The Holy Bee Recommends, #17: The Rolling Stones’ Post-Exile Trilogy

There is a blindly-accepted mythology that began as soon as the 70s ended. The myth goes like this: The Rolling Stones were a scrappy London R&B band that rode the first wave of the British Invasion, had some monster singles, did a classic mid-60s album (Aftermath), stumbled briefly with a psychedelic Beatles knock-off (Their Satanic Majesties Request), then righted themselves, found an excellent producer in Jimmy Miller, and made the Holy Quadrilogy — Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street — each an irrefutable cornerstone of their massive legacy and four of the greatest rock albums ever made.

And after that — Some Girls aside — it all went to shit.

The “Ultimate Classic Rock” website, the internet’s click-bait custodian of lazy rock factoids, perpetuates the well-trodden path, describing the first post-Exile album, Goats Head Soup as “the end of the Stones’ classic era, with two more increasingly careless albums following until the band got back on track five years later with Some Girls.” This sentiment has been robotically repeated ad nauseam for almost forty years now.

The Stones themselves even bought into the narrative, self-deprecatingly naming a compilation of their post-Exile material Sucking In The Seventies.

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Supposedly, the three albums between the mighty Exile and the fluke disco/New Wave-era smash of Some Girls represented a trough of mediocrity, but I’m here to tell you that those three albums — the aforementioned Goats Head Soup, along with It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, and Black And Blue  — are totally underrated. Classics? Maybe I’d stop just shy of that. But they have an adventurous spirit and willingness to mess with the Stones’ formula a little, and an air of breezily coked-up, rock-god Dionysian decadence impossible to replicate in any other era. Every track, even the weak ones, has something at least interesting about it, which is more than I can say for some of their 80s albums (the true trough of mediocrity, in my opinion –buy me a drink and raise the topic of Dirty Work.

And for two of these three albums, the Stones still had the services of “second” guitarist Mick Taylor, a Clapton-esque blues virtuoso, whose jazz-tinged soloing lifted many of these songs to a new level. For the first time since the Brian Jones era, Keith Richards’ slashing, open-tuned riffage wasn’t the dominant sound. Although Keith always claimed his 70s heroin habit did not slow him down much, the instrumental line-ups on these songs frequently tell a different tale. He’s just not there on about a sixth of them, and on several more he’s just croaking out backing vocals, or strumming a single sloppy rhythm guitar buried in the mix, or plunking on the bass (the Stones’ actual bassist, Bill Wyman, was somewhat minimalized on these albums, his role frequently usurped by Richards or Taylor).

NPG P851; Mick Jagger by Laurie LewisFor better and worse (see below), this era was Jagger’s version of the Rolling Stones. His lyrics were some of the best he ever concocted, and the empty space left by Keith was filled by his own guitar work, which grew more confident with every album. Sadly, these albums are tainted in a lot of people’s mind by Jagger’s increasing buffoonery. The whirling dervish of the ‘69 concert stage was now a glam-rock self-parody (this reached its nadir with the “Dancing In The Streets” video of ‘85 before he finally dialed it back for the Stones’ more recent tours.) So…try to hear these albums without picturing Jagger’s eye-shadow and spangly onesies with the necklines that plunged to the pubes, or the band as a whole’s incredibly dated visual aspect during this period (despite the images I’ve gone ahead and inexplicably included.)

Goats Head Soup is often described as the “hangover” after the wild party of Exile On Main Street, and according to the myth, the drop-off between the two is steep. But at the time, Exile was considered something of a sprawling disappointment, and the hazy, bleary sounds of Goats felt much more of a piece with its predecessor. Jimmy Miller was still producing (for the last time), and some of the songs pre-date the Exile sessions.

Britain’s tax laws forced the band to spend a large part of the year outside the country, and the Exile sessions (in the French Riviera and L.A.) began the tradition of recording on foreign shores as much as possible. In November 1972, the Rolling Stones and pianist Nicky Hopkins set up camp at Dynamic Sound Studios in Jamaica. Their chief road manager, “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart, also served as occasional pianist, and he was there too, of course, but he only played on songs he liked. He did not dig most of the Goats Head material. With a major narcotics case against Richards still pending, Jamaica was the only suitably cool country that would give them an extended work visa. 

Although they were all reggae fans (especially Keith), they admitted they were not ready to pull off any real reggae tracks in the same studio where so many of the genre’s classics were made, including the Harder They Come soundtrack and the early Bob Marley records. (Some would say, based on the mixed reception their later reggae-based tracks received, that they never achieved that state of readiness.) Nicky Hopkins departed at the beginning of December, and Billy Preston was flown in to spice things up with his gospel organ and clavinet.

The sessions continued in May and June 1973 at Olympic Studios and Island Studios in London, where they added elements such as brass, strings, the congas and shakers of noted Ghanaian percussionist “Rebop” Kwaku Baah, and additional percussion by mysterious and eccentric electronic music pioneer Nik Pascal.

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Goats Head Soup, 1973

The album, released in late August 1973, opens with “Dancing With Mr. D,” invariably described by naysayers as a tepid, silly sequel to “Sympathy For The Devil.” But apart from name-checking the Horned One himself, the two songs aren’t really similar. The frenzied samba of “Sympathy” is in no way referenced by the grinding party funk of “Mr. D,” and while Jagger doesn’t come close to his “Sympathy” lyrics, lines like “Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst/The air smells sweet, the air smells sick/He never smiles, his mouth merely twists/The breath in my lungs feels clingy and thick” have a certain eerie flow and Halloween-y charm.

