Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

The Music of 1979

In his book Never a Dull Moment: 1971, The Year That Rock Exploded, David Hepworth makes the argument that 1971 is the most important year in rock history. With the ridiculous number of seminal albums released that year and their enduring influence and appeal, it’s hard to argue his point, but as individuals we may have our own favorite eras or specific years of music regardless of its lasting social impact.  More than likely it’s the music you were exposed to as a teen.  A recent New York Times study of Spotify data concluded that the sweet spot for liking music is age 13 or 14.  That’s the music that stays with you, sings to you and clings to you like a warm blanket on a chilly January’s night.

To that point, if you’re a music fan and you haven’t yet found enough ways to piss away your time, allow me to share another little rabbit hole that I’ve found myself spelunking in the past few weeks: the Wikipedia database of album releases.  Just pick a year and shuffle through the release dates of your favorite records.  There are plenty of great years and some months that make my heads spin.  Get this: in October of 1973 alone the following records were released:

Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
David Bowie – Pinups
The Who – Quadrophenia
Jackson Browne – For Everyman

That’s in one fricking MONTH.  How on earth did music fans keep up?  And how did they not go broke?

For some music fans, nothing will beat the output of 1967 to around 1971, and this era is still celebrated today in a big way, but for me, I’d fast forward around a decade to approximately 1978-1981, when there was still a multitude of good music coming out from the old guard plus an influx of exciting new bands like The Police, XTC, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, The Clash, etc.  It was the best of both worlds.  I was a little on the young side during the front end of this era, but ages 10-13 still fit the bell curve of the New York Times study pretty well.

If push came to shove and I had to pick one year for my desert island catalog of music, it would be 1979, the year I turned eleven.  On the surface, it’s is a strange choice for me due the dearth of so many artists I admire – Jackson Browne, Rush, Genesis, Yes, Billy Joel, The Who, Steely Dan, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen – and what was unquestionably Elton John’s worst album (Victim of Love).  But scratch beyond the surface and you’ll find a crazy number of amazing albums, including six that I blogged about last November/December when I highlighted 65 albums that I can’t live without:

Joe Jackson – Look Sharp
Supertramp – Breakfast in America
Off Broadway – On
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk
Rickie Lee Jones – her self-titled debut
Pink Floyd – The Wall

If that were the extent of releases from 1979, it would still be a good year, but there are multiple layers of great music that graced the airwaves during those twelve months.

You get Cheap Trick’s best album, Dream Police, ditto for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with Damn the Torpedoes, The Police’s peak (or maybe second best to Synchronicity?) with Regatta de Blanc, and my favorite album by Roxy Music – Manifesto.  And though Van Halen, Toto and The Cars made an even bigger splash the previous year with their debut albums, all of their sophomore efforts – Van Halen II, Hydra, and Candy-O, respectively – are solid releases.

Then you get one of Elvis Costello’s best albums in Armed Forces, perhaps Graham Parson and the Rumour’s best in Squeezing out Sparks, Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust, and then another Joe Jackson album – I’m the Man ­­– just a few months after his debutYou want more punk and new wave?  Plenty of options here, including The Clash’s classic London Calling, Life in a Day by Simple Minds, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Get the Knock, the B-52’s debut, Fear of Music by The Talking Heads, Blondie’s Eat to the Beat and The Human League’s Reproduction.  Nice!

You like soul and funk?  This isn’t my wheelhouse, but for crying out loud, in 1979 you had releases by Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder, Rufus, Prince, Barry White, Kool & the Gang, Aretha Franklin, Commodores, Chic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Sister Sledge.

What if you’re in a classic rock mood?  Well, Journey’s Evolution is pretty damn good, James Taylor’s Flags has some wonderful tracks, Kansas’s Monolith is worth a listen as is Styx’s Cornerstone, Foreigner’s Head Games, The Long Run by The Eagles, Aerosmith’s Night in the Ruts (not a great album, but put the needle on “Three Mile Smile” sometime and tell me it isn’t awesome), and albums by bands I don’t personally get into, but you might: Ted Nugent, KISS, Whitesnake, AC/DC, etc. 

And you even get Led Zeppelin’s last studio release with In Through the Outdoor and among my favorite Wing albums, Back to the Egg.  The list goes on and on.  While I wouldn’t be entirely satisfied having to live with only one year’s worth of music, there could be worse fates than having to feast exclusively on albums from 1979.

What’s missing is prog rock.  By the late 70s punk rock had wormed its way into the popular music scene, and long-winded bands appeared to have spent 1979 rethinking things.  So if I was allowed to sneak one more year into my arsenal of awesome music, I’d go straight into 1980, when some of the obvious omissions of 1979 could be rectified with great releases by Rush, Genesis and Yes, plus fantastic albums by Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones and Al Stewart, not to mention debuts by U2, The Pretenders, The Psychedelic Furs, INXS and Echo & the Bunnymen, plus a bunch of yacht rock that’s fun to listen to from time to time.  The list goes on and on. 

