Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Best Debut Songs

There’s nothing better than a new band hitting the airwaves and blowing you away.  It may happen far less frequently today than back in the 70s and 80s (though it does still happen), but I still have fond memories of hearing Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil” for the first time and knowing it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.  It was a game changer, as was “Good Times Roll” by The Cars just a few months later.  The late 70s was an exciting time for rock and roll, and it just so happens that many of the standout tracks from that time were debut songs, the first track of the first side of an artist’s first album.

My old go-to station during my tenure in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s 88.5 WXPN, recently compiled a list of the best debut songs (they call them lead-off tracks).  These are the kind of lists my vinyl buddies and I thrive on, and over the years we’ve compiled and debated about our own favorite debuts.  A silly endeavor, to be sure, but a fun exercise and especially helpful when insomnia strikes.

The XPN list on-line includes many of the obvious choices most of my friends and I would have included (the aforementioned “Good Times Roll,” “Chuck E.’s In Love” by Rickie Lee Jones, “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, “I Will Follow” by U2, “Girls on Film” by Duran Duran), but also includes a host of interesting tracks that I probably wouldn’t have thought of and excludes several that should be in the running.  (Note: the link says 150 tracks, but the playlist only includes 100.)

Here are some of the more inspired choices on the list:

Edie Brickell & New Bohemians – What I Am
Living Colour – Cult of Personality
John Mayer – No Such Thing
Ben Folds Five – Jackson Cannery
Sheryl Crow – Run, Baby Run
Television – See No Evil
Aimee Mann – I Should’ve Known
The Shins – Caring is Creepy
Jeff Buckley – Mojo Pin
Elton John – Empty Sky (I love Elton but would never have thought to include this track.  It’s pretty damn good!)

Here are my choices of debut songs that were overlooked but should have been included:

Led Zeppelin – Good Times, Bad Times
Company of Thieves – Old Letters
Off Broadway – Stay in Time
The Knack – Let Me Out
INXS – On the Bus
Rush - Finding My Way
Joni Mitchell – I Had a King
Rufus Wainwright – Foolish Love
Van Halen – Running’ with the Devil
Tori Amos - Crucify
Joe Jackson – One More Time
Dido – Here With Me

That last track gets my vote for one of the best recordings ever made.  What about you?  Any songs you’d include that the XPN list and I both overlooked?  Send ‘em my way.  I’d love to hear them.

Pooch Panic

Were you to have recorded my worst moments two weeks ago, you’d surely need no additional evidence to determine that I suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, manifesting itself in extreme panic attacks and severe fits of rage.  It was rough week, and while I plead guilty to the symptoms, if not the diagnosis (yet), it just goes to how hard it can be during times of stress to see the finish line and put things into perspective. 

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My family adopted a pooch two weeks ago – a four-year-old beagle recovering from hip surgery who suffers from her own anxiety issues and is prone to pee in the house – and within a short twenty-four hours of our adoption I was unable to see how this experiment would result in anything other than me packing up and leaving the family, since I know that my wife would never willingly spurn the devotion of a pooch, no matter how much pee she empties onto our carpets.  (And just last night – our couch!)

I panicked.  My wife and I argued.  She calmed me down.  And just when I thought, okay, maybe this will all work out, Piper, our sweet loving pooch who was clearly treated poorly for much of her life, would look at me, plop down on her back, and pee all over the floor, leading me to get amped up all over again until Alice tranquilized me with reason.  This was hard for her to do in person, but especially difficult to do over the phone, juggling normal work-day stresses along with her insane husband yelling while he mopped up pee for the fourth time that day.

And it wasn’t just the pee.  During that first week, Piper suffered from diarrhea (and anxiously deposited one bout onto our living room floor), wouldn’t eat dry food, wouldn’t pee outside, making it impossible to reinforce good behavior, and even if she had peed, she wouldn’t eat any of the treats we offered. (After a few days we resorted to giving her pieces of boiled chicken).  Add to this that she was still getting over hip surgery, so she was unable to walk any distance and we had to initially carry her up and down stairs.  It was all too much.

And then Monday night happened.