This is followed by what may be my favorite song on all three albums — “100 Years Ago.” “Went out walking through the wood the other day/And the world was a carpet laid before me/The buds were bursting and the air smelled sweet and strange/It seemed about one hundred years ago…don’t you think it’s sometimes wise not to grow up…” A mid-tempo quasi-ballad about the power of memory that breaks down almost to a full stop (“Call me lazybones…”) then upshifts into a furious instrumental outro, with Mick Taylor leading the charge. This is right up there with “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar” for me.

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Nicky Hopkins

“Coming Down Again,” a slow-burner sung by Keith at a snail’s pace over a watery bed of phased guitar and Nicky Hopkins’ moody piano, perfectly captures the feeling of waking up with the dry heaves, alone, confused, and regretful. The mood is quickly shattered by the unfortunately-titled “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” with its urgent traffic-jam horn section and spine-chilling urban jungle lyrics about “accidental” police shootings and poverty-stricken children OD’ing in the gutter. “Angie” was the big radio hit from the album, and despite the inclusion of lots of down-tempo stuff, this is the only song that could be classified as a traditional ballad. Nicky Hopkins once again shows why he was the most in-demand session pianist of the era, providing tasteful accents to the gently dueling acoustic guitars of Richards and Taylor.

“Angie” closes side one, and side two kicks off with “Silver Train,” the one song on the album that sounds the most like a typical Rolling Stones riff-rocker. It was originally recorded two years before the other songs, and was handed off to Johnny Winter, who recorded a blistering version that spurred the Stones to re-record theirs at the end of the sessions in London and put it on the album. “Hide Your Love” dates from the same late-stage London sessions. The simple, hypnotic number is based around Jagger’s echo-heavy piano vamping, and is built up into a primal Delta blues pastiche, Robert Johnson-style. “Winter” is another one of those tracks that critics of this period in the Stones career have to admit is a beauty. Similar in tone to Sticky Fingers’ “Moonlight Mile,” you can almost feel the chill and see your breath as the song glides along on a stream of orchestral strings.

As much as I like them, each of these albums has a total misfire buried in its track listing. “Can You Hear The Music” is a plodding, discordant mess that uses some world-music/psychedelic flourishes to cover up its lack of direction. The album closes with “Star Star,” a Chuck Berry-inspired, old-fashioned bit of rock & roll that sounds like something the ‘64 Stones would have played (except for the lyrics.) Ian Stewart finally lets loose on the ivories in his trademark boogie-woogie style.

One web reviewer calls the Goats Head Soup “the album that set the Stones on a course of mediocrity from which they have yet to return…” Then goes on to say: “It’s not that Goats Head Soup is bad, in itself…” Well, then, what the hell? “[It] set no musical agenda…did nothing new.” Which is totally incorrect. The Stones were never AM radio balladeers before. “Angie” changed that, whatever you think of the song itself. (I love it.) They were beginning to explore the funk genre, aided by sideman Billy Preston’s churning clavinet and Taylor’s wah-wah guitar (“Dancing With Mr. D,” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo”). And they crossed the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be stated in a rock lyric with the gleefully sleazy (and brutally explicit) “Star Star” (original title: “Starfucker.”)
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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 24: The Final Countdown

“We have a tendency to want the other person to be a finished product, while giving ourselves the grace to evolve…” — T.D. Jakes.

This is it. The decade, and my interest in the popular music it was currently producing, were both circling the drain. I was about to be a husband and father (in that order, barely.) I had stopped listening to the radio entirely back in early ‘96 (had a CD changer in the car, remember?) MTV was a wasteland by 1997. I had my niche artists that I chose to listen to, and had parted ways with the music currently on the charts…but they were in the cultural air and kind of unavoidable.

So here’s the last batch…mostly unconnected to any specific reminiscences…and a little epilogue…and now I’m thinking of things I forgot over the past 23 entries, and it’s too late to add…oh, God, “Come To My Window” was huge, and nowhere to be found…and “Liar” by the Rollins Band…and why did I pick “Creep” instead of “Waterfalls”?…Oh shit, this whole thing sucks…

#257. “Love Sick” — Bob Dylan

In response to the bombshell she just dropped that early-November night, I did what any panicked unready father would do…I insisted we drive right to the store and buy two more pregnancy tests. Positive. Positive. In the scary days that followed, she decided she would keep the baby and raise it with or without my help. Despite all evidence to the contrary (some of which you have read about), the Holy Bee had a sense of honor. I decided to “do the right thing,” in old-timey 1950s vernacular, and marry the baby-mama.

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Posing with Dylan’s guitar, Hard Rock Cafe, November 1997. My interest in caftan-like cabana wear was clearly growing. My hair was falling out in clumps at this point. The strain wasn’t noticeable in my face, was it?

