profundity of his skills, giving an Oscar worthy turn.

In what has been a largely hit-or-miss year for non-franchise films (Logan, Guardians Vol. 2, Wonder Woman), Baby Driver stands out as an exciting, original and instantly memorable film. See it yesterday, it’s that good.

GRADE: A

It’s Only a Victory If We Let Them Win.

I have been going to concerts since I was 8 years old. I’ve been fortunate to have seen some incredible acts put on amazing shows over the years.
 
At their best, concerts represent what music is all about: coming together, uniting us under a shared passion for a particular artist or song that has impacted our lives exponentially. Some of my fondest memories as a concert goer are those communal moments: chatting with strangers about past concerts and favorite songs as if we knew each other forever, the high fives being passed around as the lights went down, the artist-goaded audience singalongs of “Born to Run” or “Hey Jude.” It’s what great art is all about.
 
I’m sure those seeing Ariana Grande last night were looking to share the same experiences. Many may have been kids going to their first concerts.
 
When news about the bombing ripped through the headlines last night, my blood ran cold. I thought about how scary it could be to be in that environment, how dumbfounding it must have been when the mood changed from joyous to terrified in an instant. I thought back to 9/11, where security at Madison Square Garden was at an all time high and we lived with our own fears. To see them come to life is surreal.
 
The natural response to this is fear. It’s what they want. It’s what they thrive on. We can’t let it win. We can’t let them win.
 
My heart is sick this morning: for those killed or maimed, for their loved ones, for Ariana Grande. An attack on music is an attack on art, which is an attack on the human spirit. The proper response is to fight back.
 
Go to concerts, go to festivals, revel in that communal spirit. Remind yourself of how music is there to bring us together. Dance, sing, embrace. Laugh, cry. Do it all and do it together.

REMEMBERING CHRIS CORNELL, THE DEFINITIVE VOICE OF ROCK AND ROLL.

The first time I heard Chris Cornell’s voice, it was like getting a high five from God: the force and might that it hit with you with seemed something otherworldly. As a singer, Cornell was a sort of Frankenstein in the best possible sense: he could wail like Robert Plant or Steven Tyler, belt like Freddie Mercury or Paul McCartney, croon like Smokey Robinson, and emote as convincingly as Sinatra; his stylistic range ran the gamut from his signature rock belting to soul to blues to folk. Best of all, Cornell used these traits to create a style distinctly his own, an imitable instrument that influenced the future and forced the past to step up their game.

Vocally and as a writer, Cornell stood head and shoulders above his compatriots in the grunge scene: Weiland sang as good as him, Vedder wrote as good as him, and Cobain and Staley captured emotions as well as him, but no one could do it all like he could. To hear Chris at his absolute peak, one needn’t look further than 1991, when he released Badmotorfinger with Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog with the short lived supergroup of the same name; songs like “Slaves and Bulldozers,” “Jesus Christ Pose,” and “Say Hello 2 Heaven” rank among the finest vocals the human voice has ever produced, filled with soul and power. The next five years were filled with incredible highlights showcasing his talent, soul and versatility: “Birth Ritual,” “Black Hole Sun,” “Like Suicide,” “Pretty Noose,” “Blow Up the Outside World,” and so much more.

After Soundgarden broke up and the grunge scene faded, Cornell adapted accordingly, releasing the brilliant and pitifully underrated Euphoria Mourning in 1999; songs like “Can’t Change Me, “When I’m Down,” and “Wave Goodbye” showed a mature, introspective and quieter side to his artistry that wasn’t appreciated at the time. In 2003, he formed Audioslave with Tom Morello, introducing his beastly voice to new generations with songs like “Gasoline,” “Like a Stone,” and “Doesn’t Remind Me.” He also recorded You Know My Name for the 2006 James Bond revival Casino Royale, expanding his audience and influence further.

In 2010, Cornell reunited with Soundgarden, returning to the sound that made him famous; though his high range weakened slightly, he still sang with the same soul and verve as in his prime. The last decade of his life, however, were defined by his transcendent acoustic shows; during these, he ascended to the realm of ‘troubadour,’ commanding the stage with just his voice, his guitar, and his unique charisma, humor, and stories. Knowing what new ground he was covering and how vibrant, active and seemingly happy he seemed to be makes Cornell’s death (ruled a suicide as of now) all the more shocking and tragic. He was a once in a lifetime talent. I’m just glad it was my lifetime.

“No one sings like you anymore.”

1964-2017.