I had travelled to Louisville for a day to visit my daughter and get away for a while, and upon returning home came back to the same poor pooch, who immediately peed upon leaving her crate after my son had accidentally slept in too long.  I called Alice yet again on the phone and told her how this wasn’t going to work out.  (I’d like to say that were my exact words.  Not quite.)

And then that night Piper ate dry food.  Gobbled it, devoured it.  And then while on a walk she peed – on the GRASS – and when I offered her a basic store-bought treat to reward her, she ate it.  Gobbled it, devoured it.  Upon returning home she sprinted up the stairs, played with a sock that we’d tied into a knot several days earlier, and acted, well…like a dog. 

Piper has had a few setbacks since then – she peed on the carpet after refusing to climb down the stairs for some reason, and last night she peed on the couch, but the majority of her issues fixed themselves so quickly that now all we’re left with is a really good pooch who has a few issues on occasion.  I wish I could same for her owners!  Piper still is a little jumpy, and we may have some difficulty when it comes to leaving her to go on vacation, but I feel like these are challenges we can face.  Two weeks ago, I couldn’t see any light on the horizon, and all it took was one day before I started to panic.  Woe to my family if I ever have to face real stress for actual weeks or months.

I feel lucky and grateful.  Lucky that my wife forced me to hang in there just a little bit longer, and grateful that Piper is currently sitting by my side on our backroom couch.  And I hope she knows that she’ll never face another difficult day for as long as she lives.  Those days are over.  For your remaining years, dear Piper, all that’s expected of you now is to rest, eat, play, cuddle and act happy when we walk in the door.

And to pee outside.  That’s it.

Watching Vertigo in a Theater

Can you still be moved after watching a film for the twelfth time?  I’ve learned that you can, but It helps to experience it the way it was originally intended: on a big screen in a packed theater. 

Last Sunday I watched Vertigo with my daughter as part of a mini Hitchcock festival in Louisville, and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to see it.  I’d rented it just a year or two ago and didn’t think another viewing in such close proximity would be all that enjoyable.  Boy, was I wrong!  Seeing the movie again with a few hundred others was absolutely thrilling, reinvigorating my appreciation for the film many believe – Martin Scorsese among them – to be Hitchcock’s best (my favorite is still Rear Window), and reinforcing my belief that watching film in a theater still gives you the best opportunity for an amazing experience.  Yes, there will be those times when you get a buffoon seated right behind you, wrestling with his crackling candy wrappers (as happened to me just last month while watching First Reformed), but when I look back on my favorite movie experiences, most entail seeing it with a large group of people.  Imagine that; humanity can actually enhance art created to make people feel.

Especially fun for me was the audience’s laughter.  I’ve always appreciated the banter between Jimmy Stewart’s “Scottie” and Barbara Bel Geddes’s “Midge,” but I don’t know that I’ve ever laughed at it.  Last Sunday, the laughter around me was infectious, and I grew a new appreciation for the screenplay penned by Alec Coppel and Samuel A. Taylor.  So much of this film is silent – Stewart shadowing Kim Novak’s character – that it’s easy to forget the dialogue, but much of it is brilliant.  The audience absolutely howled with laughter when Midge unveiled her joke painting to Scottie – a scene that I’ve always found to be heartbreaking, as Midge immediately regrets her actions – but who can argue with a laughing crowd? 

Because the people in the theater seemed to be invested in what was happening on screen, I was eager to get to the film’s big payoffs.  I knew what was going to happen of course, but it was akin to watching a film with your child, when the real fun is watching his reaction.  On Sunday, I awaited with pleasure the gasps I was sure to hear upon the film’s climax.  The audience didn’t let me down, and I enjoyed hearing people’s banter after the film had ended.

There are two points to Vertigo that still don’t hold up for me.  Yes, many films require a certain suspension of disbelief, and for the most part I’m able to dive into Vertigo without much skepticism, but there are two sticking points (SPOILER ALERT):

1)      If Kim Novak’s character is pretending to be Elster’s wife during the first half of the film, how does she manage to play unconscious even when Scottie undresses her at his apartment after fishing her out of San Francisco Bay?  Wouldn’t she have played along until just before he undressed her and pretend to wake up?  If not, does this imply that she was particularly titillated with the prospect of a having a man undress her?

