The Best American Band: Experiencing Nirvana



I lost touch with current music in about 1987 and stayed out of touch until 1994 or so. We had moved back to Columbus, Richard and Russell were infants, then toddlers, then little kids, we didn’t have a lot of money to devote to CDs or concerts, and life just seemed too crowded to pay much attention to the latest trends. I listened to NPR while commuting and, when I listened to music, I listened to “classic rock.” It was not until shortly after Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994 that my friend Dr. Science ripped me for living in the past and encouraged me to reconnect with new music. I grudgingly had to admit that he was right, so I started listening to CD-101 and buying CDs — one of the first of which was Nevermind by Nirvana. That one, exceptional album was enough to reignite my interest in current music.

There’s lots to like about Nirvana’s music. For one thing, it is about as stripped down as you can get — lead guitar, bass, drums, vocals — and it produces great power rock. In my view, Nirvana’s best songs have tremendous musical “hooks” that make the music impossible to resist, like the meandering intro to All Apologies, or the quiet, minimalist beginning of Something in the Way. Then, you had Cobain’s extraordinary, raspy, emotionally charged vocals singing lyrics that were different from the standard fare — sometimes troubled, often amusing, and almost always thought-provoking. You’d listen to a song like Heart Shaped Box and wonder what the hell those lyrics really meant. Many of their songs left me, at least, with lingering questions at the same time I was enjoying the beat.

The faithful Ipod includes 19 Nirvana songs. My favorites are Heart Shaped Box, Rape Me, All Apologies, Mr. Moustache, Lake of Fire, Smells Like Teen Spirit, Lithium, On a Plain, and Something in the Way, and Smells Like Teen Spirit is one of those rare songs that has become a bit of an anthem of a time and place. Nirvana wasn’t around very long, but it had a big, and I think continuing, impact.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!


A Five-Day Boondoggle

Why in the world should the American taxpayers be footing the bill for the Speaker of the House and five members of a House committee to travel to China? People may disagree about Speaker Pelosi’s musings on climate change and the need for Americans to subject every aspect of their lives to an “inventory” so as to cut back on their carbon footprint, but I imagine there is broad consensus for the notion that sending the Speaker to China for a five-day junket is a wasteful expenditure of federal funds. At a time when so many Americans are losing their jobs and tightening their belts, can’t members of Congress endure just a little belt-tightening of their own?

The Best American Band: Lynyrd Skynyrd Consydyrd

As I gave some thought to the question of identifying the best American rock ‘n’ roll band, I decided to consult an unimpeachable source of information — my Ipod. Upon doing so, I realized that it includes a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. Cognito, ergo sum: I have many Lynyrd Skynyrd songs on my Ipod, therefore they must be a great rock ‘n’ roll band.

In fairness, some of those songs are on my Ipod because that are particularly evocative of a time and place. In this instance, the time and place are a crappy two-bedroom apartment on the bottom floor of a two-story stuccoed building at 101 West Eighth Avenue, about four blocks from the Ohio State campus, in the late 1970s. Although I had heard Sweet Home Alabama and Free Bird in high school, I wasn’t really introduced to Skynyrd until college, where my roommate was a Skynyrd freak. We constantly played the first album (called, simply, “Pronounced” at 101 W. 8th) and Second Helping and, when it came out later, Street Survivors. Basically, then, any Skynyrd song gives me a strong sense of the college years. Later, when I was in law school, I adopted Call Me The Breeze as a kind of theme song and played to get me fired up before every first-year law school exam. I question whether any better air guitar (or, for that matter, air piano) song has ever been recorded.

So, I’m biased. Nevertheless, I think Skynyrd can objectively be considered one of the best American rock ‘n’ roll bands even though their career was tragically cut short in 1977 by a plane crash that killed several band members. They had a strong Southern flavor, a striking multiple-guitar sound, wonderful keyboards, and excellent lead vocals — but their songs also reflected an interesting perspective and, in some cases, strong political views. Things Goin’ On, for example, is an excellent protest song, and Sweet Home Alabama, of course, featured a notable reference to the Watergate scandal. And, their music easily passes the car radio test — the volume inevitably got cranked when Gimme Three Steps and I Know A Little were played on the local rock station. When Ronnie Van Zant said “turn it up” at the beginning of Sweet Home Alabama, people listened and obeyed.

The Ipod doesn’t lie, and it includes 19 Skynyrd songs. Some are there because they remind me of specific college moments (like The Ballad of Curtis Loew, a name that was strikingly similar to the name of an older man who was a classmate in the Journalism 202 class my roommate and I took), but most are there because they are just great tunes: songs like Sweet Home Alabama, I Ain’t The One, Tuesday’s Gone, Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man, I Know A Little, Swamp Music, Things Goin’ On, and Free Bird. Skynyrd did not invent Southern rock, but it sure did a lot to advance the genre. I think Skynyrd clearly deserves careful consideration on any “best American band” list.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!

Nothing New Under the (Chicago) Sun (Cont.)

Here’s a story on the latest problems for Illinois Senator Roland Burris and how he came to be appointed to the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. You just have to love any politician who, having failed to disclose an incredibly incriminating conversation despite being asked to provide information on multiple occasions, responds that he wasn’t asked a question sufficiently specific to elicit that response. Now, there’s someone we can trust!

The Best American Band: The Doors Response

The Doors

The Doors

When I innocently mentioned the other night that I thought a case could be made that Aerosmith is the best American bank, ever, Richard gave me an incredulous look and said: “What about The Doors?” Richard, Russell and I then launched into an extended discussion of potential candidates, and the more I think about it the more candidates I come up with.

I have to say, though, that The Doors are a pretty strong choice for an off-the-cuff response to my observation. The Doors are ones of those bands that changed the sound of popular music. What did listeners think when their favorite top-40 radio station first played Light My Fire? Their songs featured excellent keyboard music, strong guitar work, weird lyrics, and a great deep singing voice. The Doors is a terrific album, as are Morrison Hotel and L.A. Woman — these were staples of the apartment stereo system when I was in college. although I never cared much for The End, there were particular times when you just felt an urge to listen to a song like The Cars Hiss By My Window — “with a sonic boom . . . boom” — or the dreamy mood created by Riders on the Storm. Their music was so different that the name The Doors has always seemed particularly apt.

As you might expect, the Ipod features a number of Doors tunes: Break on Through (To the Other Side), Light My Fire, L.A. Woman, The Cars Hiss By My Window, People are Strange, Hello I Love You, Roadhouse Blues (Live), Riders on the Storm, and Touch Me. Although it has been almost 38 years — 38 years! — since Jim Morrison died the traditional rock star’s death, this music still stands the test of time.

Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!