For me, this is the sweet spot for music.

But why don’t you spend the next several weeks ignoring your job and family and come up with your own favorite year by poking around Wikipedia for a while?  It won’t garner you a paycheck or unconditional love, but it’s a helluva lot of fun.

Rocketman Review

Right off the heels of Bohemian Rhapsody (which I still have not seen), director Dexter Fletcher along with screenwriter Lee Hall attempt to tell the tale of Elton John, a man who needs no introduction but whose life on screen is a mere shadow of the real life lived.  Biopics of musicians are tricky territory for film, as fans often walk away pointing out all of the errors of the story, while non-fans walk away with just snippets of the whole.  Although Rocketman falters partly because of anachronisms (and there are many), its real downfall is its inconsistent story-telling technique and its failure to capture the essence of the man being portrayed.

It starts off oh so promisingly, with a beaten down John admitting himself into rehab and addressing his younger self, who unexpectedly belts out “The Bitch Is Back” before transporting both Eltons to the streets of 1940s London, with gloriously saturated colors and a gaggle of dancers accompanying the song.  While witnessing this opening number, I think – okay, we’re in for a fanciful ride of rehabbing Elton looking back on glimpses of his life, out of order, grand, exaggerated, and accompanied by one of the finest musical oeuvres of the 20th Century.   I’m all in.

But the story devolves quickly into a very chronological and predictable narration of Elton’s broken life that betrays the promising start to the film.  We’re introduced to John’s uninterested father, his inconsistent mother and his supportive grandmother, and while there is some pain portrayed for sure, none of it is so terribly traumatic that it explains what happens later in John’s life – when his addictions manifest themselves into massively self-destructive acts.   By the time he auditions for music publisher Dick James, pounding out snippets of songs not composed until the 1980s (“I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” and “Sad Songs”) the movie has lost all credibility: it’s neither a fanciful dreamlike whirlwind nor is it an accurate narrative.  Instead, it vacillates between a very boring and inaccurate portrayal of Elton’s real life and jarring dreamlike scenes that bear no relation to what’s preceded them.

More troubling is the lack of joy portrayed in the film.  Yes, the story is coming from the viewpoint of Elton at his lowest point in life, but to deny this character the sheer elation he experienced in the 1970s is to deny the man his due.  The now-sober Elton has admitted many times that he had a blast during the 70s, despite – or perhaps because of – his self-destructive tendencies.  In the film, he’s always somber, always self-conscious, always struggling, so that the scene at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, where Elton is first discovered by American audiences and where he and his nameless band levitate during their performance, utterly falls flat.  It should have been electric.  Near the film’s end, Elton tells his mother, “I’ve fucked everything that moves.  I’ve taken every drug known to man. All of them. And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.” The audience would be correct to cock their heads in confusion and utter, “Huh?”  We didn’t get to see Elton enjoy a second of it, and the only thing Elton John fucks on film is his manager John Reid.

And why on earth is the band nameless?   Throughout John’s heyday, his bandmates Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson were essential.  There are no scenes showing their camaraderie.  No scenes where the musicians bring the songs to life, making brilliant recordings at the Chateau d'Hérouville in France.  No scene of them appearing at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 with none other than John Lennon in what was to be his last live performance.  Not everything could be included – I get it – but some part of their glorious ride should have been depicted.

I found it particularly funny that in the scene in which John fleas to rehab, they show the Twin Towers among the New York Skyline, as if that historical accuracy was essential, but not the fact that John went to rehab in Chicago.  Look, you can play with facts in films.  I get it.  Artistic license is important (just ask Oliver Stone), but why work so hard on irrelevant facts and not at all on others that Elton John fans will deem essential?  You want Elton to sing “I’m Still Standing” after rehab instead of eight years before, that’s cool with me, because the lyrics of the song support the scene.  But what is gained by making the band a four-piece instead of a three-piece at the Troubadour, or having Elton play “Crocodile Rock” three years before its release?  If you’re going for fantasy, go all in.  If you’re going for a realistic biopic, stick to as many facts as you can. 

The film does shine in a few different ways besides the opening scene.  Taron Egerton is terrific, and he looks enough like John to pull off the ruse.  He also sings the material, which is impressive.  I also love the use of John’s musical themes in the orchestral score, sometimes very subtly.  And the scene of John playing ”Pinball Wizard” while rotating between costumes, signifying not only the passage of time but his rise to superstardom, work extremely well.

Unfortunately, little else about the film does.

