Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Immortals #90 - Carlos Santana

Santana is lot like Jimi Hendrix, if Hendrix had only been about as nonthreatening as a plate of refried beans.

Was that racist?

In 1999, Santana released the mega-selling collaborations album Supernatural, featuring such enduring creative powerhouses as Rob Thomas (he was in Matchbox 20!), Eagle-Eye Cherry (his name is all nouns!), and Everlast (he wrote "Jump Around!") This made him the most popular middle-aged Mexican in the world, a title he held until the rise of George Lopez. Maybe Supernatural was the record I should have studied for this series. It was probably the most representative document from his entire career of everything Santana's music really is: comfortably re-tread classic rock, uninspired-but-pleasant virtuoso leads, and tasteful cameo-whoring, all dressed up with a "muy caliente" Latin flair that'll have you running for the border.

I might have read that last thing from a packet of Taco Bell hot sauce.

Supernatural is exactly the kind of record you want to make when you're old and boring and waiting for some lifetime achievement recognition, and a fitting tribute to a man who personified the phrase "popular recording artist." But I didn't pick Supernatural for this entry, opting instead for Santana's sacred and time-tested "best" record, Abraxis. And you know what? It's lame.

It's telling that Santana's enduring classic only contains two original compositions. He doesn't really have much of an original voice or point of view beyond wanting to play electric guitar over traditional Latin inspired standards. I suppose it's nice that in his way, Santana's popularization of more diverse instrumentation in rock informed some of the better diversions into world music in later decades. And hey, a pre-Bonnaroo culture of blacklight poster enthusiasts needed something to listen to until Phish came around, right?

I can see why this sold a ton of records. Despite its illusion of exoticism, it's blandly palatable to seemingly any audience. And while it's non-challenging, it's also not an entirely unpleasant score for any number of background music needs. But I can't just sit down and actually listen to the whole record today without it really just making me want to listen Jimi, or Fleetwood Mac, or Tito Puente or Can instead. Or maybe eat some chips and salsa.

Mmmmm... chips and salsa.

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Immortals #91 - Ricky Nelson

You might hear the name "Ricky Nelson" and think of the spoiled, talentless offspring whose terrible music was only popularized for his ability to be a televised proxy of famous parents. But you're actually thinking of his kids.

Ricky Nelson's career was notably discredited his lineage through much of his adult life, but the posthumous recognition he's seen for his place as not only the original teen idol but one of the first great rock stars is deserved. His wasn't a music career born of contrivance, like, say, David Cassidy's, but the result of an actual talent that just happened to grow up on TV.

That doesn't change the fact that in the beginning (for white people anyway) there was Elvis, and there was Ricky Nelson. Where Elvis' aping of rockabilly leaned more heavily on rhythm and blues of the delta, Nelson mixed similar influences with an overt and unabashed pop sensibility. And he wrote a couple of plain amazing songs for it.

Go listen to "Travelin' Man" right now. Go ahead.

But all the modern praise for Nelson is probably a bit overstated. In truth, he wouldn't have made my top 100, and his legacy benefited from an age-old biopic plot device: he died suddenly and tragically, and in a plane crash to boot. There aren't many better bonafides for to admittance to rock and roll Heaven than that.

And hey, he died. So let's just let him have it, yeah?

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Immortals #92 - Guns N' Roses

Way back in January, the erstwhile co-authors of this site and myself made a road trip from southern California to Las Vegas, Nevada. Each of us being inveterate gamblers (untrue) and borderline problem drinkers (closer to true), the neon capital of the world called to us Hustlers for an off-season weekend of wandering the strip, seeing the sights, and intermittent gaming heightened by the thrill of undeserved "free" drinks carried by Eastern European-born waitresses.

A particularly memorable moment came on our second proper evening in town as we approached the gleaming casinos from our borrowed timeshared condo on the outskirts of tourist-land. Popping a disc into the car stereo, the intro started with an echoed, clanging guitar lick, followed by snaking high-hat... I made sure to carefully time the music with our left hand turn onto Las Vegas Blvd, cruising in time for the climactic "Cha!"

