The Cult of Tom Waits

I have a theory. It goes like this:

Every true music lover will eventually and inevitably be indoctrinated into the Cult of Tom Waits.

All it takes is time. One day you’ll hear a Tom Waits song and you’ll just get it. You’re in. Whether it’s the demented underworld Disney of “Tango Till They’re Sore” or the dark slice-of-life that is “Franks Wild Years,” eventually every true music fan falls in love with Tom Waits. Not convinced? Give it time. Maybe you’re not ready. In due course, the sarcastic braggadocio of “Big in Japan” will speak to you. Maybe it’ll be the unabashed earnestness of “Downtown Train” that will grab you. I can’t tell you which song it will be. However, I can say with confidence that you will hear a Tom Waits song whose lyrics so perfectly capture a moment that you’ll be hooked. Life will be just a little bit better after that.

I’m not going to write a long-winded, in-depth, thoroughly researched post about the largely disastrous era known as 80’s Hair Rock. Frankly, it sounds like exhausting work and I’m lazy. But I certainly could. I’m qualified. I have the experience. It was my genre of choice as a gangly teenager. Mercifully, I grew out of it. I even grew to hate it. As I became more worldly, I realized that 80’s Hair Rock  was saccharine, over-produced, derivative nonsense that was always more about image than substance. Despite nostalgia softening my views somewhat, I still largely feel the same way. There is no redeeming qualities in 80’s Hair Rock.

Except one.

For all its faults (and there are many), 80’s Hair Rock was completely self-realized. It unironically dove head first into a tepid pool of ridiculousness, sexism, unabashed commercialism and spandex chaps. 80’s Hair Rock fulfilled all of the outlandish possibilities of its characters and personalities. It was 100% what it set out to be. How many of us can claim the same?

Allow me to present exhibit A:  The video for The Vinnie Vincent Invasion’s 1986 hit (using that term loosely) “Boyz Are Gonna Rock.” Marvel at a band gloriously unhampered by shame of any kind. The song itself is aggressively ordinary and utterly forgettable, yet the band hits the stage like they’ve written an anthem for the ages. They attack their instruments like they’re avenging the deaths of their forefathers after a centuries long blood feud. There’s more sequins than a New Jersey prom night and for some reason a guy is on fire.

Simply put, The Vinnie Vincent Invasion was awful, but you have to admire their unmitigated audacity. They took everything all the way. Maybe there’s something to be learned here. Or not.

I’m only going to say this once. Frankly, I shouldn’t have to say it at all. It’s common sense. It’s the sort of universal truth everyone is aware of without ever needing to be told. You were born knowing this.

Flute does not belong in Rock-n-Roll.

Duh right? It’s a bit like telling someone that the fire extinguisher is for, you know, extinguishing fires.

Of course you know where I’m headed… Straight to Jethro Tull singer, guitarist and flautist Ian Anderson. Flautist? The last thing anyone wants to see at a rock concert is a flautist. Rock stars are supposed to have beat-up Les Pauls slung down to their knees not flutes. Is this rock-n-roll or an afternoon watching your grandmother knit a scarf? What’s more, according to Ian Anderson’s Wikipedia page he’s “known for his famous one-legged flute stance.” Ya, that isn’t helping either.

Jethro Tull apologists always like to tout how “different” and “unique” the flute is in a rock context. Sorry, I’m not buying it. Different isn’t always a virtue. It would certainly be different if I tattooed a guacamole recipe on my forehead, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.

My guacamole recipe is delicious by the way.

ATTENTION ALL MUSICIANS: Regardless of your chosen instrument or preferred genre, DO NOT under any circumstances consider covering AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” You can’t pull it off. You will fail. You will embarrass yourself. Allow me to elaborate…

Let’s begin by meticulously dissecting “You Shook Me All Night Long” beginning with the historical significance of the Back In Black album when it was released in the summer of 1980.

If you study the pop culture landscape prior to the 1980’s, teenagers were drawn to loud, raunchy music that celebrated and glorified hedonism. Then as the 80’s dawned, teens found themselves drawn towards loud, raunchy music that celebrated and glorified hedonism.

Let’s continue by examining the song’s chord structure and lyrical content. There are 3 chords. G-C-D. They are played loudly. The lyrics are a raunchy celebration of hedonism that practically plagiarize blues legend Willie Dixon’s “You Shook Me.”

Finally, let’s consider the artwork on the Back In Black album cover. It’s black. Completely black. Like a thick curtain, which presumably obscures raunchy celebrations of hedonism.

Why do I tell you this? Because it turns out that playing simple, raunchy celebrations of hedonism like AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” is a lot harder to pull off than you might think. Many have tried. All have failed. Don’t believe me? Check out these traumatic examples…

Big & Rich
Vitamin String Quartet
Paul Shaffer
Six Feet Under

Sorry about that, but hopefully those drove the point home… do not cover AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” This is your final warning.

The Holidays Are Upon Us

“The holidays are upon us” always sounds to me as if the barbarian hordes have breached the castle walls and are laying waste to our entire way of life. Maybe that’s just my family. Anyway, I’m sure Christmas at your house is fine. Of course, if you do find yourself being marauded by savages enjoying the warm embrace of family, there is a silver lining. In the smoldering rubble you may find an iTunes gift card or two. If that’s the case, I have a few suggestions.