We told our respective parents of the situation and the decisions we had come to…(except her Religious Dad, who was kept in the dark for a few more months about the reason for the nuptials)…the wedding was set for early January…a certain amount of haste was needed for obvious reasons…I found an apartment for us…just down the block from good ol’ First Run Video, actually…still in business but definitely dying…now entirely ran by the former assistant manager from whom I had only very recently stopped buying Vicodin tablets at ten dollars a pop…Religious Dad would not allow cohabitation before the marriage…I would live there by myself for about two months (Religious Dad did help with the rent)…

I don’t know if it’s coincidence but it’s also around this time that my formerly unruly hair became a lot easier to manage…I was pleasantly surprised at first…where it used to have to be beaten into submission with a blow dryer and a lot of patience, it would now submit meekly to a quick toweling…it seemed wispy…thinner…then I saw some home movies taken around Christmas that briefly showed me from the back and I almost choked on my eggnog…there was a definite patch of empty real estate on the crown of my head…tiny at first but it would grow to the size of a monk’s tonsure by the new century…

We went to see the Rolling Stones on their Bridges To Babylon tour…left early due to the harmful effects the smoky air may be having on the unborn child…

#258. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” — The Verve

#259. “Monkey Wrench” — Foo Fighters

The Future Ex-Wife and I tied the (temporary) knot in Nevada City in January of 1998. It was a pretty nice wedding, actually. I was particularly proud of the sharp-looking tuxes I had picked out for myself and my best man, Will. The religious in-laws raised the subject of having a “dry” reception and were practically laughed out of the room. There would be no compromises on this issue. Frozen margaritas all around!

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Wedding Day, although Allen seems to be the center of attention, flanked by the Holy Bee and a very Tony Soprano-ish Will

#260. “Miss Misery” — Elliott Smith

#261. “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It” — Will Smith

#262. “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” – Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott

#263. “Sex And Candy” — Marcy Playground

#264. “Karma Police” — Radiohead

I really liked our apartment…it had a lofted master bedroom accessible by a narrow spiral staircase, which I had decorated with blue and white Christmas lights…then it was pointed out navigating a spiral staircase potentially several times a night to use the bathroom while pregnant may be a problem…we switched to a more practical unit in the same complex after a month or two…

Religious Dad was finally told of the reason for the wedding (because he certainly knew how to count, and would know the difference between nine months and six months)…he basically shrugged and said something akin to “she’s your problem now”…

Caspar and Audrey came to the wedding reception (late as usual)…and visited the apartment a few weeks later…that was the last time I ever saw either of them…

7cee75f3adec14e28d41ba4601c3b0b4#265. “Smack My Bitch Up” — Prodigy

The fellas in Prodigy insisted they meant the title ironically, and that the song was actually an indictment of obnoxious, overbearing intensity. I almost believed them. But it deeply offended Future Ex-Wife’s staunch feminist sensibilities. (She had only recently stopped writing it as “womyn.”) The Fat of the Land — despite its critical accolades — was a banned album in our new joint household. (When she found out her much-admired older brother owned it, she burst into tears. I don’t know if he got rid of it, or just told her he got rid of it.)

#266. “History Repeating” — Propellorheads

The Sutter Theater was located in the “downtown” area of Yuba City, which being a town and certainly not a “city,” was a just a few blocks. At one end was the Sutter Theater. At the other end was the Underground record store. It was about a ten-minute walk. On a typical Tuesday or Wednesday night at the theater, business was pretty slow and staff was minimal, usually just a manager and another employee. More often than not, it was Will and me. We were already on manager’s salaries ($350 a week for the Holy Bee; more for Will who was now actually Head Manager), so the company didn’t have to shell out for an hourly employee who may cost more than the movies made that night.

With little to do when the movies were actually running, we sat in the office chatting, doing college homework, or reading music magazines. If the music mags tipped us off about something interesting, we could walk down to the Underground on our dinner break, acquire our album, and have it spinning on the office CD player in under thirty minutes. Such was the case with the Propellorheads’ forgotten techno classic Decksanddrumsandrockandroll, which is still a favorite album of mine to this day.

#267. “Closing Time” — Semisonic

To get to Java Retreat and the Underground, you exited the Sutter, turned right, and walked a few blocks. To get to two of the grungiest dive bars in the north valley, you turned left and walked ten feet. The Spur was a classic barfly bar, and its barstools certainly supported the Holy Bee’s ass on more than one occasion. Its next-door neighbor, the Town Pump, attracted a slightly younger and more dangerous crowd. If we ever had a problem with a loud, obnoxious trucker-hatted drunk wandering into the theater (which was often), nine times out of ten, they came from the Pump.

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#268. “The Way” — Fastball

Saw these guys in their pre-one-hit-wonder days back in ‘97, opening for Matthew Sweet at the long-gone El Dorado Saloon in Sacramento. I pegged this song as the stand-out of their set.

#269. “Iris” — Goo Goo Dolls

#270. “Flagpole Sitta” — Harvey Danger

scn_0001#271. “Ray Of Light” — Madonna

My son Cade Carson was born on June 21, 1998 (at Fremont Hospital on Plumas Street, within sight of the theater.) It also happened to be Father’s Day (gifts displayed at left, along with a rapidly-expanding double chin). His delivery was paid for by Medi-Cal, the California health insurance for extremely poor folks, which we most definitely were. I told people “Carson” was an aesthetic choice, having a nice alliterative ring with “Cade.” But it was totally, 100% after Johnny Carson, one of my childhood idols. (Did I mention I was a weird child?) I would actually have done “Cade Letterman” or “Cade Newhart” if I thought I could get away with it. (There’s a slight chance he’s sitting in his dorm room in Denver reading this right now. Dude, I wouldn’t really have done “Cade Letterman”…but if you want to change it to that…I’m OK with it.) Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 23: I Hope You Had The Time Of Your Life

#224. “Killing Me Softly” — The Fugees

#225. “Who Will Save Your Soul” — Jewel

#226. “Criminal” — Fiona Apple

#227. “Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix)” — Los Del Rio

Summer ‘96! (as should be obvious from the songs above)