A Modest Tribute to Nico Palania

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I can count on one hand the number of times I met Nico Palania, but I didn’t need another hand to know that he was a gem of a human being.  What I lacked in personal interaction I knew from my daughter Jessica – that he was kind, caring, creative, ebullient, and most importantly, that he loved and cared for her and she did the same for him, which is really all a father could hope for. Last week I met Nico’s parents, sister, extended family and friends under terrible circumstances.  I heard their stories about a life that was far too short but also well-lived, and it only reinforced what I already knew. 

We don’t need reminders that life can be cruel.  Twenty-three is far too young to die, and twenty-one is far too young to experience this kind of heartache.  And then there’s the heartache of losing a child. My buddy Jim phrased it well when he said you never know when life is going to reach over, grab the wheel and turn it on you.  When it happens, all you can do is hold tight and carry on as best you can. 

Prior to Nico’s passing on June 1, my wife and I didn’t know exactly where things would lead, but we suspected that we would one day call him our son-in-law.  I wish time had allowed for that to happen.

So long, Nico, and thank you for loving my daughter for as long as you could.

Index Funds and Financial Planners

There’s been a lot of hubbub in recent financial publications about index funds, and not surprisingly financial planners have had the most to say about it, since index funds in many cases make financial planning largely unnecessary.  When something starts to encroach on your turf, you do what you can to protect your turf. 

This appears to be the case for Robert C. Lawton, who wrote an article for Forbes last month, making the claim that index funds are often not the way to go because they absorb 100% of market downturns and by definition ensure only average returns. His advice?  To use index funds for asset classes that are “widely covered and researched,” but to use actively managed funds for all other asset classes.

But Rick Ferri – also for Forbes – wrote a sort of rebuttal to the aforementioned article, summarizing research done by Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal that shows how Lawson’s conclusions were based on a Fidelity report that excluded “high fee active funds and poor performing active funds.”   Fidelity has since removed public access to the study.

Oops.

If all of this is gobbledygook to you, I highly recommend reading about index funds, asset allocation, asset growth and financial planners’ abilities to beat the market.  I’m not a financial genius, but here’s what I’ve learned:

1)     Financial planners typically charge you 1% of your assets to manage your money.  Sometimes even more.  So if you have $1 million in assets, you’ll pay your financial planner $10,000 a year.

2)     This means that a financial planner will have to beat the market by at least 1% in order to justify the expense.

3)     This also means that financial planners don’t have an incentive to recommend index funds because that will ensure you lose to the market.  Instead, you’ll earn exactly what the markets dictate MINUS the financial planner fee of 1%.  (I HIGHLY recommend that you read this article, especially if you don’t know how losing 1% of earnings year after year affects your portfolio.)

4)     Financial planners therefore have an incentive to invest your money in actively managed funds to try to beat the market.  The result?  Again, READ or LISTEN to this excellent Freakonomics episode from 2017 called “The Stupidest Thing You Can Do With Your Money,” in which Kenneth French, professor of finance at Dartmouth discusses a study that concluded that only 2-3% of actively managed funds cover their cost.  That’s ON TOP of the 1% you might pay a financial planner to manage your portfolio.

Allow me to reiterate: if you allow a financial planner to manage your portfolio for 1% and invest in index funds, you automatically earn 1% less than the market.  If your financial planner invests in actively managed funds, you not only lost 1% to the market, but 98% of the funds you invest in won’t even cover their costs.  It’s a lose-lose situation. Here are a few more articles you might want to consider reading.

So what to do?  Well, I would suggest reading a lot, figuring out an asset allocation model that makes sense for you, and investing in four or five index funds that cover different asset categories.

But what if you really don’t know anything about finance and you find it terribly intimidating?  Heck, I remember working at a credit union for teachers back in the early 90s, and these were educated people who often had $50,000 in loans for things like boats, RVs, credit cards, etc. and who were only making $40,000 a year!  I get it.  Some people truly aren’t educated when it come to finance.  So what to do?  Well, again I suggest reading.  If you can read you can learn.  I highly recommend a book I purchased for my daughters called The Index Card. It’s an easy read.  It’s concise.  And it includes very specific rules you should follow.

In addition, there is another way to benefit from a financial planner without breaking the bank.

Even though I’m somewhat literate in finance (but only somewhat), I pay a financial planner a fixed fee every five years or so to review my portfolio, my tax strategies, my insurance, etc.  I couldn’t be happier with this arrangement.  Just last month I spent $500 to my planner – so only $100 a year – and in return he offered some suggestions about where to tweak my portfolio, adjustments I should consider making in insurance, and a few tax-savings strategies I might want to employ.  I’ll spend the next few months following up on his advice, and in five years I’ll pay him again to review my portfolio.  I can tell you that one simple tax strategy he suggested five years ago has saved me $1000 a year for the past five years and will continue to do so for the next two or three.  So for $500 I saved about $8000.  So I’m not saying financial planners don’t have something to offer.  They do.  I just don’t know if managing portfolios is one of them.