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REVIEW: HARRY STYLES – HARRY STYLES

HarryStyles-albumcover

Is former boy band heartthrob Harry Styles the new Jeff Buckley? No, of course not, that’s silly, but you’d be forgiven for initially thinking that when hearing the opening track of Styles’ eponymous debut album, “Meet Me in the Hallway,” a somber acoustic ballad whose ethereal quality and wisp-y vocal performance would not be out of place on Buckley’s seminal Grace.

Buckley is one of several artists to whom the sonic landscape of the album harkens back to; the elegiac “Sign of the Times,” the album’s debut single, recalls the grandiose power-pop ballads of Badfinger and The Raspberries. “Only Angel” sounds like an outtake from Chris Cornell’s 1999 solo debut Euphoria Morning.

If, however, you think I’m accusing Styles of shamelessly imitating artists with richer, more dynamic careers than him in an effort to be taken seriously, I am not. While he certainly wears his influences on his sleeve, Styles still brings his own unique personality and charisma to each of the album’s 10 songs, all of which range from ‘good’ to ‘excellent.’ Some of the album’s highlight include the aforementioned “Sign of the Times,” the slinky “Carolina,” the seedy ‘girl gone bad’ blues rocker “Kiwi,” and the somber “Ever Since New York,” another song with a very Buckley-esque quality.

More impressive than the quality of the songs is Styles’ vocal capabilities; even in the slightest 1D songs, Styles showed himself to be quite a formidable singer, but here he really shows his chops, taking on a variety of tones and colors that show incredible prowess. “Sign of the Times” is probably the best example of Styles’ newfound capabilities, alternating between full throated, emotive belting and tender, Buckley-esque falsetto crooning with incredible ease.

Time will tell if Styles’ debut is a signpost for future greatness for the maturing former teen idol or a fluke; either way, he’s got my attention.

Harry Styles is available through Erskine and Columbia Records. Always support the artist.

No, I Won’t Start Respecting Kenan Thompson

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Earlier this week, the Huffington Post posted an article entitled, ‘After 14 Years, It’s Time to Give Kenan Thompson the Respect He Deserves,’ imploring critics and longtime Saturday Night Live fans to give the veteran cast member recognition as one of the show’s greatest performers.

I wretched.

I have been watching Saturday Night Live for 15 years. I’m a huge fan. I’ve obsessed over every facet of the show, from the sketches to the sordid and endlessly fascinating ‘behind the scenes’ politics. My parents raised me on the works of Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Hader and numerous other legendary cast members who bought a dynamic, versatile and unique range of impressions and characters to show.

Kenan is in no way on their level.

Kenan is always Kenan. His trademark mannerisms and quirks never seem to change no matter who he is playing; he doesn’t disappear into a role the way Phil Hartman or Dan Aykroyd or Will Ferrell or Bill Hader did. His Al Sharpton, his Steve Harvey, even his Bill Cosby carry much of the same peccadillos, even though they are three very distinct personalities. As the article correctly points out, Kenan doesn’t have the prestigious sketch comedy training of The Groundlings or Second City; he is a t.v. actor, and has always been one, and his acting skills aren’t all that advanced from his time on All That. His bug-eyed mugging, exaggerated reaction shots, and contorted facial expressions are not the mark of a truly experienced actor; they’re novice at best. At his most obnoxious, Kenan’s portrayals harken back to the unsavory and thankfully long gone Steppin Fetchit minstrel acts of the 1940s’.

Even if you want to play on SNL’s notorious racial politics and how Kenan could be seen as the first African American performer to really hold a commanding presence in the cast, it still doesn’t make him better than Tim Meadows, Garrett Morris, or numerous other more talented former cast members who are far more diverse and dynamic than Kenan. Chris Rock, as underutilized as he was during his time in the cast, was still a more original and unique voice. Hell, even Tracy Morgan, while not the most technically gifted performer, was funnier, more original and more dangerous than Kenan. Leslie Jones brings me more to the table now, comedically speaking, than Kenan has in his 14 seasons. His most popular sketch, What’s Up with That?, got old after about three installments, because it was built around a thin premise that never changed much from one to the other.

Does it sound like I have a personal vendetta against Kenan? Well, kind of, yea. As an SNL fan, Kenan has kept the show in a limbo stage where it can’t transition from one era to the next. While newer, talented cast members still struggle for airtime, Kenan is out there taking time from cast members who could bring something far more original to the table than his bug eyes and shouting.

No performer should stay on SNL for more than seven years, maybe eight if you’re an MVP (Hader, Hartman, Jason Sudeikis). Darrell Hammond was a waste of space his last five years on the show. Fred Armisen has 11 seasons to his name, but it was clear by his 7th year he had run out of ideas and became a shadow of his former self. Kevin Nealon went from being a prominent cast member to a glorified extra in his final season. It’s time for Kenan to bow out gracefully. He’s not adding anything to the show. He never really has.