I floated lazily around most days on buoyant pool chair…I customized the drink holder in the styrofoam independence_day_movieposterchair arm to be able to handle a 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor…Beck’s Odelay played on repeat from speakers perched in my bedroom window…When the sun started dipping, I would wash the chlorine off, put on my managerial shirt and tie, and head for the theater…

The State looked like it might finally turn a profit by opening The Nutty Professor and Independence Day back to back…we had lines around the block…and a total lack of parking which reminded us why the place had to shut down in the first place…Frosted-Tip Douche was fired for stealing from the register…Rodger had long since quit and moved to a nearby town…Smokey quit and moved to Vegas…

Caspar and Audrey returned from Colorado…they had left at the start of the previous summer impulsively with no plan…they spent the first couple of months literally homeless…living in their car and a tent in a campground…they came back to California and moved back into the exact same apartment complex we had lived in before (not the same unit)…Future Ex-Wife and I made up a social foursome with them…Caspar took a job washing and folding clothes at LaundryTime…

s-l400I was usually in charge of changing the marquee at the theater…nothing like being perched on a teetering ladder which was in turn perched on the edge of a building to get you over your fear of heights…My specialty, though, was “build and tear”…movie prints arrived on six to eight individual reels of about 2000 feet each (Braveheart had ten), in battered, Depression-era cans, and had to be “built” up — spliced together into one massive piece of film about the diameter of a tractor tire, which would rest on a platter system that would feed into the projector…(sit still dammit, this is like the parts in Moby Dick that talk about whaling technicalities…I actually liked those parts)…movies that had finished their run had to be “torn” back down into their component reels to be shipped out…the whole process could take a couple of hours at least, depending on how many movies we were turning over, and had to be done after the last showing on Thursday night…so most Thursdays I was at the theater all alone from midnight until two or three in the morning…

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Typical pre-digital platter & projection system. Our projection booth was never that clean.

Of course the State Theater was rumored to be haunted…and of course I did hear footsteps and a few mysterious knocks on the projection booth door when no one was there… I took to wearing my Discman (90s alert!) when doing build & tear…I had an elaborate back-and-forth system of turning on and off all the lights so I was never walking through total darkness on my way out…I took to calling out “good night!” as I locked up, to get on their good side…despite knowing on an intellectual level it was all nonsense, I lived in abject fear of looking up from the auditorium floor and seeing a horrid pale face peering out the projection booth window, which allegedly happened to a late-working employee one build and tear night back in the 70s…

Film prints were in the process of switching from a celluloid base to a longer-lasting polyester 11dc959a2bb7ae2ec88881867e97755cbase…we got some of the older kind, some of the newer…if the projector jammed on a celluloid print, the lamp would just burn a hole through it (remember that?)…the print would break, the fail-safe lever would drop, stopping the system, and it was a mere few minutes’ work to splice it together and get it going again…if it jammed on a polyester print, it would not break, and often pull thousands of feet of film off the platter right onto the floor…movie cancelled…customers pissed…

But it’s all digital now, so none of the above is anything anymore…I’m old…call me Ishmael…

Speaking of old…the World Wide Web was now a thing…at least for me…I plunged in after many, ahead of some… I began paying twenty-five bucks a month for dial-up service in July…

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Pebble Beach, Summer ’96

#228. “El Scorcho” — Weezer

#229. “Santa Monica” — Everclear

At the start of August, Future Ex-Wife moved down to Monterey to attend Monterey Peninsula College. We decided to take a stab the long-distance thing, knowing it was probably futile. I listened to Weezer’s Pinkerton a lot on the three-hour drive I made several times that fall. (I found out later that Rodger was also making that three-hour drive several times that fall. I don’t know what he listened to. Probably something much cooler.) Santa Monica is pretty far from Monterey, but it was the theme song of the separation.

#230. “Everyday Is A Winding Road” — Sheryl Crow

I started the university not long after she left. I stayed living at home, and began life as a commuter, making the hour-long trip up and the hour-long trip back every day (at first — I soon learned not to schedule classes on every day of the week.) My major was Mass Communications. But after years of slacking around community college and not doing much, I had no discipline, and my mind was in Monterey. I did poorly.

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One night in October, Future Ex-Wife came home to visit her family…she came to see me at the theater when I was up in the booth…she told me the long-distance thing was too difficult…we should split up…but would I please continue to visit her as a friend?…it was a quick, clean break…her dad was waiting outside with the engine running the whole time… Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 22: A Girl Like You Is A Bullet With Butterfly Wings

We join our story already in progress…

#203. “Ironic” — Alanis Morissette

Everyone knows rain on your wedding day is not really ironic. Nor is your ex-boyfriend unexpectedly showing up at your reception. Both can end up a damn mess, though. Luckily, I don’t think I could have dragged down that visibly grim scenario any further. The fact that her thrown-together reception was being held in her parents’ small backyard with everyone awkwardly holding paper plates indicates the situation was already pretty fucked. I also lucked out in that the groom was somewhat dim-witted and didn’t really grasp what was happening. Emily took me aside before anything could truly escalate. I’ve never seen an unhappier bride, and I don’t think it had much to do with me showing up.

“Were you ever going to tell me?” I asked.

“It all happened so fast. The Air Force is sending him to England at the end of the month. He begged me to marry him and go with him. I just…” she trailed off.

“OK. Congratulations.” I may have choked on the words a little, but I turned on my heel and headed for the door.

