A Few Words for Ray Manzarek

Ray during his Doors years.

I apologize, as this is a rushed post, but I feel it’s a necessary one: 

Today, after a typically mundane school day, I returned home only to see that a cyber-bomb had dropped on my daily routine. Ray Manzarek, Doors founder and legendary keyboardist, had passed away at age 74 from long-term cancer, surrounded by family, and, doubtless in the thoughts and memories of millions.

Nothing in my experience as a writer has been as bewildering and as ultimately devastating as the feeling of total wordlessness, the punch-in-the-stomach reality that absolutely nothing can be said. And, in blunt reality, nothing can be said to dull or undo loss. If it is not already clear, I was hit very hard by the death of Ray Manzarek, as if it were a friend or a family member that was gone, not just a talented and beloved musician. But as the initial shock disappears (and indeed, it is still disappearing), I would like to briefly eulogize a man whom I can say, with ultimate assurance, changed my life.

Years before I could sing every note of “Light My Fire,” including the solos, years before I let a skeevy record store owner flirt with me so he would give me a deal on The Doors’ “Absolutely Live,” The Doors were an early cornerstone of my journey into vintage music, the beginning of my breaking free into music that my parents, at the time, had very little interest in. I fell headlong into the trance of The Doors, the slithering rhythms and unearthly tones that made them so gorgeous, so hypnotic, that they still were opening the minds of generations neither born nor conceived of during the short period in which the band was active.

From the very beginning of my loving the Doors, I was a Ray Manzarek fan. I would watch Live at the Hollywood Bowl with my eye on the side of the stage, not just to see a great player at work, but also to see someone completely moved and carried away by the music that moved me too. Watching Ray perform, both back in the day and when I finally got to see him play on June 4th, 2011, was watching a master musician and an unabashed music lover.

I was privileged enough to catch Ray when he appeared to open a very strange venue in Thousand Oaks, California—a large building, newly empty after the collapse of Borders book stores that year, that had been converted to house art and live music until its lease expired at the end of the summer, and a company selling medical supplies was set to move in. Visitors were treated to tiny, intimate shows with some fabulous people, and proceeds were to go to charity. Fifteen years old, I was going to the show with a good friend, Aaron, and his younger sister, Dana, then aged fifteen and twelve respectively.

We decided to arrive as early as possible, several hours before the show was set to begin. So early, in fact, that as we were soon to discover, not even Ray had arrived yet. But as we walked through the parking lot, we saw him, some distance away, walking with someone else. He was tall, seemingly relaxed, and with an expression not unlike he wore in 1967. And despite my shy friends’ protests, I decided that the opportunity was too good to pass up. They dragged behind me apprehensively as I faked confidence, and explained that we just had to take this golden opportunity to meet the man we’d so long admired.

And that we did. Ray seemed appreciative that three young fans were crazy enough to chase him down in a SoCal parking lot. He spoke with his usual wry wit, but a clear and touching affection, even ruffling Dana’s hair. We parted ways after we’d spoken for less than a minute, a relatively unexceptional fan encounter during which we’d been treated with utter respect—respect which I can only hope we returned to him.

Later that night, Ray did a Q&A with the audience assembled to hear him play. When I stood to ask my question, he smiled with recognition.

“Hey, it’s that girl! I love that girl!”

Now, in 2013, I bid farewell to Ray Manzarek along with legions of other adoring fans. One of my childhood heroes has passed away, and I am face to face with the crushing reality that there are many others still to go, sooner or later. And while I am not so deluded as to think that Ray remembered me past that evening, or perhaps the next day, I would like to think that somehow, I stayed “that girl” to him. “That girl” who was unashamed of my undying love and respect for the music he made, and even at age 15, wanted to share it with him.

I am thankful to Ray Manzarek for the great music he left us, thankful for the fact that he was ever here to do what he did so well, and thankful for the small but indisputable thing he did for three young fans who wanted nothing more than to shake his hand.

I am thankful to Ray Manzarek for playing and listening.

Time Is On My Side: A Teenager at a Stones Secret Show

Rolling Stones secret shows are a thing that always happen to other people—fans of some elusive higher stature with magical gift for anticipating the band’s movements, plus a great deal of superhuman luck. I thought those people at secret Stones shows are all longtime fans who’ve loved the band for twice as long as I’ve been alive. But somehow, here I am at my first Stones show ever, a mere ten feet from Mick Jagger. Close enough to discern the color of the band’s guitar picks, close enough to hear what the microphones miss. I am in the kind of venue the band hasn’t regularly played since 1964, but it is a half-century later—April 27th, 2013, Echo Park, California, and I am seventeen years old.