ONE YEAR WITHOUT PRINCE.

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I remember the headline, via Esquire Magazine, vividly:

“There has been a death at Prince’s Paisley Park estate.

A chill ran through my blood. Could it indeed be Prince? The endlessly creative, seemingly ageless juggernaut who as of a week ago was still on tour? It seemed unfathomable; sure, a few days previously he was hospitalized for the flu, but who dies from the flu anymore? Especially someone of his stature.

At first I tried to assure myself that maybe it was an elderly servant who was working a night shift. Surely 2016, which already removed David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey and several others from mortal dwellings, couldn’t claim Prince, too?

But Prince lived alone. He’d famously retreat to Paisley Park for days. He’d lock himself away to write or record. All signs pointed to a grim outcome.

And grim it was.

Within 15 minutes of the initial report, it was confirmed that the death was Prince’s. In a frighteningly ironic twist, he had been found in an elevator, the symbol of downfall in one of his biggest hits, “Let’s Go Crazy.”

It felt like an electrical outage: sudden, unpredictable, leaving nothing but darkness and confusion. I’ve heard his death being described as like losing a color, or something elemental, like the wind or light.

I first became aware of Prince when I was six, and he appeared on The Muppets Tonight. At the time, he was still going by the unpronounceable ‘love symbol,’ and I thought he was incredibly weird. A man with no name? Singing about starfish and coffee (which I later found was not written specifically just for the Muppets)? Why was he so loved?

About two years later, I saw the videos for When Doves Cry and Raspberry Beret on VH1’s Pop Up Video (man, I miss those old VH1 shows). It was the first time I heard either song, and I loved them. When Doves Cry was unlike anything I had heard up to that point in my life (yes, I knew the song was written about 14 years earlier), and Raspberry Beret reminded me of Sgt. Pepper’s era Beatles, which was my favorite album growing up. I wanted to hear more.

I bought The Hits 1 & 2 / B-Sides set at Best Buy, and I listened intently to all three discs. The song that really cemented my fandom was “Little Red Corvette.” I had no idea at the time that the title was a vaginal metaphor, or that the whole song was supposed to mirror an orgasm; I was captured simply by how the song built so excitingly to each chorus, and moreso by those otherworldly shrieks and howls during the song’s climax.

Even though he had long abandoned it by the time I discovered him, the image Prince built his career on still fascinated me: the way he mixed the carnal and the spiritual within his lyrics, how he could come off as both macho and flamboyant with equal conviction, how he could wear lingerie and still come off as more masculine than most men, and subsequently seduce any woman he wanted. He was one of a kind.

Prince always seemed to be engrained in our cultural fabric: he released four albums between 2013 and 2015 alone. He had been tour every year since 2010. He had just launched his first ever solo tour, featuring just him and his piano, and it was hailed as a triumph by fans and critics. Most tellingly, he had announced that he was working on his memoir, entitled “The Beautiful Ones.”

And yet, a deeper look into Prince’s final days reveal a man who may have been more aware of his mortality than he let on. For a man constantly looking forward, the Piano and a Microphone shows had Prince unusually sentimental as he recalled his early days, his collaboration with Wendy & Lisa and the Revolution, his relationship with his father, and even paying tribute to his old protege and lover, Vanity, after her passing in February. Prince was looking back with a fondness and melancholy he had never displayed before.

Photos and videos reveal that despite the excellent musicianship, vocals and overall showmanship of the concerts, Prince had become frighteningly frail. His sickly appearance sucked the life out of his mega-watt smile, and he often looked pain while playing. His face was skeletal, his eyes had no life in them. His clothes hung off him.

Of course, the circumstances of his death – an overdose of a powerful, addictive painkiller most likely brought on by chronic hip pain – have been splashed across the morning papers for the last year or so. It’s still hard to accept that someone as in control of his health and protective of his image as Prince could succumb to addiction, and fans still speculate what really happened: was he murdered? Suicide? Nothing seems to add up.

Prince’s death was like his life: enigmatic, unpredictable, and endlessly fascinating.
The best thing we can do today is to simply listen to the gifts this man gave us, in the form of 39 albums, hundreds of classic songs and a career that will never be matched.

God Bless You, Mr. Nelson.

ELTON JOHN vs. BILLY JOEL: MY TAKE

Billy Joel and Elton John in ConcertIt’s one of the most hotly debated topics in rock and roll, up there with ‘Beatles or Stones?’ Elton John and Billy Joel have drawn comparison to each other for over 40 years, with each artist’s fan base making a compelling case as to who’s better. I decided to my own in-depth take on it, by comparing them based on the following factors: Albums, piano playing, vocals, songwriting, and live performances.

