“monster swim” – don hinson and the rigormorticians (1964)

R-5427777-1393101558-3493.jpeg

Halloween may be my favorite holiday. There is so much to love about it because it has everything. Candy, people dressed in imaginative costumes, and spooky movies (or if you’re like me, then you prefer campy Halloween movies). Halloween just comes at a great time of the year as well. The air chills and the leaves turn. It is all so hauntingly beautiful. However, what I love most about Halloween are the seasonal novelty songs.

I love campy Halloween music. My Halloween playlist is full of diverse and playful music including tracks from the catalog of Dr. Demento, horror soundtracks, spooky surf rock, and even classics like “Monster Mash” by Bobby Pickett. Everyone knows “Monster Mash.” It is such a jaunty song about monsters coming together and rocking out. It is arguably the most famous Halloween novelty song. And with fame, imitators follow. Throughout the 1960s, there were many artists who attempted to capitalize on the fame of “Monster Mash.” If artists didn’t release their own take on “Monster Mash” (check out the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s version), they released their own spin-offs. With songs like “Monster Hop,” “Monster Bop,” and “Monster Twist,” novelty artists attempted to carve their own niche in the world of Halloween novelty music. There are literally dozens of songs from that era that are nearly identical sounding, serve as sequels, or reference the original classic throughout.

My favorite Halloween song ever is “Riboflavin Flavored, Non-Carbonated, Polyunsaturated Blood.” I love the original by Don Hinson and the Rigormorticians and any subsequent covers (check out 45 Grave’s version). However, I want to talk about a lesser known song by Don Hinson and the Rigormorticians. “Monster Swim” was a track from their sole children’s novelty Halloween record that unapologetically references and attempts to cash on Pickett’s original classic. And it does it so well.

In the “Monster Swim,” the monsters are tired of doing the mash because it has become such a drag. So, what do monsters do when they need a hip, fresh dance? They do the swim of course! Everything this song has it owes to Pickett. The Boris character providing the vocals sounds nearly identical to Pickett and is backed by equally identical female vocals. Even the character references are completely ripped off; this time Dracula wants to know whatever happened to his monster mash (a throwback to the Transylvania Twist line).

This is a fun record and Hinson sounds like he is having a great time. It is a quintessential mid-1960s novelty record. Peppered throughout this poolside monster setting are references to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (as the Rolling Bones which I assume are bluesy skeletons). Rock and roll music was hardly a decade old at this point so the musical frame of reference for the kids was relatively new. Most musical artists at the time, even outside the realm of novelty music, certainly had a mentality that if it isn’t broke, then don’t fix it. Essentially, whatever record sold well and was popular, you did that record. That’s why we have so many rip-offs and unofficial sequels to songs from that area.

Songs like these get lost because, frankly, they aren’t timely. They don’t have lasting appeal and were never meant to. “Monster Swim,” while being a stand-out song for me this time of year, is nowhere near the top of the list of truly great novelty songs from the era such as the “Monster Mash,” “The Hearse Song,” and “Purple People Eater.” However, it has a place in my heart for not only it’s ridiculous beach blanket concept, but for being so brazen in it’s attempt at being a complete rip-off. Rock and roll was a budding genre and it certainly had growing pangs, and the sound all the same.

“six months in a leaky boat” – split enz (1982)

R-1338764-1210911478.jpeg

There are tempests we must all bear in order to get where we want to be. That is a part of the journey of life because anything worth having is worth the fight. We have all had those experiences where things seem hopeless and we feel so alone as a result. Many are currently going through that right now and we simply have no idea the struggles they are going through. While we feel isolated and alienated as a result of our own personal struggle, in essence, we are not truly alone. Recognizing that has influenced my interactions and experience with friends, family, and strangers. I truly believe that human existence is collective and part of one big soul. What affects the life of one affects the lives of other. Our evolution as a species proves we rely on a symbiosis if we are to survive. Through the support of others can we find the motivation to get through our problems. With that, there is hope. A light to drown the darkness.

