Thursday, 26 January 2012

REVIEW - It's So Easy (and Other Lies) by Duff McKagan

I'm not intending to do a whole lot of reviewing on this blog. I don't keep completely up to the minute with new releases any more, and it can become a chore to do so. Still, when I get hold of something soon enough after its release and it seems interesting (whether in a good or bad way), I'll give you my ten cents worth on albums as well as music-related books, documentaries and films. It won't be any sort of comprehensive coverage, but if there's something you'd particularly like to see reviewed, let me know and I'll see what I can do!

Bringing a touch of humanity to the tale of Guns n Roses.
For fans only, but worth a read.

TITLE: It's So Easy (and Other Lies)
TOPIC: Duff McKagan/Guns n Roses/Velvet Revolver/Exploding Pancreases
AUTHOR: Duff McKagan
RELEASED: October 2011

Rock autobiographies almost defy reviewing. With the exception of a few shining examples of the form, they tend to be averagely written, predictably presented tales about all the things that, particularly in the internet age, you already know. They're not, almost by definition, well-researched, they're seldom truly insightful, and they don't deliver much in the way of critical analysis of the art and artist that ultimately brought people to the book in the first place. The likelihood an individual will actually enjoy a given autobiography is therefore most likely to be based on to the extent of their interest in the subject. In other words, you're either interested in 360 pages on the bassist from Guns n Roses or you're not.

It's So Easy (and Other Lies) doesn't entirely buck this trend. Taken at face value, it's a competently written 'Young man from a broken-home conquers the world, loses himself in substance abuse and finds redemption' tale like a million before it. However, there are a few things in its favour.

It's So Easy
-Duff McKagan's Loaded (w/Gilby Clarke)

While the writing is not about to win a Pulitzer, the book is well strung together, and there's a sense that Duff McKagan, who has written columns for a number of publications in recent years, was significantly less reliant on his ghost writer than is often the case. Certainly, the reader gets much more of a sense that this is McKagan's voice, McKagan's view - in clear contrast to the interesting, but ultimately superficial, approach taken with fellow Guns n Roses alumni Slash's 2007 autobiography. This is heightened by some disturbingly graphic details about McKagan's alcohol abuse, which left me uncertain whether to swear off the demon drink, or plow ahead, safe in the knowledge I'm a gallon a day of vodka beneath the limits of human consumption (and, most disgustingly, the limits of the human pancreas, which I now know can explode). Fortunately, this is balanced by the subsequent emphasis he gives to his post Guns n Roses existence - the pride in his recovery from alcoholism, academic achievements and parenthood are cornerstones of the book. These later points are particularly important. While obviously it's the Guns n Roses connection that will bring people to this book, it is interesting, and at least a little heartwarming to read of a man whose life is defined by a lot more than the band that made him famous. 

Of course, it's McKagan's retelling, and some of the moments of disaster and epiphany seem a little carefully scripted. But then, the way in which an autobiography is written often provides insights for the reader that is looking for them - and the self-satisfaction of his almost mythical (to hear him tell it) recovery seems to serve as fuel for his ongoing sobriety.

 Duff McKagan w/ Ten Minute Warning in 1982

A potential disappointment for some readers may be that It's So Easy (and Other Lies) does not focus quite so intently on the music of Guns n Roses as did Slash's book, but this is balanced by some interesting recollections of the pre-Grunge Seattle scene McKagan starred in before decamping to Hollywood. As one of the few links between two cities  and sounds the media reveled in pitting against each other, this presents some interesting moments, particularly as a disillusioned McKagan finds himself wondering what might have been in the early 90s. Throw in the fact that he was one of the last people to see Kurt Cobain alive (only months before McKagan's own life would come close to ending in a Seattle hospital as a result of years of cocaine and alcohol abuse), and there is still plenty on offer for those only interested in the music.