Raised in a staunchly pro-Beatle household (at least for the most part), it took me some time to find the Stones. The soundtrack of my formative years more closely resembled “All You Need Is Love” than “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” but after that Saturday night at the Echoplex, those characters of myth, theoretically close enough to gob at, are real to me in a way that the Fab Four will never be. Real as they are to very few others, let alone others of my generation. The scene was dreamlike as the band moved around the inexplicably foggy club stage, but evident also was flesh and blood.

ImageEspecially to us young vintage music fans, the Stones are included in the pantheon of unreachables. These men have, in some cases, deeply changed us, but they will never know us. We are just another part of that many-handed, many-throated beast that is the audience, the same wild creature that the Stones conquered at the Marquee Club, Hyde Park, and Madison Square Garden, and painfully lost at the Altamont Speedway in 1969. But as some older fans relish pointing out, we weren’t there. We didn’t know the Stones before the plane and the bodyguards—all we have to judge by is, no wordplay intended, the aftermath. But perhaps that is what made the exclusive phoneless and cameraless Echoplex set all the more special to us.

We were all standing, tickets were an even $20 no matter how much lips and tongue-logo gear you owned or how many Stones records you’ve been alive to rush out and buy upon release. More casual listeners and megafans talked at ease as we all waited in line for the show, swapping facts and anecdotes, quietly calculating how many people stood ahead and behind us. The best kind of rock and roll show is a great equalizer, not a class war, and while there is no question that in recent years, the Stones have become something of a rich man’s band, this gig was anything but a rich man’s show.

Throughout a set that included a wide swath of Stones material from the 60’s to the 80’s plus several blues and R&B covers, we were fortunate enough to see Mick, Keith, Ronnie, and Charlie with Mick Taylor, the extraordinary guitarist who worked in the band from 1969 to 1974, and longtime sax player Bobby Keys, plus Darryl Jones on bass, Chuck Leavell on keys, and Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer on background vocals. Musically in top form, the group moved freely around the tiny stage and seemed to be in good spirits, laughing and hugging between songs. “Love in Vain” and “Midnight Rambler” were bluesy highlights, and “Street Fighting Man” blew the crowd off their feet. A funky treatment of “Miss You” breathed new life into a song I have heard many times, but never responded to in its studio form.

When I spoke to the owner of the Echoplex after the set finished around 10:30, he told us that the venue had actually lost money by hosting the Stones on what Jagger called “the first show of the tour, probably the best one.”

True, even in shows like this, the rock industry is a numbers game, so here is how that evening added up: my full expenditure for the Echoplex show was one twenty-dollar bill, one utterly ruined page of notes in a brand-new notebook, one lost pen (fortunately, my spare), and, including both the set and time spent in line for both tickets and the show, approximately eight and one half hours of my life. But what I gained was worth a million lost pens:

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I was closer to the band than this photographer was. Really.

I danced, sang, and listened to an hour and twenty minutes of great music from international, and now technically intermillennial icons. I was baptized by Mick Jagger’s waterbottle when he splashed it out into the crowd. After I intently stared down Ronnie Wood when he wandered in front of me, we made eye contact twice. As Jagger announced the end of the set, before the encore of “Brown Sugar” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” I heard him yell “that alright, Charlie?” back towards the drum kit. Finally, I managed to find my crumpled ticket stub on the ground outside my house the next bleary morning, after feeling utterly crushed when I thought I’d lost it.

And what’s more, I feel I saw something very special—not just as a fan who missed the Rolling Stones the first time around (and second, and third, and fourth, etcetera), but even just as a teenager who values great music and a great time. When the group kicked into “Midnight Rambler,” I don’t know firsthand how much it looked and sounded like 1972, and I don’t particularly care. But what I do know is that more than a half-century after they started out, in 2013, even in front of an audience of so few, The Rolling Stones are still brimming with energy, playing well, and bringing people together.

Perhaps the Stones’ secret shows always happens to other people, but April 27th proved to me that if you try sometimes, despite all odds, you’ll find you get what you need.

No Stars in the New York Sky: Songs For Drella

“Are we not men?”

Whether your first association is The Island of Doctor Moreau or “We are Devo,” this simple sentence can be enough to make you shudder if you look closely enough. The to-be verb, thought by English teachers to be weak, instead strengthens and simplifies the negative question. Although the statement would be far more gender-neutral if it were instead, for instance, “are we not people?” the idea is what matters. What makes a person a person? Where does humanity end and everything else begin?