Here we go.

ALBUMS

Elton has 33 studio albums, Billy has 13. With Elton’s significantly larger output, he’s bound to have a few stinkers, and man does he: the infamous disco experiment Victim of Love, the interminable Leather Jackets, and the bloated The Big Picture all qualify as some of the worst records ever put out by an acclaimed artist.

With his smaller discography, you could argue that Billy is far more consistent in terms of quality, and to a degree it’s true: none of Billy’s album qualify as bad, and at least two of them (The Stranger and The Nylon Curtain) are perfect. With that said, Billy’s best albums don’t stack up to Elton’s best: every other Billy Joel album has at least one song that is totally forgettable, whereas I could name five Elton albums (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Tumbleweed Connection, Songs from the West Coast, and Sleeping with the Past) that are absolutely perfect from start to finish, with no filler weighing it down.

The amount of rare gems to be found in Elton’s catalog as opposed to Billy’s is simply unbeatable. Billy has always been reticent to release unfinished tracks, demos and live material, whereas Elton has released several compilations swimming with rare, hard to find gems that deserve listening. He has entire albums (The Fox comes to mind) filled with songs that probably no Elton fan born after 1995 or so has even heard.

I will give Billy credit for making no two albums sound the same: each one has its own identity, from the jazzy 52nd Street to the New Wave sound of Glass Houses to the doo-wop and soul throwback of An Innocent Man to the slick 1980s’ pop sounds of The Bridge, Billy has always been reasonably successful in attempting new sounds and styles, which is probably his greatest strength as an artist. That said, his best work doesn’t stack up to Elton’s, and his refusal to release a new album for 24 years hurts him, as we never got to see how his writing would progress.

WINNER: Elton

PIANO PLAYING

[DISCLAIMER: I don’t play piano, so anyone who has more technical skill could feel free to tear me apart on this one.]

Billy himself said it in Rolling Stone:

“Elton kicks my ass on piano. He’s fantastic — a throwback to Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and Little Richard. His spontaneous, improvisational playing always challenges me. And that is his contribution to rock & roll and pop: his musicianship. Before him, rock was a bunch of James Taylors — guitar-based singer-songwriter stuff. Elton brought back fantastic piano-based rock. Elton knows what his instrument is capable of. The piano is a percussion instrument, like a drum. You don’t strum a piano. You don’t bow a piano. You bang and strike a piano. You beat the shit out of a piano. Elton knows exactly how to do that — he always had that rhythmic, very African, syncopated style that comes from being well versed in gospel and good old R&B.”

Is Billy a slouch? No. The prelude to “Angry Young Man” alone would solidify him as one of rock’s Top 5 ivory ticklers. Elton and Billy certainly have the same influences – Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. However, Billy has rarely if ever shied away from the style of his mentors, whereas Elton has often veered into classical, baroque and a host of other genres that deviate far from his most familiar sound. Elton received a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music when he was 11 years old – he’s a fucking prodigy.

Elton’s percussive playing is essential to his sound, whereas some of Billy’s most beloved songs either don’t feature piano or relegate it to the background. Elton’s solo shows are a testament to his skills: he rearranges songs on the fly, playing solos and long passages that never get boring due to the unpredictable nature of Elton’s playing, and his ability to always land on his feet just when you think he’s deviated too far from the main melody line (check out the epic solo performances of “Take Me to the Pilot” for an example). Billy has always played it safe, almost never challenging himself to rearrange his songs or show off his skills beyond his pop-influenced sensibilities (aside from that one boring classical album)

WINNER: Elton

SINGING ABILITY

An interesting comparison indeed. When they both first began in the 1970s’, Elton had the clear lead: his soaring, powerful tenor falsetto and emotional singing was light years ahead of Billy’s New York accented generic pop voice. Sure, Billy could sing well, but he wasn’t nearly as dynamic as Elton could be in terms of delivery and versatility.

Elton had the clear advantage up until about 1984, where both singers hit their peak. Elton’s falsetto had more weight and character to it than it did even in the 1970s’, and his timbre as a whole had developed a warmth and body it never had before, including a surprisingly strong lower register. Billy went through a similar change: An Innocent Man was his best album to date vocally, from the soaring falsetto of “An Innocent Man” to the soulful, Ray Charles-esque crooning of “Leave a Tender Moment Alone” to the Little Richard-esque belting of “Christie Lee.”

