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Thank You, Vin Scelsa

April 1, 2015

Here is a stereo set, bought at Korvettes, overheated and smelling gently of warm plastic. It sits on a deep shelf in a teenager’s suburban bedroom.

It’s left on all night, and most of the day. It hums and buzzes and hollers and sighs as teeth are brushed in the morning, when homework is done in the afternoon, as diet sodas are sipped over impenetrable algebra in the evening, and when the lights go out after the news at night.

Mostly it plays LPs and 45s, largely British, full of accents and attitude and slurring power chords and sly observations, “Lucifer Sam” and “Well Respected Man,” “Honaloochie Boogie” and “Baba O’Riley.” Sometimes it plays cassettes of comedy shows taped off the TV.

When it’s not doing any of these things, the radio is on.

The signals, beamed from an Empire State Tower twenty miles to the west, arrive glowing and cozy, vibrating in the sweet, low/mid-range of the 1970s: highs ducked, the bass inviting and sensual, sluicing under and around you like a favorite sweater. Except to hear ballgames and scraps of news, it’s never set to the hissing sibilance of AM.

Even when the radio is top-loaded with songs offensive or uninspiring (to be useful only for triggering a Pavolovian nostalgia dribble two or three decades later), the frequency is still full of friends, which is to say, the voices of the DJ’s. They create the impression that they are speaking directly to you, sharing insights and discoveries (extreme, plain or passionate) with you and only with you.

And their names still shiver my heart to this day: Alison Steele, Meg Griffin, Pete Fornatele, Jane Hamburger, and most of all, Vin Scelsa.

imgresVin Scelsa announced his retirement this week, after nearly half a century speaking from the heart to the hearts of music lovers – or just lovers of his company – in the New York City area. As I have stumbled across decades, states, and careers, I could say I have only infrequently thought of Scelsa – but that wouldn’t be true. I thought about him all the time (even if I didn’t keep up with his work, which I now regret).

He was my friend. He was never far from my mind. Although I never met him, never even laid eyes on him, a lifetime ago he invited me into his world, which was open minded but discriminating; local in flavor but global in scope; optimistic but realistic; cynical but always inclusive of an ellipses which invited positive change; non-judgmental but with a healthy suggestion of the arched eyebrow of taste. In ways I can never quite detail, he helped shape me. As much as I might claim that I am a child of the golden age of open-minded/no-playlist FM radio (when mightily powerful New York stations would follow the Grateful Dead with Wreckless Eric, or the Good Rats with the Ramones), or the child of the Anglo-discoveries of Trouser Press magazine or the NME, or the child of the high ambition of shadowy and sepia-colored 1980 New York City, or the child of the great shabby and sexy god of 1980s college radio, perhaps the most significant midwife in my birth as a would-be Prince in the Kingdom of Outsiders was Vin Scelsa.

(The only other person on radio who ever reached me in quite the same way, who made me think they were a friend in the night speaking only to me, was Steve Somers, when he did the overnight for WFAN in the 1980s; but that’s another story, I suppose.)

I am delighted that this is not an obituary, but just a few words to honor a great man who contributed enormously to shaping my own strange and opinionated heart and mind, and the hearts and minds of thousands others, too. Today, we are generation (and more) past those school nights I spent in the winter dark and the spring gloaming scanning his weighty pauses for meaning; and I find that the music he played is not fully recalled, and that doesn’t really matter. Instead, I celebrate that I found — in his words, his joy, his doubts, and in his hope-fueled cynicism — an affirmation of the user-friendly idiosyncratic. Vin Scelsa was a coach compelling me to be myself and directing me to find the power of art and individuality in rock’n’roll.

Every time over the last forty years I have grasped for the peace-guns of music to reach someone’s soul, every time I have recognized that a few bars of music and a couple of guttural shrieks contain the ore of revelation, release, and revolution, anytime I have tried to make sense of a personal worldview that encompasses Boston and Wire, Rush and Rudimentary Peni, I am echoing the imprint of Vin Scelsa.

I have long believed that punk rock had only one (broad, all-encompassing, and all-loving) definition: To be open minded, to not fear the obvious, and to not fear the extreme (the extremely simple, the extremely quiet, the extremely loud, the extremely original).

I recognize, looking back forty years, that I have Vinnie Scelsa to thank for that.

Thank you so much, Vin Scelsa.

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Do They Have Sharks in the River Liffey? Because U2 Just Jumped One

September 16, 2014

I tend to give U2 the benefit of the doubt because, let’s face it, a band that popular could have been a hell of a lot worse. U2 have been the biggest rock band on earth for about 30 years now (only Metallica have even vaguely given them a run for their money), and generally they’ve done artistically dynamic things and consistently used their fame and money to benefit the planet. So, hooray for U2. I mean for god’s sake, they could have been Bon Jovi (not that Bon Jovi suck, but their range is limited and their grasp is shallow; I mean, a band largely based on continuously re-writing Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” can’t be taken that seriously, can they?).