Is celebrity human? Arguably, it’s just another construct, as manufactured and unnatural as a plastic bag. Many of us simply cannot conceive of our idols as people, people who have dreams, fears, secrets, shame, and insecurities just like us groundlings. For some bizarre reason, we colloquially equate some celebrities with celestial objects.They are otherworldly to us, bright, distant, and completely unattainable.

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Personally, I don’t see the resemblance.

Maybe it is the otherworldliness of our icons that makes an honest, almost painfully vulnerable recording like Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs For Drella album equally moving and jarring. A collaboration between the two Velvet Underground veterans released in tribute to Andy Warhol three years after he died on February 22nd, 1987 (yes, 26 years ago today), this minimalistic character study of a record is enough to make you rethink the bitch of a persona that Reed especially has cultivated since his twenties. Cale and Reed’s lyrical study of Andy Warhol’s life and character (from what I understand, the album’s compositions were all collaborative) leaves its listeners with a changed view of the subject—Warhol—and also of the artists themselves.

The Velvet Underground with Nico and Andy Warhol in 1967.

The Velvet Underground with Nico and Andy Warhol

There is disturbingly palpable guilt throughout Songs for Drella. Bad blood between The Velvet Underground and Warhol, following their falling out in 1967, when Reed severed the band’s ties with the artist in order to take them in his own direction, was no secret. And in fact, on Drella, Reed acknowledges the many differences between Warhol and himself in the self-referential “Work,” a frantic track driven by Cale’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”-reminiscent piano, and then his own mistreatment of Warhol in the simple but devastatingly emotive closer, “Hello It’s Me.”

But Songs For Drella becomes far more than just a self-aware tribute album where Cale and Reed’s voices form Andy’s. The bulk of the album, delivered from Warhol’s perspective, forms an incredibly rounded, exquisitely flawed protagonist in Warhol. While historical details must always be taken with a grain of salt when interpreted artistically, the objective facts are less important than the character of Warhol that Reed and Cale have created.

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Songs For Drella, 1990

He has a backstory expressed in the Broadway-worthy leadoff “Small Town,” insecurities especially clear in “Open House” and “Slip Away (A Warning),” and even an unconscious, unforgettably fleshed out in Cale’s meditative spoken-word piece “A Dream.” Andy has a voice as distinctive as any film or book’s protagonist, and by the album’s conclusion, we feel that on some level, we know him. We root for him despite his clear flaws, and as a result, we are at the very least fooled into believing we understand him. Warhol’s obsessions with fame and attention are not presented as smear– they form an undertone of constant unfulfillment, well-disguised, painful loneliness beneath Warhol’s industrious creative brilliance.

The music of Songs For Drella is just as exceptional as its lyrics, minimalistic, chilled, and expressive. Entirely without a drummer, Reed and Cale fashion a spacious, eerie sound with few instruments and simple arrangements.

Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol

I would be personally curious as to what someone unfamiliar with Warhol and the VU story would think of this album. The truth is, my admiration and knowledge of both the artist’s and the band’s bodies of work could well have influenced my assessment of it. But for someone who is a fan of the musicians, the artist, or both, Songs For Drella provides a more vulnerable, human perspective than you are likely to find elsewhere.

Reed and Cale’s tribute to Andy Warhol plucks down Warhol the star to prove to  their audience that he has a face and a past. The historical details are unimportant. What matters is that Reed and Cale have erased the distance between us and the cosmos in order to make Andy Warhol real again.

Sympathy for the Devil: The Antihero in Literature and Rock and Roll

Note: I presented this paper yesterday at a high school symposium here in Los Angeles. Obviously, it is a big departure from what this blog usually is, but I might as well put it up anyway. At some point in the future, I am reasonably certain this one will morph into another piece entirely.

The story is rock legend. The drug bust at Redlands cottage on February 12th, 1967 which led to the notorious arrests of two Rolling Stones was the first of many times that the thriving rock and roll culture of the 60s truly and publicly came to a head with the law. After 20 police officers descended on the raging party around 5:30 AM and left with samples of several suspicious pills and powders around 8 AM, Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards found themselves with a court summons, and eventually jail time. It was later found that the bust was a set-up—a dealer that the band had grown to trust had been previously arrested by the English secret service, and agreed to expose the band’s drug use to the law in return for his freedom.

