80 things I love about Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan is 80 years old today.  Bob Dylan is endless. You can go as deep as you want. You can have casual knowledge of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or you can devote your life to him. I’m somewhere in midstream when it comes to Dylan fandom, which goes deeper and further than most people would ever imagine, but I can’t deny that the man’s words and music have changed the way I look at the world. 

Dylan is unknowable in many ways, like trying to grab a handful of mist. That’s also kind of appealing in today’s share-everything celeb culture. There’s at least 80 different Bob Dylans I can think of, and probably 800 more. 

In celebration of Bob’s 80th, here’s 80 Things I Love About Bob Dylan: 

1. “I ain’t going to work on Maggie’s Farm no more,” and how those words are all of us at some point in our lives. 

2. The “Subterranean Homesick Blues” video:

3. My dentist, who’s a big Dylan fan, and his famous recurring dream: “I’m having the dream again. I’m the on-call emergency dentist. Bob Dylan’s people call, and there’s a problem. I have to do an emergency root canal, and we become friends. He writes a song about me.”

4. “You’re No Good,” the first song on the very first Dylan album, where 20-year-old Bob sounds like a 20-year-old imitating a 70-year-old. And yet, it works. 

5. That there’s never been a better takedown of a murdering racist than the way he spits out the name “William Zanzinger” in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” 

6. The way the light looks on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan:

7. The fact Dylan slipped a Nightmare on Elm Street reference into his 17-minute epic “Murder Most Foul.”

8. Also, all of “Murder Most Foul,” proof that it’s never too late in one’s career to craft a masterpiece. 

9. Every single second of the roaring surreal carnival that is “Tombstone Blues,” but particularly the way he draws out the lines “The geometry of innocent flesh on the bone” and how I can never stop wondering what that means.

10. “Wiggle Wiggle” might just be the worst song Dylan ever recorded, proof that we all have bad days. 

11. The final panel of the first issue of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and one of the best uses of a Dylan quote ever:

12. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” from Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, a song title that sounds like a forgotten ‘80s cop show set in Miami. 

13. When I saw him play in Oxford, Mississippi decades ago, he played the anti-racism track “Oxford Town” (about the college’s brutal racist anti-integration protests in 1962) for the first and so far only time live, which was ballsy and kind of like Neil Young playing “Ohio” at Kent State. 

14. The sheer elegant snark of the 1965 press conference in San Francisco

15. This photo:

16. Dylan and Johnny Cash just kind of screwing around on tape circa 1970 and still sounding like geniuses at play. 

17. How Dylanologist Greil Marcus managed to make an entire hefty book out of examining a single song, “Like A Rolling Stone.” 

18. Over hundreds and hundreds of performances, the “How does it feel?” refrain in “Like A Rolling Stone” never quite sounds the same twice. 

19. “What is this shit?” – The start of Greil’s infamous Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s 1970 Self Portrait album. 

20. Dylan’s marvellous acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, which includes a backhanded compliment: “Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?””

21. This moment in the amazing documentary Dont Look Back

22. The way that nearly-lost gem “Blind Willie McTell” sounds as if it’s being sung at the bottom of a well, from a place beyond time.

23. How he barks out the song title of “Forgetful Heart” with a startling intensity that immediately makes you sit up and pay attention.  

24. The way he breaks down on the intro into stoned giggling on “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, Take 1” on The Bootleg Series Vol 12, reminding you he’s human after all. 

25. …“He said his name was Columbus, and I just said good luck.” 

26. I’m not a big fan of Dylan’s “born again” Christian rock period, but there are gems to be found there, particularly “Gotta Serve Somebody” in its rollicking gospel rock live versions. 

27. He says it was because he stopped smoking, but I still love Dylan’s baritone croon in the Nashville Skyline era, smoother and somehow sexier than he ever sounded again. 

28. That he has a whiskey brand called, of course, “Heaven’s Door.” 

29. This photo, and Dylan’s eyebrows in it:

30. Seeing the Academy Award Bob won resting near his piano, casually, at his gigs.

31. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, the first album of his I ever owned. It took me a while to grow into it. 

32. However, it was 1989’s Oh Mercy that became the first Dylan album I really discovered and soaked in, and the road map into a lifetime. 

33. The late Sally Grossman’s zen bohemian pose on the cover of Bringing It All Back Home.

34. That Dylan legendarily got the Beatles stoned for the first time. What a punk.

35. The rumbling guitar chords and drum beats that amble in the beginning of “Thunder On The Mountain,” and Modern Times, featuring one of Dylan’s tightest bands ever. 