By 1986, Elton had abused his voice to the point where he could barely sing and required surgery for nodules. While Elton gradually lost range and shifted registers throughout the years, Billy continued to improve as a vocalist, expanding both his higher and lower registers and developing a devastating ability to manipulate his tone to fit whatever style he has felt like doing; Billy’s versatility is staggering, as he is able to sound like everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Rotten. Furthermore, he has maintained his voice exceptionally, still able to hit tenor high C’s at the age of 67, and his classic tone is intact.

Elton’s voice is still good but hasn’t fared as well; after his surgery, he was very inconsistent up until he got sober in 1992, where he settled into the warm baritone that has been his sound since then. He hit a real sweet spot with this newer, more mature sound from 1997 to 2003, but then his voice began aging rapidly and his tone and diction really suffered up until late 2009. Since then, he’s been doing well, but his voice is almost unrecognizable compared to his prime and he no longer has his falsetto.

WINNER: Billy

SONGWRITING

It is difficult to really analyze this since their methods are so different: Billy writes his own lyrics and music, while Elton has always worked with a lyricist. Initially I was going to give Billy the edge here, since he does it all himself, but what Elton has to do is pretty daunting: he has to accurately frame the melody around a particular set of lyrics, making sure it’s appropriate in conveying the writer’s words properly. His primary partner of 50 years, Bernie Taupin, often writes about his own life experiences, and it’s up to Elton to write something sympathetic to that.

Furthermore, Elton’s melodic capabilities outstrip Billy. As stated, Billy’s is generally rooted in the classic pop sensibilities of the Tin Pan Alley writers as well the Great American Songbook composers, while Elton draws on a variety of influences. I could see Elton writing something like the melody for “You May Be Right” and it being fairly similar to Billy’s take, but I don’t see Billy being able to craft “Cage the Songbird” or “Tonight” or any of Elton’s more classical based material.

That said, Billy’s lyricism needs to be commended, his ability to create vivid, colorful characters and locations and make them come alive through song is a skill matched only by Bruce Springsteen. Billy’s songs are like five minute movies, with incredible attention to detail: when you listen to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” you almost instantly know who Brenda and Eddie are, you can see them in their head. You can envision the stale, smoky bar where the ‘piano man’ plays every night. At its best, it can go head to head with the greatest songwriters of his day.

WINNER: A draw.

LIVE PERFORMANCES

Having seen both, Elton wins.

In their primes, both were very exciting to see in concert, but Elton was always more of an entertainer whereas Billy was more professional in his approach. Elton’s lavish costumes and physicality (dancing on the piano, playing on the floor) added extra energy to his shows, whereas Billy approached live performing like it was some ordinary job: he’s always dressed conservatively, and you know what to expect in terms of set list and stage banter.

This is where it gets frustrating being a Billy Joel fan: he hasn’t put out an album in over 20 years, and yet he still performs consistently. I’ve seen him four times since 2006 and each concert has been progressively worse: his two shows in 2006 during his ’12 Gardens’ run were both incredible, filled with an excellent mix of hits and deep album cuts. The next time I saw him was his first show at Shea Stadium in 2008, which was very good, but quite disappointing considering the next night (the last before the old Shea was torn down for CitiField) had Sir Paul McCartney come out to play a couple of Beatles tunes. The next time I saw him was in 2014 for his 65th birthday show, and It was the most workmanlike show I’ve ever seen. Billy pulled out no stops, and I had seen 95 % of the songs performed. Maybe I’m jaded, but there was a distinct lack of energy in addition to the staid show, not to mention a wasted song slot for Jimmy Fallon to do his ragtime shtick. It was…sad.

I saw Elton once in 1999, and it was the first concert I ever went to. He had no band. I didn’t know a lot of the songs, since he tends to include a lot of deep cuts in his solo shows. I can still recall every note he played and how transfixed I was seeing him in action. And this is what makes Elton a special artist: he never rests on his laurels, he is always exploring new territory. His improvisations, engaging stories, and charisma are eclipse the by-the-numbers Vegas revue that is a Billy Joel these days.

WINNER: Elton

FINAL VERDICT

Both Elton John and Billy Joel are phenomenal singers, songwriters, performers and musicians. It feels almost unfair to judge their careers against each other like this, but I always wanted to do an in-depth take on the many comparisons drawn between them, using largely qualified if not quite objective factors.

In the end, I feel Elton John is the overall better artist in terms of quality output, musicianship, and sheer longevity and influence. Billy’s strengths are in his story telling, vocal abilities and versatility, but his reluctance to go outside his comfort zone as well as his lack of output in the last 20 years hurt his status in my eyes.

This is not meant to influence anyone’s opinions on the two artists, and if you have disagreements, I’d love to see them.