#204. “Tomorrow” — Silverchair

The next day, I didn’t feel as bad as I thought I would. I actually felt kind of OK, like I was released. (Little did I know…)

#205. “One Of Us” — Joan Osborne

There’s no God, as has been demonstrated time and time and time again, so the premise is invalid. (To be fair, there’s no such thing as a talking walrus spouting “goo goo g’joob,” either, and that doesn’t stop me from enjoying that song, so let’s call it a push. And I must say Osborne is a hell of a vocalist.)

empire_records_poster#206. “A Girl Like You” — Edwyn Collins

Empire Records was a horrible flop of a fake-indie movie, its desperate bid to court the 90s youth market was nakedly transparent, and the whole thing came off like a bunch of hair-gelled, empty studio suits in their thirties trying to guess what “the kids” were into these days. The only thing the movie did right was assemble a notable soundtrack, highlighted by this pulsating, vibraphone-drenched neo-soul nugget by Edwyn Collins, who was little known outside of the U.K.

Not that something as small as Empire Records would play in the Yuba City multiplex anyway. (The funkier downtown Sutter Theater would sometimes get those lesser-known films, but not in this case.) The soundtrack was available locally, and had gained some cachet. I last saw Girl Whose Name I Forgot when I hauled myself, clothes dripping, out of that hot tub earlier in the year. That fall, I ran into her one more time at Java Retreat. Empire Records was the topic of conversation. She had the soundtrack on cassette in her car. I asked if I could borrow it to make a copy. She handed it over. I did not ask for her number, but gave her mine. She clearly would rather live without that cassette than call me. That Empire Records soundtrack moved from glove compartment to glove compartment as I changed cars over the years, on the off chance I would see her at the coffee shop again. I didn’t. I probably still have that cassette somewhere.

#207. “Only Happy When It Rains” — Garbagegarbage-535021_600_666

I don’t know what the official harbinger of autumn was before pumpkin spice lattes at Starbucks, but a return of cooler weather is always a cause for celebration in California’s blistering northern valley.

#208. “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” — Smashing Pumpkins

Billy Corgan fulfilled all of his massive prog-rock ambitions with Smashing Pumpkins’ third album, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a double-disc behemoth chock-full of angst, despair, ennui, joy, and nostalgia. Good ideas and bad ideas, fragments and epics, with a rich vein of meandering instrumentals. “Quietly noisy relaxed intensity,” to quote Edward Albee. And I can’t even say it’s a great album. All I can say is that we probably won’t see its like again.

#209. “Free As A Bird” — The Beatles

I had been living back at home with the parents since May, and I was kind of stuck. All my friends’ apartments were already full-up with roommates. The phone number there hadn’t changed since we moved to the area back in 1989, so Emily had it, and one day in November, she called.

“I thought you were in England with your husband,” I said.

“He went ahead of me to get the housing situation settled. I’m going after Thanksgiving. Come over and watch The Beatles Anthology with me.”

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The epic, multi-part documentary on my favorite band (and her third or fourth favorite band) made its TV debut on ABC on November 19, 1995, along with the video premiere of the first “new” Beatles song in 25 years. Paul, George, and Ringo overdubbed their parts onto an old demo tape of John’s to create “Free As A Bird.” It wasn’t bad, but it certainly wasn’t the Beatles. It sounded more like ELO, thanks to being (over)produced by Jeff Lynne.

So we sat down on the floor and watched The Beatles Anthology on the TV in her mostly-empty old bedroom at her parents’ house. A week later, she was 5000 miles away.

She said I should come visit them in England, and couldn’t understand why I would never do that in a million years.

#210. “Champagne Supernova” — Oasis

I turned 21 on December 3, 1995. Legal drinking age, but for some reason, pictures from mymatts21stbday01 family birthday dinner depict me innocently sipping on a Sprite, just like I had been doing since I was seven. Drinking in front of the family still felt wrong, I guess. (Oh, how that would change, and very soon.) Later, I celebrated with my friends…by going to see Toy Story. I didn’t set foot in a bar until a few weeks later, in Nevada City…

One of my favorite memories is when a few of us drove into the Sierra Nevada foothills to the Nevada City Victorian Christmas Stroll…held for a few days in December…a nighttime street festival with vendors, performers, carolers…everything festively lit…freezing cold air, often snow on the ground…open fires…hot, mulled wine…bars and bookstores…that night we had a big dinner in a small Italian place…afterwards, Allen (who had also just turned 21) and I nervously went into a bar for the first time in our lives…shyly approached the bartender… “Uhh…what’s a good Christmas drink?”…we were condescendingly presented with grasshoppers…complete with straws, which Allen found particularly insulting… “Give the little boys straws…” The best part may have been the ride home…heater blasting cozily…at a crawl through heavy fog…getting lost twice even though all we had to do was follow the same highway we had used to arrive…I heard the Pogues and Tom Waits (beyond his vocal cameo on Primus’ “Tommy the Cat”) for the first time on Allen’s car stereo…we did the Stroll again once or twice in later years…but it was never quite as perfect as that first time…

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Nevada City Victorian Christmas Stroll

#211. “Give Me One Reason” — Tracy Chapman

I had taken community college as far as it could go. I was called into the counselor’s office towards the end of fall semester and was told I qualified for an associate’s degree, which I hadn’t planned on. I was just taking classes that would be transferable to a state university someday. Someday was here. I enrolled at California State University Chico for next fall, meaning no school for me from mid-December all the way to late August.

