52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK TEN

Week 10: Sign O the Times Mess With Your Mind

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.

Prince

Album: Sign “☮” the Times

Paisley Park/Warner Bros.

1987


What is the definition of a successful double LP? Is it a cohesive package–a collection of songs perfectly paired and organized to tell a story? Should the album have an epic underlying message? Or should it merely be a document of some creative spree, the result of which can’t be limited to a single album?


Why do some of the truly great double albums somehow manage to pull off the feat of piquing interest, despite their long-winded running time?


Consider some of the obvious contenders: Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, The Beatles White Album, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, The Clash’s London Calling (and later its Triple LP extravaganza Sandinista!), Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime. These albums run the length of some major motion pictures, but even after multiple revisits, still demand to be experienced in their entirety.


They don’t hold the same grandiosity of, say Pink Floyd’s slightly overrated The Wall. Instead these albums are effective because of their musical breadth and ambitions. Take as much as we can come up with and release the lot of it. Give the listener the ultimate listening experience. Tear the walls down. A tried and true motto.


There’s something magical about a perfectly executed collection of songs, and it’s even more remarkable when the album is a hodgepodge with no overlying message or theme.


Prince’s Sign “☮” the Times is the artist’s greatest achievement to date. It skates around damn near every musical genre Prince could conjure up, features pop at its catchiest, rock at its most visceral, ballads at their most tender, and a couple of head scratchers thrown into the mix to keep things interesting.


The origin of Sign “☮” the Times goes like this: coming off the massive success of Purple Rain and his mid-1980s Revolution run, Prince was working on three simultaneous projects–Dream Factory (leaked in early production stage), Crystal Ball (a triple-LP that induced panic from Prince’s label) and Camille (a solo-endeavor showcasing Prince’s alter-ego). The projects were either abandoned, and the scraps and highlights from all three records were assembled for Sign “☮” the Times.


On paper the album sounds like a disaster–the result of tensions between band members and label executives. A bastard record of the time. Summed up; this could have easily been career suicide. Instead Sign “☮” the Times is not only Prince’s best effort but easily one of the greatest, and most surprising albums to come out of the 1980s.


I first dove into Prince’s purple prowess with 1984s Purple Rain. Obvious, sure. But what a masterpiece of unrelenting pop music. While some people pose the musical identity question, “Beatles or Elvis?”, I’ve been become more fascinated with the responses I get when asking: Purple Rain or Thriller?


Purple Rain is perfect. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do and gives Prince reason enough to scream, “baby I’m a star!” Still Purple Rain is pop, plain and simple, with few genre-bending moments, save of course for the epic, guitar-heavy title track.


There are moments on Sign “☮” the Times that pick up exactly where Purple Rain left off. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” takes the catchiness of Rain’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Baby I’m a Star,” and tacks on an extended blues-inspired instrumental outro to, you know, up the ante.


“Housequake” takes dance music into the future by running funk and soul through a drum machine and synthesizer (hints of drum and bass genre to come down the line), and “If I Was Your Girlfriend” is just as sexually raw as Rain’s “Darling Nikki.”


Fortunately Prince doesn’t stop with what he was already too familiar.


“The Cross” is an epic slow-burner that blends gospel, arena rock and roll, and even a sitar to create a sound that references early Prince records but in a more polished final package.


At just under three minutes, “Starfish and Coffee” is Prince tackling a children’s song, while also embracing the magic of food and unflinching individuality.


The album’s title track is exactly what the title promises, a socially conscious soul number that truly captures the time. One of Sign “☮” the Times’ greatest feats, however, is following the direness of “Sign of the Times” with the silly, bubble gum pop of “Play in the Sunshine.” It’s as if Prince deliberately wants the listener to know that nothing about this album’s ride will seem predictable.


“It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” an intoxicating live cut that showcases Prince’s stage routine of the time, accompanied by the Revolution at the top of its game. Carried along by Matt Fink’s driving drums, Wendy and Lisa’s sultry backing vocals, and even a bit of rap and jazz thrown in, the track is easily the culmination of everything heard before it. That the song might be the only time pop music will ever be able to tinker with The Wizard of Oz and live to tell about it (as seen through the song’s intro/outro of uniform “ohhh weee ohhh”) only adds to the song’s allure.