Welcome to the Jungle, baby.

It might have been the highlight of the whole weekend.

Except that it wasn't.
If memory serves, we turned the stereo back down before the first bridge. Why? Because it's 2009 and we're neither strippers nor professional wrestlers- who the fuck wants to listen to Guns N' Roses?

In 1987, it's not too hard to imagine why this was considered "revolutionary." Compared to all the other hair-obsessed pop metal bands popularized by Guns' own hometown Sunset scene, Axl, Slash, Duff, Izzy and Steven were about as badass as could be. Never mind that they were themselves just as hair-obsessed and poppy as any of their counterparts- Guns felt different, back then anyway.

To be fair, Slash plays electric guitar quite well, and Izzy/Duff both helped craft several tracks into catchy hits. Axl was surely compelling (if not particularly charismatic.) There's a reason that Appetite for Destruction has been so much longer-lived than albums by Guns' contemporaries. It is, on the whole, a solid 40% better than most of the excrement it can be compared to from its era. It was 1987 and mainstream music sucked. In fact, I could have been a whole lot more fair to Guns and picked the noble failure of Use Your Illusion, with its high points offering glimpses of actual nuance in Rose's persona and- dare I say it?- talent, even. But Appetite is the record they/he will forever be known and celebrated for, plus it sold a a million bajillion copies, so good on them.

And so it was that Guns N' Roses was perhaps the biggest band in the world for a glorious 4 years of excess and undeserved acclaim from people with shitty taste. And then along came Nevermind. Although technically true that Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson's last good record off the top of the charts (Dangerous- RESPECT), it wasn't the end of the King of Pop, who enjoyed another good 5 or so years of absolute peak popularity worldwide. Rather, it was Guns N' Roses who were relegated to a distant 2nd place in the world of rock music, soon to be outpaced by dozens of less-than-Nirvana grunge and grunge-imitators (and then eventually by Nirvana again with Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide.)

During the long wait for (and following the inevitable failure of) Chinese Democracy GN'R became more sideshow than legend. The creatively valid members of the band left and/or got fired, Axl challenged Jacko to a race for who could descend into freaky cult-figure status and social irrelevance the fastest (sadly, Axl lost again- nobody beats the King), and their fanbase waited, dwindled, and eventually realized that Fred Durst was a reasonable enough facsimile for their lost messiah. By the time of Democracy's release late last year, it was little more than an afterthought on a career that all but the douchiest of males had forgotten. The transparency of Rose' cashgrab was almost insulting- you could only buy the record at Best Buy in the US, and there was even a Dr. Pepper tie-in!

Guns feel today like a band that were never more than the sum of their parts: Crazy redheaded controversy magnet, stoner icon with a cheap fashion gimmick, bass player from a "real" music city and not fake-old Los Angeles, a drummer who repped "punk" to people who don't know shit about T.S.O.L., and at least one guitarist with an awesome nickname (I refer, of course, to "Izzy." What kind of name is "Slash?" I mean REALLY...)

That sense of hollowness was only heightened by the decade-plus that Axl Spent bloating its lineup with as many potentially notable names as possible, including actual notables like guitar-noodling demigod Buckethead, session super-man Josh Freese, and Tommy "I Was in the Fucking Replacements!" Stinson. Now you can see Guns N' Roses on their periodic tours for a couple hundred bucks. The venues they play are surely better than whatever state fair Ratt is gigging next summer... but by how much?

Well, they're #92 on the "Immortals" list, so I guess the upside is that I get to take potshots at them for eternity. In fact, the picture for this entry was very nearly one of Kurt Cobain himself, from the famous "Where's Axl" scuffle backstage at the 1992 Video Music Awards (the same telecast that yielded a memorable Guns duet with Elton John on "November Rain.")


Because fuck you, Axl.

You lose again.

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