“Six Months in a Leaky Boat” by Split Enz became a very personal song for me during the latter half of 2013. For two years already, I was working a job that I truly hated and, quite literally, was breaking me down to the point I was convinced it was killing me. I’ll spare the details, so you’ll have to trust me. For a big project starting June of that year, I was forced to start working nights. I was scheduled to only be there until midnight, but I would often stay there until 2 or 3 in the morning. I was the only person who this new schedule was forced upon and I had extremely off rules that only applied to me. For example, I could not leave the building under any circumstance such as to get lunch, even if other people were in the building. My boss felt it would be unfair to them if I stepped out for a few minutes. This could’ve been solved if I was given a key to the building like the other employees, but I was not allowed to have a key. I know all that sounds kind of trivial and petty, but trust me. This place was a nightmare and I know no other job I will ever have will come close to that hell.

I knew this abrupt change was going to make things difficult for me on several fronts. For one, the new rules were unfair and violated several human resource laws and, in addition, I would not be compensated for the late and extra hours. Secondly, my girlfriend at the time had a teacher’s schedule and this meant I would see her a lot less. I worked very hard to be optimistic that we would get through this, but that optimism was not mutual. As a result, it created several problems and tension in our relationship. So much so that I thought about breaking up, but I knew things would get better so I tried to be consistently strong for the both of us. And thirdly, I knew it would be months before I saw any friends. I was right about that. During the six months I worked on this project, I only spent two afternoons with a friend. That rest of the time was isolation. Alone at home. Alone at work. Alone everywhere I went.

I had one thing that kept me going through all of this. Working evenings meant my mornings were free to go to job interviews without any suspicion. I was convinced this work schedule change was a blessing in disguise. I had six months to dedicate to changing my situation and never looking back. And if I managed to get out even sooner, the better. I had never been more motivated and hard-working in my life than during these six months. I would leave for work at noon, get home at 3 AM, sleep, wake up at 8 AM and either go to a job interview or spend my mornings writing cover letters and emailing resumes. In the beginning, I was so energized because I felt like I had some semblance of power of this situation I did not choose.

Days would turn into weeks and then weeks turned into months. Summer was changing into fall. As time death marched forward, I became increasingly worried. Every day I didn’t get a new job offer was one more day lost. As time went on, I was worried that this gift of six months would go to waste. I was panicking. My boat was sinking and no matter how much water I tossed overboard, more would splash on.

To make a long story short, those six months did go by without a job offer. And during the last week of the project, I was fired. I worked a job I hated for nearly three years, compromised and sacrificed for six months, and ended up getting booted out the door two weeks before Christmas. This was the boss’ plan all along; get a big project done to meet her imaginary deadline and let me go without a second thought. My ship had sunk and I was drowning.

It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. Would I have preferred getting out sooner? Of course. But, I didn’t realize it at the time that this was a good alternative.

During those six months, I listened to this song religiously. It was my motivator. My gospel. Performed by a group from New Zealand, the six months referred to the amount of time it took colonial Australians to sail to New Zealand. To me, it is a song about hope and bracing the storm. Even though the sky is filled with dark clouds and ear-splitting thunder, there are rays of sunshine just behind the horizon. Even if you cannot see them, they are there.

“wing” – patti smith (1996)

R-388123-1303318871.jpeg

Rare are the days in life where you are conscious that you are experiencing something truly special. It is during these times that everything seems peaceful and arranged by divine hands. These days are comprised of moments intertwined to create a lasting ethereal presence. A singular moment of perfection happens more frequently, but to have those moments follow one another like marching tin soldiers makes a truly lasting and inspiring impression. A day meant for me. A perfect day.

This past Sunday, Patti Smith was scheduled to speak at Dominican University. She was touring to promote her latest book M Train, a collection of short essays about dreamscapes, wandering, and great coffee. I had read her previous book Just Kids a few years earlier and made it my mission to see her speak. Patti speaks to me in a way no other artist does. She hasn’t had the biggest impact on me as an artist, but she has a singular, unique voice that makes me feel. I’m stunned by her graceful and authentic soul. Though I had seen her perform live twice with her rock band, I had to see a stripped down Patti. An artistically exposed Patti. I bought two tickets. One for a friend and myself.

Five months after purchasing the tickets, I met my friend outside the Sheridan redline stop in Chicago at noon. Patti was speaking in River Forest at 6 PM. We knew we had to get there early so not to be behind a throng of truly devoted fans. Walking to the train, the sun was shining but the air was crisp and earthy. It was an enticing blend. The very best fall had to offer. This gift of a truly beautiful day. Perhaps one of the last before the air chills and winter arrives.

