Life and Death of Michael Jackson – A Personal Reflection

June 26, 2009


June 25, 2009 – The day Michael Jackson died.  Reflecting on this is an odd experience for me.  This man is a huge personal hero, one whose passion and innate ability to entertain is accentuated by his irrepressible eccentricities.  Most of the world loved him for his magnificent voice and groundbreaking body-talk – the “weird stuff” was something they had to look past to appreciate the pop royalty.  But myself, and many others I’m sure, reveled in how strange he was -we loved him largely BECAUSE he was  totally isolated and misunderstood by the rest of humankind.

This misfit mystique permeated in the countless montages reflecting on his career, often alongside similar dedications to former Angel Farrah Fawcett, 62, who also succumbed to death today following a long and very public battle with cancer.  Her life in 5 minute video eulogies was characterized by a loving and committed romantic relationship with partner Ryan O’Neal, her persevering spirit, and a likable public persona.  She seemed like a genuinely sweet human being.

This was quite a contrast to Jackson, whose personal life was often harshly indicted by a probing public (including the crippling allegations of child molestation, speculation of his cosmetic surgeries, and a questionable parenting style).  He became known also for his lavish spending, which had resulted in incredible debts  – a perplexing feat considering he is responsible for the highest selling musical album worldwide.  On top of all this, the poor guy’s privacy was a thing of the past at age 5.  He knew nothing of a life outside of international fame.

His life was most unfortunate – He had the innate talents and workmanship that meant he was destined for fame, but he showed signs of this so early on it tended to undermine basic childhood development.  Even at 50, he retained a widely misunderstood man-child persona.  For a culture so obsessed with youth, it was puzzlingly unkind to a full-grown man whose life was characterized by his desire to retreat to something simpler, who had romanticized the notion of childhood more than anyone else.

I will always hesitate in making the bold claim that a person is in a better place once they’ve died, even if, as I believe, that place is no where.  But in Jackson’s case, I’m not sure where I stand.  His debts were growing.  His health was, apparently, and according to his own family, not very good.  It seems the world was too much for him.  I want to believe that, for someone who had such a hard time fitting into this life, there is an eventual promise of peace.  He spent a good portion of his adult life building and hiding away in Neverland Ranch.  His desire to escape, to uncover this idealized eternity of youth to him must have sounded like something close to heaven.  The glorified “childhood experience” must have eluded Jackson.  Indeed, being the King of Pop inevitably complicates things.  But I’ll be damned if anyother pop star had so thoroughly earned such a title.

Here’s to hoping he’s found his Neverland.



June 13, 2009

Pitchfork’s semi-recent 5-10-15-20 feature is proving to strike a chord in the blogosphere.  The idea is simple:  recount the music you loved in five-year intervals of your life.  Its an excellent way to reflect, and get a better idea of the evolution of our personal tastes.  I think this is a great exercise for any music lover, and for this reason, I’ve decided to take a stab.

Age 5…

Land Before Time OST, James Horner

I just remember watching this movie, and being totally devastated by the sounds I was hearing.  When Littlefoot’s mother succumbs to death, and the Tree Star becomes his only artifact of her life, the strings and choir swell up and that’s the cue to let the tears start flowing.  I see the movie now and it still brings me back to that place.  Since then I’ve developed an intense love for Don Bluth’s films and James Horner remains one of my favorite film composers.

Age 10…

Tracy Chapman “Fast Car”

I had heard this song for the first time on the radio from the back seat of my mum’s car, and even then, I wondered what it was doing there.  It seemed so out of place alongside everything else.  So much more honest and sad.  I went years without knowing who it was, and when I finally find out, it was one of those rare exciting moments when you’re able to return to a very open and basic state.  I had uncovered a lost treasure.