Night Train Live at the Ritz '88
-Guns n Roses

McKagan also presents an interesting take on that greatest of mysteries – Axl Rose. He seems much more aware of the contributions his own self-destructiveness made to the band's demise than is evident in most other retellings of the tale. Axl Rose is presented as an asshole of epic proportions who strong-armed the band out of their own intellectual property while simultaneously costing them tens of thousands of dollars with his petulant behaviour... but also as a kind hearted manic-depressive left steering a band of hopeless drunks and junkies incapable of facing the problems within the band. As with Slash's book, there's an overwhelming sense of missed opportunity as what should have been an amazing period of success spiraled into a disaster for all concerned. The Duff/Axl reconciliation of 2010 (which saw McKagan join the new Guns n Roses lineup onstage in London) creates a nice conclusion to the 'story' though. Or, at least, to the story of Guns n Roses, not Duff McKagan, who ends the book as it began, with his wife and young daughters. It's a clear indication of where he feels his greatest achievements lie.

Saul Hudson and Michael McKagan

Ultimately, there's probably not a thing of interest in It's So Easy (and Other Lies) for the non-GnR fan, but for those who have some interest, it is a welcome addition to the available literature on the band, and a more engaging story than you might expect. 

If nothing else, the depiction of Duff 'the King of Beers' McKagan panicking when confronted with two 13 year olds kissing at his daughter's birthday party is good for a chuckle.

No More
-Duff McKagan's Loaded

Sunday, 22 January 2012


ARTIST: Bruce Springsteen
ALBUM: Nebraska
RELEASED: September 1982

Nebraska/Atlantic City/Mansion on the Hill/Johnny 99/Highway Patrolman/
State Trooper/Used Cars/Open All Night/My Father's House/Reason to Believe

Everything dies baby that's a fact,
But maybe everything that dies, someday comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty,
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

Once upon a time I knew (via a music discussion forum) a guy called Will. Biggest music geek I've ever crossed paths with. Think Rob from High-Fidelity. Punk, metal, indie, goth, you name it, he probably had the Japanese import on coloured vinyl. He made me feel positively normal in my obsession. More importantly, when I moved to a new town and knew nobody who was going to gigs and checking out new bands, it was people like Will and websites like those we frequented that gave me an outlet to discuss my love of music and the big issues like whether the third Skid Row album was really any good or not. Knowing people like him is part of why I'm writing a blog like this.

Only thing is, he didn't really like Bruce Springsteen, at least, not really. A failing in my mind, but it takes all kinds I guess. Will's reasoning was that he couldn't connect with Springsteen's story-telling approach to songwriting. It didn't ring true to him and he much preferred artists who took a more 'personal' approach to their craft. Fair enough (I guess), except that he loved Nebraska.

That's right. Nebraska. An album rich with characters like Johnny 99 and the chicken-man. An album of acoustic demos that is as close to a collection of short-stories as it is a collection of songs. On the face of it, that's a fairly contradictory position to hold for a guy who put a fair amount of thought into the music he liked.

Atlantic City
(one of the best songs ever, by anyone)

However, I've always felt that that the apparent contradictions in people's tastes can teach us a lot about both them and the artists in we spend our time contemplating. And since this isn't a blog about people I've met through the internet, let's think about Nebraska and its place in the Springsteen catalogue...

It's not surprising that someone who is otherwise not a huge Springsteen fan might still love Nebraska. Musically, its sparse acoustic approach – no keyboards, no drums, no electric guitar - is the antithesis of the E-Street Band wall of sound which dominated Springsteen's prior albums. Only Atlantic City and Johnny 99 have any sort of propulsion to them. The rest are folkier tunes - haunting, lyrically dense and emotionally intense.  It contains some fantastic songs, but to claim, as some do, that it is Springsteen's best? I'm unconvinced. Listening to Springsteen to enjoy slow, dark, maudlin songs is a little like reading Playboy for the articles. Sure, they're actually pretty good, but if they were really what I wanted I'd have just bought an issue of Time Magazine (or perhaps a Leonard Cohen album).

Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir,
And snaps my poor neck back.
You make sure my pretty baby,
Is sittin right there on my lap.