But many do not realize that The Stones were not the only group at the party. In fact, Beatle George Harrison and his then-wife had been present at as well, but the police purposefully waited to raid the property until the two of them had left. To the English police, The Rolling Stones were fair game—in fact, their arrest was considered a great victory— yet the equally guilty Beatle was untouchable. The story of the Redlands drug bust typifies a pattern not uncommon in popular music.  Some artists become national treasures, but others are cast in the role for which rock is best known—that of the antihero.

Sometimes, in music as well as literature, antiheroes are underdogs. We wish they would succeed, but for reasons of their mental, social or physical ability, or any other disadvantage, we believe them incapable of doing so. However, in a classically-structured hero narrative, they are able to beat the odds and triumph. In both literature and popular music, the underdog is a powerful tool. As a narrator, he can engage readers who do not identify with a more typical heroic character, and as rock star, he can inspire others to follow in his footsteps.

Jeffry Ross Hyman is a classic underdog. Born into a broken home, a Jew in 1950s Queens, he began to exhibit an extreme case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in his mid-teens that made it difficult for him to complete even tasks like climbing a flight of stairs, crossing the street, or cleaning his house. An ungainly six-foot-five, he was physically disadvantaged as well, and struggled with health problems and injuries for his entire life. Yet somehow, Jeff, awkward, sweet, and shy, would shed his former name for a new one, Joey Ramone, and become a seminal voice of the New York City punk scene. Although he is now one of the most beloved frontmen of all time, that was not always so. For their 22 years of existence, The Ramones toured unceasingly to make ends meet and sold few records in the US. Joey and the other members of this band remained much like they began—a group who hit at the wrong time, catalysts who did not receive their full dues until it was too late. Eight years after the band split, the three core members, including Joey, had all died rock legends, but barely had a chance to live that way.

Joey’s story calls to mind another one canonized into American legend long after its time—Mark Twain’s immortal tale of Huckleberry Finn, the marginalized but resilient boy who rises from the lowest levels of white society, where he is impoverished and abused by his alcoholic father, and becomes an individual who will not let the intolerance and cruelty of his society shape him. Through his friendship with a slave named Jim, whom he accompanies on a quest for freedom down the Mississippi River, he manages to uphold his own beliefs despite his community’s derision.

Just as Huck did in his journey down the river, Joey Ramone was able to find success by bucking the norm and being anything but normal. At the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an old widow has taken in the normally homeless Huck, and is attempting to “civilize” him—teach him the manners, skills, and beliefs that she has deemed necessary for one living in 1840s Missouri. However, throughout the first part of the book, Huck resists her guidance, knowing fully well that taking heed would be compromising himself. Just as Joey Ramone chose in 1974 to be an atypical frontman, Huck chooses to be an atypical citizen, his ideas completely his own. Today, it seems impossible to imagine how long it took for Joey’s and Huck’s respective communities to catch up to them.

Underdogs are easy to follow and to root for, but they are not the only kind of antihero. Some are equally compelling in the context of literature, but are personally more difficult for readers to identify with and support. Of this sort of antihero, there is no finer example than Holden Caulfield, the unstable teenage narrator of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Holden is anything but a standard hero character, irrational, paranoid, and irresponsible. His demons are largely internal, unlike the demon of society that keeps characters like Huckleberry Finn at the bottom of the ladder. Holden has a place to live, many chances at education, and financially successful Northeastern family. True, his parents are largely uninvolved in his life, but they are probably somewhat invested in him, if only for reasons of family tradition and ego. But from the unsettled grief of losing his younger brother, Allie, Holden rebels constantly, and eventually leaves school to wander without direction around New York City. He is a commentator, willing to complain and to feel victimized but not to take action or change himself or his situation. Yet somehow, Holden’s voice is so strong, his point of view so compelling and his words so resonant, that he provokes extremely strong, polarizing reactions, both positive and negative. Whether or not you like him, you respond.

In rock and roll, this type of antihero is reflected in the streetwise, abrasive persona of Lou Reed, a performer whose unique delivery and gritty cynicism made him a revelation in the 1960s, and an icon in the years to follow. Raised in a well-off Jewish family from Long Island, his adolescence, much like Caulfield’s, was much more complicated than it might appear from the outside. Just as Holden’s parents had him psychoanalyzed, Lou’s parents attempted to cure what they feared were their teenage son’s bisexual leanings with electroshock therapy, which altered his temperament and outlook permanently. Starting with his tenure in The Velvet Underground, an avant-garde blend of rock with pop art, and even in his solo career, Reed dwelled in the darker side of life, love, sex, and culture. His lyrics are brutal and self-aware, but unapologetic.