(Oh, and U2 were really nice to me on December 6, 1980, but that’s another story, WHICH I TOLD RIGHT HERE).

As the industry refined, redefined, re-set, and generally defenestrated in the last 30 years, there have been radically few “new” long-haul classic rock bands: apart from U2 and Metallica, there’s Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and, uh, I’m a little stuck here. R.E.M. probably over-aspired (much like the Kinks did in the ‘70s/’80s – i.e., they were a very strong cult act whose transition into the large-scale mainstream consciousness never felt completely right); Guns’n’Roses, who had the artistic goods more than they’re given credit for, went up in a pyre of self-indulgence; potential Classic Rock heroes like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Rage Against the Machine either didn’t sustain fan interest in newer material or didn’t conserve breath for a long run; and Radiohead disappeared so far up their own asses that they can wave hello by sticking their fingers out their mouths. I’ll also throw Porcupine Tree in there, because if there ever was a band that should be regarded as the other credible classic rock band to emerge in the last few decades, it’s them. Oh, accuracy compels me to note Germany’s Die Toten Hosen, who are the very definition of a classic rock act who combine quality and longevity, but no one outside of freaking Germany, where they are as big as U2 or the Stones, has heard of them.

(Die Toten Hosen, the biggest classic rock band you’ve never heard of; posted here because who really needs to see another U2 video? Also, can I mention that I figured out, WITHOUT emailing John Loscalzo, how to insert a link into an article [that thing about my encounter with U2 in 1980]? This achievement makes me happier than Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka on a date in Vienna in 1912, during the really healthy early days of their relationship.)

All things considered, U2 were a pretty rare combination of “gigantic” and “good.”

Until now. A lot of people are jumping on U2 right now, and here’s why I’m joining in:

This is Alma Mahler, whose beauty inspired many of the great artists of her time, like Franz Werfel, Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka, and Walter Gropius.

Let’s start with the ludicrous method of distribution, i.e. the new U2 album just appearing in people’s iTunes accounts. This is a very slippery fucking slope; a U2 record is pretty fucking benign, but what if it wasn’t? What if something that espoused some political or social doctrine just fucking APPEARED on our computer? What if Apple decides to endorse some candidate, or the Chinese compel Apple to take some stance, and propaganda just starts dropping into our computers unannounced? See, it really doesn’t make a difference if it’s U2’s new album or a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, someone coming into my fucking computer and giving me a pile of anything I didn’t ask for is a no-no, and sets a very bad fucking precedent.

Equally as offensive to an old punk didact like me is the use of iconic punk rock images in U2’s new video. 36 years after U2 debuted, they have bizarrely decided to prove how “punk rock” they are by using some (very) basic and over-used images of the Clash, the Ramones, Patti, etcetera in their release campaign. Let’s put this in some context:

U2 were never a punk band, nor did they try to be, nor did they need to be. However, both in terms of stance and sound, they were greatly influenced by a few fundamental punk rock bands, notably the Skids and Stiff Little Fingers. The wonderful Skids were probably U2’s biggest overt influence: they perfected a form of charging, Celtic-scented rock with over-reaching vocals and tumbling, echoing, ticking and spitting guitar; in fact, the Skids’ influence on U2 was so strong that they took pains not to acknowledge it until 2002 when they suddenly covered, with Green Day’s help, the Skids’ anthem “The Saints Are Coming” (though it was the Skids’ “Into The Valley” which was, in many ways, the Rosetta Stone for the early U2 sound). Secondly, U2 liberally borrowed Stiff Little Finger’s point of view (and not a little of their slightly-proggy punk rock sound) and even some of their song titles. U2 were also clearly influenced by very credible punk-era acts like The Only Ones, the Stranglers, PIL, and the Ruts.

Which is all to say that only in a moment of great and unwarranted insecurity – or the misguided desire by a new manager to enact a “re-boot” by somehow linking the band with “punk rock, maaaan” – would U2 need to PROVE to anyone how “punk rock” they are. It’s just fucking unnecessary, and offensive, too, because the bands’ referenced in the new video are so clichéd as to make you think U2 know absolutely nothing about punk rock, which just isn’t true. Seriously, the bands in the clip are the same bands fucking One Direction or Taylor Swift would put in a video if they wanted people to think they were punk rock. By trying to appear credible, they’ve made themselves seem like fucking idiots, and that’s just totally pointless, because they are not idiots.

Which is all to say that U2, a band who have always more or less done the right thing on stage and off, have finally jumped the shark, in fairly resounding and unforgivable fashion. Friends, they are done. Irish Fucking Toast. Is there such a thing as Irish Toast? I mean, is it a thing, like Texas Toast, or Irish Soda Bread? I mean maybe it is or more likely it isn’t, but you get the idea. It took a while, but U2 have finally released their Steel Wheels; i.e., the album that marks the point beyond which one can firmly say no one gives a damn about your new material.

So long, U2. It’s been good to know you. Now go fuck yourselves for coming into my computer uninvited.

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