2)     Where does Kim Novak’s character disappear to when she enters the McKittrick Hotel, and why doesn’t the hotel manager claim to have seen her enter?  There are several explanations for this on-line – none of them very satisfying except for Hitchcock’s definition of an “icebox” scene, meaning – in effect – that there is no explanation.  You just have to accept it.

3)     Oh!  I just thought of a third.  How does Scottie get both cars back to his apartment after Novak’s fake suicide attempt?

None this doesn’t matters all that much.  The film is beautiful, heartbreaking, creepy, thrilling and entertaining.  What else do you want?  During the film, I whispered to my daughter during one of my favorite shots, just after Scottie says to Midge, “We were engaged once, though, weren’t we?”  Hitchcock points the camera down on Midge while she’s working at an easel, and Midget’s eyes shift.  We never hear about exactly what happened between her and Scottie, but that shot is absolute perfection.  It speaks a thousand words even if you don’t know exactly what story those words would tell.  Check out minute 1:42 below:

Perfect.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Memoir

My favorite reference to Andrew Lloyd Webber is Elvis Costello’s lyrics from his 1989 song, “God’s Comic.”  He writes of God:

So there he was on a water-bed
Drinking a cola of a mystery brand
Reading an airport novelette
Listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Requiem

He said, before it had really begun
"I prefer the one about my son

I've been wading through all this unbelievable junk
And wondering if I should have given
The world to the monkeys"

For whatever reason, Webber is a composer that musicians love to hate.  Non-musicians, too.  I recall an episode of a short-lived 1990’s sitcom called The Single Guy, in which the lead character is mocked for having purchased tickets to Cats.  (Robert Russo has an excellent summary of Cats and why some people hate it.)

But love him or hate him, Webber has had the kind of success that warrants a memoir, in this case a 480-page book called Unmasked that puzzlingly only covers the author’s life up through the year 1986, when he was on the cusp of what some claim to be his crowning achievement, The Phantom of the Opera.  No details about Aspects of Love, Sunset Boulevard and School of Rock, which is a shame, because I would have loved to have read less about Webber’s first forty years and more about his last thirty.  The author admits, “my verbosity got in the way,” and that is an understatement.  The details with which he describes the meetings, compositions, rehearsals, trials and tribulations of productions are sometimes interminable.  As a musician, I got some of the name-dropping references, but there were hundreds of other details that ended up muddling up the narrative.

Details aren’t Webbers only problem, unfortunately.  It’s good that he went into composing rather than writing, because as an author his prose is often cumbersome, filled with choppy sentences, unnecessarily convoluted similes and obscure references, not to mention questionable punctuation (he seems averse to the use of hyphens).  When I actively chose to read faster, I found myself having to slow down, as the narrative lacked flow.  Consider this sample from page 86: 

“EMI had such a postboy.  His name was martin Wilcox.  I don’t know if he ever blagged his way into the top honcho’s offices.  But he did get as far as Tim Rice.”  This choppiness makes reading 480 pages very laborious, indeed.

Which is too bad, because Webber has had a hell of a career.  Like many professionally successful people, he risked it all, leaving Oxford after only a year to pursue writing full-time with Tim Rice, the type of decision that often separates the wanna-bes from the real thing, and the accounts of Webber’s struggles to get productions like Evita and Cats off the ground are inspiring.  The former opened to terrible reviews in New York but still ran for over 1500 performances, and despite the jokes sometimes directed at Cats, it was the longest running musical on Broadway until another musical broke the record: The Phantom of the Opera.  So there you go

Webber wisely addresses his personal life sparingly, thankfully admitting to transgressions without dwelling on them, and referring to his past wives with respect.  He delves a bit deeper into various professional rifts he’s had over the years, but usually only slightly, often referring to a heated topic only to conclude, “It’s best left at that,” but on occasion he quotes unflattering letters he’s received from the likes of Tim Rice and Ken Russell, effectively settling old scores by using his wrong-doer’s own words against them.  Nevertheless, Webber’s decision not to write a tell-all book is refreshing, as is the modesty he portrays at various points, and I don’t get the sense that he’s feigning for the benefit of posterity, though I could be wrong.  He writes in detail about which sections of his Requiem are subpar, and he admits to being in over his head when composing Variations.