Having said that, I can understand why Will might have been able to enjoy the story-telling on Nebraska more than he enjoyed the not entirely dissimilar tales that populate Springsteen's E-Street Band albums. The dark, claustrophobic feel of the sparse arrangements and Springsteen's restrained vocal approach complement the lyrics superbly, making the fictions presented all the more believable, the stories seemingly more personal as the gap between singer and listener is lessened by the intimacy of the recordings. Would the chorus to Atlantic City be as heartbreaking with Little Steven's wailing guitar and a Clarence Clemons sax solo? Would a rolling drum-fill make us think any more deeply about the plight of the titular character in Johnny 99? Probably not.

Johnny 99
(also look up the great versions by Johnny Cash and Los Lobos)

As effective as it may be though, the acoustic approach taken on Nebraska means that a number of the characteristics that, to my mind, make Springsteen great in the first place are missing. In a world of po-faced wannaDylans, Springsteen was always the singer-songwriter who wasn't afraid to rock out. Or the rocker that wasn't afraid to densely pack his lyrics. An acoustic album shifts him firmly into the already crowded singer-songwriter camp. As a result, Nebraska is an album a number of other artists might have made (albeit probably not as well). Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, on the other hand, are albums no other artist could have made.

An extension of this is the fact that in presenting such serious songs in such a serious fashion, Springsteen is unable to utilise one of his greatest tricks. You see, it's not like much of his catalogue isn't fairly bleak, but Springsteen has an unequalled ability to present dark lyrical themes in poppy or anthemic contexts as if it is the most logical thing in the world. It's no wonder people so regularly misinterpret Born in the USA when they hear that fist-pumping chorus. And Hungry Heart? That's got to be the jauntiest song ever written about a man walking out on his family. This is one of Springsteen's greatest gifts as a songwriter and arranger. Another of those things that separates him from the pack, and another thing you won't find on Nebraska.

Radio's jammed up with gospel stations,
Lost souls callin' long distance salvation.
Hey Mr DJ woncha hear my last prayer,
Hey ho rock 'n roll deliver me from nowhere.

Ultimately, bar a couple of the strongest tunes, when I hear Nebraska I still feel like a lot of fans must have at the time: This is nice and all, but it's not really the full package. I'm glad it was released in its stripped back acoustic form. As an exception to the rule, it strengthens the Springsteen catalogue. You can play it at times where three guitars, two keyboards and a saxophone don't suit your mood. As a one-off therefore, it's a very worthwhile album. But it feels like a side-project.

In my experience, people who rank Nebraska as Springsteen's best are often people who were never as taken by his other work. In thinking about it, I understand where they are coming from, and where Will was coming from. The things that light my fire when it comes to Springsteen obviously didn't appeal to him in the same way, and an opportunity to hear the songwriter devoid of his rock band trappings opened him up to an artist he was otherwise not so enamored with. It's an interesting example of how one atypical album in a catalogue can serve to illuminate the artist's catalogue as a whole. And, despite my misgivings, it really is a great album. In fact to present my own contradictory opinion, it is better than its follow-up Born in the USA, the full band mega-hit packed with all the things I've just told you define Springsteen.

I guess what I'm really trying to say with all of this is, we miss you Will.

Reason to Believe
-Aimee Mann & Michael Penn

Atlantic City
-The Hold Steady
(one of my favorite of the current crop of obviously Springsteen inspired acts, with a cover that
reworks the original quite significantly, as covers of such bare-bones songs often do)

Next edition: Miles runs the voodoo down.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

NEWS - Springsteen's New Single: We Take Care of Our Own

Wasn't intending micro-posts like this, but given the man donated me a blog title... 
Here's the new Springsteen tune We Take Care of Our Own.

What do you reckon? I like it on first listen. More interesting than most of the Working On A Dream material. That felt very by-the-numbers... This seems to promise an interesting album.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012


ALBUM: Quadrophenia
RELEASED: October 1973


I Am The Sea/The Real Me/Quadrophenia/Cut My Hair/The Punk and the Godfather/I'm One/
The Dirty Jobs/Helpless Dancer (Roger's theme)/Is It In My Head/I've Had Enough


5:15/Sea and Sand/Drowned/Bell Boy (Keith's theme)/Doctor Jimmy (John's theme)/
The Rock/Love, Reign O'er Me (Pete's theme)

Can you see the real me,
Can you?