Sign “☮” the Times closes with “Adore,” a slow, sexy R&B tune perfectly suited to cap any evening. The song creeps along with its horn interludes, gospel-inspired pipes, and Prince’s unique high-pitched vocals. Its lyrics are corny at times but miraculously the song manages to feel anything but.



When we be makin’ love

I only hear the sounds

Heavenly angels cryin’ up above

Tears of joy pourin’ down on us

They know we need each other


It’s easy to mock Prince or at the very least, underestimate him. Sure he was a product of eighties glam but the man knows how to write great songs and is a masterful guitar player (his performance at Superbowl XLI remains one of the best in the event’s long-running, half-time show tradition).


Sign “☮” the Times remains one of my all-time favorites. I liken it to Stevie Wonders’ Songs in the Key of Life, in that both albums are thick with content but never bore. Certain songs pack enough energy to get you going in the morning, while others help you ease into the night.


Sign “☮” the Times was also one of those rare surprises for me. I stumbled upon its title track during a downloading sweep of Prince songs, in the wake of an unhealthy obsession with Purple Rain and the song “Beautiful Ones.” “Sign of the Times” was unlike any other Prince song I had heard prior.


It’s dark, timely, and completely honest in its perception of society. In its foreboding meanderings through the front pages of a social world in flux, Prince preaches:


In France a skinny man

died of a big disease with a little name…

You turn on the telly and every other story

Is telling you somebody died

Sister killed her baby cuz she couldn’t afford to feed it

And we’re sending people to the moon

Some say a man ain’t happy

Unless a man truly dies


The song was visceral in a way I never would have suspected from Prince and instantly made me seek out the album on CD.


Though he is relentless in the amount of music he currently releases every year, Sign “☮” the Times is his last true masterpiece. It captures everything that made Prince a star–channeling the sounds from his early days, carrying through his ascension up the pop charts–and even gives listeners hints of what was in store. I’m convinced that it’ll convert any Prince non-believers, or at the very least give listeners a glimpse into a different side of the man who famously made doves cry. Hell, it even inspired the title of the blog you’re currently reading. Enthusiasm manifests itself in many ways.



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Music Biopics: What’s Been Done, What’s In The Works, & What We Want


(Story originally written for Starpulse.com)

The biopic is a longstanding Hollywood tradition. There are the big budget epics like the now infamous Elizabeth Taylor vehicle “Cleopatra,” David Lean’s masterpiece, “Lawrence of Arabia,” or Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi.” Then there are the smaller pictures chronicling the equally gripping stories of those less celebrated. Daniel Day Lewis‘ portrayal of the Irish cerebral palsy painter, Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” or Bill Condon’s 2004 film “Kinsey” about human sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey come to mind.

In recent years, thanks in part to the wide success of the films “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” the music biopic has become the new hot ticket in Hollywood-the sure-fire road to an Oscar and one the best ways to rejuvenate or honor a music career. Whether it’s the posthumous homage (the aforementioned pieces on Ray Charles andJohnny Cash) or the current reminder of the musical pioneers of our time (the Tina Turner story, otherwise known as “What’s Love Got To Do With It”), the music biopic sells.

LiberaceAcclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (currently promoting his Toronto Film Festival audience favorite epic political biopic of Che Guevara) recently announced his rather curious intentions of bringing the life Polish-American musician Liberace to the big screen with Michael Douglas in talks to star as the debonair Vegas pianist and entertainer. A project like this may seem a bit odd coming from someone as well respected as Soderbergh, especially following a biopic about a Latin American revolutionary. And since the Liberace fanbase is mainly comprised of veteran AARP members and lavish Vegas performers the allure of this project for mainstream audiences is also questionable.

The trick of making any sort of successful biopic is a commanding story that is worth telling, generally one with a bit of tragedy to really pull at those Academy members. Taking on someone like Liberace seems strange but when you take a closer look at his life, particularly his debated sexual orientation and legal woes with alleged long-time boyfriend Scott Thorson (set to be played by Matt Damon) the plot thickens.

With the currently untitled Liberace picture slated for a 2010 release and many other intriguing music biopics either rumored or in the works, it seemed fitting to go through and examine some other upcoming projects and also give some thoughts on musicians of past and present who are in need of their own silver screen biopic.