36. Also, the way he spits out, “I got the pork chops / She got the pie.” 

37. Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in the rather muddled experimental film I’m Not There:

38. “People don’t live or die, people just float” – “Man In The Long Black Coat”

39. “I Threw It All Away” live on The Johnny Cash TV Show:

40. One of the loveliest songs he ever sang, the brittle and pained 1970 take on old folk song “Pretty Saro.” 

41. The ultimate comeback to the “Judas” insult at one of his 1966 “electric” concerts: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar.”

42. Dylan’s white kabuki-style makeup look on the Rolling Thunder tour:

43. Watching a moron try to rush the stage during the 17-minute long epic “Desolation Row” at a 2007 concert, not exactly a song that inspires mosh pits. 

44, “And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style” is one of the great metaphors.

45. I’m a fan, but many fans know way more than me. Dylanology is kind of bottomless, and “The Dylanologists” by David Kinney is a great look at some of the most obsessed. 

46. That the “Soy Bomb” guy was briefly a thing.

47. That Dylan once had the cops called on him for wandering around a neighbourhood, and the police officer didn’t know who he was.

48. That little carnival-barker moustache he started affecting several years back.

49. Not really a fan of the series of popular songs cover albums he put out a few years back, but his gravelly take on “That Lucky Old Sun” is a charmer. 

50. Back in 1996 or so I lived in Mississippi, and one of our favourite local restaurants The Harvest Cafe was closing down. On its final night an all-star cast of local musicians (including a member of Wilco) jammed for hours on songs, and the one that always sticks on my head years and years later is a joyful, valedictory “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” and every time I hear it I think of old friends and gone times.  Whoo-ee, ride me high.  

51. Hunting old record stores pre-internet for a decent copy of the legendary “Basement Tapes,” and being mesmerised by their ramshackle and mysterious glory. 

52. “I’m goin’ down to Tennessee; get me a truck or somethin’.” – “Lo And Behold.”

52. Scarlet Rivera’s stunning violin refrains in Dylan’s epic “Hurricane,” the beating pulse that gives the song its blood. 

53. For that matter, the way Dylan draws out that last word in, “He could’ve been / the champion of the worrrrrrrrrrrrlddddddd”

54. Standing in a queue for tickets on campus for my first Dylan concert in 1990, and hearing someone say, “Dylan? Who’s she?”

55. Memories of listening to Bob Dylan’s mid-70s pearler Street Legal while crossing the Rocky Mountains, and the bombastic “Changing of the Guards” seemed just right. 

56. “It’s not dark yet / But itttttttttt’s getting there.” – “Not Dark Yet”

57. This photo:

58. The honky-tonk piano tinkling that opens up 2012’ “Duquesne Whistle”, one of Dylan’s best attempts to approximate that old 78 records sound. 

59. The all-star “I Shall Be Released” jam at the end of The Last Waltz, one of the greatest concentrations of musical talent in history. 

60. “If you’re travellin’ to the North Country Fair…”  few songs instantly summon up such heartbreak. 

61. Dylan’s Academy-Award winning “Things Have Changed,” with that brutal little lyrical twist of the knife – “I used to care / But things have changed.” 

62. The 1976 live album Hard Rain is Dylan frazzled, exhausted and angry and yet somehow I love it for its raw and even sloppy energy, spitting through “Maggie’s Farm” like it’s a punk anthem. 

63. “Idiot Wind” is one of the harshest breakup songs ever, and every time the venom of a line like “You’re an idiot babe / It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe” stuns me with its cold splendour. 

64: The chugging, menacing throb of 2020’s “False Prophet,” Dylan the forever outlaw: “I’m just here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.” 

65: The swirling beauty of Daniel Lanois-produced “Series of Dreams,” which combines the best bits of Peter Gabriel and U2 with Dylan. 

66: With a title like “Talking World War III Blues” you wouldn’t think it’d be one of the funniest songs he’d written, with the capper being the wry way he mutters at the end, “I said that.” Cue laugh track. 

67: This album cover will always make me smile right back:

68. “With your mercury mouth in the missionary times / And your eyes like smoke and your prayers like rhymes.” – “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.” 

69. That it took me some time to realise that the cover of Blonde On Blonde was a bit blurry on purpose. I thought I just had a bad printing. 