Other changes were afoot…Will and Allen had been assistant managers at the Sutter Theater in Yuba City since time out of mind…the theater’s parent company decided to re-open the older, bigger sister theater, the State, across the river in Marysville…it had been shuttered for over a year…an assistant manager would be needed there…Will hooked me up with the job…

I gave my two weeks’ notice at the video store the day after my 21st birthday…one of the other new hires for the theater staff was Future Ex-Wife… Continue reading

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This Used To Be My Playground, Part 21: Take A Bow

OK, it’s time to put a button on this whole thing and shove it out to pasture. I’ll be researching a massive blogging project through much of 2017 (it probably won’t see the light of day until very late in the year), and I can’t have this series hanging over my head anymore.

The semi-subconscious impetus to begin writing this look back at a rapidly fading decade, along with my emotions during that decade, and the music that provided the soundtrack, came in early 2009 when I was very single, very lonely, and wondering where it all went wrong. Now I’m very married, very happy, and this whole series is growing hair and mold in my mind

But I can’t abandon it entirely, because that’s not my style. I must see it through. There’s still 135 songs left on my Ultimate 1990s Playlist, along with half of the decade itself, and still a few interesting events to make note of. So we’re going to do a quick wrap-up of the list over a mere four more entries…where a lot of stuff…when it’s not directly connected to a song…will be in italics…with a lot of ellipses…all impressionistic…and space-saving…

If you want to jump in at the beginning (and bless your heart if you do), there’s Part 1. If you want to climb aboard late, Part 15 or Part 18 work as passable entry points.

#166. “Zombie” — The Cranberries

The Cranberries and their Irish-y Irishness were starting to get on everyone’s nerves around this time. Dolores O’Riordan’s wordless vocalizations on this song, akin to a howler monkey in estrus, gave a new meaning to the word “grating.”

December ‘94/January ‘95…

For Christmas, I got a multi-disc CD player and 33_23680a_lga massive speaker cabinet for my Bronco II…

I was dating a girl who was practically bristling with red flags…she had been kicked out of her mom’s apartment…she had been taken in by her friend’s family on the condition that she convert to Mormonism…she took to it zealously (except when she didn’t)…in addition to the Book of Mormon, she owned Madonna’s “Sex” book…she refused to listen to Tom Petty because she found him physically unattractive…she was a huge Ace Of Base fan…

#167. “The Sign” — Ace Of Base

#168. “You Don’t Know How It Feels” — Tom Pettyuswb19902766_640x480_01

“Turn the radio loud/I’m too alone to be proud” is maybe one of my favorite lyrical couplets ever. So much summed up in ten words. It’s a little like Hemingway.

#169. “Take A Bow” — Madonna

Red-Flag Girl was obsessed with Madonna…I must have heard this song a thousand times during the few weeks I was with her.

When I visited Red-Flag Girl at her friend’s house where she had taken up residence, I feared for my life…it was in one of the more squalid parts of Linda, the scuzzy little meth town that surrounded my community college…all parts of Linda were varying degrees of squalid…the house was more of a shack, squatting in a lot full of plastic bags, car parts, weeds, and dead, skeletal trees…it looked on the verge of being condemned…the roof sagged, the walls listed, the front porch was missing entirely, and access to the warped, peeling front door was provided by some cinder block steps…

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I never visited the kitchen or bathroom, thank goodness, so I never got to gauge to quality of the plumbing, but there was no heat…it was a particularly cold, wet winter…when I visited, we huddled around a tiny space heater in Red Flag Girl’s friend’s room, listening to the “Take A Bow” cassette single over and over…so yes, there was electricity (barely), because the friend’s morbidly-obese parents wouldn’t want to miss a moment of their favorite religious programming, at ear-splitting volume…Two Mormon missionaries were always around every time I was there, and one of them so clearly had the screaming hots for the friend that watching their interactions was by turns hilarious and uncomfortable…and being missionaries, they could not cross the threshold into her bedroom, so they stood shivering in the hall, sometimes for an hour or more…

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#170. “Come On” — The Jesus and Mary Chain

#171. “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” — Elton John

Red-Flag Girl was a devout Mormon, at least until her sinful urges occasionally kicked in, and her two-job working mom conveniently left us an empty apartment and an unlocked sliding glass door.

I went to some kind of Christmas banquet at the Linda LDS Church assembly hall with her and her friend, who had volunteered to serve beverages…I looked around for the coffee urn for ten minutes before it dawned on me that I would not find one…one of the organizers bringing the chafing dishes was late, having locked her keys in her car…she actually, legitimately, not-making-it-up blamed Satan… “Satan did not want our get-together to be successful this evening, but we beat him this time…”

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Proudly rocking the community college sweatshirt, Dec. 94

#172. “Run-Around” — Blues Traveler

I began to suspect I was getting the run-around myself, as Red-Flag Girl only began calling when she needed a ride somewhere. (“Run-Around” is also one of about two dozen songs around this time that made me think of Emily, who I was nowhere near over, despite me dating anyone who could fog a mirror at this point. I’ve actually only mentioned a small percentage of them here.)

#173. “Don’t Turn Around — Ace Of Base

The aforementioned Sinful Urges caused a crisis of conscience with Red-Flag Girl, who rededicated herself to her faith, and kicked me to the curb because, in her words, I “obviously had no love for the Church.” Couldn’t argue with that, and I was relieved never to have to visit that filthy hovel ever again. (It’s since been torn down, or perhaps it finally just disintegrated into muck.)