We did not have to wait long for the train. We were to take the redline to the Loop, transfer to the greenline, take a bus at the end of the line in Oak Park, and then walk 15 minutes to the university. This trip was scheduled to take just over an hour and a half. We caught up on recent events. His improve class and blooming talent. My guitar apprenticeship. Sun rays shined through the windows and the passengers stirred the dust to create a dancing microcosm in the air. I could hear the music of life. I tried not to get anxious, so I kept working at staying the moment.

The walk to the university was pleasant. The houses were stunning. Different styles and more ornate than the last. Before we knew it, we had arrived at the campus. It was smaller and more discreet than I had imagined. The performing arts building was close. When we arrived at the main doors, we knew we were in the right place by the signs on the door. To our surprise, no one else was there. We were the first ones to arrive. Shortly, a middle-waged woman who lived nearby joined us in the line. She was nice and was shocked by the lack of people. We had another three and a half hours until the doors opened, so we put our bags on the ground and got settled.

My friend had left to get some food. I had brought a book to pass the time. As I read, I kept looking up and staring into the distance. I was worried that we would be in the sun all day and I forgot sun lotion. Fortunately, we sat in a covered enclosing that was shaded and cool. When I looked ahead, I saw the trees painted with fall’s brush. Sun falling on them and exaggerating their hues. It was beautiful. I stared ahead thinking. Thinking about the book I held. Thinking about friends. Thinking about family. Thinking about lovers. Thinking about freedom. Thinking about anything but Patti. Living in the moment.

No one else had showed up until an hour and a half later. Just a small crowd. It would be four. Just one hour until doors opened, and only a dozen people were here. As time came close for the doors to open, more and more people were arriving. We formed a line by the doors and standing in the sun. The sun was now lower than it had been earlier, so the brightness was subdued and comforting. My friend and I stood at the front of the line anticipating entry. The doors were open soon. I tried to remain unphased. Patience.

IMG_3301

When the doors opened, my ticket was scanned, and I was given a copy of M Train. I picked up my pace to make my way to the auditorium, down the aisle, and into my seat. Success. Front row and center. My patience and early arrival had paid off. My friend sat to my left and we looked through our books. I traced my fingers across the jacket cover, the rough-edged paper stock, and the embossed “M” on the book under the jacket. I was displeased with a slight imperfection on the jacket. A pinhole indentation that nearly went through the paper. However, I figured it was fine. Even at its most precious and amazing, life can never be perfect even if the day appears so. One more hour until Patti was scheduled to come out. I read my library book and not Patti’s.

Just a few minutes shy of 6 PM, I put my book away and the feeling hit me. Anticipation, anxiety, and awe. I would be seeing Patti Smith speak! Running a few minutes behind, the owner of the book store that sponsored the event came out to introduce Patti. She spoke about the album Horses and how it shaped her during her formative years. The owner was older than me, so I can only imagine the impact the album had when the album was younger than it is now. I thought about my love for the album and whether I could ever achieve a true appreciation that could only come from a contemporary experience instead of a look into the past.

When Patti entered the stage, my heart skipped a beat. She strolled casually to the podium, but then moved to a microphone set up to the right. She would not be obstructed by a piece of wood. She welcomed everyone and thanked them for coming. She said she had no agenda for the evening, but she would read and then take questions. She pulled out her copy of M Train adorned it yellow post-it notes. Between a few witty remarks and off-the-cuff comments, she read excerpts. Stories about poetry, coffee, New Year’s Eve, Fred, Michigan, cats. She spoke softly, sweetly, and lost in the reminiscing. Painting a dreamscape for the audience of a life that was very real for her.

IMG_3306

After the reading, Patti took questions from the audience. Now, I have always disliked Q&A sessions. What I dislike about it the most are the inane questions from the audience. The standard ones with no meaning or relevancy. Questions like “Who, living or dead, would you want to have dinner with?” With these questions, Patti would try to answer but she would she didn’t know or couldn’t answer. She obviously did not like the openness and expansive possibilities. It is easy to struggle with an impromptu question like that. What also made the Q&A a little awkward was that people would raise their hands and wait to be called upon, but someone would just yell a question. Patti answered the yellers because they caught her attention. My hand was raised for some time, but she eventually pointed me out. I had asked about what music she was listening to lately. Not a remarkable question, but she gave me a well-thought out answer. The woman I waited with for several hours would later tell me that was a great question.

