Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Beauty and the Beasties

Artist: Beastie Boys
Albums: Check Your Head; Gratitude EP, Ill Communication; Pass the Milk
Source: Promo (CYH; GEP); Bought new (CYH, IC, PTM)

When I started this project, one of my stated goals was, "to do more than get through it: I'm also going to get into it, think about these CDs and LPs and such, try to figure out why each one seems so hard to even consider putting up on eBay or (perish the thought) just throwing away." I was (and remain) sure that most of the 1,000+ albums that make up The Beast have meaning, whether it be something personal or on a larger scale.

So far, I have only somewhat remained true to that idea. For me, it's too easy to slip into Critic Mode, discussing the discs on an intellectual/historical/critical level, or maybe just geeking out about how very much I know about this stuff. And maybe that is what they mean to me, but I aspire to find something a fathom or two deeper down.

Oddly enough, if there is any single band/artist entry that is almost entirely wrought with personal meaning, it's the Beastie Boys, of all people. It's no coincidence that I thoroughly enjoy the work of enormously talented, white, Jewish rapper/punks. But if pressed, in the Beasties' heyday I would probably have claimed Public Enemy as my top rap group, and lordy knows they are not unimpeachably friendly to Whitey (or my particularly Semitic subset of Whitey). So it's not just critic-proof quality: the Beastie Boys mean something to me, going pretty far back.

In this case, they were an early reminder that my musical high-horse was not above donning a pair of blinkers. By 9th grade, I already fancied myself a budding Music Geek, digging deep into my issues of Rolling Stone and Spin, staying up late to hear the unheard music and committing it all to memory. I may not have delved as deeply as I would just a year or two later, but I was certainly one of the few kids in my class who knew the Talking Heads and the Clash with any depth. If you asked me, I was pretty damn cool, at least as far as this went.

Jim, on the other hand, was definitely not cool. He was small, way too quirky for a 15-year-old, and a Band Dork. We were in the school play together, and had to spend a lot of time in close quarters. I was not a Jim fan.

I was also not a fan of this "music" Jim was playing backstage. It was the early 80s, and hip-hop hadn't really made wide inroads to white-guy suburbia just yet. But here Jim was, playing not just the singles everyone kind of knew, but whole albums by Run-DMC, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys. I didn't know what the hell this crap was, and I didn't want to. When the Beasties opened up for Madonna later that year (an act I was way too young to view through the filter of intellectual irony), it just confirmed that they were nothing I needed to know about. And they seemed to go away.

Well, color me wrong a few years later when I find myself a little older, a lot in college, and totally digging rap in general (this was the era of big, big albums by PE, De La Soul, Cypress Hill and numerous others) and the Beastie Boys in particular. My friend Chuck had Paul's Boutique, and I'd never heard anything quite like it, or quite so good. The drum machines and lack of instrumentation still rubbed me partially the wrong way, but there was no way to label this stuff as crap (sorry, Jim!).

By 1992, it would not be exaggeration to say that Check Your Head, the first Smashing Pumpkins album and Nirvana's Nevermind were the soundtrack to my life. Any reservations I had about hip-hop were shattered by CYH, which had these guys rapping like pros and playing instruments like punks. It was like they'd made a rap album just for me...or at least for guys like me.

Which brings me to my next point of personal meaning. I rarely listened to the Beasties alone. JP, Chuck, Don and many of the other people I hung around with in college loved these albums, too, and it seemed incontrovertible proof: if the records were made for guys like each of us, and all of us loved them, then we must be at least somewhat like each other. I've always bonded with people over music, but even so it strikes the 30-something version of me as sort of amazing that I used to sit around with buddies and listen to records together. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss it a little.

Ill Communication was another moment of transition. I remember so clearly buying it right after graduation, popping into the car CD player for the ride back to college, where I was spending the summer in a kind of post-commencement suspended animation until my teaching job began in the fall. As always, the Beasties had changed a little (still some live instruments, but now mixed with a cleaner hip-hop sound and a grab at more non-traditional music sources, like Buddhist chants), and I was starting to realize that they were changing about as often as I was. Neither of us was able to keep up the pace of progress indefinitely, but for the moment it was a perfectly paced soundtrack.

Finally, you won't find Pass the Milk in any BB's discography, because it kind of doesn't exist. In 1999, the ever-progressive group saw the Web, liked it and wanted to have some fun. They let fans log into their Grand Royal site and create a custom CD of album tracks, b-sides and remixes. You could pick the songs, choose the order, type in a title and they'd mail you a custom CD, precisely to your specifications. So during one of JP's last few trips to visit me in Philadelphia (he'd get sicker soon, and then I'd move to NY), I set him up at my PC and, as a birthday present, bought him the Beastie Boys mix CD of his choosing. We spent a solid hour, maybe two, clicking through the tracks, discussing the relative merits of each at great depth, then trying and retrying and trying yet again to get the perfect mix in the perfect order. Once it was set, the business of the title took another 15 minutes or so. I don't remember which of us came up with Pass the Milk, but I know we both knew it was perfect once we did. It's an utterly fantastic, near-perfect memory of time spent with JP; since there aren't any new ones to come, moments like these mean a little more.

