“Velvet Underground” by Jonathan Richman

Just heard this song for the first time on an old episode of Penn Jillette’s podcast (“Penn’s Sunday School”), the one Penn recorded on the day it was announced Lou Reed passed away in 2013. Reed was a huge influence on Richman and this is a wonderful tribute song that not only gives high praise to the Velvet Underground and sounds like them, but allows for a completely charming “Sister Ray” cover during the middle 1/3 of this song.  This is from Richman’s 1992 album “I, Jonathan.”  If you’re not sure on who Richman is, he was the singing troubadour from the 1998 blockbuster hit comedy “There’s Something About Mary.”

Penn was very good friends with Reed for many years during the 1980s and 1990s and if you’re a fan of Reed’s, I encourage you to either stream or download the episode from the link below (Episode 89 from October 27, 2013).  There’s lots of wonderful anecdotes and stories about Reed that’s nearly two hours long.  Re: this song, Penn actually took Reed to see Richman in concert, where he performed this song, avoiding eye contact with Reed because he was such in awe of Reed.  Reed had difficulty making out one of the lyrics, which Penn explained to Reed was “America at it’s best,” meaning Reed’s first band.  Reed paused and said “Yeah, that’s pretty accurate.”

http://pennsundayschool.com/episodes/

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“Easy Eggs” – Life in a Blender

Life in a Blender are an extremely cool band that could best be described as Camper Van Beethoven and Tom Waits getting Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers really, really drunk … though even that doesn’t do them justice.  They may be quirky, but while I realize the adjective “quirky” can be a negative these days, trust me when I say they are quirky in the BEST way.  They’re terrific musicians with unconventional skewed lyrics and I’m not quite sure my lame analogy above even remotely does them justice.  The best thing I can say about them is that they are true originals and their style is next-to-impossible to copy or duplicate.  My biggest surprise is that they’ve been around since the 1990s and I haven’t heard of them until this past week.  In any case, you’re encouraged to check them out … specifically on Dave’s Strange Radio, where they have been generously thrown into rotation.

“Someone I Care About” – The Modern Lovers

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Jonathan Richman and his band the Modern Lovers were a real anomaly in the early 1970s. Like many singer-songwriters of the era, Richman wrote very sensitive lyrics that wore his heart on his sleeve. But those lyrics were backed with some uncommonly abrasive music for the period (supplied by future Talking Heads member Jerry Harrison and future Cars member David Robinson). In addition, Richman’s songs decried drugs and promiscuity at a time when no one had even thought of the term “straight edge,” let alone thought it was cool. When you add his unfashionably short hair and nasally vocals into the mix, he seemed like the guy who was begging for noogies and wedgies.

But despite his “uncool for the time” demeanor, Richman was as ballsy as Iggy Pop and Lou Reed (two artists Richman admired) and like Pop and Reed, seemed to invite abuse by his mere presence. “Someone I Care About” is Richman’s declaration about wanting a girl that he cares about, or he wants nothing at all. A marked contrast to many bands of the era promising to give women every inch of their love or wanting their women hot, sweet, and sticky. Richman may not be cool in the classic rock sense, but the perspective is refreshing and a lot more sane.  Produced by John Cale of the Velvet Underground.

“Saturday Night Live 1980” – Nathan Rabin’s “How Bad Can it Be? Case File #23”

http://www.avclub.com/articles/how-bad-can-it-be-case-file-23-saturday-night-live,84591/

Bad comedy has always intrigued me, which is why I found this article about SNL’s infamous 1980-81 season so fascinating.  Part of Nathan Rabin’s endlessly terrific “My World of Flops” series, Rabin analyzes the SNL season most people believe was the series’ worst.   This was the season produced by Jean Doumanian, right after Lorne Michaels (and the rest of the original cast) left, and she had to start over with a new cast and new writers.  After reading the detailed account of this season’s failure in Doug Hill’s and Jeff Weingrad’s 1985 book “Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live” many years ago, I had been trying to see these episodes for a long time.  Some of the episodes appeared on Comedy Central when repeats of the show were run, but many of them were severely edited.  It wasn’t until some DVD-Rs of this season mysteriously fell off a truck in a town I don’t remember that I finally got a chance to watch the season.

Yes, this season is pretty bad.  However, when you look at the show over its nearly 40-year history, there are other seasons that are arguably as bad.  What’s easier to see now (as opposed to back in 1980) is that the show goes through severe ups and downs, the downs usually being the years when the show has to start over with a new cast and writers.  It’s not that the performers/writers are bad during the down seasons, it just takes time for a new talent pool to gel, but watching that process can be incredibly painful (and interesting).  The 1980-81 season was one of those seasons, and Doumanian had an incredibly thankless job.  Because no one had ever seen this process before and because the first 5 seasons were so beloved, anything less than being better than the first 5 seasons would have been seen as a failure.

Despite these qualifications, the season is pretty terrible, though the obvious highlight is watching the introduction of Eddie Murphy.  Watching Murphy and how fresh and funny he was back in the day, it’s astonishing to think where his career has ended up over 30 years later.  Don’t get me wrong, the man still has enormous talent (“Dreamgirls”), but when you see the hacky comedies he’s become affiliated with in recent years (“Pluto Nash,” “Daddy Day Care”), it’s a sad reminder of how far he’s sunk.

The other fascinating person to watch that season is Charles Rocket.  Billed as a cross between Bill Murray and Chevy Chase and groomed to be the season’s breakout star by producer Doumanian, Rocket is a better talent than historians of the show would lead you to believe.  However, the pressure cooker environment of the show, coupled with the sky-high expectations put on his shoulders by Doumanian, likely contributed to him being immensely difficult to work with, as Hill and Weingrad allege in their book.  After being fired soon after dropping the “f-bomb” on live television, Rocket periodically popped up in character roles in movies and TV, usually very good and playing the kind of caddish roles that Wil Arnett specialized in before starring in “Up All Night” (ironically, produced by Lorne Michaels).   His 2005 suicide by slitting his own throat was especially sad, considering that before SNL, Rocket was considered an important figure in the Providence, Rhode Island arts scene during the early-mid 1970s, a scene that also produced Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and the Talking Heads.  (Rocket played accordion on the David Byrne-produced B-52s album “Whammy”).  Below is a link to an article from the Providence Phoenix that discusses this part of Rocket’s career.

http://www.providencephoenix.com/features/p_and_j/documents/05030762.asp

Doumanian later went on to become producer of then-best friend Woody Allen’s films during the 1990s and early 2000s, until an infamous falling out occurred, detailed in the Vanity Fair article listed below:

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2005/12/woodyallen200512

“I’m Straight” – The Modern Lovers

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A straight edge anthem from the early 1970s … when it was REALLY REALLY not cool to be straight edge. Apparently, Jonathan Richman and company used to be pelted with rotten food when performing this live. I find this song hysterically funny, incredibly annoying, agonizingly heartfelt, and … very very weird. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan. The fact that the YouTube video looks like it was shot on Super 8 adds to the lo-fi, dorky appeal.