Miles DavisUntitled Miles Davis Project:
Forget his obvious merits as one of Jazz music’s innovators and pioneers-changing the face of the musical art form various times throughout his extensive career-Miles Davis has one hell of a compelling and complicated life. His sprawling and juicy autobiography (which one would hope would provide the most information for a biopic like this) tells the story of a genius rising to stardom, falling into obscurity, and battling his various demons-mainly drug addiction, womanizing, and race-fueled contempt-all along the way. You know, the usual attributes of a music biopic. 
Don Cheadle has long been interested in producing as well as starring in this project, which could potentially be split into two films (to fairly cover Davis’ life) with the musician’s release of the controversial and life changing 1969 jazz/rock album Bitches Brew being the center of the epic film. If Clint Eastwood’s forgotten masterpiece “Bird” did justice to jazz master Charlie Parker’s short but monumental career, a film covering is Davis is long over due. Possible Titles: Take your pick from his many album titles: “Miles Ahead,” “In a Silent Way,” “Kind of Blue,” or “The Birth of Cool.”



Janis JoplinThe Gospel According to Janis:
Janis Joplin biopic has been in talks for what seems like ages. At one point PinkBritney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan were each set to star. Now the much more promising Zooey Deschanel (whose pipes best all three of the aforementioned pop stars) has taken the reins. Joplin’s is another tragic story of one of America’s most beloved 60s music icons. A parallel project on Jimi Hendrix and or Mama Cass from the Mama’s and the Poppas would fit in well with Joplin’s memorable Monterey Pop fest highlights.

Notorious:
The tragic departure of two of modern rap’s forefathers, 
Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace aka The Notorious B.I.G. has received its share of media attention but both have life stories that rival that of Greek tragedy and deserve recognition. This project, set for a 2009 release, stars Anthony Mackie as Shakur, Derek Luke as Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs, and newcomer Jamal Woolard as Biggie. The only thing holding this project back are the various recent documentary films about both artists covering not only their subsequent careers but also their deaths, most notably the extremely compelling “Tupac: Resurrection.”

Bob MarleyNo Woman No Cry: My Life with Bob Marley:
Here is another inevitable project just waiting to be picked up. 
Martin Scorsese was originally in line to direct a documentary on the reggae star’s life and musical career. This has since been passed on (possibly to Jonathan Demme). The Weinstein Company recently picked up the rights to a biopic based on Maley’s widow, Rita Marley’s 2004 book chronicling Marley’s rise to fame. Not much else is known about the project other than the fact that Rita is in line to produce and has recommended Lauryn Hill (who is married to Rohan Marley, Bob’s son from another woman) to portray her in the film. Rita has also suggested her grandson Stefan takes on the role of his grandfather since he is, “the splitting image of Bob.” Less obvious title: Trenchtown Rocker

What We Do Is Secret:
Punk rockers always seem to have the most fascinating life stories. Alex Cox’s loose biopic of 
Sex Pistols crazy man Sid Vicious has since become the epitome of the smaller, independent biopic (last year’s “Control,” a haunting retelling of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis’ short life is another prime example). “Secret” tells the tale of Darby Crash, the charismatic singer for the L.A. punk band The Germs. The production of this film, which stars Shane West as Crash, was overlooked by the Germs surviving members, Lorna Doom and Pat Smear only increasing its level of intrigue and authenticity. Crash’s suicide was overshadowed by the assassination of John Lennon the day after and his story has never fully been told to a wide audience. While the Germs are less-known outside of the punk community they were an important part of a budding musical scene in the U.S., with Crash serving as one of punks many seminal leaders.

Sex Pistols

Iggy PopThe Passenger:
Another fascinating face in the punk, or better yet, proto-punk arena is one 
Iggy Pop. Lead singer for The Stooges, body building enthusiasts, drug enthusiast, and prolific musician, his is a story worth telling. The scenes portraying his late 70s musical epoch/drug rehabilitation in Europe with David Bowie would be reason enough to seek this film out. Elijah Woodis set to star as Pop in the film, which gets its title from one of Pop's tracks from an early solo LP, "Lust for Life." While some might question the casting choice of Wood, the man who was Frodo, to tackle the Raw Power of Pop, Iggy himself has said in interviews that he regards Elijah as a talented actor.

Other Rumored Projects:

-The biggest rumored piece is a John Lennon biopic ranging from his childhood until his death. Kate Winslet is rumored to portray Lennon's mother, the inspiration for Lennon's devastating song, "Mother," which is jumpstarted with the lines, "Mother, You had me but I never had you." Chilling.