IMG_3312

Life can surprise you. Like the imperfection of my book, beautiful moments can come out of nowhere. Patti announced she would take one more question. To my right a few rows back, a woman yelled louder than anyone. I thought, Great. Let’s get the Q&A over with and back to the stories. Patti called on her and the woman said she had something that belonged to Patti. Clothes from forty years ago. Patti was confused, but curious. She asked the woman to approach the stage. Patti walked up to the woman, knelt down, and rummaged through the bag. She pulled items out and inspected them with a detective’s intensity. Concentrating on the garments. Shirts. A bra. Cloth.

IMG_3316

When Patti pulled out a red handkerchief that was tied into a bandana, her eyes widened. She asked the woman off mic how she got these items and requested that she stay afterwards so she can get something special from Patti. Patti went back to the mic and her eyes were swelling. She was fighting back the tears. She told a story about a show in Chicago in 1978. The band’s truck was stolen. In it were instruments, clothes, poetry, and other personal items. She pulled out a shirt and held it up. It was white, with a picture of Keith Richards, and she told us it was the shirt she wore when she met Bob Dylan. Next was a blouse that she wore on the cover of Rolling Stone. When she pulled out the next item, the red bandana, she choked up and held it close to her breasts. This bandana was worn by her brother when he saw Hendrix in the 60s and had given it to Patti. Patti would wear it around her neck during her performances. She attempted to put it on to demonstrate, but she couldn’t. All of the other items were placed on the podium, but the bandana was put into her coat pocket; safe and close. You can tell if there was one item she could have retrieved, that would have been it. Patti started the Q&A again, but everyone wanted to know where this woman got the clothes. Each person sounded more accusatory than the last. Patti told the crowd that it didn’t matter and that we should move on.

IMG_3318

Patti then introduced a special guest; her son Jackson. The son she had with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith. Jackson came out with a guitar and settled into a chair. Patti introduced a song she had written for he daughter. The song was called “Wing” and was a slow, intimate tune. Patti swayed her arms, closed her eyes, and got lost in the song. The crowd was silent and transfixed on Patti. I watched stunned and lost in the words and guitar melody. Like in the song, she sang “it was beautiful.” Yes, Patti, it was. Jackson stayed on stage while Patti read a final excerpt. He played a soft, melancholy tune under his mother speaking.

IMG_3321

The event was then running late, but Patti had time to surprise the audience with one more song. She didn’t say the name, but said she had collaborated with another man on it. Jackson then played the opening to “Because the Night.” Patti’s most famous song and written by Bruce Springsteen. I had heard this song performed live twice with a full, rocking band. But, this was special. Coming off the reunion Patti had with her missing items, this performance of “Because the Night” was intimate, deep, and stripped down. The audience sang along to the chorus and the energy was electric. I felt connected to everything. It was beautiful, and my eyes were watering. I had waited months for this. I waited in line for hours and it was more wonderful than I had imagined.

IMG_3322

After the song, the book store owner came out and gave out instructions for the signing. We were to go on stage row by row to get out book signed. Fortunately, we were in the first row. We lined up along the wall of the auditorium. When I met Patti, I told her she had an authentic soul and she thanked me. It only lasted for a few seconds but it was magic. My friend took pictures and I did the same. By the time we had lined up, we were out the door within ten minutes. Another reason why this day was worth the effort and utterly perfect. I wanted to get there early and wait outside than inside. There were trees, bird, and sunshine outside. Inside was dust and human noise.

IMG_3326

Outside, we had met the mystery woman with the missing clothes. She was smoking a cigarette and said she had wanted to give it back for almost forty years, but tonight was the only night she could. I wouldn’t know it until I read it in the Chicago Tribune the next day, but the items were given to the woman by her roommate’s friend. After nearly forty years, they were returned. A remarkable story.

IMG_3373

My friend and I walked back to the bus. It was dark and we were still high from the experience. I was happy. We ate at a noodles restaurant and made the train ride home. I read.

This was my first time hearing “Wing.” I don’t have much to say about the song itself other than what Patti sings; it was beautiful. There are no other words for the song or the experience of hearing it in that 1,100 seat auditorium.

Everything was beautiful.