70. That famously infamous Newport Musical Festival “electric” take on “Maggie’s Farm” where the band sounds like a train launching into space, and the old story (likely apocryphal) that Pete Seeger was so outraged he tried to cut the cables with an axe. 

71. …And the fact there’s actually a wikipedia page called “Electric Dylan Controversy.”

72. Forget “Wiggle Wiggle,” Dylan’s croaky rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” on the rather horrific album Christmas In The Heart might just be his nadir, except I think the song actually crosses through bad, into kitsch, and then kind of right somewhere in the misty realm of great again. It’s the cheesy backup singers what do it. 

73. Dylan’s made a lot of iconic album covers. He’s also responsible for this:

74. That he covered “Froggie Went A Courtin’.”

75. Love And Theft’s “Mississippi” always struck a chord for me, especially as I moved away in 1997 heartsick and uncertain about my future, and a few years later I heard Dylan sing about me: “Only one thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.” Was the man bugging my house

76. That you can hear a dog barking in the background on a demo version of 1980’s sublime “Every Grain Of Sand.” Who is that dog? 

77. My fourth and possibly final Dylan concert in 2018 might’ve been the best I’ve seen of him. The band was tight, the voice was good, and nothing felt perfunctory. Phones were banned (a good thing) but I did sneak one quick photo where I’m certain I actually saw him smile at the end of the encore. If that’s the last time I ever see Dylan in person, I’m OK with it: 

78. Dylan in concert isn’t exactly chatty or action-packed, but at that same 2018 show he did come out centre stage for a vivid take on “Love Sick,” where he struck several faux-Elvis poses that were a delight to witness. 

79. If I had to pick a single Dylan lyric that speaks the most to me, that keeps pricking me with self-knowledge, we’ve got to circle back to “Maggie’s Farm” and this one: I try my best / To be just like I am / But everybody wants you / To be just like them / They sing while you slave / And I just get bored.

80. This: 

Added: And here’s a playlist of most of the tunes mentioned in the above list! Dig into the Dylan!

They were young, they were savage, they were Beatles

There’s so much I’d do if I had a time machine, but whatever happened, I know I’d have to pencil in one trip to see the Savage Young Beatles, tearing up clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool 60 years ago.

Like most people who were exposed to the Beatles long after their breakup, I first grew to love the hippie Beatles – “Yellow Submarine,” “Sgt. Pepper’s,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” As I dug into their discography, for an awful long time I dismissed the early years as pleasant but slight pop songs (OK, “She Loves You” bangs, though). I felt that it was when the Beatles got weird that they really got cool.

But as I got older, I started to appreciate the amazing tight craft those young Beatles brought to everything they did. The covers they did of old Motown hits weren’t just disposable stuff they did as they learned to write songs themselves, they were the foundation for everything that came after. And boy, the more you read about those Savage Young Beatles, you realise how hardcore they were, a leather-jacketed, hard-living group of Liverpool toughs who earned their stripes gigging in impossibly difficult conditions in Hamburg, Germany and back home in Britain long before they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show and kicked off a global revolution of sorts. It’s almost impossible to actually hear now what those shows – before the albums, before stardom – were really like, but you can imagine. 

I recently finished reading Mark Lewisohn’s fab “All These Years: Tune In,” the first of three planned mammoth Beatles biographies and one that only goes up to the end of 1962, with John, Paul, George and new member Ringo poised on the edge of a wave that would catapult them into history. It’s an immense, 1000-page or so deep dive into everything that went into creating the Beatles, and it brings their hungry young days and childhoods into vivid life. You can almost smell the sweat dripping off the walls of the legendary Cavern Club, or the energy of the booze-soaked, violence-filled German clubs they pounded away in. The Beatles would play away in the Hamburg bars and clubs for hours on end, sleeping in gritty dives and relying on uppers and the boundless energy of youth to get through it all. These are the Beatles just before they adopted the Beatles haircuts, before Stu Sutcliffe died and Pete Best was fired, when they ran out of songs to play and vogued, vamped and jammed to get through the nights. It was the apprenticeship that gave them the skills to do everything after. 