-Jerry Garcia biopic-one of the young stars of TV's "Malcolm In the Middle" is set to produce a biopic of the late Grateful Dead grizzly man musician. The idea of a Hollywood film about Garcia and the dead must send shivers down the spines of aging deadheads across the country.

-Untitled Deborah Harry Project-Kirstin Dunst has been rumored to take on Blondie lead singer Deborah Harry in a biopic on her rise to stardom amidst the CBGB New York punk scene. It's not this is a bad idea since Harry remains an underappreciated 80s pop star with an interesting tale to be told, the problem is Dunst, a so-so actor with very little range whose physical appearance might be her only qualification for the role.

Kurt Cobain-Kurt and Courtney-Courtney Love has expressed in interviews that she would very much like to see a film about her relationship with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain withScarlett Johansson and Ryan Gosling starring as grunge's first Mr. and Mrs. The status of the project doesn't go much farther than this and knowing Love's history this could be all there is to it.

-Jeff Buckley Biopic-The death of singer songwriter Jeff Buckley following his debut masterpiece, Grace remains one of the most mysterious and unsettling departures in music history. Whether or not there is enough to his story to warrant a biopic is up for debate. Still both Spin Magazine and the Hollywood Reporter have reported that a script of his life is being shopped around.

Dream Biopics:

-Elliott Smith-If they can document the life of Jeff Buckley in a biopic then why not the equally talented and tragically missed vocal sensation from the Pacific Northwest. Sure Smith fans might not be keen a mainstream portrayal of the beloved artist but his is a story worth remembering. Possible title: Between the Bars

-Frank Zappa-Again, Zappa's music and notoriety might be too obscure for the mainstream but his career is unlike any other musician out there and his defense of free speech in the legendary 1985 Senate hearings battling the Parents Music Resource Center is reason enough to warrant a jump to the silver screen. His son Dweezil has already toured covering his father's music and could undoubtedly grow the legendary mustache for a role if one were ever offered. Possible Title: The Grand Wazoo

-Isaac Hayes-This may be too early since the man just passed away but if you look past his recent voiceover roles on Southpark, this man had a pretty prolific career getting his start as a songwriter for some of Motown's finest tunes. Possible Title: Walk On By

-Cat Stevens-Sure he's considered a loony now but Cat Stevens once had a beautiful career as a folk singer/songwriter. His evolution and rebirth as Yusuf Islam is ripe for exploration.

The European Canon is Here


During 1975 David Bowie’s body weight lingered between a frightening 80 and 90 pounds, rivaling that of even the lightest of jockeys. It is said that his diet consisted of milk, the occasional indulgence of plain vanilla ice cream, and the finest cocaine a decadent life in Los Angeles could bestow. His life had become a haze of paranoia fueled by a heavy dependency on drugs (he also dabbled in amphetamines) and an unhealthy fascination with the occult. 

While The Thin White Duke (his self-appointed title/persona at the time) was on the brink of a serious physical and mental breakdown he was also about to embark on arguably his most innovative and bizarre creative periods in not only his career but in rock and roll history. 

Much has been written about Bowie’s many reptilian musical transformations over the years but few rock historians have meticulously examined the musician’s late 1970s flight to Western Europe.

As far as rock and roll books go Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town is about as good as it gets. It is a comprehensive look at Bowie’s experimental escapades in and around the once divided city that strays away from the clichés of the modern rock biography. The book is the newest edition to a budding series of tomes from Jaw Bone Press chronicling notable musical periods–the first documented Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes period with The Band. Author Thomas Jerome Seabrook is hardly the first author to tackle Bowie but rather than put out a biographical retelling of the artist’s various incarnations over the years the author takes on his most curious and often misunderstood era. 

Prior to Bowie’s mid-70s stint of drugs and debauchery the artist had already changed the face of rock and roll on more than one occasion. He brought androgyny to the forefront of popular music, helped jumpstart glam rock, and coined the term plastic soul by blending his former sounds with the likes of Philly R&B and Soul, first with Diamond Dogs and more successfully with Young Americans. He even made his first foray into acting via the possibly biographical role as an alien in the cult sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He managed to do all this before the age of 30.