Age 15…

Daniel Johnston’s Hi How Are You

Sample: “I Am A Baby (In My Universe)” mp3

When I was about 14 or 15 years old, I began my search for music that explored unfamiliar places, and I found a lot of stuff that would prove hugely influential later in my life.  Chief among the golden records I discovered were Nirvana’s Bleach and Incesticide, Pixies’ Doolittle, and Meat Puppets’ II.  But the one I remember most vividly, that had literally opened up an entirely new world for me is Danny J’s Hi How Are You.  Nothing, even still, has sounded so isolated, so lonely and delicate and absolutely true.  It wasn’t until then that I realized how deep into the soul a simple recording could plunge.

Age 20…

Beach Boy’s  Smile Sessions

Sample: “Heroes and Villains Suite” mp3

The Smile sessions are the holy grail of bootlegs.  In Wilson, we get a uniquely “American” story of a man who worked his way to the top, and inevitably endured a crushing defeat when his masterpiece was challenged by a world unkind to brilliance.  Pet Sounds had affected me in profound ways, but when I heard the rough sketches of Wilson’s rightful magnum opus, Smile,  it completely altered the way I viewed pop music.  Here was a man that, according to pop legend, undertook the greatest challenge of all – to top the Beatles.  Had Smile been finished in ’67, I have no doubt it would have changed the course of music history.  As it stands, it is, and will forever be, the great unfinished album of all time.

Here are a few other musical reflections I found.  Great stuff.

mog (really dig this one)

Premium Proletariat Expression

life is a playlist.

Spreading the Love – Comfortcomes

March 18, 2009

So I have recently begun writing for a music website called  It produces a sizable amount of content daily and is generally quite respectful to up-and-coming acts, which makes it a great team to be a part of.

Last week my first review was posted for the latest release from indie pop darlings the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.  Witness my tedious nostalgia as I recount the band’s glory days and wonder what the hell happened here.

Here’s a teaser, or more of a synopsis I suppose, for the lazy jerks who refuse to open a new window or simply hate reading 400 word reviews (I know I do):

For their latest, the band recruited producers Nick Launay (Talking Heads, Kate Bush, INXS) and Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio, who has been consistently involved in the band’s repertoire. The final result is perhaps the most uniform full length the band has produced, and as such, it maintains a pleasant – albeit unexciting – middleground.

Someone needs to tell this band that the ’80’s are over, and that when they were here, they weren’t all that great.

Be sure to visit the band’s website and listen to their new single here!

Out of the Loop 02: Esther Lee

March 11, 2009
Esther Lee

Esther Lee

The cover of this album warrants explaining. Let me begin…*ahem*:

As the story goes (allegedly, the details are unknown publicly), Esther Lee recorded Where Glory Began from her hospital bed while suffering from an undisclosed terminal illness. In her time of grieving, she recorded a collection of songs – a sort of final lament for a life lived and a therapeutic acceptance of the unknowable passage into death (When this happened we do not know – the closest I can find to an “official” release date is 1974.)

The subject matter, and mystery surrounding this record, means that we can fall into the back story regardless of its validity. All we know of Ms. Lee is this half hour of music, featuring, exclusively, her wonderfully delicate voice. It feels like finding the private recordings of a family member you were, by sheer will of time, unable to meet – a small artifact that contains the most intimate account of a life passed.

The first 10 minutes are intensely immersive. I am especially taken, even still, by “Dust on My Picture Frame” – her delivery sounds painfully restrained.  The lyrics, tethered with regret and loss, convincingly sound like the meditations of a woman staring her own mortality in the face. You believe Esther, and if you listen closely between the gaps in her singing, you may even hear your heart breaking (if hearts actually broke, that is).

As the album progresses, though, things start turning kind of funny. It begins with the first name drop of the big man in the sky (you know the one), which seems to trigger what was apparently a suppressed urge Ms. Lee had for singing unrelenting, dehumanizing, and tone-shatteringly upbeat worship music. From track 5 onward, our initial impressions are betrayed in favor of elbow pushing suggestions that, especially in times of mortal certainty, we owe our lives to said big man. In the process, the hurt, torment, regret, and fear that we so irrevocably associate with dying are undermined completely.