The trauma that shaped the young Lou and the one that shaped the young Holden is very different, but the manner in which the two dealt was essentially the same—repression left both young men crippled. Lou and Holden are both victims of their own self-sabotage, and their lives and relationships suffer from it, yet their perspectives are unforgettable. We are disturbed when we see ourselves in them, but they are almost irresistibly unsavory, on some level, liberated from seemingly everything but themselves.

Rock and roll and literature are two art forms uniquely sympathetic to embracing the underdog, the outcast, and allowing him to flourish. Perhaps we keep reading and keep listening because we desire the second chance that those forms offer to so many. The hero of a novel and the singer of a song do not have to be perfect individuals. In some way, we find strength in their imperfections, and their ability to succeed can enable us to carry on even in the worst of times.

No Expectations: Brian Jones’s Pop Redemption

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Keith Richards, Brian Jones, and Ian Stewart in-studio, 1966

Although the Stones’ original keyboardist, Ian Stewart has been virtually forgotten by all but hardcore fans, Keith Richards goes so far as to say in his 2010 autobiography, Life, that the Stones were, and still are, Ian’s band. It is indeed true that the group never could’ve reached the astronomical heights that they did without “Stu’s” contributions, both before and after he was disallowed from performing onstage with the Stones by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham in 1963. According to Oldham, six members was too many for a pop group, and older, coarser Stu did not look the part. After his dismissal, Stu contributed keyboard lines to some of the Stones’ best-known material, appeared on every album between 1964 and 1986 with the exception of Beggars’ Banquet, and additionally played on the legendary London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions in 1966 and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album in 1975. However, this Richards quip does more than just give the often-overlooked sixth Stone his due. Upon closer examination, Keith is not just honoring one former bandmate—he is backhanding another.

No matter how important Stu was, and yes, he was vastly important, he was not the Rolling Stones’ true founder. The man who really did start the group as we know it is one more difficult to comment on outright, one whose true character has been clouded not just by the almost half-century that has gone by since he died, but by the myriad of things that he appeared to be. But something about him is more memorable in the public eye than Stu’s much longer and more consistent stint in the band ever was.

In the oft-analyzed character of Brian Jones, one can trace three distinct sections.

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, and Bill Wyman

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Brian Jones, and Bill Wyman

The first is probably the most lauded of them. In a band where image is still everything even fifty years down the road, it is natural that the public is most aware of Brian Jones the Rolling Stone. In much of the world, people who may never have even been exposed to the group’s music outright could very well be aware of the tough, streetwise front that the group has cultivated since the very beginning. The Stones and their camp had no chance of winning out over the grins and moptops of the Fab Four, so instead of competing with them, they decided to oppose them. Stones fans in the early days could of course love  the group’s violently-charged, liberatingly sloppy R&B, but they could just as easily be kids who balked at the Beatles, and sought an alternative. The Stones, unlike most other pop groups in England, made a show of their nastiness and wildness, hard partying and rough playing. Where others tried to steady the wobbling colt of rock and roll, The Rolling Stones made clear their alliance with American delta blues and boogie-woogie. But Brian Jones would go on to make the same mistake that Sid Vicious would a decade later: he did more than just live the image. Instead, he became it, and as he did, we see the second, more damaged section emerge.

Jones with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who would later spend twelve years with Keith Richards

Jones with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, who would later spend twelve years with Keith Richards

Brian Jones could be an abusive, manipulative man, and had a mean streak that went back much farther than just the beginning of the Rolling Stones. The abuse that he is thought to have suffered in his youth at the hands of his own family left deep psychological scars, and as he reached adulthood, his self-destructive and misogynistic tendencies became clearer and clearer. While Brian left behind a number of alleged offspring in his short life, they are far outnumbered by jilted women. He was notoriously fickle in his relationships, and on more than one occasion he left a former flame, usually very young, pregnant and alone in a world where she would have little opportunity for recompense or any kind of formal recognition.

Brian Jones’ misogyny is most appalling in that no one and nothing was stopping it. During the early and mid-60s, when support for unmarried young mothers was still close to nonexistent, the young women left with Brian’s children were essentially swept under the rug, denied legal and financial support and even just the confirmation that Jones was actually the father. The machine of the smoothly-functioning 60s rock band—not only the Rolling Stones—ran in a manner such that minor scandals such as theirs were inconvenient, but easily quieted. In the name of the business, and in the name of the band, many were willing to practice blissful ignorance.