Okay, so starting out a blog centred on classic albums with a piece on The Who is not really a great example of delving deep into the crates. However, Quadrophenia is a less discussed and appreciated album than it’s reputation amongst die-hards might suggest. Who’s Next got the Classic Albums treatment (a fascinating episode, incidentally), Tommy received more mainstream success as a rock opera over the years, and Live at Leeds is widely recognised as one of the greatest examples of a live album ever released. In such company, the comparatively hitless double-album Pete Townshend once referred to as “the best I will ever write” often gets lost in the shuffle.

It’s an album that fascinates me though. It’s dark and it’s violent, it is progressive rock in its scope and punk rock in its attitude. It’s also an album I’d never sat down and really listened to start to finish until very recently, so it is one of the very few ‘great albums’ I could really come at with a fresh set of ears, and that seemed like the right way to kick this blog off.

More importantly than all that, however is the simple fact that Pete Townshend is right. Quadrophenia is, by some margin, the best thing he and The Who have ever done. It's not so much a snapshot of the vision, fury and musicianship that defined the band as it is the whole damn roll of film.

I'm dressed right for a beach fight,
But I just can't explain,
Why that uncertain feeling is still
Here in my brain.

I’m not a fan of concept albums as a general rule. Too often the concept seems to be a contrivance to inspire song-writing, rather than a product of inspired song-writing, and the stories told are so often either too simplistic to engage anyone over the age of 12, or too complex to possibly be fitted into a suite of songs.

On paper, Quadrophenia could fall into either camp. Our anti-hero is a young man named Jimmy (coughHoldenCaufieldcough) struggling with four distinct personalities (i.e. suffering the titular disorder) loosely based on the four members of the Who – the tough-guy (Daltrey), romantic (Enthwistle), lunatic (Moon) and angst ridden hypocrite (Townshend – who at least serves himself the proverbial burnt pork-chop as writer). The listener follows Jimmy's voyage to self discovery against a backdrop of rocker vs mod violence, drug consumption and youthful frustration. It is not, it would be fair to say, a comedy. In both setting and characters it's particularly English however, at a time when the Rolling Stones were off to the Kentucky Derby and Led Zeppelin were on the road to Mordor (both literally and figuratively it turns out). This doesn't mean it is without heavy handed Hollywood moments though, with the resolution, which sees young Jimmy reaching epiphany while all at sea (literally) proving somewhat trite in the cold light of day.

It's all logical topic matter for a rock opera/concept album (at least when compared to the insanity Genesis were concocting at the same time) but until recently I'd always been somewhat of a doubter. Isn't that all just My Generation writ large?! And aren't things better when they're not spelled out?! Spending 17 tracks saying what you'd already been able to say in a three minute song seemed more Andrew Lloyd Webber than rock n roll to me.

From the get-go however, Quadrophenia manages to dance past disaster. The opening sequence of I Am the Sea, The Real Me and Quadrophenia take the listener from a hippy dippy introduction of ocean sounds and brief refrains, through a shit-kicking rock tune that introduces us to our protagonist and his troubled mind, before dropping the listener back into an instrumental that serves to conclude what is essentially the album's overture. It’s an intriguing beginning that hints at both the conceptual depths of the album to come and the potential for some go-for-the-throat rock n roll.

I Am the Sea/The Real Me 
(the rocking starts at the 2 minute mark for you ADD kids)

Any album that sprawls across four sides of vinyl (or, ummm, 187.1 megabytes of hard-drive when ripped at 320 kbps), needs more than a snappy opening sequence, and it’s the wealth of great tunes that really make the album. Nothing else rocks with quite the abandon of The Real Me, but there's an intesnity and hint of violence about so much of what the Who do, and it's on display here, along with more tender moments and some darkly comical asides. And all of this is sold superbly by Roger Daltrey. There may be four sides to Jimmy's personality, but there's only one voice, and it is Daltrey's versatility that enabled Townshend to realise his vision. Alice Cooper may be the great character of rock n roll, but Daltrey is the preeminent actor – delivering other people's words in other people's voices with absolute conviction. He can, you know, sing okay too I suppose.
I'm the new president,
And I grew, and I bent.
Don't you know?
Don't it show?
I'm the punk with the stutter.

