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Madonna, All Hail

This week, in a beautiful generational symmetry, EO and I went to Madonna’s Rebel Heart concert here in Hong Kong. My one and only Madonna show prior to this was a floor seat at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center on the Like a Virgin tour, May 1985, a few weeks before I graduated from high school. This spring, EO will attend her first formal dance and ‘graduate’ Y11 before beginning her school’s two-year IB program. Over thirty years between our rites of passage and yet here was Madonna – in fearsome form and wicked wit, middle-aged, twice-divorced, sex-obsessed, foul-mouthed – here was fucking Madonna.

Madonna cage

The Queen, in her cage.*

The fourth best-selling musical act of all time. Superseded only by The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson.

Madonna.

The most successful solo artist in the history of the American singles charts. Let that sink right in while I say her name one more time.

Madonna.

Screw the haters. To hell with the ageist TMZ brigade. Go home if her show starts too late for you. I don’t care how old she is or who shares her bed or even what kind of person she is behind the scenes. All that matters is what she brings to the stage, and in that arena Madonna reigns. Unrivaled. Matchless. Supreme.

Madonna supper

Feast your eyes and pass the wafers.

She transported her full show to Hong Kong – not always the case with touring artists in Asia – and played for over two hours, joined by her band, back-up singers and about 20 dancers. The concert was a button-pushing visual feast of multimedia images, lights, poles, ramps, stairs, hydraulics and dance. Lots of dance. Throughout the show, Madonna moved seamlessly from one cultural theme to another: Samurais to start; Catholicism (of course) to heat things up; Matadors, Greasers and Flappers to express love and more sex, sex, sex; and then “Holiday” fun to finish. I expected the button-pushing and restless cultural curiosity; Madonna has always championed the unusual and the underground, the more provocative the better. She’s a human synthesizer, and I say that as a compliment. What surprised me, however, was the lightness and vulnerability she showed. She chatted, joked, queried and proclaimed to the audience: don’t ask questions, there is no answer. She wore the mantle of Queen both proudly and irreverently.

Madonna male dancer

Body by Madonna.

But if I could distill her performance, nay her entire artistic existence, down to one point, I would say very simply that Madonna is about the body. All shaking ass, thrusting bosom, beating heart. Her hand on a thigh and a head in her crotch. As a dancer first and foremost, she understands the visual power of motion, of open legs and intertwined limbs. Or as her concert showcased, the stunning impact of one shirtless, muscular man moving on an empty stage with only a billowing scarf for company.

Her raison d’être, if I dare to speculate, has always been about celebrating the amazing, ecstatic things we can do with our bodies, alone and in company. She made that statement with her very first single, “Everybody”, which was released in 1982. Every / Body / Come on / Dance and Sing. And she continued that manifesto by shining a light on how others try to stop us from said ecstasy, whether it’s an overbearing patriarchy, Catholic constraints on sexuality or our very own hang-ups. Every / Body / Get Up And / Do Your Thing. Madonna’s body electric is both personal and political, and she makes her stand not only with music and lyrics but movement as well. As if Martha Graham were a pop star…

After the show, EO and I speculated as to what Madonna would do between her two shows in Hong Kong. (If you see her hiking The Peak, tell her I said Hi!) I figured after 2+ hours on stage, in heels, she probably needed some serious physio, or at least a massage. The thought made me a little sad. Madonna’s getting older, her knees must be killing her.

I know a lot of people reckon she’s well past her prime, that the best she can do these days is hitch her wagon to Nicki Minaj or Drake. But I disagree. Though I hadn’t seen her in concert for decades, her Rebel Heart show was indisputable proof that her creative vigor and taste for provocation is alive and well. She still owns the stage, whether she’s alone and singing “La Vie En Rose” or leading her dancers down the catwalk in a fantastic rendition of “Deeper and Deeper”, everyone strutting and vogueing. Even EO said she didn’t think Madonna was trying to be a teenager. The Queen was dancing, singing, doing her thing, and we were lucky to be a part of it.

Madonna solo

Kneel, Genuflect, Rise, Repeat.

How many musical icons not only survive but prosper as they head gently in to that good night? How many still have something to say? The list is short. Prince, Jagger, McCartney, Aretha, Bruce? Maybe. Bowie we just lost, Streisand barely sings anymore, Diana Ross has been MIA for years. Sinatra got it right, but then who else? Who changed pop music forever? Who’s left?

Madonna.

 

*All Hong Kong concert photos courtesy of a lovely and talented friend who had way better seats than I did! 😉

 

Happy Rock Dads’ Day!

Father’s Day is this Sunday, so in honor of rock Dads everywhere I thought I’d talk to some actual musician Dads and get their take on music and parenting. I sent them some questions and was amused, surprised and most of all honored by their heartfelt answers. My guests are from all over the world, but briefly I’d like to welcome:

San Saba County, a gem of a band from Austin. That's Tyler second from right.

Tyler lives in Austin, but hails from Moscow, Idaho. He plays bass and sings for a band called San Saba County. I’d call them a very Texas band; they use the term: post-alt-country. You can check them out on their MySpace page. Tyler’s daughter, Evie, is almost two, and she’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen. Tyler’s married to my good pal, Christie, whom I’ve mentioned before as one of my main music-loving resources.

Click here for San Saba County’s website.

Kevin lives in Hong Kong, but is originally from the U.S. His son, Jonah, will be three years old in July. By day, Kevin works as Asia Business Editor for CNN.com International and at night he plays bass in a couple of local bands, including Transnoodle. He describes their music as “original ska, punk, funk, Russian folk music “. For proof, you can check them out on YouTube:

and

Kevin also plays with the trio New Tonic Press, featuring singer-songwriter Sue Shearman. You can listen to New Tonic Press at:

And last but not least is Bill, my brother, who lives in Paris and has twin boys – Felix and Louis – aged eight. Bill works a very white-collar job as a management consultant but also plays guitar in a cover band called The Outliers. He’s as fanatical about music as I am. And he’ll be pleased to know that after many years, I finally have a keen appreciation for Paul Simon.

That's my brother on the right. Kind of a continental T-Bone Burnett, n'est pas?

There were so many interesting and honest answers to my questions that I’m going to post this in two installments. So read on for Part I of my Q&A with some way cool RockDads:

Do you have any specific memories of what music your parents listened to?

Tyler: There are three bands that stand out from my childhood and they all were mostly played on a cassette boombox on the beach during our summer camping trips: ZZ Top, Huey Lewis and The News and John “Cougar” Mellencamp. My parents were always music listeners but not music lovers and I would never say they had a taste of their own. It was always whatever was American Top 40. They divorced when I was around seven, and I remember soon after the divorce my dad buying me John Cougar’s “Scarecrow” album. He looked me in the eye, handed me the cassette and said, “Listen to this, son,” as if it held the answers of the world. I’ll admit that I have tapped my foot to one or two of the ‘Coug’s’ songs.

Kevin: My parents were teenagers on the wrong side of the 50s — Dad listened to classical and Perry Como, Mom liked easy listening, so the radio was often tuned to muzak. That changed for me when John Lennon died when I was 12 and suddenly all the stations were playing The Beatles: I had heard every song before in lame elevator form, but never actually heard them do it. I listened to the Beatles non-stop for a full year. My dad and I connected more on music in high school when I studied music and he was surprised to hear Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” on my stereo.

Bill: I have many, many memories of Dad’s music: Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” and the other Tijuana Brass LP with the airplane are primal memories because of the A&M Records logo. Dad was keen on the 50’s-60’s white jazz guys like Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader, Stan Getz and the funky instrumental space age bachelor pad records he had. Later, when I began playing saxophone and got serious about jazz, he would bring home bargain records of these guys that he remembered from his college days. He got me Dave Brubeck’s Greatest Hits (with Dave in the world’s greatest horn-rimmed glasses), which has been a very important record to me. He got me an obscure Bud Shank record that I played to death. All sorts of curious things. He also got me my first Charlie Parker record (a Verve collection), which opened up a world that has been absolutely fundamental to who I am.

What’s funny is that I don’t recall him listening to many of these albums in his free time. I don’t know that he really connected to this music in the way you and I have connected to our music. My memory is of TV at home and talk radio in the car.

Who are the top three artists you want your children to know/listen to?

Kevin: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane — great composers (though John and Jimi were also virtuosos). Listening to them at 18 is different than listening to them at 42, but somehow the music grows with you. It’s music we could listen to together.

Bill: I am very, very proud that Louis and Felix have a) responded so well to music I love and b) have surprised me by exercising their own judgment on what makes their bedroom playlist. They are huge Beatles fans and love “Help!”, “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”. They could stop there and I would feel my work is done. But Lo! and Behold! they have jumped on my copy of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Greatest Hits Vol. 1”, my Buddy Holly collection, Lemonheads “It’s a Shame about Ray”, REM “Green” and all sorts of things. They are only eight years old but they already have their own tastes and their own agendas in terms of why they listen to music. Louis is very rhythm-oriented, likes to dance and wants a physical rush from his music. He instantly connected to the opening riff in The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”. Felix also likes a good hook, but is more sentimental and lyric driven. He is the frustrated romantic who needs another to sing his heart. He’ll be living with The Beatles all his life and will no doubt be passionate for bands that “stand for something” — a U2 or REM ten years from now.

So, to answer your question, here is the list:
1) The Beatles — check
2) American R&B and Blues — they’re deep into Motown already and I am optimistic that this will lead to blues and the rest of that wonderful world of black music that I believe is their best anchor to American culture.
3) Miles Davis, specifically “Kind of Blue”.

Tyler: In a perfect world, my little girl will like every band that I push onto her. I do know that this will never be the case. I would hope that she could at least respect bands like Wilco, My Morning Jacket and Neko Case for their classic guitar and vocal-driven song craft.

Performing in bands can offer all kinds of temptations that go hand-in-hand with a late-night lifestyle. Would you encourage your child to pursue rock-n-roll? Why or why not?

Kevin: I’ve gone down that road and did a U-turn. I quit drinking a week before I learned I was going to be a father. For me, the partying part of music just became boring, depressing and dangerous. Still spend time in bars, but it’s Coke (Coca-Cola, that is) for me now. If my son picks up the guitar I’m sure I’ll worry, then remind myself what I was doing when I was his age. Then worry even more.

But I met my wife by playing music — she asked me out after seeing me at a gig. So in a way, Jonah owes his existence to my nightlife pursuits. I suppose I’ll need to give him room to make his own mistakes. I mean, really — do I have a choice? But if he falls into that trap, at least I’m better equipped now to help him get back.

Tyler: If you’re referring to drinking, smoking and the like, I cannot condone it but I know what kids will do. I’m still a kid myself. But playing music is much more than getting loaded and banging on an instrument. It’s the one constant in my life that I will always love and never quit so if my kid can have a focus like that in her life I will never stand in her way.

Bill: I would encourage them to pursue rock-n-roll. Drugs scare me, but they will pass that gauntlet no matter what. What’s important is that they have something meaningful and enriching to their self-esteem. Plus, it may help them get girls to a degree that I could only dream of as an adolescent.

Stay tuned for Part II where we hear the Rock Dads talk about their favorite lullaby’s, how listening to music will be different for their kids, and what they would do if their son brought home the 18-year old incarnation of Chrissie Hynde.

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American Village Idiot – Green Day in Hong Kong

I think it was the two-minute sax solo.

Or maybe the sight of Billie Joe dry-humping the stage and singing, ‘Love Me Tender’.

Either way, Green Day’s latest live show made me realize that they are punks no more. They’re bona fide, big-ticket stadium entertainers.

And it sucks!

So come on, let meeeeee entertain you!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to launch in to some elitist screed about, “I saw them when they were nobodies, yadda, yadda.” I don’t mind a good stadium show. Last year’s Coldplay concert, for example, was a brilliant evening with a populist band at the height of its commercial powers.

But let me just count the ways that last Saturday’s concert – Green Day’s first time in Hong Kong (!!) – was a frustrating, annoying vaudeville mess:

1. There was the sax solo, as mentioned.
2. There was BJ’s continuous ‘Come On!’
3. The Spinal Tap-worthy pyrotechnics. What, no midgets?
4. An AC/DC interlude – yawn. Billy Joel covers AC/DC now.
5. Then the Elvis tribute.
6. Followed by a Beatles cover (‘Hey Jude’) with a Deep Purple riff thrown in.

With each cover, however, BJ and Co. would start the song and then not finish it! If you want to do a cover then do a complete cover, putting your own stamp on it. Not some lame ‘Hooked-on-Classics’ style medley. And btw, you know that great part in ‘Hey Jude’ when McCartney sings, ‘Jude, Jude, Jude-y, Jude-y, Jude-y, Jude-y’? He sings that once, not on every chorus – that’s why it’s so powerful.

The most annoying part of the show – it felt like the whole show actually – was Billie Joe’s constant (I’m not kidding you when I say constant) need for an audience call and response:

BJ: I say Aay-Ooh!
US: Aay-Ooh!
BJ: I say Aaaay-Ooooh!
US: Aaaay-Ooooh!
BJ: I say AAaaaAAaaaAAaaaAA-Oooooooooh!
(audience loses plot at this point.)

Where is Harry Belafonte when you need him? Green Day come and me want to go home.

THE SEX PISTOLS NEVER DID A SAX SOLO!

Was it the unsophisticated audience? Did Green Day think Hong Kong – in our imaginary Mao caps – would lap up this crap? Or do they do this at every show? I can’t imagine a SoCal crowd putting up with this call-and-response patter BETWEEN EVERY SONG.

In fact I did see Green Day in Orange County once. The band blazed through song after song, and the audience did their best to foil security and rush the stage. Green Day was playing big venues then too (Anaheim Pond), but they kept it lean and mean.

And what about making the audience do the singing? Sing a line, then make us sing, sing another line, make us sing the chorus. Do you realize this is what Robbie Williams does?

I read that BJ mooned the audience in Singapore. Uh, Robbie Williams does that too.

Billie Joe even pulled up an audience member to sing the entire ‘Longview’ by herself. I paid HK$550 (US$70 and they weren’t even great seats!) per ticket; I didn’t pay to hear Gabriella so-and-so sing the damn song!

Green Day has always had populist DNA. From “Dookie” onwards they’ve produced reliable, catchy pop songs, the punk being just window dressing, like Billie Joe’s ubiquitous eyeliner. But with “American Idiot” (released in 2004), they captured a political, more mature voice, and joined the ranks of ‘important’ bands.

“Idiot” rocked hard. Unfortunately, they’ve tried to replicate that power on “21st Century Breakdown”, and it just falls flat. It’s a paint-by-numbers dud: a bad (meaning bad) rock opera screaming, “Phoned it in with a rhyming dictionary!!!”

Maybe that’s why the concert felt so underwhelming. It was a facsimile of a real show. It was Green Day saying, “We’re in China, boys. Let’s throw out a few ‘thank you’s’ in Cantonese and screw around with these neophyte rockers. They’ll love it!”

True enough, we Hong Kong’ers don’t know how to stage dive. We point our phone cameras at any thing that moves – even when it’s 100 feet away in low lighting.

(Those of you who screamed and took pictures of that pink bunny?)

L.O.S.E.R.S.

But even we don’t deserve your schtick.

Just play the f’ing songs!