And boy, wouldn’t it have been something to ride that time machine and see one of these seamy Hamburg gigs with the benefit of hindsight, to get right up close enough to see teenage George’s fingers hit those chords and the cigarette-soaked aroma of John and Paul’s voices? Few people would ever see the Beatles up this close and raw again after 1962. It’s an era that’s been explored in movies like the great, underrated Backbeat and reimagined in books, but it’s also one that is mostly left up to the imaginations. There’s only a few recordings of The Beatles late into their Germany gigs, the main one being The Beatles Live! at the Star-Club in Hamburg album from December 1962. The sound quality from old vinyl records of this gig are absolutely terrible, but thanks to modern technology there’s now a cleaned-up, remastered “Executive Version” of the show you can hunt for online that makes it probably as clear as we’ll ever get. It’s probably not quite what the Beatles at their pills-addled, sleep-deprived rawest would’ve been like, but it’s at least a taste. There’s an insanely amped-up, crazed version of “Roll Over Beethoven” that sounds something like The Damned mixed with Hüsker Dü. 

Still, though, wouldn’t it be something to be a fly on the wall in a dim, dark Hamburg club 60 years ago, to see a Beatles that I like to imagine sounded more like the Stooges than “Yesterday”? They were savage and young, and they’d never ever be like that again. 

Why George Harrison is my favourite Beatle these days

Asking someone about their favourite Beatle is always a kind of litmus test. Are you more of a John, or a Paul? A George or even a Ringo? 

But sometimes, the Beatle you love changes. When I was a younger, angrier man, like an awful lot of people, John Lennon was my favourite Beatle. I listened to the stark anguish of Plastic Ono Band a lot and thought that “God” was like, deep, man. I still love that album and I still love John Lennon, but due to his untimely death, the story of John Lennon’s solo career will always feel a little unfinished to me. 

The first Beatle whose solo album I actually bought was George Harrison’s 1987 chart-topping comeback Cloud Nine, with its kitschy-yet-cool bop MTV-friendly “Got My Mind Set On You” all over the place in those days. The rest of the cassette tape I scrounged my pennies together to buy was pretty good, too – it was an optimistic yet contemplative groove, smooth with an ‘80s sheen thanks to producer Jeff Lynne. “When We Was Fab” was a colourful ode to the Beatles whose own work I was just beginning to discover thanks to the CD reissues of their albums, while songs like “That’s What It Takes” and “Fish On The Sand” summed up George’s vibe – searching, yet determined. 

It’s twenty years now this year since George left us at the too-young age of 58. These days, I find myself turning to George’s solo work far more than any other of the Fab Four.  

Harrison always seemed to be looking for something in this life, and he found it mostly in the embrace of Indian music and an intense spirituality that in some folks’ view helped bring world music to a bigger audience, but other people felt it turned him into a humourless scold. 

1970’s All Things Must Pass is widely regarded as the best Beatles solo album, and it’s still a masterpiece of symphonic, elegant and yet deeply personal pop bathed in Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, with Harrison showing once and for all he wasn’t “just” the third Beatle, but an incredible songwriter in his own right. It’s incredibly lush, carrying on all the sweeping soundscapes the Beatles pioneered on albums from Revolver on to Abbey Road and it’s something that few of the other Beatles’ solo albums ever were – epic in its ambition. 

Yet when you peak with your first solo album and were once in the biggest band of all time, it’s hard not to have everything else afterward seen as a letdown. And no, Harrison never quite equaled All Things again, but he still put out some stellar solo work, including its immediate followup, Living In The Material World, which continued to explore George’s obsessions – inner peace, giving up your anger, and moving on (and occasional cranky rants, like “Sue Me Sue You Blues”). 

The rest of his albums never quite get as noticed now, but even the weakest has a few good tracks to recommend. 1974’s exhausted-sounding and rushed Dark Horse might be his nadir, but an obscurity like the underrated 1982 Gone Troppo has a relaxed, chilling on the beach vibe, harking back to the doo-wop and early rock and roll that the Beatles grew up adoring. The later albums George Harrison and Somewhere In England also marry George’s wry humility with hummable tunes. As he became mired in lawsuits and battles with his record labels, George’s solo career was mainly a product of the 1970s. After 1982, he only released one proper album, Cloud Nine, and the groovy collaborations with the all-star Travelling Wilburys. His long, long in the works next album, the valedictory and blissful Brainwashed, came out in 2002 after his death. 

Harrison sometimes has a reputation as the grim, silent Beatle, but many of his albums like Cloud Nine feel bathed in happiness. It felt like George was at peace. 

There’s a unified theme amongst his albums, which is something none of the other Beatles really managed in their solo work. McCartney has carried on his quest to write dozens more perfect pop songs but his work is often lacking in a vivid personal voice for me. While he’s been by far the most prolific solo Beatle, the sheer flood of albums dilutes the quality a little too often. Lennon wrestled with the demons of his past in a few great albums, was equally as questing as George but far more self-destructive, too. He then went silent for years, and his promising comeback was cruelly curtailed. Ringo was… well, he was Ringo, good-natured and always keeping the beat. 