This shift is not to say that the songs are illegitimate, or that Esther had not handpicked the tunes herself, but it does not settle well with me on many levels. The sequencing of tracks, firstly, is incredibly jarring. That it started sounding very remorseful and then shifted dramatically into more “optimistic” worship songs suggests that there may have been an agenda here, if not from Esther, than the people producing the material. There also appears to be moments in which the production value shifts (ie, the recording sounds less scratchy or there seems to be a pronounced echo effect on Esther’s voice.) This could possibly be post-recording techniques later added, but the discrepancy is undeniably suspicious.

It is possible the story is sound (I write about this record in hopes that it is), but with some of my past experiences with “underground” religious music (see Forrest McCullough ‘s Flight F-I-N-A-L and the New Creation’s Troubled), I would not put it past a select group of religious fanatics to pull a stunt like this, or worse, to exploit a woman who is in fact dying. Regardless, Where Glory Began is a mysterious little oddity that is worth the initial discovery, if only to carry on the mystery.

More information about this record – perhaps the most you can find on the net – is available on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog website, as well as the entire album in mp3 format.  Its guaranteed to kill the mood of any party (I know this from experience) so be sure to show your friends!

Out of the Loop 01: Peter Grudzien

May 24, 2008

THe Unicorn

In 1974, while working as a graphic designer, Peter Grudzien quietly and independently wrote, performed, and recorded “The Unicorn”, a 14 song LP featuring an odd marriage of country and psychedelic music. Grudzien attempted to sell copies – of which there were a mere 500 pressings and no label involvement – in local bookstores and out of his briefcase after shows with little success.

To be fair, the record – a surrealist hillbilly psychedelic garage masterpiece exploring themes of religion, death, and sex – provided an uneasy space for most listeners to inhabit. The narratives contain often apocalyptic imagery. Distant tape manipulations echoing throughout songs like the epic “Kentucky Candy” sound like a choir of ghosts. Furthermore, the frequent allusions to homosexuality surely tested the average country listeners’ tolerance of gay culture at the time. The record went virtually unheard.

Grudzien was born and raised in Astoria, Queens, New York. In the 1950s, he developed a love for Christian and Hillbilly music, and soon found musical kinship in artists like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. In the late ’50s, he started a band with which he wrote and recorded music.

As an art student in the early 1960’s, he developed a passion for Bob Dylan and hallucinogenic drugs, later documenting a peyote trip in his 1964 song “I Don’t Complain”. In 1969, he was involved in the Stonewall Riots, an event widely considered a precursor to the Gay Rights movement. He later recorded a song about the events, which began as a harsh criticism of the circumstances leading to the riots- claiming individuals were paid to incite violence – and eventually digressed into a paranoid claim that a government created clone was being used to erase his true identity (Grudzien apparently believed this clone theory to be true – he allegedly refused to give Johnny Cash one of his tapes because he believed he was a copy.)

A little over a decade after the apparent failure of “The Unicorn” LP, it was rediscovered by Paul Major, a collector/archivist and small label entrepeneur. A few years later, he met Grudzien in person.

Peter Grudzien

“[I met him] in a downtown drag bar. He was like something out of the Addams family: really tall and skinny, in an obviously slept in tuxedo, 55 years old. He wanted me to go out to his car and listen to this song he’d recorded the morning before, and when we walked down the sidewalk in Greenwich Village, every head turned on both sides of the street! I got into the car, it was covered with cigarette stains and grease and smelled strongly of gas – I was afraid that when he turned the key in the ignition to play the tape deck, the car would explode. He turned out to be a walking encyclopedia of early country music, he had met a lot of big country stars.”

Grudzien remains unaware of his music’s strangeness by societal standards, a mark of a “true” musical outsider. “[He] doesn’t realize exactly how his music is perceived as being so strange. He’s still trying to break into the Nashville Country scene in a normal sort of way,” explains Major.

Though only two LPs (“The Unicorn” and “Garden of Love”) are commercially available through the Subliminal Sounds record label, Grudzien claims to have written over 900 songs throughout his career. He apparently still records and independently distributes music at his incredibly rare live gigs.

For the musically adventurous, “The Unicorn” provides a thrilling, unexpected experience. Download it here. The lesser known “Garden of Love” LP is also available for download here.