At a time when Bowie seemed to have the world at his fingertips–international stardom, high selling pop records, critical acclaim–the artist moved in a completely unexpected direction both musically and personally.

Seeing a need for a major life change Bowie headed for Western Europe, first to Switzerland and eventually Berlin to clean up his act. In one of Bowie’s many career acts of kindness he also coaxed ex-Stooges frontman Iggy Pop into joining him. Pop himself had established a far more severe drug dependency than Bowie and was also in dire need of a career jumpstart (prior to Berlin Bowie had already pushed Lou Reed to start his solo career when he produced Reed’s Transformer).

Most music fans (or at least Bowie fans) are familiar with Bowie’s unofficial “Berlin Trilogy” of albums–1977s Low, and “Heroes”, and 1979s Lodger–recorded with Brian Eno during the late 70s. Few may be realize that besides recording three radically different art rock albums Bowie co-wrote and produced two Iggy Pop solo albums (the grim proto punk of The Idiot and a return to Stooges form in Lust for Life), starred in a film, organized a couple European tours and even managed to narrate an audio version of HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Prokofiev”Sergei Prokofiev’s HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_and_the_Wolf”Peter and the Wolf, you know, for the kids. A busy two years and an extraordinary close to a career high decade. In many ways both Pop records, primarily The Idiot, served as testing grounds for Bowie’s vision of where his own music was headed and are as much, if not more, Bowie’s records than they are Pop’s (for the research of the book Seabrook discovered that most of the music for The Idiot was written by Bowie with Pop merely stepping in for his signature impromptu lyrical flowing).

ImageThere are those who dismiss Bowie for his glamorous showmanship and over the top publicity stunts (to be fair the stage elements of the glam rock movement aren’t for everyone). What’s most fascinating about Bowie’s late 70s projects is that he traded the glamour for artistic acclaim and a chance to give listeners a glimpse of the future of music.

Gone were the elaborate costumes and fluorescent hairdos. The disco sounds were replaced by slow building instrumental symphonies and rhythmically complex fragments of songs drenched in production experimentation. Even Bowie’s lyrics, which once wove tales of cosmonauts and paid homage to musical idols, now took on a starker realism with references to new age art and social politics–mainly the division in Eastern Europe brought on in the shadow of the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain.

In his book Seabrook draws a number of comparison to contemporary musicians holding Bowie’s Berlin period in the highest of regards. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor often cites Bowie’s Low and later Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) as inspirations for his electronic noise compositions. It’s also hard to deny the comparison made by Seabrook between Bowie’s experiments and that of Radiohead. 

Both changed the face of rock with pinnacle albums and decided to follow the newfound success with radically polarizing ventures into experimental art rock. The fact that Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded and released back to back in a short period of time only furthers this argument when looking at Bowie’s ’77 release of both Low and “Heroes”. One could go even farther to argue that Bowie’s less adorned/misunderstood trilogy conclusion, Lodger in 1979, was received with the same “so-so” feelings as Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief

It’s easy to overlook how influential and fascinating Bowie’s 70s decade must have seemed to music fans at the time. Very few musicians or bands can accomplish as much as Bowie did in a single decade, let alone continue to shed his musical skin along the way. Seabrook’s retelling of Bowie’s European period also serves as a reminder to what has become of Bowie since Berlin.

As the years went on the space between album releases grew and the quality of music diminished, especially in the 80s. Many say the artist’s last true masterpiece was 1980s Scary Monsters, which at the time must have sounded like a promising start to a new decade (it as shortly followed by another, more profound wave of mega stardom with the ultra poppy Let’s Dance).

In the 90s Bowie reunited with Brian Eno for the fan favorite 1.Outside, the first of what was proposed to be another Bowie/Eno trilogy of concept albums. Instead he followed with a string of decent but not spectacular modern sign of the time records. It should be noted that Bowie is currently in his longest stretch without a major record release with 2003s Reality being his last contribution. While rumors continue to fly about a new record or the leak of formally unreleased material, Bowie future remains a mystery.

It could be that Bowie has officially jumped the shark in terms of releasing monumental records but it’s important to remember how much of driving force Bowie once was. Ten albums plus countless side projects in ten years is a feat few musicians even dream about now and days but Bowie managed to pull it of during the 70s with a number of the records being christened masterpieces. And who knows, perhaps the Thin White Duke still has a couple more musical visions left in him.