By the time the Beastie Boys made their next move, I had too and we'd suddenly diverged. Hello Nasty just didn't move me; I listened to it at work, maybe even reviewed it for AOL, but never bought it. Don't get me wrong - the record was fun and funky and all that, but considering the weight of significance I'd come to expect from the Beasties, fun just wasn't enough.

SISOSIG? Nothing here's going anywhere. In fact, this is my third copy of Check Your Head: my first was a promo, which was stolen out of my room (Don, was it you?), then the replacement was stolen out of my luggage on the way to Paris and I bought it again. Plus I've got it on vinyl. You think I dig this disc? You'd best believe it - it's my intention not to let it, or the rest of my Beasties discs, out of my sight. And dammit, I think it's about time I retired that tape-dubbed copy of Paul's Boutique and got myself the real thing...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Like a Rolling Stone

Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
This has nothing to do with The Beast: I just had my very-first-ever piece for Rolling Stone posted on their website. It's a review of The db's first NYC gig in a quarter-century, and you can read it here.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Picking Up Good Vibrations

Artists: The Beach Boys; Brian Wilson
Albums: Pet Sounds (BB), Good Vibrations (BB); Smile (BW)
Source: Bought new (PS, Smile); Gift (GV)

Over the holidays, my parents mentioned that they got a kick out of the entry where I somewhat-gently put them down for the near-total lack of musical guidance they provided to me as a child. And they weren't mad - both Mom & Dad agreed that their Phoebe Snow LPs really hadn't given me a leg up in my quest to...well, whatever it is record nerds are after.

But just a few entries later I find myself needing to slightly amend my criticism of their musical parenting. For all their failings in providing me with the essentially useless information I came to crave, my folks did hoist the first sails on a voyage into the estimable canon of The Beach Boys. "They wrote about nothing but girls, cars and surfing," said my parents, and they were at least half right; the young me liked the simple, sunny sing-a-longs of girls/cars/surfing tunes like "Barbara Ann," "Little Deuce Coup" and "Surfin' U.S.A," but my older self has come to hear that Brian Wilson was using that deceptively simple trinity to sneak in creations that were really about a terrifyingly deep kind of love and a staggeringly wide kind of world.

It wasn't always so obvious, though. In the mid-90s, after grunge had fractured and crumbled under the weight of too many signing bonuses and one self-inflicted gunshot wound, the rock underground did what a lot of us do when the going gets tough: took a trip to warmer, sunnier climes. Stereolab, The High Lamas and pretty much the entire Elephant Six collective cracked open their copies of Pet Sounds to see what made it tick. Like the Velvet Underground and Black Sabbath of years previous, Wilson became the influence du jour, and soon everyone was seeing how many layers deep they could pile on the vocal harmonies.

The Wilson Ascendancy may have been brief and a little too slavishly worshipful, but it did the trick: I went back and gave the Boys a listen through my grown-up ears. To say that I fell a little in love with what I heard would be an understatement - was this really the same group I'd heard through the stereo in my parents' station wagon? The songs, the sounds, the whole was easy to hear what Wilson meant by the phrase "teenage symphony to God." This was church music, deeply felt and reverent, that had been pumped full of sunlight, strapped to a surfboard and let loose in the oceanic heavens. Eileen melts a little when "God Only Knows" comes on, and on this musical topic we're in perfect sync.

SISOSIG? There's no need to discuss whether Pet Sounds stays or goes; with it's depth of quality, ease of enjoyment and Eileen-friendliness, it's practically the prototype for a "keeper." The Good Vibrations box set has a lot of fluff and excess baggage (I don't know that I've ever actually listened to discs 4 or 5), but it's also got all the important stuff. Since the early Beach Boys were first and foremost a singles band of uncommon power, I don't think there's much need to collect all the early albums when the important singles are all right here in one handy package - this is one of the rare instances where I can honestly say I've got all I'll ever need.

Finally, I've grouped Brian Wilson's latter-day completion of his abandoned Smile project here, though I don't really think of it as being of a piece with his Beach Boys work, nor does it really measure up in a lot of ways. But I'd argue that one shouldn't approach it that way: give Smile a listen as a piece of modern, cracked Americana alongside Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Neutral Milk Hotel and it's an entirely modern marvel, different from the classics from Wilson's past but a keeper for today.