I’ve only seen two Webber musicals on-stage:  a traveling production of Aspects of Love in 1993; and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when my girls were toddlers.  Other than that, I’m only familiar with a handful of tunes.  Go figure.  I do wonder if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music will have the staying power of, say, Stephen Sondheim or Richard Rodgers, but as a musician, it was interesting for me to gain a little insight into the creative process and how melodies composed for one purpose were resurrected for other stories, and Webber also does an admirable job of covering the business side of the industry, describing financial difficulties and concepts like grand rights in an accessible manner.

He also shares a few tidbits he’s learned over the years from people he admires.  After seeing Webber’s failed musical, Jeeves, Hal Prince wrote to Webber, “Remember, you can’t listen to a musical if you can’t look at it.”  And a meeting with Richard Rodgers led his conclusion that no one can take in too many melodies in one listening, a fact that often leaves me scratching my head after a musical crams two hours of new material down patrons’ throats with no melodic reprises.

All in all, I’m glad I read Unmasked, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend it except for the most ardent fan of musicals in general, or of Webber’s specifically.

My Half-Year of Streaming Music

Denying for years to join the 21st Century, I indulged as recently as last summer in purchasing CDs, pulling the trigger on albums by Esperanza Spaulding, William Shatner, Bright Eyes, Paul McCartney and Field Music.  But last November I took the plunge and joined a streaming service – first Napster, whom I was told paid artists more but whose service I determined was inadequate, and then Spotify, a company vilified by some and praised by others.  Since then I’ve delved into scores of albums I’d never taken the time to investigate before, and for this reason alone, music streaming has a new fan.  I still love having physical CDs in the car, where I can immerse myself into an album and listen the way I used to, but for hanging out at home and investigating unexplored musical territory, streaming services can’t be beat.

I’m not much into playlists and haven’t utilized this aspect of Spotify more than a handful of times.  Instead, I’ve listened to albums and bands I hadn’t given attention to in the past.  Since November, I’ve fallen in love with the following albums:

  • Manifesto, a brilliant release by Roxy Music, surpassing what some claim to be their crowning achievement, Avalon.
  • Underneath the Colours, the debut album by an almost unrecognizable INXS.  Angry, edgy, melodic.  Fantastic.
  • Sit Down Young Stranger (or, alternatively titled, If You Could Read My Mind) by Gordon Lightfoot, heartfelt folk-rock from start to finish.
  • Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies, an amazing album recorded around the same time as St. Pepper, but – in my mind – surpassing it in some ways.
  • Grand Hotel by Procol Harum, a collection of wonderful melodies with gravitas

I've delved into so much more that I never would have done without the aid of a streaming service.  I checked out releases by Cat Stevens, Van Morrison and James Taylor.  I finally listened to the Rolling Stones of the 1960s, and concluded that aside from Beggar’s Banquet, much of it falls flat for me (and that Their Satanic Majesties Request may be among the worst albums ever recorded).  I learned that I’m not as fond of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions as I am of Lloyd Cole’s solo work, and that I'm not as fond of Jethro Tull and King Crimson as I am of other prog rock bands.  I discovered that early Chicago albums are padded with really bad, lengthy tracks, and that each of Esperanza Spaulding's releases are worth my attention.  I gave the last half-dozen releases by Elton John a chance, concluded that Aimee Mann continues to put out quality material, but without the punch of her first three releases, and that the J Geils Band is a great party band with some standout tracks, but ultimately doesn’t grab me.

I also listened to classical guitar by Ryan Walsh, Latin music by Natalia Lafourcade, Mansieur Perine, and Vicente Garcia, fusion by Snarky Puppy, jazz by Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and newer releases by Empty Pockets, Young the Giant and Lake Street Dive.

And on and on.

Now, the question remains: can artists make a living making music when people only use streaming services?  That remains to be seen, but for a guy in his 50s who sometimes has difficulty keeping up on music, streaming can’t be beat.

Of course, of the five albums I highlighted above, I’ve purchased four of them on vinyl. 

So yeah, I’ve still got the disease.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved