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Published: 2006/08/18
by Andrew Miller

Featured Column:The Bee Gees and Black Sabbath

A couple of months ago I sent an advance copy of my last column to my good friend and rock-n-roll psychologist, Pastor Tim Christensen for general inspection. This, by the way, had not been my habit until editor (i.e.: my boss) Dean Budnick sent back my May column with a note asking me if I really wanted to publish the piece I submitted. Its not that he was unwilling to put it out there, he was curious as to whether he had to be responsible for a chunk of writing where I suspected that a letter-writer’s penis was small, pathetic, weirdly shaped and smelled of sour milk.

I guess I can see why he didn’t want to put his stamp of approval on such salty language. And neither would I, if I was him.

Back to Pastor Tim: He wrote back with mostly positive reviews, despite the multiple infractions of the split infinitive kind (it seems there were a few too many for his taste).

In turn, I was about to send him an email, jokingly instructing him to boldly go and fuck himself where no man has fucked himself before, when I gave pause to the notion. He is, above all, a Lutheran minister and a Christian family man

Not to mention a critic of the run-on sentence.

Which leads us to and I’m sure you’re all dying to know what does this have to do with my literary slave driver and all-around master, Jon Schwartz? Well, I’ll hip you to it: While working at the doomed Phoenix Records, Jon heartily encouraged the members of Big Wu to sign the record contract presented by his higher-ups, and Boldly go where no band has gone before, and become the Rubaiyat of our company.

While absolving Herr Schwartz from responsibility it’s not his fault we signed the dumbest deal ever, the blame sits squarely on yours truly and my mates the memory of his unfortunate-yet-wonderfully-ironic quote neatly bridges what we writers call the intro into the body of this piece (not to mention that I’ve satisfied two elements found in any of my writing: the monthly Jon Schwartz shout out and randomly inappropriate subject matter).

Ah, It’s good to be back.

Looking over the recent columns, I realized that my age is starting to show. Within my writings, I’ve said terrible, ungodly things like: I’ve been doing this for ten years, When I was younger, Back in the day, we had to, etc. Okay, those aren’t actual quotes, but then again, there’s little use in quoting myself two years ago I accidentally found myself lifting quotes from Zinc’s column (I hadn’t noticed the article I had been stealing lines from was an interview with the Big Wu) before I realized I was stealing quotes from myself yet another sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Uh-oh.

I’ve heard the mind is the first to go, and that’s fine; I’ve had a good life when I think back at my thirty-four years. But I saw something alarming in the rearview mirror of my car this morning a grey hair, actually two.

I’m going to discount these two rebel follicles as renegades that never longed to survive in modern world. And survive they didn’t, because I mercilessly ripped them out of my skull with a tweezers and wrapped them in tin foil before sealing that package in an envelope, which I stashed in the Big Wu business filing cabinet under Sympathy, located alphabetically somewhere between Shit and Syphilis.

But back to the story I’ve begun to wonder: Where the heck is the jam scene going? Even more to the point, has it run its course, and how much more can this go on?

After gazing at the Bonnaroo lineup, (Wow! There’s a lot of stuff I’ve already seen! Yipeeeeee!) I noticed the influx of celebrated masters of improvisational music such as Tom Petty. Not to say I told you so, but how many of you really dug the thirty-minute version of “Dreams” that he never played with the Allman Bros?

Criticism of The Megaroo aside, my mind is reeling back to the beginning of my little bands roots, which took to seed back when a rather rotund junkie kicked the bucket somewhere around 1995. Eleven years later jam rock is still doing fine Megafestivals all report healthy ticket sales despite some suspect acts on the bill but if what’s old is new again, when does the new get old? And if Tom Petty has been on the rock scene for more than thirty years yet is a new attraction to jam festivals shall we file him under fresh talent?

Recounting the beginnings of the jam scene, I wrote in an old column:

"In short, the whole scene was creating the vibe of community better than we knew. New York’s premiere working band venue, the Wetlands, granted every band ready to make the journey into Manhattan a stage to play. Great festivals had popped up around the country, giving the scene a sonic Disneyland for freaks. Roy Carter’s High Sierra anchored the West Coast while Ken Hays’ Gathering of the Vibes along with Andrew Stahl’s Berkshire Music Fest gave compliment to the East. These shindigs solidified a growing feeling that was brewing everywhere: ‘Jerry was gone, baby, gone, but the thrill of honest music was quite alive’. Folks were encouraged to spend a weekend with open ears and continue the simple joys of getting together and groovin’.

New and exciting bands sprouted like weeds. The Disco Biscuits married electronica with live musicians, SCI scooped bluegrass away from guys with corn-cob pipes and Osh Gosh B’Gosh overalls. For good or evil, every member of the Grateful Dead had a new project to reinterpret the past. Some bands, such as Moon Boot Lover, got busy and then splintered into several great bands while other musicians joined forces from one band to another to find their niche. Changing, swapping, sitting in, dropping out, fucking around. everyone always looking for the thing that shakes the all mighty ass. What fun!"

When everybody hit the scene between 95 and 98, the media had a devil of a time categorizing the sound. If you look back at the band descriptions in Leeway’s Homegrown Music catalog (THE place to scout jam bands) even self-written descriptions are vague. Virtually every bands synopsis reads: A serving of rock, country, jazz, and folk topped with a dollop of bluegrass, blues and funk-driven metal, So-And-So delivers unforgettable song-writing with blah-blah-blah Somebody once wrote that the Big Wu sounds like Oodles of Phishy noodles served in a bluesy broth, or something equally useless. (Jam is something you listen to, not eat, right?)

I remember a conversation I had with Michael Travis a gazillion years ago where we joking about how reporters were trying to label us as jam, a name we steadfastly refused to admit that we were. Remember, we considered ourselves to be members of highly unique blues-rock-bluegrass-jazz-whatever bands, certainly not jam. Looking back, if Big Wu and SCI aren’t jam, then I don’t know what. But it’s not because we told you we were.

After a decade of bands defining a sound that was indefinable in the beginning, I’ve begun to wonder what’s next. Like dog years, a decade in the music business is a lifetime. Most pop acts are over the hill before their first tour concludes, and usually never make a dent with second efforts. Bel Biv DeVoe hit #3 on the charts with that slammin slice of misogyny Poison, but how many of us lined up to buy their follow-up, Hootie Mack?" Even bands that do cross the decade mark usually have their fortunes shaken up by the American public’s attention span. If we trace the respective arcs of two vastly different bands, say Black Sabbath and the Bee Gees, we can see they share two traits: Their influence on music is undeniable, and they both became parodies of themselves by the time they turned ten years old.

Both released their debut albums in the late sixties and are technically still together, (whether or not they’ve produced any new material within recent memory) but that’s about all they have in common. Although the Bee Gees had a minor hit or two at the beginning of their career, they didn’t really take flight until disco crept on to the charts like a bad case of the clap. Black Sabbath’s life took the exact opposite route, climbing to the top of the rock heap out of the chute before fading after virtually writing the book on metal. Where the Bee Gees had to patiently wait for the publics taste in music to come their way, Sabbath shoved something unfathomable down everybody’s throat. Either way, it wasn’t long after the eighties started that things went south. The Bee Gees never left the disco train and hitched their caboose to an absurd sequel to Saturday Night Fever ("Stayin’ Alive") and as for Sabbath, Ozzy was simply left behind.

So where does that leave bands like us? SCI has taken a decidedly techno turn, and although I haven’t checked in on the Disco Biscuits lately, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve started fiddling, literally, with hillbillyisms. If Ozzy can cover Staying Alive and Yonder Mountain plays Crazy Train, who’s going to be the first to perform Pickin the Sun Down on a sampler?

Yonder Mountain aside, jam and Black Sabbath don’t have much in common (lets forget that in their hey day, Sabbath shows were long affairs, featuring extended improvisational jams, ten-minute guitar solos, nightly drumz segments, constant weed smoke and fans sporting long locks of dirty hair). Jam bands may sing about being friends of the devil, but draw the line at asserting they’re the progeny of the prince of darkness. Oh and neither Sabbath nor any jam band has ever been known to sell any real amount of albums.

As the Wu tossed about the idea of a new studio CD, the material that might make it doesn’t sound all that different from the songs that made it on to our first CD, Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub, released nine years ago. This is after dinking around with drum machines and sequencers on our last CD Tool For Evening. If this means that we’re returning to our roots or some other rock clichhen were really showing or age. But some bands keep chugging right along, decade after decade, no matter how the tastes of nation change. The Dead, Zappa and the Mothers, the Stones and the Who are still on the road, in one form or another, death (and deafness) be damned.

Even though each one of them put a sizeable stamp on the face of rock music, whether or not they are relevant as modern artists is open to debate. On one hand, I could argue that their best material is better than anything else put out since their respective primes, thus their relevance is irrelevant. On the other hand, in the last week, I’ve heard the Eagles, Zeppelin and Kiss on the oldies station, so perhaps my arguments are pointless.

While digging around the Big Wu vaults a few months ago, I discovered a couple of shows that we hired an engineer to multi-track record. Both shows were from the spring of 2003, a turbulent time in Big Wu history: Jason Fladager had left six months earlier, the band was just beginning to find its identity as a four-piece and as for where the band was actually going I still don’t know. But I found myself pleasantly surprised: upon listening to the shows, there, caught on tape, was a band that had found its groove. Where I didn’t expect so much as a useable track to throw out as a free download on the homepage was a whole show of nearly-flawless performances. I don’t toot the bands horn so much because I know as well as anybody how human we are.

Now, there was nobody more shocked than me, when I realized where the show had come from the ill-fated food poisoning concert we performed at the University of Minnesota in St. Cloud where everybody spent the hours preceding the concert rolling around on the floor in the god-awful pain that only food poisoning can deliver. I remember we only got up to simultaneously puke and shit whatever we had left in our bodies every thirty minutes or so. (I still vividly remember Al Oikari retching so violently a mere forty minutes before the show that I could hear him in full stereophonic sound from the other side of a brick wall.)

Now that’s rock-n-roll, folks.

As for the recording, I’m so jacked about it that I’ve spent a several afternoons over the last two weeks mixing it with my friend Erick Sommers. Despite my enthusiasm, it still begs the question of this month’s column: Is this relevant? Or, even more pointedly, is my band still relevant? I mean, the show is three years old, which is a really long time if you factor in the argument that 90% of the bands formed in North America three years ago are already history.

The answer is: I hope so. And here’s why: As opposed to the rest of known universe, art doesn’t get old with age. It gets old with exposure, and gets old fast when it sucks. Salvador Dali may be really old, rotting even, but nobody that sees his work for the first time has ever thought that it’s outdated. The same goes for ‘Zeppelin II’ and Penn & Teller.

Besides, age by itself doesn’t make one irrelevant. Some things, like the works of Bach and the Bill of Rights are still as relevant as ever, despite being hundreds of years old. Age hasn’t made Jon McCain irrelevant, while, conversely, a still-youthful Al Gore is as useless as ever.

(How’s that for an ‘inconvenient truth,’ you rock record-censoring pile of shit? P.S.: Don’t fuck the Democrats harder than they’ll fuck themselves by running again. At least give them a chance to wreck George Ws New Evil America of their own volition. God knows they don’t need you around to make things worse. And to think that you actually talk about wasting votes on inappropriate third choices )

Which brings up next months article, one you know I’ve got my heart into: Padres 2006 Election Primer! Guaranteed to player-hate on both sides of the isle with true-blue American equality Stay tuned!

This months Old Style Zealot is none other than Al Sedacca, Head of Security for hire. Dispensing his own brand of justice, Al is a Security man on the edge- And he’s meaning to clean up the mean streets of Harmony Park!

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