Lennon inherited the fierce restless intellect and urge for experimentation of the Beatles, while McCartney got the gift for melody and craftsmanship. Harrison represented something else more intangible, something I might even call the Beatles’ heart. In the best of his solo work I find that all-encompassing warm feeling that I get when I hear the heavenly harmonies of “Within You Without You,” the solos that make “Something” soar far higher than most sappy ballads ever could, the distinctive single guitar chord played by George that opens up “A Hard Day’s Night.” In other words, listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about life, the universe and everything. 

George Harrison could certainly be preachy, I’ll admit. Harrison was looking for transcendence, and the older I get, the hope in something more to this life seems to resonate. I’m not talking about organised religion, really, but just the idea that you can find a calming peace by letting go of some of your baggage and flowing like water. The world is full of mystery. George Harrison never stopped trying to understand it.

George’s biggest song was “Something,” a tune that sums up his eternal questing and curiosity in its few minutes.  Is there something out there? I sure as hell don’t know. But the idea of being at peace with yourself and finding that inner calm that George spent much of his too-short life seeking isn’t the worst goal to have in this life. 

Listening to George Harrison makes me feel better about everything, and that’s why in these often-troubled days he’s my favourite Beatle. 

Review: Crowded House, Auckland, March 21, and we’re all in this together

The first time I heard Crowded House was on a fuzzy mix tape from a high school girlfriend. 

She put most of their entire second album Temple Of Low Men onto this tape, and it felt strange yet familiar. Neil Finn’s voice was gorgeous yet kind of tense, and songs like “Into Temptation” and “I Feel Possessed” felt like a secret code to me in the age of MTV and Bon Jovi. Finn’s lyrics marry the universality of the Beatles with a wry Kiwi humility and eye for detail. The music felt wiser, older somehow than the typical ‘80s pop hits I usually listened to. It felt built to last.

Ever since I think of rainy afternoons, fumbling teenage heartbreak and the impossible fragility of things when I hear Crowded House. 

I barely knew what New Zealand was, and Neil Finn and company were my first introduction to the place I’d one day end up living. 

I moved to New Zealand 15 years ago, the place that hissing cassette spoke of. I’ve now seen Neil Finn a live a few times solo and with other acts, even run across him in the crowd at other shows (it’s a small country, you know), but I never did see Crowded House live. 

Last night, I entered an arena and stood 25 feet or so in front of Neil Finn and the reunited House in one of the only countries in the world such crowded stadium shows can still happen these days. Like the best of Crowded House’s music, it was broad and intimate at the same time. 

Neil and the band, now joined by his amazing sons Liam and Elroy, put on a soaring, cathartic show, doubled in strangeness by seeming so normal with much of the rest of the world still howling in the heart of the storm of COVID-19. All around me, people kept looking at the nearly full arena, almost 12,000 people unmasked and very grateful to be here. 

The lovely little earworms have turned into national anthems – “Better Be Home Soon,” “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” “Something So Strong” – and it was kind of beautiful to have them become stadium sing-alongs. Sometimes the crowd sing-alongs are pretty cringe stuff, but it’s been a weird year or so and it felt good to be part of a crowd. We’re all in this Crowded House together. 

I’ve been here 15 years ago now and so I know what Neil’s singing about in “Four Seasons In One Day” when he talks about “the sun shines in the black clouds hanging over the Domain,” because I’ve walked the grassy fields of the Domain probably a hundred times now. 

And there were the deeper cuts that I’ve listened to over and over through the years – a mesmerizing “Private Universe,” the sultry “Whispers And Moans,” a right fierce bang-up on “Knocked Out,” or a marvelous cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” dedicated to all the front-line workers here and everywhere who’ve made New Zealand a safe island in a world of worries. 

That lovestruck teenager playing that cassette tape over and over couldn’t have imagined how things would end up. The teenage girlfriend and I didn’t last long, but the music echoed forever. 

Neil Finn was singing last night to a very crowded house, yet he was also singing to me, alone in my room a million years ago, listening to gorgeous lonesome pop music and never imagining where he’d end up in this life. 

It’s literally been decades since I got that mysterious mix tape that introduced me to Crowded House, and I’ve got no idea what happened to the quirky and cool girl who gave it to me.