And the playing? There's synths, piano and horns all over the place fleshing things out, but it is still Entwhistle’s bass-playing that always astounds me. Listen to anything he does and tell me how you get from good old-fashioned root-note chugging and walking bass-lines to THAT?! Throw in the dervish of fills and crashes that is Keith Moon and you’ve got a rhythm section that... Scratch that, you've got the rhythm section. It’s a foundation that allows Pete Townshend to sit back a little further than most guitarists of the era, often filling out the songs as required, rather than driving them along with Zeppelinesque riffing or a psychedelic wall of sound. It’s a deceptively simple approach that works wonders in a band of such capable, complementary musicians. Sadly, Townshend disciples often miss the point and wind up sounding tediously like Paul Weller – a crime for which only Paul Weller has any excuse, and even then not much of one.

5:15/Sea and Sand

It's not easy going though. A moment’s inattention and I’m scratching my head wondering what the hell Daltrey is on about now, and there are a number of tracks it’s hard to imagine working outside of this album. An hour and a bit tracing someone’s mental malfunctions is not necessarily fodder for repeated listening either (see also: Chinese Democracy). Conversely, some of the lighter moments do veer worryingly close to an impression of musical theatre.

However, while Townshend’s artistic vision (and demented single-mindedness) would occasionally derail the band, Quadrophenia holds itself together. Songs that might have been consigned to the b-sides bin on another recording session are given value by the story, and the strength of the performances ensures that the momentum, both conceptually and musically, is never lost.

At the end of the day it’s that flirtation with the insufferable, and that willingness to risk falling down that makes Quadrophenia for me. The world would be a fairly awful place if everybody tried to make albums like this, but on this occasion the play-write is so on form, the players hitting their marks so perfectly that Quadrophenia wound up an album no other band could have created, more than earning its seat at the big table with anything any of their contemporaries achieved.

Love Reign O'er Me

Next Edition: You best believe I'm from New York City!

Thursday, 12 January 2012


Over the Christmas break and first week of the New Year I took the time to investigate a number of the blogs and other such websites written by people I know. Whether they were about poetry, films, beer, art, or potential sleepers in the 2012 NFL draft, it was great to read people’s considered thoughts on what they are passionate about, and see how they chose to articulate those thoughts… regardless of the fact that most of them probably have no expectation of any great readership.

And, of course, this reminded me how much I used to love writing about music, and how few opportunities I’ve had do that in the last few years. No websites, no magazines, no nuthin'. Ideally I’d like to be writing bits and pieces for an established site, but what connections I had to that world have dried up, and I certainly don’t have the time or energy to do start my own full site. So, as a step in the right direction, I thought I could join the ranks of the self-important and go the blog route.

Here’s the plan…

To start out, every Thursday morning New Zealand-time (because a writer is nothing without a deadline), I’m going to put up a piece on a classic album. Not just the Pet Sounds and Exile on Main Streets of this world mind you, but also the important works of more obscure acts that some might not be familiar with, and the great/interesting albums by bigger acts I think are worthy of more critical analysis than they generally receive. The idea is not so much to review the albums but to do a sort of critique of what they are and where they sit in the world… According to me. No particular formula, and no sacred cows.

Hopefully I can jump across a lot of genres in doing this. And hopefully it will be interesting and engaging for people who have a similar love of music to me. If not, at least it will be fun to do.

As things progress, I'd like to branch out into wider discussions, more editorial-style pieces, and reviews of new releases. I might even get a fancy logo and such.

Oh, and the title? I haven't googled it, but I'm going to guess this will be one of a million blogs and sites playing on the same turn of phrase, but what can you do? It's a good song, and it captures something of the sentiment behind this endeavour.

Tune in next week for the first edition: "Four Sides to the Story".