Brian as the 60s wore on

Brian as the 60s wore on

But even outside of his misogyny, another piece of Brian’s second side was his reliance on drugs. Part of the first wave of publicized English acid casualties along with Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett and Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, it is disturbing how many late 60s groups lost founders and principle members to a blend of mental instability, drugs, and immense stress. By the time Brian was dismissed from the Stones in June 1969, he had lost the ability to play almost entirely, and aside from his increasingly erratic habits in his personal life was becoming unreliable both live and in the studio. Even for sometime before his departure, the Stones had been noticeably slipping away from his control. As Jagger and Richards reaffirmed their stature as icons time and time again, Jones covered little new ground. His experimentation with new instruments, most notably the sitar, had mostly petered out as the Stones outgrew their flirtation with psychedelia, and as he continued to deteriorate both physically and mentally, he became more of a burden in the eyes of his band than he was an asset. By the time of his mysterious death at twenty-seven, around a month after he was unceremoniously let go by Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, the group had already moved away from his influence.

But if this darker side were all that the public could see of Brian Jones, then the question of what brings him over the line from rock death to rock martyrdom remains unanswered.

Perhaps the third, final side of Brian, the one that makes us miss and perhaps even forgive him, is the thing that lay behind the guise of the Rolling Stone—the elusive foundation that forever lay beneath the tough, cool persona. Brian Jones was a natural musician, intelligent and ambitious. If it were not for that final set of qualities, it is unlikely that there would have ever been a little London blues outfit called the Rolling Stones. And if there had been, they may have never left the little clubs where they first made their bones. Brian was a multi-instrumentalist, gifted in that he could play virtually anything given to him. Although he generated no original material for the band, early on, he was more musically versatile than the band’s chief songwriters, Jagger and Richards. However, even with after his interest in The Master Musicians of Joujouka and other world music, pursuit of the blues would remain, as it always was, close to his heart.

closeupHowever, it might be possible that Brian Jones’s pop redemption came about not even as a result of the music itself, but instead as a part of something much greater. His death was more than the death of one man or the lineup shift of one popular band. That isn’t to say, precisely, that it represented the end of an era—the notion that an isolated incident can perfectly encapsulate a cultural movement is impractical and overused outside of art and literature—but what Brian’s death did represent was a sprung leak in rock and roll hubris, a reminder of human vulnerability at a time and in a place where luck and stamina were freely confused for invincibility. Today, drug addiction and death are spattered across our homepages, morning papers and supermarket checkout lines constantly, especially where celebrity is concerned, but in 1969, rock was still young and unaware of its limits. There was no twenty-seven club when Brian Jones died, and rock and roll had not yet recognized its uncanny partnership with early death. “Hope I die before I get old” was a challenging sign of defiance, not a statement of reality. The death of Brian Jones was only the first brick to fall from a crumbling tower.

We don’t miss Brian because he was a good person; we miss him because he was a Rolling Stone in the most unadulterated sense. We are willing to forgive him for his startling decline and his blatant mistreatment of others because we understand in full the legend that came of it all. As of 2013, we have been inspired by the Rolling Stones’ eternal rebellion for over fifty years, and whatever notes he played and drugs he took, Brian Jones was as important a part of that rush as anyone can claim to be. Whether or not he qualifies as flawed antihero is anybody’s guess, but chances are, that designation couldn’t change the mind of a single fan or a single critic. Perhaps it isn’t ours to judge. It’s only rock and roll, and we like it no matter what.

Arturo Vega Interview

“I feel almost a sense of duty– not of obligation, but of duty– to the fans just to reciprocate. Because without the fans, what are the bands? Nothing.”

Arturo Vega and the Ramones outside the loft in the 70s

Arturo Vega was never, at least to my knowledge, a member of a band, but considering the two decades he spent as the Ramones’ artistic director and guardian angel,  he has as much right to say that as anyone. Arturo was present at all but two of the pioneering punk rock band’s 2,263 shows, and to put that into perspective, that’s as many as their three primary drummers combined.*

From his loft apartment in the heart of the East Village, fortunately within crawling distance of CBGB, the Mexican-born artist managed to shape the image of the band that would eventually go on to inspire the first wave of Punk and the many who followed in its wake, selling merchandise, painting backdrops, and working as lighting director among other things. He even designed the band’s legendary Presidential seal logo, which is thought to be second best-selling band logo in history, right behind the Rolling Stones’.