IMG_3390

“close up” – peaches feat. kim gordon (2015)

R-7511740-1443002886-2637.jpeg

The music industry needs more women. They need more successful women. It is that simple. Since the inception of recorded music, it has always been a man’s game. The nominees for the 2016 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony were announced today. Out of a dozen or so nominees, only two female acts were represented: Janet Jackson and Chaka Khan. I recognize that anyone nominated for the hall of fame has to have been an established act for at least 25 years. Does that mean in another 25 years, we will see more female artists? If we have more female artists now, then shouldn’t we have more female artists in the hall of fame? Makes sense, right? But, an increased quantity of female artists isn’t changing the rules of the game. Take Kesha for example. She has recently come out alleging that a former producer sexually assaulted multiple times. As a result, she is being blacklisted out of the industry. She cannot find work because she dared to take on the patriarchy. Not only does the industry continue to marginalize women, it can actually punish them when they have a voice.

If a woman is successful in music, she still has to adhere to certain standards. She cannot disrupt the status quo. She cannot be shocking. She cannot think independently. Violating any of those rules, a female artist is considered strange, unladylike, and exempt from mainstream success. Certainly, there are exceptions. Lady Gaga stands out as the biggest contemporary example of a monumentally successful and unconventional pop icon. Pop music needs more figures like Gaga, but there needs to be a lot more work done to make that level of success more accessible to women. Until then, strange and shocking women have to live on the fringes of mainstream success.

For nearly 20 years, Peaches has made electronic dance punk that has shocked listeners as she continues to carve her own unique niche in pop music. For anyone already familiar with Peaches, they know that the trademark style of her music and performance art is highly sexualized. Her lyrics focus on the act and functionality of sex while challenging conventional sexual standards. Her stage shows elevate those themes to new heights with props and wardrobes that could only be described as a Freudian nightmare.

As a result, Peaches is an artist who has maintained a consistent following and some semblance of popularity, but she is an act that could never achieve success on par with Lady Gaga or Katy Perry. Why is that exactly? Most massively successful popular female artists are expected to be sexualized. Britney Spears performed live on television wearing a bra and a python. Lady Gaga embraces sexuality in her art and even includes imagery and references to less binary forms of sex and sexual identity. One of Nicki Minaj’s big hits of last year featured her scantily clad while singing about taking advantage of the men she slept with. It is great that these strong, independent women have been able to reach huge audiences with their brand, but it is still only a small number of them who are able to do that. Unfortunately, Peaches is one of those artists who cannot achieve the same level of success because of our current standards of a patriarch-driven industry.

“Close Up” is one of the lead singles off of Peaches’ latest album Rub. The track features a steady electronic beat and explicit lyrics that defines Peaches’ style. Unlike a lot of her previous work, this single is not particularly danceable but it is incredibly catchy. Kim Gordon, vocalist and a founder of Sonic Youth, lends her talent doing back-up vocals for the track. Her smoky presence in the repeated chorus adds an enticing allure to the song and actually improves the overall track. Without Gordon’s vocals, “Close Up” would be a fairly listenable but a footnote in Peaches’ catalogue.

I think this song is really enjoyable and engaging. It is fun. While Peaches has a lot of better songs available in her discography, this one stands out as a great collaborative effort. The song really works when considering the sum of it’s parts. Take away any aspects such as Gordon’s chorus, Peaches’ rhyming pace, or the rising synth towards the end of the track and you have a song that doesn’t work. Also, I love that Peaches enlisted the talents of Gordon. Gordon (who is still rocking out in her 60s) is the Gen-X example of an immensely talented and popular female artist who, while very popular, did not achieve the level of success she deserved. The theme almost seems to come full circle here.

Peaches is great at being a subversive artist on the fringe of success. I’m sure she may want a bigger audience and increased popularity, but I do not see that happening. However, she won’t change and that is something I find very admirable about her. Peaches’ identity and persona are her own. I find it more inspiring to see someone carry out their own realized vision than to compromise to make more money. For me, the music is even more special. I want Peaches to have a bigger audience and do arena tours. However, the music industry needs to change. The suits in power need to be more inclusive when it comes to women and the diversity of their talent. However, they alone don’t bear all of the responsibility. Audiences as well need to be more accommodating when it comes to powerful women with a voice and image that challenges our perception of what a female pop star should be. There is no one solution, and change needs to come from all parts in the pop music supply chain.