Bruce Cockburn
“Lovers in a Dangerous Time”It’s sad to think of all the great songs that have been recorded and enjoyed over the decades only to fade into obscurity. We shouldn’t let that happen to this amazing song. It’s more relevant now than ever.

The Pretenders
“Boots of Chinese Plastic”
Time isn’t kind to rock stars. They get fat, lose their edge, and generally slip too easily into the comforts and financial rewards of artistic compromise. Not Chrissie Hynde. She seems to embody the punk ethos a little bit more each day. This song was released nearly 30 years after her landmark debut and I dare you to find one note of compromise.

The Drums
“Days”The Drums 2011 sophomore album Portamento should have been an indie pop classic. But I guess we’re not celebrating albums like we used to. That’s a shame because “Days” personifies the juxtaposition of bouncy bass lines and melancholy hooks that make Portamento irresistible.

The Sunjays
How indie-rock is this song? Very. In fact, when I searched this song on YouTube I was literally the first person to view it. The first person. Don’t these guys have moms?

“No Dreams”
The greatest guitarists fundamentally alter the way we think about how the instrument is played, and how it sounds. Think Jimi Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen.  Now add Sarah Lipstate to that list. Performing under the name Noveller, she’s reimagining what can be done with an electric guitar. Using a mind-boggling array of effects, loopers and alternate tunings, Lipstate creates amazing cinematic soundscapes that have more in common with classical music than rock.

Who can forget that time in 1986 when the Swedish King of Heavy Metal Guitar Wonks Yngwie J. Malmsteen released his third solo album Trilogy?

Most of us as it turns out.

Which is sad, because it sports one of the most perfectly clichéd heavy metal album covers ever to grace the shelves of your local Tower Records. It depicts a sole guitar hero (the band apparently had the day off) battling a flying, 3-headed, fire-breathing dragon with only a Stratocaster and the power of his epic neoclassical noodlings.

I suppose we can infer that the mighty Yngwie prevailed since he went on to release several more middling albums of self-indulgent guitar heroics. To be honest, I always quietly rooted for the dragon. He probably wrote better songs.

October 1983: Riding a wave of press attention and resurgent album sales following the removal of their iconic makeup, Kiss makes the highly questionable decision to begin the video for their single “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose” by physically assaulting three homeless men. What were they thinking?

**UPDATE 8/1/16**

While we were able to finish our work on the giant cowboy robot dinosaur, we were not able to convince it to do our bidding. After a brief rampage, our abomination wondered into a nearby lake where it short-circuited and shut down. We decided to leave it where it was.

In the end, we learned a valuable lesson. It turns out that programming a giant cowboy robot dinosaur with an insatiable lust for carnage and destruction has a down side. Mostly all the carnage and destruction.

**ATTENTION 7/29/16**

WEAX will be off-the-air Saturday from 12:00pm – 7:00pm as we continue construction on our giant cowboy robot dinosaur that transforms into a giant skee ball machine. Thank you for your patience.


They Might Be Giants
“Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”
This was a cover song? Yep. Like a lot of people I just assumed a goofy song like this could only have sprung from the collective silliness of They Might Be Giants. I was wrong. Turns out it’s a “jazz” song released by The Four Lads in 1953.

“Blue Monday”
I don’t know where this band came from or where they went, but their little flash in the pan produced an absolutely blistering cover of the New Order classic “Blue Monday.”

The Pixies
“Head On”
One old-school college radio staple covers another. This often overlooked Jesus and Mary Chain classic gets a typically unhinged Pixies treatment. It’s the perfect song for anyone who’s ever wondered what it’s like to get beaten with a cricket bat. You know, in a good way.

William Shatner
“Common People”
Speaking of unhinged, when considering a cover of Pulp’s ode to British classism and snark, who thinks of William Shatner? Ben Folds does. Against all odds this actually manages to capture the absurdity and underlying anger of class tourism. Brilliant.


Wildly Enthusiastic Morons

I don’t think I’ll never stop being fascinated by bad album art. A bad album cover is the perfect representation of my favorite comedy premise, the shared delusion of a group of wildly enthusiastic morons. Few things are funnier than a group of self-important idiots who have convinced themselves that something undeniably awful is actually pretty cool. This Is Spinal Tap and other “mockumentaries” are based almost entirely on this setup. Of course, in the real world this sort of thing is probably a rare phenomenon, right? Not in the heavy metal world. In fact, it’s shockingly common. Here are a few of my favorites…

Black Sabbath
Forbidden (1995)

Sabbath’s 18th album may have been titled Forbidden, but it just as easily could have been called Death Incarnate Waits in the Food Court While Mrs. Reaper Shops for Purses.

Extreme Cold Weather

This is how Swiss death metal pioneers remind you to wear a sweater. Subtlety and metaphor where not their forte.

Metal Magic

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Not this one. I only have 4 words for this. Is the belt necessary?

Heavy Metal Chainsaw (2001)

This album cover appears to capture a man in the midst of a terrifying work-related accident. Tragedy aside, this is actually the second in a trilogy of albums that include Heavy Metal Drill and Heavy Metal Bulldozer. I wish I was kidding. What separates normal drills, chainsaws and bulldozers from the heavy metal variety remains unclear.