Dee Dee Ramone wearing a shirt with Arturo’s legendary logo

But the great fame of Arturo’s logo– he is first to admit– has not been without cost. The phenomenally successful logo, which was inspired by Arturo’s belt buckle, has been ripped off in a multitude of contexts, both respectful and decidedly not. I asked Arturo just how it felt to have created such an iconic and oft-recognized image– was he proud of the way it has gained a life of its own, or annoyed that it might have  lost its original meaning? “It bothers me a lot. It also makes me a little proud…  One thing I really like about the fame of the logo is the way people have adopted it to express something very personal, not just for the pirates and the bootleggers. It became something you adopted; it became something you used for something you wanted to do. I find that flattering. I’ve seen a Christian t-shirt in Mexico; instead of Ramones, it says Romans. And the eagle– exact same font and everything– instead of the names, there’s a phrase from the Letter of St. Paul  to the Romans.”

Arturo told me of one particular day when he was standing outside of the Ramones museum in Germany, where he was confronted by several teenagers who believed the Ramones were an H&M brand. “There’s some betrayal… it just becomes fashion.” What’s more, the great fame of the logo has inspired much of Arturo’s recent work. “There’s a series of art I’ve been working on called ‘Fame Is A Disease,’ which also comes from that concept– the betrayal of art by culture.”

The CBGB exterior to be used in the movie,  Savannah, Georgia

T-shirt talk out of the way, I also asked Arturo what he thought of the upcoming biopic of CBGB founder Hilly Kristal, which is to trace the club’s beginnings as a birthplace of the first wave of Punk in New York City, and will include Alan Rickman, Joel David Moore, Malin Ackerman, Estelle Harris, and Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters as well as a cameo appearance from Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome, who will also be portrayed by Rupert Grint. “I am excited because it seems like a quality production. I mean, they have top talent as actors– two guys from Harry Potter. And not only are they good actors, but they don’t come cheap. I’m sure the quality of the script must be good for these people to get involved.”

Arturo’s loft in 1975, in front of the very first Ramones backdrop. Loft and backdrop appear in some very early Ramones footage.

“As a matter of fact, I am meeting on July 1st with the guy who’s playing Dee Dee. We have some common friends and he kept asking people ‘when do I meet Arturo Vega, when do I meet Arturo Vega?’ so finally, we made the connection and we communicated… somehow, and I’m not sure exactly why, this really touches me. The Ramones as a band, as artists, mean a lot to me. Like Dee Dee said himself, ‘to Arty, the Ramones were art,’ but besides that, we were close, we were very very close. Particularly Dee Dee– I loved him, I still love him very much. So something moves me just about the possibility of someone portraying him in a serious movie. I want to make sure I can contribute in any possible way. I really want to meet this guy. I want to help him do the best job he can.”

“Nobody in movies, I think, cares much about accuracy. I’m sure there will be a degree ofexploitation about Dee Dee’s personality– after all, his personality lends itself to exploitation because of the things that were prevalent in Dee Dee’s life. The drugs, the sex, the rock and roll… Dee Dee has it all. But I think the project has very, very good possibilities.”

The logo, with the original lineup of the band and the original “Look Out Below” written on the flags

Arturo was amused when I informed him that I’d had to convince my father that the Ramones were older than he was. He gestured to one of his Ramones paintings behind him, with the band as they appeared around the start of their career. “People will always think of the Ramones like that. It’s part of the magic.”

And that is true. When I came into Arturo’s loft, the band’s 1984 album Too Tough To Die was blaring. While, sadly, this title has gained sobering irony since the record’s release (as of 2004, the entire core of the band has been dead), their music has not lost its steam. And through people like Arturo Vega, the Ramones’ staunch belief in giving back to the fans has outlived them as well.

*If you’d like to check my math, four drummers played with the Ramones– one of them, Clem Burke of Blondie, played with them for only two shows. That leaves the total of shows played by the other three, Tommy, Marky, and Richie, at 2,261. And that, my friends, is how many Ramones shows Arturo attended. You’re welcome.

The Show Must Go On: Roger Waters’ Wall Revisited

Aside

During Pink Floyd’s 1977 tour of their concept album, Animals, their chief songwriter and bassist, Roger Waters, was profoundly disturbed by an incident where he spat on a particularly unruly audience member. Stemming from this incident and its subsequent soul-searching was the concept double album, The Wall– a chronicle of distrust, self-doubt, repression, and most notably isolation. After years in the making, it would be released before Christmas in 1979. The album, the last one featuring Pink Floyd’s classic lineup of Waters along with guitarist David Gilmour, keyboardist Rick Wright, and drummer Nick Mason, would become the best-selling double album of all time, a veritable classic of its era and beyond it.

