Tuesday, January 31, 2012

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1967

If 1966 was the year that music gained brightened hues, than 1967 was when everything went technicolor. This is the year most associated with "flower power," Haight-Ashbury, and the rise of the counterculture. Monterrey Pop put acid rock and psychedelia on the map, the Vietnam war was in full swing, and race riots nationwide gave the Civil Rights Movement an ugly aftertaste. The "generation gap," shorthand for an increasingly widening cultural and sociopolitical wedge between young and old, further polarized American culture.

Even though I declared '66 the best for music of this particular decade, '67 was quite sublime in its own right. It was a year of unforgettable debuts (The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead) and sudden goodbyes (Billy Strayhorn, John Coltrane, Woody Guthrie, Brian Epstein, Otis Redding). For those of us that weren't alive during the Summer of Love this is where "Classic Rock" was conceived, similtaneously coexisting yet breaking away from Motown, bubblegum pop, free and Latin jazz, and British blues. Politics and drugs aside, 1967 was a staggering year for music, opening the floodgates to an unrivaled variety of sound.


1. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles. The most scrutinized and over-analyzed album in rock history, Sgt. Pepper's is an piece of art best appreciated without reading any critics' dissertations first. Don't let theories taint the experience, listen to this with fresh ears. Only after that can you debate the Ringo vocal on track #2, whether certain songs have aged better than others, or the real meaning of the mesmerizing "A Day in the Life." If you want to understand the essence of pop music, this is a good place to start.
2. The Velvet Underground & Nico, The Velvet Underground. Recorded over two days in late 1966, the Velvets were originally the hired soundtrack artists for "producer" Andy Warhol's surrealist road show. The end result of their recording debut --with German model/actress Nico shoehorned in on additional vocals-- is the most unique and distinctive rock recording of its time. The unit of Lou Reed, Stering Morrison, John Cale, and Maureen Tucker were masters of their art: tangled guitars, lyrics of literary fatalism, and a sense of nihilism never heard on record before.
3. Are You Experienced?, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Arguably the most important instrumentalist in American music of the past half-century, the Seattle-bred electric guitarist hit the ground running on his major label and headlining debut. From the moment you hear the first strains of "Hey Joe" you know you're in for something special, transcendant almost. Considering that the entire original Experience lineup is now deceased, perhaps acid-blues of such majesty was meant to be savored.
4. The Doors, The Doors
5. Forever Changes, Love
6. Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles
7. Axis: Bold as Love, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
8. Disraeli Gears, Cream
9. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd
10. I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You, Aretha Franklin. The best straight-up soul album of all time? Quite possibly. The leadoff track "Respect" is a song that radio played to death (and still does), but like my #1 album pick her signature song requires a naked ear to feel the urgency and force of her voice. The rest of I Love You is top notch though not quite as earth-shattering; if Aretha were the last word in gospel, I'd attend her church.

11. The Who Sell Out, The Who
12. Something Else By, The Kinks
13. Strange Days, The Doors
14. Flowers, The Rolling Stones
15. Again, Buffalo Springfield. Personnel issues prevented this album from being as unified as their fine debut a year earlier, but from a songwriting standpoint this is a major leap in maturity for all involved. Neil Young is the breakout star here, taking lead on the Stones-ish "Mr. Soul" and the poignant, veritably haunted "Broken Arrow."
16. Younger Than Yesterday, The Byrds
17. Days of Future Passed, The Moody Blues
18. Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane
19. John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan
20. Procol Harum, Procol Harum. A session band that turned legit on the strength of one brilliant song, Harum's debut full-length is an entertaining meld of psychedelic, blues, and classic influences. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (the aforementioned hit) and its luscious, swirling organ sets the tone, yet its commercial success overshadows an entire album's worth of fascinating proto-prog-rock. The Bach-influenced track "Repent Walpurgis" is a lost '60s gem.