I actually hung out with Red-Flag Girl once or twice about a year later…she had reconciled with her mom…she ditched Mormonism to become a Wiccan…she still has my Reservoir Dogs VHS…

#174. “You Gotta Be” — Des’ree

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The Holy Bee’s 36 Hours of Christmas (Part 2)

It’s A Wonderful Life

This Frank Capra film was pretty much ignored when it came out in 1946, but it became a holiday staple when it went out of copyright in 1974, and dozens of local TV stations across the country ran it and re-ran it until everyone was thoroughly sick of it. NBC got its claws on it a few years back, and curtailed its infinite loop, usually showing it only twice during the holiday season.

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There are three types of people: 1) those who love the film despite being beat over the head with it on television for over thirty years, 2) those who despise it for its sappy sentimentality (and the incessant figurative head-beatings), and 3) those who have successfully avoided it for their entire lives. I fell into the latter category for most of my existence, and was content to remain there, until I was essentially forced to watch it by my wife’s family, who are all type one. As everyone was dissolving into big puddles of tears at the end, I found myself almost joining them. But through sheer grit, fortitude, and more than a little biting the inside of my cheeks, I succeeded in remaining stoic and dry-eyed. Take that, Capra. (SLEEP OPPORTUNITY: If you’re a type two and nothing will ever change that, go ahead and grab forty winks.)

So, yes, the movie is pretty good. Just as Miracle On 34th Street is surprising in how much of a sharp comedy it is, It’s A Wonderful Life often shocks first-time viewers by how grim it is, until the redemption in the last reel. (A Christmas Carol Trivia: Lionel Barrymore, who plays mean old Mr. Potter here, played Ebenezer Scrooge every year on an annual live radio broadcast of A Christmas Carol from the 1930s to the early 50s. He was supposed to play Scrooge in the 1938 film version, but had to drop out for health reasons, and was replaced by Reginald Owen. Some say Barrymore would have been the definitive film Scrooge had he made the movie.)

In order to convince NBC to share It’s A Wonderful Life this year, the Holy Bee had to agree to a little deal.

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RETURNING IN 2017 — WEDNESDAYS @ 8:00, ONLY ON NBC!!

Moving on…

Bad Santa

Up next is the polar (no pun intended) (not a pun, anyway) opposite of the Capra tearjerker, 2003’s Bad Santa — one of the crassest, foulest, and most lovable Christmas comedies in cinema history. The titular “bad Santa” is suicidal, late-stage alcoholic Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), who uses his yearly employment as a department store Santa to rob said department stores blind.

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When you peel back the surface crudity and wall-to-wall profanity, you find a film that actually has a lot of heart. The clever script, which received uncredited assistance from the Coen Brothers, who also produced, is never truly mean-spirited. (When Willie shreds a child’s advent calendar and eats all of the chocolates in a drunken blackout, he at least tries to make amends by replacing the chocolates with NyQuil gelcaps and candy corn — “they can’t all be winners” — and taping it back up.) The direction by Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) is visually deft and quick-paced. There are also great supporting performances by two comic geniuses no longer with us: John Ritter as the timid department store manager, and Bernie Mac as the head of store security.

Sadly, Bad Santa 2, made this year by different writers and a different director, fails because it’s nothing but surface crudity, missing the poignancy and, yes, subtlety of the original. (SLEEP OPPORTUNITY: If the sight of Santa, red fuzzy Santa pants around his ankles, having loud back-door sex with a heavyset woman in a department store changing room, is just too much for you, grab your sleep now.)

Frosty The Snowman

Rankin/Bass is known mostly for its stop-motion animation, but it did produce the occasional traditional cel animation special from time to time. 1969’s Frosty the Snowman expands on the lyrics of the song (popularized by Gene Autry in 1950) by adding an evil magician, a rabbit named Hocus Pocus, and a race-against-time plot to get Frosty up to the North Pole so he won’t melt. The Big Man himself, Santa Claus, makes a cameo appearance to get the evil magician to change his ways — and write formal apology letters to everyone he had wronged! What it lacks in depth (even The Year Without A Santa Claus had a little bit of layering going on), it makes up for in brevity (it sails across the finish line in about 25 minutes), along with the voices of long-forgotten comedian Jackie Vernon as Frosty, and Jimmy Durante as the narrator — and singer of the theme song, which he performs in his unique style.

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Red Skelton’s Christmas Dinner

Like Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, this is an old childhood favorite from 1981 that was shown on HBO for many years. Wholesome family entertainer Red Skelton, like Andy Williams, had politics slightly to the right of Barry Goldwater, but boy was he gifted in the art of pantomime and character creation. He also had a slightly creepy obsession with clowns. He did over 1000 clown paintings though the years. (When asked why, he said “I have a reason…but I don’t want to talk about it.” Creepy, right?)

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It wasn’t actually in black-and-white, but was so old-fashioned it might as well have been

Luckily for everyone, the clown he played in person wasn’t creepy at all, but utterly charming. “Freddy the Freeloader” was a typical “hobo” style clown, with minimal make-up, a battered hat, and the stump of an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth. He has scraped together enough funds to treat himself and his pal, “The Professor,” to a nice Christmas dinner, but gets sidetracked by various distractions along the way, including returning a lost dog to its owner, and asking a Christmas tree vendor what he can get for twenty-five cents. (“A pine cone on the end of a plumber’s helper” is the response.) Out of everything here, this may rank the highest on the Syrupy Sweetness Scale (at one point he entertains a literal hospital full of sick children), but if your fillings can take it, it’s worth it to see Skelton in all his mawkish glory, ably supported by Vincent Price as the Professor, and Imogene Coca as a rather absent-minded lady hobo.