If I could, I’d tell her how I saw Neil Finn sing those songs last night, about the wonderful Kiwi woman I ended up marrying, how strange it was that I ended up in the place that all that haunting music came from, that I’m doing OK and that I hope she’s OK too.

Lou Reed, and loving someone even if they’re kind of a jerk

Today would’ve been Lou Reed’s 79th birthday, and I still miss his battered, cynical voice in this troubled world. 

He’s still the only artist whose lyrics I’ve got tattooed on my arm, and I’d easily put him in my personal top 5 pantheon of musicians I return to again and again. But he wasn’t easy – Bowie or Prince could challenge but they never really scared you; Dylan and Costello have taken missteps in their career but never quite sabotaged it as badly as Lou could (Dylan’s born-again phase comes close, though). 

Yet he was also an amazing next-level jerk an awful lot of the time, as even a cursory read through Lou biographies and many rather tense interviews will attest. He would not put up with fools, or even innocent questions, and there’s a bloody battlefield of journalists mauled on the field by Lou Reed who didn’t all deserve their wounds. Whatever demons drove him in life led him to lash out a lot, too. 

But boy, Lou Reed could write a song, whether it’s the clatter and loneliness of the Velvet Underground or the brief moment he spent as a pop star with “Walk On The Wild Side”; the anguished family dynamics of Berlin or the strutting prophet of New York.

And there’s Magic and Loss, his 1992 song-cycle about death and dying that is honestly one of my favourite albums of all time – and yes, I’ve got words from the title track tattooed on my arm, and yes, I’d be happy enough from the great beyond if someone cranks that epic title song up at my funeral. Lou was kind of a genius, you know?

I only saw him live once, from a distance in Seattle, but as much as I love Lou Reed’s music that’s probably as close as I wanted to get. I’d probably have been a suffering fool in his eyes. 

Lou Reed offended, an awful lot of time, from the Velvet Underground singing about heroin to an album full of feedback to the rather ear-scraping and awkward collaboration with Metallica that was his abrasive final work. Sometimes it felt like he was just playing a role, a demented character he’d created. Sometimes it didn’t. But he did mellow out in his final years before his death in 2013 (I’m thinking the zen calm of his wife Laurie Anderson helped a lot). 

We live in an era where a lot of past behaviour is being questioned and analysed through new eyes. That’s a good thing. There’s a murderer’s row of celebrities who have been shamed and scorned and sometimes even jailed.

Some of these fallen stars I stopped caring about the moment their misdeeds came about, others I have made the decision to continue reading/listening/watching their work in full awareness of how flawed they were. That’s the choice any of us make when we consume art. A lot of artists are jerks, or worse. Lou Reed never hid his cantankerous side and it’s certainly not breaking news. Lou Reed wasn’t a nice guy an awful lot of the time, but he made some beautiful music for me. 

In the end, you take what you want to take and leave what you want to leave. There’s a bit of magic in everything. Lou Reed left me a lot. 

There’s always time for a little Alice Cooper

It’s summer here, and it’s Alice Cooper season. The reigning godfather of horror-rock turned 73 this week, and hot weather always puts me in the mood to spin his gloriously overwrought anthems. 

Years ago, I got to spend 20 minutes or so on the phone with Alice Cooper as he got ready to play a local gig back in Oregon, and it’s still one of the highlights of my so-called journalism career. Although he’s probably given a million interviews just like that one in the more than 50 years of rocking out, I still loved hearing stories direct from the man himself, who was really thoughtful and interesting. (I wish the interview was still online, but the paper I worked for then has changed owners and apparently erased all its past history including my beautiful words.)

In a week of all things Alice, I’ve also been reading a breezy tell-all by his former bandmate Dennis Dunaway, the wonderfully titled Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs!: My Adventures In the Alice Cooper Group. It’s a great view from in the arena as the Alice Cooper band paved the way for goth, metal, glam and an awful lot else in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

Sometimes, you just want to blast “School’s Out” or “No More Mr. Nice Guy” at the sun bakes down on you. 

I still have some of the notes from my interview with Alice way back in 2005:

That interview, from way back in 2005.

“I never went out of my way to say OK, I can’t wait to shock the audience. I was much more interested in entertaining the audience, doing something they’ve never seen before. People called it glam rock, people called it theatrical rock and we were at the head of all of that.”

“…I looked at the Who, The Yardbirds, all of these great, great bands, but nobody’s going to do anything with that stage. Why would you leave that stage just bare? Why not light it up, why not decorate it, why not make it come to life? If you say, ‘Welcome to my Nightmare,’ don’t just say it – give it to them.” 