1. The Real McCoy, McCoy Tyner. Struggling as an artist but growing as a pianist and composer, Tyner's first Blue Note session is his unfiltered vision of hard bop. With saxophonist Joe Henderson anchoring the proceedings, Tyler punctuates his dutiful soloist with crashes of 88-key thunder. If Tyner's other '67 release Tender Moments is more cerebral, than The Real McCoy is its feisty cousin.
2. Miles Smiles, Miles Davis
3. Wave, Antonio Carlos Jobim
4. Schizophrenia, Wayne Shorter
5. Sorcerer, Miles Davis


"You Keep Me Hangin' On," Vanilla Fudge
"Dear Mr. Fantasy," Traffic
"Incense and Peppermints," Strawberry Alarm Clock
"I Had To Much To Dream (Last Night)," The Electric Prunes
"Talk Talk," The Music Machine
"Wear Your Love Like Heaven," Donovan
"Gimme Little Sign," Brenton Wood
"Western Union," The Five Americans
"Him or Me, What's It Gonna Be?" Paul Revere & The Raiders
"The Happening," The Supremes

"Silence is Golden," The Tremeloes
"Sunshine Girl," Parade
"It's a Happening Thing," The Peanut Butter Conspiracy
"Fat City," The Sons of Champlin
"The Letter," The Box Tops
"Never My Love," The Association
"Society's Child," Janis Ian
"Pretty Ballerina," The Left Banke
"Underdog," Sly & The Family Stone
"Friday on My Mind," The Easybeats

Your thoughts?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Live... from Chicago... Again

About 18 months ago, I attempted to go see the SNL audition showcase at iO Chicago and failed. When I heard that another one would be held in mid-January, I made sure to prepare. Once again I had an inside track, but this time I was better prepared. To explain: when I didn't pass my Conservatory Level 3 audition in December (don't worry, I'll try again in February), I decided to take Level 5 over again at iO. Oddly enough, my assigned teacher is Charna Halpern, the last surviving founding business partner of iO as well as the unofficial matriarch of long-form Chicago improv. Charna promoted the showcase right before class, and she had final say on who would audition for the SNL producers. The first time around I found out through the grapevine; this time I was privy to some inside information (at least, for the moment). As a longtime fan of the show, I was calm and collected on the outside but squealing like a little girl on the inside.

My greatest concern about the audition was not whether I'd get in or not, but the timing. The SNL showcase is normally held in late July, in preparation for the coming TV season. Holding auditions in January threw two red flags in my mind: first, it meant that new featured players would likely be added towards the end of the season; second, it was fair to assume that the current cast, consistent since 2006 or so but clearly long in the tooth, was facing some overdue turnover. In other words, several longtime stars of the show --if you want names, your guess is as good as mine-- were likely leaving for greener pastures in the Spring.

After arriving too late last time, I planned on arriving in line around 6:30 or so (the showcase started at 8). When I found out that the crowd waiting outside iO was already fifty strong by 6 o'clock, I beelined to the theater. The Del Close (upstairs) Theater at iO seats about 150, so timing was crucial. Without having to explain myself... I finally got in! Knowing that the showcase normally draws a humongous crowd, the iO interns packed the DCT rafters, than used every folding chair they could find to seat the overflow. The situation screamed "fire hazard" but I was just happy to be there.

At the insistence of my fellow SNL fanatics, I made sure to take notes. I knew beforehand that Lorne Michaels did not fly out to Chicago, and though it was speculated that Steve Higgins and/or Seth Meyers would take his place, the auditors were comprised of two associate producers and three writers. I was under the impression that ten actors would give their all to the show's auditors; instead, 17 made Charna's cut. Of this talented group only a couple outright bombed, but everyone else came out with pistols blazing and the audience rolling in the aisles. Of that group here are my picks to click, the seven actors that have probably already stamped their ticket to 30 Rock, that I hope you'll remember in the near-future:

  • CHRISTINE TAWFIK: Reminds me a lot of Nasim Pedrad. Introduced two great characters, an old British lady and an Egyptian film critic. Does an outstanding impression of Penelope Cruz --looks like her, too-- though her Jodie Foster was merely okay.
  • GREG HESS: A member of famed Cook County Social Club, one of the top improv teams in Chicago. Looks like a nerdy Brad Hall. Does impressions and voices like a dynamo.
  • BRETT ELAM: Fun fact: his older sister Erica was my first improv teacher, and his kid brother Scott is also on the Chicago scene. Did great impressions of Eminem recording a car commercial and Dane Cook waiting for a bus. Versatile and clever in a Bill Hader kind of way.
  • ROSS KIMBALL: Another fun fact: Ross is from Naperville, IL, the same hometown as Paul Brittain. Tall, handsome glass of water. Really nice guy. Played Ben Roethlisberger, Clint Eastwood, a spazzy tour guide, and a clueless stepdad.
  • JET EVELETH: Fan favorite at iO. First auditioned for SNL in July 2010. Disappears into characters. Take Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig's best qualities and put it in a 5'4" body, and that's Jet. Did one long scene involving an awkward little girl trying to grab/hug her pet cat.
  • KATE O'BRIEN: One of three members of The Katydids (another notable local group) to audition. Short, spunky, energetic blonde. Imitated Madonna and Gywneth Paltrow. Played a motormouth Louisiana native and a little girl drinking soda for the first time.
  • LYNDSAY HAILEY: Another fan favorite, and a former teacher of mine. Plays crazy in a good way. Imitated Sarah Palin imitating Tina Fey. The strongest outright "actress" in the audition. Opened with a hardcore rap and closed with a Ke$ha/Rihanna parody.

So what happens from here? Well, this is only the first stage; those that get summoned to New York audition again for Lorne and his inner circle, and of the hundred-odd improvisers, actors, and comedians that audition in Chicago, NYC, and LA at any given time only a handful either join the cast or are hired as writers. Also, this wasn't the only audition in Chicago; a group of twelve also put their best foot forward at the Annoyance Theatre one night later. However, the iO audition carries more weight, as Brittain and Vanessa Bayer (the two Chicagoans that made it last time) were both cherry-picked by Charna. The overall experience was thrilling, and even if no one from that magical night makes the cut the actors that auditioned have the stories of a lifetime. For two hours on a bitterly cold Chicago night, everyone was a star.

Other notes:

+ Did John King have a right to ask Newt Gingrich about his marital infidelities? Yes. Was it necessary to ask that as the leadoff question in the South Carolina debate last week? No. Though I rarely take the former Speaker's side on most issues, he had every right to give King an earful. Promoting yourself as a "family values" candidate yet proposing an open marriage to your cancer-stricken wife is certainly a matter of contention, but reversing unemployment and strengthening the economy are much more substantial concerns. The GOP is already distrustful of the mainstream media, and this did not help matters.

+ Merlin Media, the radio conglomerate that I've been ranting about since last summer, is at it again. "News FM," the news/talk format they launched in Chicago, makes no secret of their desire of the college-educated female demographic. "The Loop," the other station they own in the market, has staged a giveaway for free breast implants. Is it just me, or is that one heck of a double standard?

Next week: the year in music, 1967.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Puppy Loathe

About three weeks ago, my younger sister did something incredibly foolish and impulsive: she bought a puppy. Considering that she has little money, growing credit card debt, and one semi-tangible job lead, my parents and I looked at my sister like she'd lost her mind. On top of that, our house is cluttered with old family photos, courtesy of the pending estate sale. Bridget's justification was that this was a college graduation present for herself. This is her $900 investment, a full-blooded dachshund that she named Henry Blue.

I've been writing this blog for about 6 1/2 years and I don't think I've ever discussed my younger sister at length until now. Physically, we have similar facial features but personality-wise we're almost opposites: where I tend to be fastidious and pragmatic, Bridget is laid-back and soft-hearted. She's an artist, I'm a writer. She scrapbooks as a hobby, I still collect baseball cards. She loves animals, though my interest in them is merely passing. Growing up, Bridget was the tomboy and the troublemaker; I was the quiet, pensive bookworm that avoided conflict at all costs. Obviously, not much has changed.