I’ve met several financial planners over the years.  Some nice, some absolute tools.  Some smart, some no smarter than you and me.  To me, it’s just too much of a crapshoot to trust someone enough to manage your portfolio and pay him/her 1% to do it.  It makes no sense to me.

For me, reading a lot and investing in index funds are the way to go.

Record Night Returns: the Recently Departed

Music fans everywhere have been ruminating for a while about how difficult these next twenty years are going to be, as our rock and roll heroes leave Planet Earth just in time to avoid the developing catastrophe that will be the latter half of the 21st Century.  But upon further reflection, we really don’t have to wait to feel the pain because the last decade has already been rough.  I hadn’t realized the extent to which we’ve lost our musical brothers and sisters until last week, when Record Night festivities resumed at the Wall of Sound in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.  A dubious crew gathered to honor those artists who died within the last decade.  Songs were celebrated, drinks were consumed, and mistakes were made, as noted below.  But even avoiding the obvious casualties – Michael Jackson, David Bowie, George Michael and Tom Petty (until the very last song) – there were a staggering number to choose from.  True, we reached pretty deep with some of these, but that’s what makes these types of outings fulfilling. 

Without further ado, celebrate with us as we pay homage to the recently departed.  My apologies for any errors.

Southern Nights – a twofer tribute of singer Glen Campbell and songwriter Allen Toussaint.  We also played a bit of God Only Knows, which was unfortunate
Massachusetts – Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees
Glory Days – Clarence Clemons of the E. Street Band (though, sadly, no saxophone on this song!)
Fool for the City – Craig MacGregor of Foghat
Drown in my Own Tears – Pat Dinizio of The Smithereens
It’s the Singer Not the Song – Jimmy Jamison of Survivor
I Was a Teenage Werewolf – a twofer of Lux Interior of the Cramps and producer Alex Chilton
Beyond Belief – producer Geoff Emerick for this Elvis Costello and the Attractions song
Starrider – Ed Gagliardi of Foreigner
Dreams/Zombie – Dolores O’Riordin of The Cranberries

It should be noted that in the midst of these record selections, one could hear Kevin uttering while checking Google, “That sucks!  I thought he was dead!”  Such is the competitiveness of song selections on record night.

Peaceful Easy Feeling – Glenn Frey of The Eagles
Home and Dry – Gerry Rafferty

This has been my favorite song for the past two weeks.  I’ve played it perhaps twenty times and figured out the unusual chord pattern on the piano.

Creep – Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots
Thank You For Being a Friend – Andrew Gold
Say It Isn’t So – John Spinks of The Outfield
The Cover of Rolling Stone – Ray Sawyer of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show
Touch and Go – a twofer of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of – in this case – Emerson, Lake and Powell
Knocking at Your Back Door – Jon Lord of Deep Purple
Burning Bright – Roger Ranken of General Public
20th Century – Shawn Smith of Brad
Saturday Night – Alan Longmuir of Bay City Rollers
Looking Around – a twofer of Peter Banks and Chris Squire of Yes
Love at First Feel – Malcom Young of AC/DC
God Only Knows (again!) – this time with Daryl Dragon of Captain & Tennille
Snortin’ Whiskey/Boom, Boom – Pat Travers
Call Me a Dog – Chris Cornell
Flying Cowboys – producer Walter Becker for Rickie Lee Jones
Livin’ Thing – Mike Edwards of ELO
Queen of the Night – Whitney Houston
Be Like That – Matt Roberts of Three Doors Down
People are Strange – Ray Manzarek of The Doors
Think – Aretha Franklin
Might Mighty – Morris White of Earth, Wind & Fire
Ride My Seesaw – Ray Thomas of The Moody Blues
I Go Crazy – Nick Marsh of Flesh for Lulu
In the Dead of Night (Presto, Vivace and Reprise) – a twofer of Allan Holdsworth and John Wetton of UK
I Can Feel Your Heartbeat – David Cassidy

Note: Paul thought it was 10cc!

To Be With You – Pat Torpey of Mr. Big
Getting Closer – producer Phil Ramone for Billy Joel, who was playing not 30 minutes away at Miller Park
Space Station #5 – Ronnie Montrose of Montrose
Jammin’ Me – Tom Petty

That was all we had time for, but there were others we could have chosen, most notably the aforementioned superstars, but I was ready to go with George Martin productions, songs co-written by Jerry Lieber, Chuck Berry, etc. were it not for a two hour drive home awaiting me.

There will be more heroes to fall, as there must be.  Hang on tight, music fans.  It’s going to be a rough ride.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved