Sunday, February 26, 2012

CULTURAL MASH-UP: Layne Staley & Whitney Houston


While the Beast was visiting some good friends in Austin last week (the reason for our longtime absence in posting BTW), we were surprised, then moved, by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell performing “I Will Always Love You” at an Obama fundraiser in San Francisco. It set us to contrasting and comparing the careers of Whitney Elizabeth Houston, who was buried a week ago yesterday, to the late Alice in Chains frontman Layne Thomas Staley, one Cornell's old compadres from Seattle grunge’s heydays and one of that scene's most tragic drug-related deaths. Foolishly, we thought, Is there anything to this?

Namely, we found, they were linked by a singular attitude: A grim, oddly unrepentant pursuit of their drugs of choice (Houston = rock cocaine smoked with weed; Staley = smack 'n' crack) along the lines of: “I’ve got all the money I need to buy all the drugs I need, so step the f*ck off and leave me alone.” Whitney seemed merely better at hiding it.

Capitalism, their stealth arguments ran, allows one to pursue whatever one wants sans judgement or interference. And they had the money to make that happen. And when they both died alone in those perennial overdose inner sanctums of bathtub and couch, the reaction to their demise was eerily the same: This does not come as a surprise.

Well, actually, for us it did: Houston, by most accounts, had put her coke jones behind her, if perhaps not a predilection for alcohol and prescription meds for which she re-entered rehab last year. Staley died after multiple attempts to get clean and in deep regret over the hold drugs had on him (and by all accounts, his death was much more grisly and sad) but Houston, at least publicly, held out in admitting her addictions. When she did, it was under the rubric of "complete recovery."

Both had powerful, operatic vocal styles that were somewhat disproportionate to their body sizes.

Both were only four years apart in age and born during iconic years in American history: Whitney was born in 1963, the year JFK was shot; Staley was born in 1967, the year of the Summer of Love.

In a now-notorious interview for ABC-TV in December 2002, Whitney infamously told Diane Sawyer, “Crack Is Whack.” Nearly a year prior, Layne Staley admitted to Argentinean music writer Adriana Rubio: "I know I'm near death, I did crack and heroin for years. I never wanted to end my life this way."

Staley’s dad was a drug abuser who dropped out of his sons’ life for fifteen years, causing Staley to he briefly take his stepfather’s name. Whitney’s father was John Russell Houston, Jr., a former cab driver turned manager for Dionne Warwick, and she never changed her name throughout her career.

Staley began playing drums at age 12, then switched to singing, briefly fronting funk and hair-glam bands (often wearing drag) and performing Armored Saint and Slayer covers; at age 11, Whitney started her career under the aegis of her Gospel vocalist mother Cissy, debuting at the New Hope Baptist Church with the old Welsh spiritual “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”

Houston and Staley had weird hair challenges: Whitney early in her youth, which made her look like a skinny boy; Staley all his life, which made him look like a skinny girl. Whitney had a bevy of image-consultants and stylists to overcome this. Staley merely dyed his hair pink, shaved it off, or wore it in a Snooki poof.

“We Die Young,” Alice in Chains’ first single was released in July 1990, and is also the first song on Alice in Chains’ full length debut Facelift, released a month later. A month after that, Whitney releases the first single (and first song) from her gazillion-selling third album, “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” "Young" features Staley singing to fans who are drowning in a pool of blood. Whitney's video features “an edgier, rougher Houston paying homage to the sounds of black music that have helped define her sound.”

Staley's nickname was "Blanche"; Houston's was "Nippy" -- later changed
to "Nippy, Inc." after her modeling career began taking off,

Alice in Chains did not tour in support of 1992’s Dirt for very long, because of Staley's drug addiction. Ditto for 1994’s Jar of Flies. Whitney’s erratic behavior didn’t begin to surface in the press between the release of those two albums. In 2000, when she and Bobby Brown were found with marijuana in their baggage at a Hawaii airport, she began showing up late or not at all for performances, got booted off the Academy Awards broadcast, and appeared so out of it as to be playing an imaginary piano during a magazine interview.

Staley wrote songs with titles like “Sickman,” “Hate To Feel,” “Sea of Sorrow,” “Bleed The Freak,” “Killing Yourself,” “Sludge Factory,” and “Junkhead” – most of them stoned. Whitney sang songs with titles like “You Give Good Love,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “Love Will Save the Day,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” and “My Love Is Your Love.”

Whitney appeared at a Michael Jackson Comeback Special in November 2001 [above], shocking the audience with her “emaciated” appearance. (The Drudge Report: "Images of Houston completely wasting away into skeletonism - and appearing to be at stages of illness beyond even Karen Carpenter before she passed - still haunt.") A dope-sick Staley made a surprise appearance at a rock festival in May 1994 [below] wearing a wool ski mask to hide his “sickly” features. He also liked to wear gloves to hide the needle marks on his hands. When Mark Arm of Mudhoney saw him a year later, he was quoted a sayng Staley was “totally green.” After interviewing Whitney on ABC, Barbara Walters referred to her appearance as “almost like a skeleton.” By the time of her autopsy, there was a hole in her nose from cocaine abuse and eleven fake teeth.

Staley admitted to using drugs since he was 13, openly told the press about his adult drug use, and wrote frequent lyrics on drugs about how great/awful drugs were. Whitney didn’t admit to using drugs until she was interviewed by Oprah in 2009, seven years after her Diane Sawyer interview and three years before her death where her body was found with the skin nearly boiled off from scalding bathwater.

Both entered into so-called “drug recluse” periods, Staley from 1998 to his death in 2002, Whitney for about the same period of time. It was rumored that Staley would spend most of his days creating art, playing video games, or nodding off on drugs. Months before his death, he told a visitor: "My liver is not functioning, and I'm throwing up all the time and shitting my pants." The rumors surrounding Houston included "hallucinating violent demons, to biting and hitting herself, putting her hand through walls, and locking herself away to smoke rock cocaine and pleasure herself with an apparently prodigious collection of vibrators."

Both were plagued by rumors of drug-related death even before their actual drug-related deaths. Staley's obituary had been on stand-by at the Seattle alternative newspaper The Rocket in the late 1990s. In 2001, MTV began collecting B-roll images for a Houston obit, an honor normally reserved for elderly celebrities.

Staley had so retreated from the public eye that his body wasn’t discovered until two weeks after he overdosed, when his body had decomposed past the point of identification. After Whitney’s death, her body was not removed from the premises by the L.A. Coroner Dept. for 10 hours.

Both ruined their voices with abuse.

200 people showed up to Staley’s memorial vigil, including former bandmates Mike Inez, Jerry Cantrell and Sean Kinney and friend Chris Cornell. 300 showed up to Whitney’s funeral, including Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Kevin Costner, Mary J. Blige, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Diane Sawyer and Houston's cousin, Dionne Warwick. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie ordered the flag at the state capital lowered.

Both died young.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

THE VOICE: The '80s Chanteuses (2 of 4)

There was a time when the great doo-wop vocal groups of the 50s and 60s were as faceless to music critics as they were to their audiences, partially due to their frequently shifting lineups. But in the 70s and 80s, certain music writers began to sit down with the catalogues of groups like The Coasters and the Dell-Vikings and The Diamonds and discover the names of their distinctive singers, and figure out seriously what made them great singers other than the fact that they weren’t Clyde McPhatter or Ben E. King. It was through this reinvestment in scholarship that we can now appreciate the vocal talents of the likes of Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, Fred Parris, Earl Carroll, Carl Gardner and Kripp Johnson.

The Beast thinks that now – some thirty years down the line – the same should be done for the first generation of great American synthpop/New Wave female vocalists of the early 1980s, the ones who weren’t named Tina or Madonna, the ones who popped up on MTV in one hit wonder bands and now pop up on the occasional reunion tour or nostalgia cruise. It seems an unfair fate to befall these superb vocal stylists, mostly because the music that accompanied them can sound so terribly dated to us now. So let’s give them their due.

As we were working on Part 1 of this series within a series, we realized how influential Pat Benatar was, something that only recently singers of newer generations started to cop to. (Joan Jett and Teena Marie were always the hipper names to drop.) One of Benatar’s best inheritors was Patty Smyth, who took the tough-cookie persona into New Wave territory when she led the Brooklyn-based power pop band Scandal from 1982 to 1985. Smyth’s lovely voice is the reason this band is even is still on the radio and not a mere rock & roll footnote for having a pre-fame Jon Bon Jovi as a guitarist for about five minutes. Their big claim to fame was 1982's “Goodbye To You,” in which Tom Welsch's punchy rubberband bass line is the only instrument that can match Smyth’s hit-the-road-jack vocals. But we always preferred the more restrained “Love’s Got a Line on You”:

Smyth's bluesy, crystalline wail is like erotic sandpaper, sounding very much influenced by Janis Joplin, Robert Plant and Heart's Ann Wilson. Her voice had a way of breaking in a compelling way, revealing the aches in a defiant pose, deepening lyrics that weren’t very deep to begin with. Unlike other vocalists of her ilk, Smyth didn’t wear her sex on her body but in that voice. Being a first-generation MTV staple, she of course was telegenic, with the oval-shaped face of a pixie but with a biker chick's sense of vulnerable command. She was a nightengale with a big yawp. This is why it becomes painfully obvious watching any of Scandal's videos that Columbia Records had no knowledge of how to market her.

This is why “The Warrior,” still sticks, despite the grim Big Label hypestorm that seemed bent on destroying this band by throwing tons of money and hackneyed concepts at it in hopes that something would stick. For one, it's essentially a rewrite of "Love's Got A Line on You." Second, it was on an album where the band's name had been changed – no doubt by a roomful of conference room suits – to ‘Scandal featuring Patti Smyth’ like she was Nutrasweet. Third, they threw her into what is quite possibly the worst video for a Top 10 song from that decade IN PERPETUITY:

Yet the song, despite all cynical attempts to the contrary, despite fatuous lyrics (“Shootin’ at the walls of heartache...”??) and a half-assed guitar break that kills the song's momentum dead in its tracks, is unforgettable for Smyth’s superb performance. Her defiant, operatic vocals are the only thing in this Reagan Decade hot mess that bring it's "A" game. As everything else fails around her, she still sings like a Warrior -- putting up with all the music industry lameness that money can buy. In microsm, this song is almost an essay on why the record industry became the immobile behemoth we know now.

And her success with Scandal was no fluke. After turning down an offer from Van Halen to replace David Lee Roth, she had a moderately successful solo career and later married crotchety tennis star John McEnroe. They gracefully never starred a reality show together.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

THE VOICE: The '80s Chanteuses (1 of 4)

["The Voice" is OUR ongoing series on unique & overlooked vocalists of any genre.
Any similarities between it and another network TV series -- including the logo -- is purely hallucinatory.]

While we were watching the final episode of Sam Dunn’s Metal Evolution series, the Beast played a game with the VH1 Classic ad campaign that offers a spate of enigmatic visuals corresponding to famous rock & roll icons (a “pumpkin” being “smashed”; a “flock of" flying "seagulls”; guy with a “radio” for a “head”, etc.). We managed to name all of them, save for a quick two-shot of a blonde-haired woman with a prominent metal bustier. The Beast blurted out “Madonna! Lady Gaga!” but our wife surprised us with “That chick from Missing Persons!”

Dale Frances Consalvi

It couldn’t have been, could it? A few years ago, we picked up a Missing Persons greatest hits CD for $7.99 – and it was the bargain of a lifetime. We remembered lead vocalist Dale Bozzio as the New Wave sex siren who predated both Lady Gaga and Lady Miss Kier with her swap-meet-on-Mars fashion sense (like breasts floating in fishbowl bra cups with live goldfish) that led one one reviewer to describe her as “somewhere between Barbarella and Judy Jetson." She was svelte and angular with day-glo shocks of pink and aqua in her platinum blonde hair – think of a WW II pinup stamped on the side of an alien starfighter.

Of course, we of a certain Gen (X) know the songs: “Words,” “Destination Unknown” (later covered by Smashing Pumpkins), “Walking in L.A.,” “Give,” “Windows,” “Right Now,” “Mental Hopscotch.” (The arty “U.S. Drag” arguably is the tune where her vocals are most Gaga-like.) But why does this band still pop up on the modern rock radio? How have Missing Persons, despite being one of the first image-conscious New Wave bands thrown at the public by a nascent MTV, remained somewhat relevant?

First off, there’s Bozzio’s unmistakable vocals – among her own improbable influences are the hicuppy yelps of Buddy Holly (her trademark falsetto “ah!” sent a million geeks into lap-to-hand overdrive) and the loverlorn croon of Frank Sinatra. (One might also add in Dion and Debbie Harry.) Like her contemporaries -- mainly The Motels’ Martha Davis, The Waitresses' Patty Donahue and Quarterflash’s Rindy Ross -- Bozzio affected a sort of slick toughness. But her voice sounded truly otherwordly -- like a confused pleasure robot that just became self-aware.

Her heliumized chops, it turns out, was a perfect foil for Chuck Wild’s pre-trance synthesizer, which seemed handed down from German motorik music of the mid-1970s and the L.A. noir flourishes of the Doors’ Ray Manzarek. Both Bozzio and Wild kept the rest of the band -- including Dale's hubby and fellow Zappa collaborator Terry Bozzio -- from sounding fully rock & roll. Each seemed like they were trying mimic each other, like a flesh siren and artificial intelligence were meeting for the first time and figuring out how to get their groove on. It was this tension that ensured that a rock and roll singer would have an unwitting influence on the dance music of the next century – just check out all of the "Missing Persons Remix" albums on Spotify. (Dale even went onto the dance floor herself with the Prince-produced “Simon Simon,” which was a minor European hit in 1986.) Her broken-baby-doll vocals wound up influencing future indie divas like Santi “Santigold” White and Gwen Stefani.

And, of course, she was drop-dead gorgeous!


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Why Winter in L.A. Does NOT Suck

Dear January:

You are the month that comes right after the razzle-dazzle of Christmas, so it’s understandable why you have such a bad reputation. A spike in post-holiday suicides. Sobering snow or rain. Going back to the daily grind of work and boring errands. The Cineplex becomes a dumping ground for Hollywood (i.e., Man on a Ledge, Underworld: Awakening). Last month, in particular, seemed a bit grim with the closure of VIP Records, the deaths of Etta James, Claire Fischer and Johnny Otis, the Jazz Bakery running into more brick walls in its effort to find a new space, and departure of jazz promoter Rocco Somazzi, yet another indication that when it comes to underground creativity and exquisite weirdness, you and L.A. are a toxic mix.

Or so we thought, until we quit whining and left the house.

Just this last month, L.A. played host to: Month-long residencies from The L.A. Jazz Collective
and Tim LeFebvre in Little Tokyo; Glass Candy at Club Los Globos; Skrillex at the Cinespace; Mike Watt & the Missngmen at the Redwood Bar; The Smell’s 2-night 14th Anniversary bash; four nights of Double Naught Spycar at Taix; the opening of the massive L.A. Free Music Society retrospective in downtown’s artist district; the Vinny Golia Sextet in Eagle Rock; Slumgum at the Glendale Moose Lodge in Glendale; Missincinatti at Space Camp; Wilco’s 3-night stand in as many venues (we caught the sublime Wiltern show); Gustavo Dudamel’s Nine Mahler Concerts in 22 Days marathon; Eleni Mandell at the Bootleg Bar; Lou Reed and Bob Ezrin chatting about Metal Machine Music in Long Beach; Steve Reich and the Bang on a Can All-Stars at Disney Concert Hall; Jeff Gauthier, Michael Dessen and Motoko Honda faced off in Venice while across town X, The Avengers and the Dead Kennedys invaded MOCA; and, to cap it all off, the dazzling and magical SASSAS Welcome Inn Time Machine, which spread about 100 years of modern composers – from Ornette Coleman and John Cage to Arnold Schoenberg and the LAFMS – into the rooms and balconies of a  cheesy, quintessentially SoCal motel on Colorado Boulevard:

Sorry, January, you may have got a bad rap. You were even warmer than we excepted.

And February? Man, you’re looking just as promising! You've got: Slumgum with Dwight Trible, Leni Stern, Ben Wendel, Anthony Shadduck and Tim Berne at the Blue Whale; Gongfarmer & Fred Frith at the Eagle Rock Center for the Arts; the Burning Jazz and Spoken Word Series with David Ornette Cherry at Loyola Marymount College (2/02); Trio M with Myra Melford, Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson at the Musician's Institute Concert Hall, Dwight Trible, Trevor Ware, John Beasley and Dexter Story at Joe's Restaurant & Guy Blakeslee and the Chuck Dukowski Sextet at The Smell (all on 2/03!); The Eclipse Quartet with Perla Batalla at LACMA & Dorothea Grossman with Michael-Pierre Vlatkovich at Battery Books & Music (2/04)Taku Sugimoto and Michael Pisaro with the Dog Star Orchestra at The Wulf (2/05); Mike Watt and Canage Asada at the Redwood & The Mae Shi reunion at Pehrspace (2/06); Kamasi Washington at Footsie's Bar (2/08)Justo Almario’s Birthday Bash at Catalina’s (2/09); Ravi Coltrane & Christian McBride at Royce Hall (2/11); the Nedra Wheeler Quartet at Vibrato (2/14); OHM at the Baked Potato (2/15); the John Cage Centenary at REDCAT (2/15 & 16); Matana Roberts with Jeff Parker and Alex Cline at The Broad Stage, The Phil Ranelin Ensemble at The World StageMoris Tepper at Taix's 321 Lounge (2/17); The Lounge Art Ensemble with Bob Sheppard, Darek Oles and Peter Erskine at Vitello’s & the Charlie Haden Quartet West 25th Anniversary at the Segerstron Center for the Arts (2/18); Busdriver at The Echo (2/21)Sanford Biggers at the Hammer Museum (2/23); Bobby West at Eso-Won BooksLeslie Ross at Beyond Baroque (2/25)An Evening with Rob Zabrecky (ex-Possum Dixon frontman) at the Trepany House (2/28); the ongoing L.A. Free Music Society exhibition, which will include live perfmances and panel discussions (ends 2/25).

THE not-to-miss event of February, though, is on 2/24 with the return to L.A. of The Watts Prophets, who will be appearing with The Last Poets' Umar Bin Hassan in a tribute to the Watts Writers Workshop of 1965. This is ONE NIGHT ONLY EVENT and calling in advance for tickets is STRONGLY RECOMMENDED!

There, that's over 30 reasons to be thankful.* Yes, February, we are looking forward to your bounty -- more so now that the news just came down of Frank Gehry stepping in to design a new home for the Jazz Bakery for free.

Of course, both Mike Kelley and Don Cornelius killed themselves in Los Angeles today, we might have a new serial killer for James Ellroy to drool over, and a mild-mannered South L.A. schoolteacher may be a grotesque pedophile. Sigh. Back and forth, back and forth it goes...

*"...and reasons to be thankful are free"