A still of an original Wall concert in 1980

After twenty-six ridiculously expensive and not altogether successful shows that the rapidly fragmenting band performed all over the world in 1980 and 1981, people rightfully assumed that The Wall would probably never again be performed. This was to the great dismay of Pink Floyd fans who were not able to catch the original shows, especially since no footage of the original concerts has been released. Although Waters has toured The Wall solo several times since those original shows, most of us young fans conceded that probably we would never get to see Waters’ magnum opus performed live.

Some of us 21st century fans got very lucky though when Roger Waters announced that he would embark on a new solo tour with The Wall. After a run of sold-out and critically-acclaimed shows all over the world in 2010 and 2011 with a touring band that included G.E. Smith, Snowy White, and Waters’ son, Harry, Roger again embarked on the tour for 2012. And just a few weeks ago, that massive tour returned to Los Angeles, this time, outgrowing its previous host, the Staples Center, to inhabit the massive LA Coliseum, a venue used for the 1984 Olympics.

Waters at the LA Coliseum show I saw on May 16th, 2012

The long silence on this blog is largely due to the fact that it took me days to even process the scale and sheer power of the event. To see The Wall performed in its entirety by the chief mastermind behind it thirty-two years later with the show that the original essentially wished it could be was an experience I will never forget. However, as much as the masterfulness of the original music blew me away, the thing that made the experience truly exceptional was the way that Waters has managed not only to keep The Wall relevant, but to make it more relevant and in-touch than it has ever been before.

From my understanding of The Wall’s development, it began as basically a personal project for Waters– an expression of his personal struggles, elements of his past and present including his breakup with his wife, the death of his father in World War II, and his perceived isolation from both the people around him and even from emotion itself. Over the years though, it has become much, much more than that, seemingly for both Waters and for his audience.

No longer simply a story of personal struggle, this newest incarnation of The Wall delves into larger issues than those of one life. Waters uses his performance as a platform for the issues he finds important. Anti-war and sometimes anti-government, Waters is not simply a purveyor of pop causes. “We don’t need no thought control” is only the beginning. Waters’ positions are indeed controversial, and in some respects, that is what makes his expressing them so admirable.

Waters in 1980

A performer as respected and popular as Roger Waters has more influence than most people know. Some could perceivably criticize him for using this influence for political means. I have heard people express the belief that music is music and politics is politics. My agreement with many of Waters’ positions might be a factor, but even outside of that, I don’t believe that this particular criticism is a valid one. Whether or not people like it, there is no denying that celebrities have become an important source of information in the 21st century. This is not always good– especially when the celebrities in question have opinions  that are shallow or uninformed. However, this cannot be said of Waters. His interests are genuine, and his sentiments are valid. If anything, critics should be glad that of all the celebrities who could be spreading their gospel, Waters is the one in question.

Additionally, something must be said for the sheer spectacle of the show itself. It would be very easy to create a massive, but alienating show– especially one like The Wall which centers so specifically on the idea of isolation, but Waters manages to go beyond it. The show, with projections (including spectacular animations both original and from The Wall movie in 1982), pyrotechnics, and massive inflatables, is a piece of art– a solid and cohesive statement that does complement the album, but instead supplements it. With an album like The Wall, it seems nearly impossible to expand. But Waters has done so, and by doing so, he has shown his own enormous growth in the years since the album originally came to be.

Waters now refers to himself at the time The Wall was originally written as “the fucked-up, miserable little Roger of thirty-two years ago.” With this show, he has done his best to leave that legacy behind, and build himself a new one– that of a socially-conscious, generous performer. At the show I saw, there was a problem with Roger’s mike at the beginning of “The Thin Ice.” After “In the Flesh,” when Waters began to sing the next track, his mic appeared to be completely nonfunctional. At most shows, especially ones of that scope, he probably would’ve just soldiered on until the problem was fixed, but instead of pushing through, he called for the band to stop  the song. The band did stop, and stayed stopped until the problem was fixed. At that point, they started the song over again, and continued the show as usual.

The sheer professionalism of the incident was unnerving, but at the same time, so was the utter humanity of it– same with the point near the end of the show when Roger spoke of the disappointment of the first Wall tour and how much it meant to him to bring such a better show back to Los Angeles. For a show criticized for its many nonhuman elements, this show is unbelievably human, using technology as it should be used– an extension of the natural ability of the performers, and the sheer power of the music in question.

In short (although yes, this piece has gotten rather long), I feel that in witnessing this tour, I have witnessed a piece of musical history– not only in getting to see Roger Waters perform what many consider his magnum opus, but also in seeing a show the likes of which have not been seen in rock before. Equally concert, art project, and play, it is difficult to overestimate this show’s importance, and it was my absolute privilege to see it.