Arguably the puppy's greatest obstacle is the dog we already have. Back in 2004, for Bridget's Sweet 16 she received a maltipoo puppy that we named Duke. Though the little fella was intended to be my sister's pet first and a family mascot second, Duke slowly graviated towards my mother. That wasn't because the dog disliked my sister or anything, she was too busy with school and work to take care of him. As you can imagine, Duke is not giving the new guy an inch and in turn Henry has been hostile towards the old-timer.

My parents, slowly defeating themselves to the prospect of living with two small dogs, noted that Duke is stating his dominance after so many years of being the undisputed alpha dog (pun intended) in the household. When five-pound Henry sniffs him, 7 1/2 pound Duke growls at him. A short round of "bite tag" ensues before one of us has to seperate the dogs. It's like white lightning versus the black weasel. I can't blame the guy; it's an unfair situation for Duke but something he'll eventually get used to. Any canine harmony will be hard-fought.

Other notes:

+ Jon Huntsman is out of the race? Which means regardless of who wins, the GOP presidential nominee will be white, male, and crazy? And right now said to-be-determined crazy white guy has a 50/50 shot of beating Obama? Yikes.

+ Surprisingly, this is a concise and well-written article. Not surprisingly, the title doesn't do it justice, and the editors of Newsweek look like boneheads in their own right.

+ Finally, on a sad note I would like to acknowledge the passing of Mike Enriquez, a teacher and performer at iO Chicago that died late last week. Though I was only acquainted with Mike he was a local legend of sorts, a marvelous improviser and a genuinely nice guy. Vanessa Bayer, a former teammate of his at iO, paid tribute to him at the tail end of last weekend's SNL. Click here for more on a comedian's life cut too short.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Live Free or Die

Upon watching the New Hampshire debate this past weekend, I honestly can't say my opinion of the remaining candidates has really wavered. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a one-time frontrunner who now stands fourth in the polls, lost the LGBT vote once and for all by dodging questions about gay marriage and instead turned that segment of the debate into a mini-rant against the meddling liberal media. Quirky old Ron Paul, well-meaning but still very much a dark horse, put Newt in his place but pointing out his status as a silver spoon, Vietnam draft-dodger. The two moderates (Romney and Huntsman) played it safe and barely criticized their reactionary opponents. The two remaining social conservatives (Perry and Santorum) were loud and proud, but hardly did anything to sway potential voters.

As the primaries drag on --sometimes literally-- one thing is becoming increasingly apparent: the candidate that polarizes the fewest potential voters will likely become the GOP candidate, and therefore the right wing's best shot at taking down Obama. As much as Tea Partiers would hate to admit, the sword would best be thrown by either Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman. None of the remaining six candidates are perfect --an argument could even be made for Ron Paul-- but a moderate would swoon the independents and undecideds that the Republicans badly need. Michelle Bachmann's abysmal showing in the Iowa causus --and subsequent pullout-- after a decisive straw poll win barely six months ago was an indicator that the Tea Party's influence on the GOP has plateaued. The New Hampshire primary, first in the nation yet held in a state that nurtures independents, libertarians, and the moderate right, only further indicates the Tea Party's lack of appeal beyond the conservative core.

So what becomes of the incumbent? Even though President Obama's position at the moment is not unlike Jimmy Carter's in 1980, it's too soon to scream "lame duck." For all the attention that GOP circus has received in the media, defeating Obama is not an ace in a hole just yet. Retired network news anchor Dan Rather recently admitted his lack of confidence in the president, but keep in mind that the actual decision is still 10 months away. An Obama landslide is likely out of the question, but he could score reelection by a narrow margin depending upon who he runs against. For now, the focus is the six-way handball game between the remaining candidates; as the dodgeball bounces through the air, so does the fate of the nation.