Another thing I fondly remember about that show was the absurd hysterical reaction from some of the townsfolk in rural, conservative Oregon at the time, who were freakin’ out about Alice like it was 1956 and Elvis was coming to shake his pelvis at them. Apparently he was a “known Satanist” according to the letters to the editor, written by people who I assume today are presumably posting hourly on QAnon Facebook groups. 

Alice was in his mid-50s then and still put on a hell of a fun show which featured him being “killed” on stage at least twice and surely made the Satan-haters run for cover. But it was all in good fun, with Oregonians turning out in full Alice makeup (and a few more confused quasi-fans made up as KISS members). For one raised on Generation X’s ‘”eh, whatever” ethos, the dizzily over-the-top pageantry of an Alice Cooper show was a revelation.

One of the big appeals of Alice Cooper over the decades for me has been his unabashed showmanship – unlike some of the darker metal acts since, he’s not there to make you believe his schlock. He’s there to make the darkness rock out. Even at 73, he’s still making music, including a pretty decent new single released just this week.

For all his talents, though, Alice Cooper isn’t always the best fortune teller, regarding this quote from my 2005 interview: 

“I’m having more fun with the show now and I’m making better records now. I think I’ll end when I get out there and there’s nobody there to play to. I will not end up on a Carnival Cruise – you won’t see me playing a cruise ship with Ozzy Ozborne.”

Woops. Wasn’t with Ozzy, at least.

Nevertheless, rock on forever by land or by sea, Alice! And happy belated birthday! 

I’ve been stretching my mouth / to let those big words come on out

…In a nifty little coda to the piece on Peter Gabriel I wrote late last year, I was invited on Radio New Zealand yesterday for their Afternoons Music Feature to talk all things Gabriel with host Jesse Mulligan and play a selection of his grooviest tunes. Listen to my occasionally coherent babbling! Hear some good songs!

You can listen to the full audio right here!

And here’s the playlist of the songs I selected if you’re interested:

25 songs that helped me survive 2020

Music helps keep us sane. I listened to a lot more music than usual this year, between lockdowns and working from home, and a couple dozen songs saw me through some of the tumult and craziness. 

I alternated between comfort songs and raging at the void screaming songs, probably swinging like most of our moods did this year. Isolation, political carnage in my home country, sickness and worry…  The soundtrack of 2020 is a schizophrenic thing. 

Admittedly, I skewed heavily towards older songs this year, returning to the comforts of the familiar; also, I’m an old dude. A song can reassure you, like the still-fiery Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello’s latest works, it can lift you, like the looney chaos of The Cramps or the hypnotic rhythms of Alice Coltrane, or it can fire you up, like Lou Reed’s still-incandescent rage in 1987’s “Strawman,” or Pylon’s jittery “Stop It.” 

This isn’t my “best of the year” list – but here’s a playlist of the 25 songs that helped me survive 2020: 

Peter Gabriel, the man who disappeared

Peter Gabriel turned 70 years old earlier this year. For a little while back in the day, he was a superstar, and I was kind of addicted to him. Then he walked away from it all.

I can’t quite overstate how ridiculous my Peter Gabriel fandom was back in the early 1990s. I listened to the tracks from his hit albums So and Us so much that they still feel tattooed on the brain. Pre-internet, I scoured the shops for rare B-sides and remixes.  I did that thing where you listen to a particular album so much you’ve memorised every vowel, every chord. Where the music itself transforms into something bigger than it is. 

To keep in silence, I resigned / My friends would think I was a nut

I dove deep into Peter Gabriel fandom at the precise moment that I graduated high school and moved to a college clear on the other side of America, where I knew nobody. I do not know what I was looking for with my Peter Gabriel obsession, but somewhere in there, I found it. 

And like anything you fall for, you think the artist is speaking directly to you. “Red Rain”? Clearly about me leaving my hometown. “In Your Eyes”? First love, of course. “Big Time”? My sky-high hopes and dreams for the future. “Secret World”? Every traumatic fumbled breakup that ever was. The entire remarkable Passion soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, a grand and sweeping instrumental meditation on what felt like life, the universe and everything, swirling around my brain. 

I was feeling part of the scenery / I walked right out of the machinery

After the smash hit of 1986’s So, Gabriel’s output slowed to a trickle. In 1992 came Us, his breakup album. Then in 2002 came Up, an album about ageing, death and transition. 