Home Alone

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Whatever, kid

I only included this one because the KHBE office would be flooded with mail if I didn’t. Personally, I don’t care for it. The sadistic cartoon slapstick of the “Wet Bandits” is lame, and Macaulay Culkin’s performance is the worst kind of artificial child-acting — alternately hammy and robotic. There appears to be very little going on behind his slightly out-of-focus eyes. Enjoy, if this is what does it for you. (This space could just as easily be filled by The Santa Clause, which I also don’t care for, mostly because if it involves Tim Allen, and isn’t a Toy Story, it will give me painful hives.)

A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All

The old-fashioned Bing Crosby-style Christmas special, by turns staid and silly, has always been ripe for parody. As the A.V. Club website points out, “this type of TV programming is kept alive in the public imagination largely by those making fun of it.” But nobody did it better than Stephen Colbert in 2008. Still using his self-aggrandizing, blowhard “Stephen Colbert” persona from The Colbert Report, he gambols about in a cardigan sweater on an absurdly bright “mountain cabin” set, answering the door for “surprise” guests (including Toby Keith, and a bear), and eschewing traditional Christmas songs in favor of “Little Dealer Boy” (a duet with Willie Nelson) and “Can I Interest You In Hanukkah?” (a duet with Jon Stewart.)

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The Holy Bee’s 36 Hours of Christmas (Part 1)

At the end of last year’s “24 Hours of Halloween” — a marathon of spooky movies and TV shows curated by me for my imaginary TV station (“KHBE”) — I remarked jokingly that “48 Hours of Christmas” would follow. The joke turned quite serious when I realized I was short a Christmas entry this year. So the project is on!

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The first thing that struck me was that actually watching a 48 hour marathon would stretch the limits of human endurance, unless a very different kind of Christmas “snow” was involved. Thirty-six hours is just about do-able, and I’ll be offering suggestions as to when to catch some shut-eye. Also, have some food on hand. In fact, go ahead and have some turkey. That whole thing about tryptophan making you sleepy is just as big a bullshit myth as sugar causing hyperactivity (so quit making excuses for your poorly-behaved children.)

Part of what made the original “24 Hours of Halloween” marathon work was that my notional cable station would run the programs commercial-free, and start everything promptly on the 0s and 5s. Any one-to-four-minute downtime between shows would be filled by quips and double-entendres from everyone’s favorite horror hostess, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Since no equivalent pop-culture icon could fill her dress in a Christmas capacity, I decided to go ahead and pack those tiny spaces with commercials — but only vintage, holiday-themed commercials from the late 70s to the early 90s.

You want Hershey’s Kisses ringing like bells? You got it. (This one still pops up on real TV from time to time.)

You want Ronald McDonald ice-skating? You got it.

You want Joe College, in that horrid cable-knit sweater, home for winter break and waking up the whole damn house by brewing a pot of Folger’s? You got it.

And more Budweiser clydesdales than you can shake a peppermint stick at.

If there’s any other awkwardly-timed space to be filled, KHBE will just show footage of a Yule log for a few moments, maybe with some tasteful snippets of Mannheim Steamroller in the background.

(You’ll notice there’s not a lot of Disney stuff here, and that’s because Disney never really “did” Christmas very much, or all that well. I think they see Christmas as a competing brand of magical happiness. Maybe I’ll throw in that Chip ‘n’ Dale short where they hide from Donald Duck in the Christmas tree in the place of a few vintage commercials.)

The “36 Hours of Christmas” marathon will run from noon on December 22nd to midnight on the 23rd, so you can get a good night’s sleep and be up (bright-eyed and bushy-tailed) on Christmas Eve morning, and are able to stop being a lazy shut-in, and handle all of your family obligations. For those bound and determined to continue being a lazy shut-in, and/or those whose families are annoying fundamentalists or obnoxious Trump voters who can’t stop making quasi-racist remarks over the figgy pudding, the marathon will re-run in its entirety through the 24th and 25th. You’re welcome.

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These marathons don’t just organize themselves

OK, the clock is striking twelve, you’ve cashed in some vacation hours from work, you’ve dumped a splash of peppermint schnapps into your hot cocoa (yes it’s noon, but no one will judge you), and you find KHBE down in the 800s of deep cable…what do we start with?

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town

What better way to kick things off than with a bunch of creepy, plastic talking dolls? Over the past five decades, the Rankin/Bass production company has become practically synonymous with “kids’ TV Christmas specials,” and their stop-motion “Animagic” aesthetic (a song every few minutes, polyester snow, jerky, spastic movements and lifelessly staring eyes for the characters) is as beloved by some as a favorite ugly sweater.

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Another reason we start the marathon here, besides the general ubiquitousness of Rankin/Bass at yuletide, is that it’s an origin story. 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, based on the 1934 song by the wonderfully-named songwriting team of Coots & Gillespie, explains how an orphan child, who was left on a doorstop with the nametag “Claus” around his neck, was taken in and raised by a family of toy-making elves (the Kringles), and grew up to be the familiar figure of Santa. He had to work his way up to delivering on a global scale. He started by bringing happiness to the gloomy children of Sombertown, although his methods may raise an eyebrow or two. During the song “If You Sit On My Lap Today (Be Prepared To Pay),” a beardless young Kris Kringle (voiced by well-known degenerate letch Mickey Rooney) demands a kiss from every child before he will give them their present. No wonder Burgermeister Meisterburger wanted to kick his ass out of town and back over the Mountain of Whispering Winds. Continue reading

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