Other notes:

+ Congratulations to Cincinnati Reds great Barry Larkin upon his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I thought he'd get inducted next year --a potential logjam of a ballot including first-timers Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, and Mike Piazza, amongst others-- but I'll take it. For my case for Larkin, check out this blog entry from 2009.

+ Four years ago this week, the government reported that unemployment rose to 5% in the previous month, triggering speculation of a recession. On that same day, a not-yet-sober Britney Spears lost custody of her children to Kevin Federline. Guess which one of these two stories garnered more media attention that day?

+ If Jimmy Carter is to 1980 as Barack Obama is to 2012, does that make Ron Paul our generation's John Anderson?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bunny Hop

As I write this, my family and some hired hands are in the process of cleaning out my grandparents' house. Due to my grandmother's failing health, we put her in a nursing home back in September and now we're in the process of selling the property. My grandparents seldom threw anything away that could've been useful in the future (they were children of the Great Depression, go figure) so their melange now makes my parents' house even more cluttered. Whatever we don't want or can't take home will be sold at an estate sale sometime later this winter.

With family being family, I had to take my share as well. As some longtime readers may recall, my uncle passed away in 2008 and I was a primary benefactor in his will. The estate sale meant cleaning out his old bedroom, something I had procrastinated upon for three-plus years partially because it would be just so time-consuming. Uncle Jim never moved out of his folks' place, so this was his undisputed domain and it'd been kept semi-intact since his death. Regardless, whatever I inherited or wanted will have to go to storage.

My uncle's bedroom had two signifigant focal points. The first was his stereo system, which based on my rudimentary knowledge of archaeology was cutting edge for circa 1979. It was a record player attached to a cassette player and some type of receiver, plus a quadrophonic speaker system, all courtesy of the fine people at Zenith. I can't wait to play his old 33 1/3's just to see if that whole thing still works. The second bullet point, however is a little more personal and maybe a tad embarrassing.

From Jim's 16th birthday in July 1972 to March 2009 (when his subscription expired) he subscribed to a magazine called Playboy. To my blessing and bane, he kept nearly every issue. Including some older issues that we assume he bought at a garage sale or "borrowed" from my great-uncle, that's nearly 450 old magazines. It's a blessing because some issues overlap with my dad's decidedly smaller collection of old Playboys, thus I can sell them on eBay and alleviate some attic clutter. It's a bane because... well, 450 vintage magazines aren't the easiest thing to load out of a second-story bedroom in a short period of time.

At this point, you're probably a little alienated or laughing your butt off. I will admit now that in my early teens I used to sneak up to my uncle's bedroom and glance at his mags. Fifteen-plus years later packing all these magazines gave me a wistful, nostalgic feeling, an emotion that was awkward and a little discomforting but nevertheless bittersweet. I remembered certain issues as if they were yesterday, the short-lived fads and occasional morsels of historical irony. As a grown man I can now appreciate articles written by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and Kurt Vonnegut.

I suppose if I had to pick an all-time favorite Playmate, it would be Sherry Konopski, Miss August 1987. In hindsight I'm not sure why I chose Sherry; physical attraction aside, I suppose I found her more relatable than the other naked bombshells who claimed to be "the girl next door." I later learned that Ms. Konopski had a somewhat inspirational epilogue to her centerfold; a 1995 car accident left her crippled from the waist down, and two years later she became the first woman to pose nude in Playboy able-bodied and disabled. Judge her if you must, but Ms. Konopski is an inspiration to well-endowed paraplegics everywhere.

The process of moving all the magazines to my parents' basement took about a week; first to sort them, than to pack and carry all the plastic tubs. As for the ginormous stereo equipment, I managed to lift that all out in less than two hours. I can't really say this was a bonding moment for me and my uncle because that's kinda creepy, but in hindsight I kinda appreciate that he didn't care that I was reading his vast stash of girly mags. If my uncle's death marked the end of an era, belatedly packing his belongings symbolized my slowly fading youth.