That was 18 years ago now. In the meantime he’s been heavily involved in human rights and his record label. He’s also put out a couple of albums of somewhat lifeless re-recordings of his own songs, an album of cover tunes, and some soundtracks and instrumental work, but he hasn’t released an album of his own songs in close to 20 years. (There’s a “planned album” called I/O that’s literally been in works since 1995 – I’m not holding my breath.)

Gabriel’s lyrics were never as dense as a Dylan or Costello – indeed, as his career progressed, he turned away from the surrealism of his Genesis days and his words became increasingly naked, declarative and stark, even as the music became more adventurous and layered, heavily influenced by his interest in world music.

It is a shock to see Peter Gabriel now, a bald and bearded senior citizen, when in my mind he’s still that ultra-cool guy bouncing around in the “Sledgehammer” video that MTV played endlessly once upon a time. Yet I look in the mirror and see my own face and the grey hairs and the lines that weren’t there when I picked up my first Peter Gabriel albums more than 30 years ago, and I realise we’re all going through the same thing. 

I will show another me /Today I don’t need a replacement / I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant

I listen to Peter Gabriel a lot less these days – not that I like him any less, but due to the paucity of any new material and the fact that I listened to the old stuff so many bloody times that it’s engraved into my DNA. 

A lot of artists don’t know when they’ve drained the well of inspiration, to be true. There’s a lot of great musicians who I love but consider many of their later albums utterly forgettable. Of that great run from Peter Gabriel’s 1977 solo debut to Up, every single one of them rings with meaning for me. That’s not a bad legacy to have.

My heart going boom, boom, boom / “Hey, ” I said, “You can keep my things / They’ve come to take me home”

(Lyrics “Solsbury Hill,” 1977 Peter Gabriel)

The Stooges, over and over and over again

I’m lost / I’m lost / I’m lost, yeah / I’m lost

Lost, lost, lost

– The Stooges, Down In The Street 

When I was a wee sprat in the pre-internet era, I’d often record songs off the radio, those poppy synth hits of 1983/84 or so, and I’d listen to them over and over in a strange fugue state, engraving them on my frontal lobes, trying to figure out the peculiar power that Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” or Prince’s “When The Doves Cry” held on me. 

Nobody records the radio on cassette tapes any more, but sometimes, I still crave the calm of noisy repetition. Sometimes you just want to fall into a kind of trance state, and listening to 13 or so takes of a single song in a row can certainly get you there. 

I’m ambivalent about the phrase “only for the fans” – as if there’s something wrong with being a passionate fan of something – but “complete studio sessions” type boxes probably do fall squarely in that category, I’ll admit. I’m a big fan of the Iggy Pop-led pivotal punk band The Stooges, and the completist in me has scooped up several “complete sessions” compilations devoted to them. 

The Complete Funhouse Sessions is a brick of a box set collecting six entire discs of takes on The Stooges’ fiery second album, 1970s’ Funhouse, and if you crave screaming guitars, Iggy Pop at his howling messiah peak and the clattering anarchy of garage rock melted down to its core elements, this is the place to be. Be warned, there’s 26 takes of “Loose” at one point. This is not for amateurs. Another great set, Heavy Liquid, grabs together scraps and blueprints for the album Raw Power, where you can hear The Stooges breaking down “I Got A Right” 13 times over, slower, faster, louder, softer, clattering into instrumental versions, studio chatter, a scrappy take on “Louie Louie” and more. You become sucked into the rhythm of repetition. How many ways can you play a song?

The Stooges are music at its most basic – there’s not a lot of deep eloquence in lyrics like “She got a TV eye on me” or “I feel fine to be dancin’, baby”, but there’s a churning power to it that sometimes is all you want. It’s just rock. 

I wouldn’t want to listen to “complete sessions” for every band, but there’s nothing quite like it to really get into the DNA of the creative process. You can hear how the song is made. The Beatles’ sessions that have slowly been coming out in the past few years are like getting a look into the birth of mythology itself, while stuff like the wild improvisations and alchemy found in Miles Davis’ sessions make the music feel as big and wide as the sky.

And in the Stooges, you’ll hear the churning chaos of their songs stretched, bent and swollen into a wall of sound that’d make Phil Spector jealous. So I’ll listen to takes on “TV Eye” ten times over some days when I’m in the right mood for it, slight variations and all, and it works. 

Sometimes you just want to get lost in the bones of the song and let the noise wash over you.